“What name are you going to go with,” someone asked my partner, as we were running through the process of picking names for our Dungeons & Dragons characters. She thought about it for a second, and then started Googling the names of those Nigerian princes you find in spam emails.
“Reverend Father August Goodluck,” she announced to the table, and a chorus of laughter.
This was my introduction to the world of real-life Dungeons & Dragons.
My name’s Alex, and I’ve never played a proper game of D&D. I’m almost 30 years old. I’ve played countless numbers of RPGs on the computer. Baldur’s Gate. Neverwinter Nights. Betrayal at Krondor. The first few hours of Pillars of Eternity. A fair chunk of Divinity: Original Sin.
I’ve had plenty of experience with what traditional Dungeons & Dragons seems like. But I’ve never played the real thing. Last time I tried, the local game store near my house closed down. There was another one nearby, about a 15 minute trip combined travel, but my work hours changed and the opportunity to go raiding never came up again.
After much talk about getting various game nights going — board games, card games, video games — a colleague of mine and her partner finally pulled the trigger. They created a Facebook group, invited heaps of people, and the wheels were finally put in motion.
And so was the actual process of D&D. I remembered using an app many moons ago to create a character. I remember it being some kind of deity, not exactly a god class but something borne from gods or descended from the heavens beyond.
But we were using 5th Edition this time around, and a beginners campaign. And after taking the cheap way out and consulting the internet, I ended up settling on a Gnomish Rogue.
I’m pretty happy with the name.
What people didn’t tell me was how much real life D&D was like a process. The “character creation” night is almost like a long, slow version of drafting from Dota 2 or League of Legends.
The night starts with everyone finding the house in question. Then every comes up, gets settled in. Have you had something to eat? Would you like something to drink? You take your shoes off, find a seat, settle down, maybe go to the toilet for a second.
And then more people begin to arrive. “I bring supplies,” one person announced. It’s a bag full of packet-sized chips. They’re the kind I remember taking to a family friend’s place when I was in primary school and we’d have little LAN parties of our own.
That’s what the whole night feels like. The clock has been wound back. We’re all kids again.
The group swells. It’s obvious that there’s too many people for one group, so my colleague wisely split proceedings into two parties, running on different weeks. My colleague and her partner graciously offer to create separate characters to play in both groups, which seems like an arduous task.
There’s no music playing, so we run a quick straw poll. Eventually the tavern music from Hearthstone is set to loop; it ran unabated in the background for the whole night.
I’m just reading through the character sheet for the first time. Someone linked me to an online resource where I could create my own character. But upon seeing a friend roll the dice, read the Players Handbook and go through the process of their own, I figured I might as well play along.
Someone says that we should get 6 re-rolls across all of our stats because there are so many beginners involved. We start rolling 4 dice for each stat, dropping the lowest number out of the 4. After that, we can use a re-roll on any one of the dice if we’d like to try for something higher.
A friend rolls over 15 for everything. Another mate uses only 2 re-rolls and has two 19s. Those stats seem insane. I’ve never gotten those in an RPG off the bat before.
I give it a try. The rolls … aren’t good. “You don’t have over 15 for anything,” someone notes, even though I don’t have anything below 12 either.
“They’re really low, dude,” a mate says solemnly. Others agree that I got hosed, and so I go through the rolling process again. I’m all for that — ever since I was a kid, playing with dice was awesome. Apparently you get to choose which roll goes for which stat, which is handy — I don’t really want my Forest Gnome to have a strength of 15.
What nobody told me is that actually being disorganised was more fun. A couple of people were organised and made their characters beforehand. They printed out their character sheets using an online generator, but that meant they largely had nothing to do while everyone else went through the process of picking their traits, flaws, backstories — the whole lot.
And nobody mentioned how big a deal the class selection would be. “We don’t have a healer,” someone in the other group kept saying. “We need a healer — are you going to be a Cleric?” they randomly asked. I thought it would have been fine if you doubled up on classes. Wasn’t that the sort of thing that a DM would naturally and organically work around? After all, doesn’t the experience naturally tailor itself to the characters and people playing?
But standard RPG conventions apply — then again, I guess D&D is where standard RPG conventions came from. Someone has to take the lead in fights. Someone has to patch people up. And someone has to be the “face” of the group and initiate conversations, which ended up being me.
After all, I built my character around the whole idea of being an impish little shit who takes to take the piss out of people. The kind that gets under people’s skin or mocks them without them knowing it. You can’t really do that without talking to people.
So I went through the book. What skills do I need to “talk” to people? Persuasion seems like a good thing. But I also want to be the observant type. So do I need Investigation or Insight? Is Stealth of any use, or would Sleight of Hand make more sense? What about Deception? I might need extra rolls to lie to people.
Even in the simplified world of D&D 5E, it’s all a bit overwhelming. The player books didn’t have a clear step-by-step that I could refer back to. Everything was in separate chapters. Like the night itself, it was a little unorganised. But that seems part of the charm: throwing yourself in, getting lost, and finding your way out again.
Eventually it all started to come together though. I learnt little adages for your bonuses. “Minus 10, divided by 2 rounded down,” someone told me.
I’ve still got to finalise my backstory and reprint out a new, clean character sheet. And I’m not sure if I picked All The Right Things. But almost 30 years on, I’ve finally been introduced to D&D.
And, more importantly, I’m starting to understand. D&D is like being a kid again. That works for me.