Saturday, May 11, 2013

May Contain Dragons Gets a Makeover: May Also Contain Dungeons.

My new website is up, and with its existence -alongside my CG Hub page- May Contain Dragons becomes a little bit of a redundancy. I've decided to really change what May Contain is all about, as a result. I'm still planning on uploading my new drawings here as they come, but in addition I want to actually turn May Contain Dragons into a proper blog. Like... one that's about something. I actually love writing. I'm not particularly excellent at it, but its something I really do enjoy, be that writing stories, stand-up, hip-hop or critiques. I don't think I've had the patience to be able to attempt to write even a short story in the last several years (at least not one that stands alone), but what I have been able to tell stories through, and what has been my primary method of storytelling for the last decade, is tabletop games (and Dungeons & Dragons in particular). What I'd like to do is use this blog as an outlet for me to talk a bit about the game, just have a place to dump all my views on the aspects of playing and, more importantly, talk about running the game.

To give a little bit of background, I've been playing D&D (officially) since I was about 12 years old when my parents sent me to camp over the March break, and the only one I agreed to go to was Dungeons & Dragons camp. Before that, even, starting with me and my brother and moving on to me and my friends at school, I played a purely verbal version of the game. No dice, no stats, just us speaking and walking around in the schoolyard. So it's fairly safe to say that now, after over a decade of playing D&D, I've acquired a fair amount of experience with the game. I spent most of high school trying (and failing) to get a regular game going with my friends, and it wasn't until my first year of university that I actually managed to get a legitimate once-a-week group going. The game is responsible for some of the most fun I've had in my life, and it's certainly a large part of the reason why the friends I play with and I are better friends than we might have otherwise been. I think it can be argued that if it weren't for playing D&D, I wouldn't have met the guy who became one of the best friends I've ever had, and roommate for 2 years. So, it's a big part of my life and I want to talk about it.

A lot of people are a little bit unaware of just what the hell D&D is. The fact that I continuously have had to explain that -while video games have been based off of it- D&D is not, in itself, a video game. And while it is called a “tabletop” game, it is also not a board game. The game combines elements of both, and probably most relevantly: improvisation. In fact, I would argue that D&D is closer to a structured improv game, than it is to video games and board games both. The way this works is that you have two fundamental roles while playing the game: player characters and the game master (or dungeon master, in D&D's case). The game master crafts a world, people, places and every other element of the setting, essentially acting as the god of this world. The player characters have character which has their own unique background, skillset and motivations, who they alone control within the environment crafted (and controlled) by the game master (henceforth GM). That's basically it. Everything after that is determined by what the game master and the players want to get out of the experience. Generally, the players work together, going on their own fantasy adventure which the GM then crafts narrative around. Success and failures are determined by dice rolling which is modified by statistics every character, creature, object and challenge has. I'll get into specifics of play style in later entries, but this is the basic idea of the game.

Obviously the game has rules. Complex, pedantic, extensive rules. Learning any tabletop game requires reading a literal textbook of information to know how to play and if you've never learned or played a tabletop game before it's one of the most daunting challenges you can come up with just to enjoy playing (let alone running the game). One of my biggest struggles getting my friends to play in high school was just getting them past the character creation stage, which takes upwards of 3 hours if you've never played before and even more if you're indecisive (Read: Will). It's complicated enough that you get frustrated and bored just trying to enter into the landscape of the game. A lot of people don't think that initial time investment to learn to play is worth the payoff. Those people are wrong. Not to say that D&D is for everyone (it's not), but the multitude of ways you can play it means that the game can be pretty much anything you want, and the game as a social activity is something I cannot think of a parallel for.

A group of adventurers in a game of D&D is appropriately referred to as a “party”, because that's essentially what you're doing every time you play the game. Let me break this down for you with my current weekly group as an example. Every Wednesday -or it used to be Wednesdays, at least- I host 6 of my friends at my apartment from somewhere around 6:30pm until a little after midnight. Every week a set amount of the group are designated to provide dinner, snacks and drinks for the group that night. For the ~6 hours that we have a session we can usually manage to actually play the game for 4 hours (maybe) and get sidetracked for at least 2 hours. The reason being that we aren't sitting awkwardly around a table entirely focused on a game, we're a group of 7 friends who are hanging out and we happen to structure our night around playing D&D. The other thing is, D&D is an incredibly efficient generator for inside jokes, almost regardless of how you play. When success and failure is determined by dice, karma dictates that you will fail and you will fail hilariously and these failures will be brought up again and again. Nearly everything in D&D can become a joke. I was once describing an area and was attempting to give the players the impression that something was impressively crafted, particularly for being within a cave they discovered off the sewage system. I was attempting to create a comparison of the craftsmanship of the walls of the sewer and the walls within this temple-like structure which is when I mistakenly used the term “tight masonry”. The phrase may seem innocuous enough, but my friend Kane latched onto that phrase. Now, every time I describe an area if I don't specify the level of tightness of the masonry I get a whole host of questions about wall integrity: “Wait, but Simon, how tight is the masonry in here? Like... really tight? We're not talking loose masonry here are we?” That's just what D&D does, it's a conduit that allows groups of people to come together -much like the bricks in a wall of tight masonry- and joke about ridiculous things that happen over the course of their adventures. That's why I always try and facilitate people learning the game, it's the reason why I do my best to get people past the game's absurdly high initial learning curve: because once you're over it, you have one of the best social activities I can think of.

I'd like this use this blog for 2 reasons: firstly, to discuss the game from the perspective of someone who plays it, and the styles and struggles that come up in that world. Secondly, I'd like to use it to explain to those who might not play the game, aspects of the ocean of information that is the world of tabletop gaming. When I get into technical aspects I will always try to explain what that is in the context of the game. And hopefully (if I'm successful), I can get more people playing or interested in playing.

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