Aleck Prees is a 35-year-old man who recently lost his wife and two children. Originally a farmer, he had been drafted into military service and forced to travel to a strange land for seemingly no purpose. He deserted, and has been a mercenary ever since. He tries to do the right thing but increasingly feels depressed, seeing all of his actions as futile. A week ago, he had a complete mental breakdown and has had a total shift in personality. Yesterday, he delved into a buried city and fought an undead dragon. Perhaps luckily for Aleck, he doesn’t really exist. He is a character in Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop role-playing game. It is played without a computer, but is very different from a traditional board game. One player, the Dungeon Master, constructs scenarios in a fantasy world, much like the author of a book. The other players each role-play as a specific character of their own creation. The players interact to create a story far more interactive and engaging than any computer game could offer, with manoeuvres unlimited by compute programming. As veteran player Harry puts it: “No computer game lets you bite your own knee.”
For the most part, D&D is more like a group writing session or improvised acting than a game. Rules only come into it when a player’s character attempts to do something that requires skill: attack somebody, perform a trick, or cast a spell, for example. The success of these actions depends on the attributes of the character (rogues are good at sneaking; clerics are good at healing), and dice rolls.
I started playing with my school friends when I was thirteen. I was already into Warhammer, Magic Cards and computer games, so it was a natural descent into the pits of geekdom. One night a week, I would hang out with four of my friends and pretend to be a sorcerer. Contrary to popular belief, we did not dress up. Other kids at school knew we were a bit weird, but had no idea what D&D actually was. That was fine by me. The nerd subculture was so opaque and inaccessible that it created a bond of shared understanding with my friends that nobody else could replicate. The game itself was fun, but it was mostly about community. When asked what he enjoys the most about D&D, my friend responds, “I enjoy getting to hang out with my friends once a week.”
The original version of D&D was released in 1974. The game has remained popular within the nerd subculture ever since. It has evolved through four editions with major rules changes, but has stayed true to the original concept. Other role-playing games have sprung up, but D&D remains the most popular, with over 20 million people having played it at some point.
D&D has often been misunderstood or hated by people unfamiliar with it. In the 1980s, moral panic set in when the game was linked to Satanism and witchcraft by concerned Christian parents. This baseless hysteria led to calls for censorship and ostracism, and bullying of players. The moral panic has died down, but D&D is still perceived as weird and nerdy. Video games have successfully made the transition into mainstream popular culture, but the tabletop varieties of role-playing games have been left behind.
D&D has had a huge impact on popular culture, but these days is rarely spoken about directly. Modern computer role-playing games use the concepts of character class, levelling, experience, damage, and equipment developed through D&D. Aside from the basic mechanics and theme, these computer games have little in common with the infinitely flexible D&D.
Just like other art forms, D&D can be used to explore complex issues, but its interactive nature gives it the added advantage of being more engaging. My friends and I have explored concepts like duty, gender, suicide, entropy, corruption, and religion. A game of D&D can last for hundreds or thousands of hours spread over a long period, allowing for a more complex and meaningful story than a book or film can offer. The characters in the game can be fleshed out to a point where they seem like real people. Ben, the player who created Aleck, explains that he values “the ability to build a genuine person, to evolve and develop their traits, both good and bad.”
Role-playing can be cathartic. Real-world issues can be worked out by the actions of your fantasy alter-ego, creating an intensely introspective, eye-opening experience. It’s also really fun to kill stuff. There are endless varieties of enemies for the heroes to explode or chop to bits. It’s a worrying sign that, given a world of endless possibilities, the most popular activity in D&D is violence. The regular slaughter of orcs and giants is fun, but the best moments are when violence has dramatic meaning in the story. When one character betrays and murders a friend, or a longstanding villain dies, it can be a truly emotional experience, either triumphant or traumatic.
For all its potential, D&D is a deeply flawed game. Human error accounts for most problems. Intense concentration is required for a game without graphics. The narrative can easily be derailed by players lacking the energy to use their imagination and getting distracted. The mechanics of the game can also break the flow. A bar brawl in D&D might take an hour to work out using the complex system of die rolls, while a computer game could run the event in real time. The main issue is one of talent – most Dungeon Masters do not measure up to Tolkien, and the narrative can suffer as a result.
D&D is not escapism. It is, above all else, a social experience. I have played the game with a roughly consistent group of friends every week for almost ten years, and our friendship is built upon the shared experiences in the worlds we create. This is not a review, but I give Dungeons and Dragons four and a half stars anyway.