A Gamer Girlfriend Guide to D&D
Not all gaming has to be electronic. Over the last year or so, I’ve been making my first forays into tabletop gaming, which is another way of saying that, yes, I now know how to play Dungeons & Dragons. Well, kinda. It’s a steep learning curve. When I think of “game rules,” I think of the stapled 4-6 page pamphlets that come with most board games. The D&D rulebook, on the other hand, is a hardbound, 200+ page tome. And that’s only the latest edition.
That said, I’ve actually been having a lot of fun with D&D. Recently, my group finished up our latest campaign, which took the better part of 6-8 months to complete. For me, it was the first time I had ever played a story all the way through, and I ended up really getting into it. I wanted to use one of my “Gamer Girlfriend” columns to cover my D&D experiences, but I’m already finding that I have way too much material for a single article. As such, I think I am going to make this a 2-3 part series (a “Gamer Girlfriend” first!).
Part I: Meet the Players
To begin, I need to explain what it’s like to play as part of a D&D group. A lot of people think that D&D players are just a uniform bunch of nerdy guys sitting around a table, but in reality, they aren’t uniform at all! As we progressed through the game, I noticed that the members of our group tended to drift toward specific roles that determined how they played. Each player brought something different to the table, and in doing so, helped to shape the dynamics that defined our game over the course of its 8-month run.
The members of our team were:
The Storyteller: Also known as the DM, or Dungeon Master, Jeff was basically the man in charge of the game. Now in theory, the role of the DM is to control all non-player characters, stage random encounters, and generally move the plot forward. However, I have begun to entertain a sneaking suspicion that the real job of the DM is to take every available tool, monster, and cursed item in the book, and use them in successively elaborate attempts to exterminate all of the player characters. Every time he fails to do so, you get experience points in celebration of your continued survival. Many player characters have died along the road to XP, but believe me when I say that leveling up is totally worth the trouble.
Unlike many Dungeon Masters who use pre-fabricated modules, Jeff preferred to write his own original content for the campaign. This gave him a lot of freedom to create his own world (complete with all of the trappings) and to weave a story that was adapted to the characters that the rest of our group had chosen. For me, this was actually pretty cool, since it meant that my character was actually an integral part of the plot from the very beginning. More on that in a bit…
The Meta-gamer: In D&D, there is always a fine line between “in character” and “out of character.” What you know may not be the same as what your character knows. How you decide to act during the 5-10 minutes it takes to do a round of combat probably isn’t the same as what your character would do in the equivalent 6 seconds of in-game time. Sometimes it can be difficult to balance the dueling impulses of Player and Character. The meta-gamer is the group member who tends to err a little too much on the side of Player.
In our game, Mike was the meta-gamer. His love for creating colorful-yet-freakishly-powerful characters from obscure prestige classes had earned him the nickname “Mr. Cheesy” in our group. True to form, and much to the chagrin of our DM, Mike had decided to be a Brass-type Dragon Disciple for our campaign. Between the free stat increases and the constant prattling (Brass Dragon Disciples are notoriously chatty), I’m pretty sure Jeff was ready to kill him by the third game.
At one point, though, our beloved DM did get the chance for some payback. After a series of random encounters and a couple of major battles, we ended up spending about 3-4 successive games in the city of Esgard, where the locals didn’t believe in arcane magic. As a result, while the rest of the party went merrily about its usual business, Mike’s character was stuck without his arcane magical powers for the real-time equivalent of about a month. I’m sure it was frustrating for him, but I have to admit: the constant pouting was pretty damn funny to watch. Who says DMs don’t have a sense of humor?
The Role-player: For every meta-gamer, there must be a role-player to maintain balance. Instead of fussing over stats and abilities, role-players focus on character. Not just, “What would my character do when faced with this situation,” but “What does my character do during his time off? … Who does my character enjoy spending time with? … What kind of beer does my character like?…,” and so on.
Dan was our role-player. By complete coincidence, it so happened that his character was cast as a sergeant who was ordered to go on a mission into the desert. This wouldn’t have meant much, were it not for the fact that Dan is actually a sergeant who was on his way to the desert (as in, Iraq) and left shortly after the campaign finished. You’d think that when you get cast in a game as essentially yourself, it wouldn’t require you to do much role playing. Somehow, though, he still seemed to manage it better than anyone else in the group.
Personally, I think it was his fondness for details that made the difference. Once, when faced with the question of what to do on the night before departing on a dangerous mission, Dan opted against any of the normal preparatory actions (e.g. buying supplies, packing gear, getting a good night’s sleep, etc.) and decided to spend the night with an unspecified “lady friend” that he had picked up in the tavern. Amused, the DM had him roll a “Diplomacy” check to ascertain how attractive the lady friend would be, and a subsequent “Performance” check to determine how big his “spear” would be. Ever the romantic, Dan even thought to leave a rose for his Lady Love before heading out in the morning. I cannot think of many other players who would have done the same.
Mr. Dependable (aka The Veteran): Somewhere between the extremes of the meta-gamer and the role-player lies the guy I like to refer to as Mr. Dependable. Mr. Dependable doesn’t obsess over stats, but knows how to use them to his advantage. He does role-play, but his primary focus is always on getting the job done.
Whitman was our Mr. Dependable. He played a half-orc fighter who spoke broken English with a Russian accent, sported a funny hat, and had an Intimidation score that was through the roof. He didn’t hesitate to use it, either. In fact, it proved quite useful in a surprising number of situations. Facing down a band of thugs? Intimidate. Have to kidnap another player character on the orders of a secret society boss? Intimidate. In charge of pulling the shell-shocked daughter of a dying duke away from her father’s broken corpse so you can escape? Damn straight, he’s going to Intimidate!
Whit was also the guy you could rely on to take action whenever action needed taking. Faced with an undead ice giantess bathed in dragon blood who could only be killed by a cursed sword currently in the possession of a party member who appeared to be having a seizure, Whit simply plucked up the sword, stabbed the giant, and ended up losing an arm for his trouble. But hey, he got the job done.
The Chick/The Newbie: I do not mean to imply that the chick must always be the newbie, nor must the newbie always be a chick; but in this case, they were the same person, and that person was me. The newbie is the one who is always asking questions: “What is my AC? How many bonus spells do I get? How do I figure out my hit points?”… etc. Now, I have found that if you must be the newbie, there are advantages to also being the chick. One advantage is that people don’t seem to get quite so annoyed when you pester them with questions. Another is the pity factor. At one point in the game, my character acquired a wolf companion, which made me ecstatic, because I had been waiting for four levels to get it, and it was totally badass. Much later, I found out that I had calculated the wolf’s hit points incorrectly, and that it was actually not supposed to be nearly as powerful as it had been. However, the DM never said anything about it until after the campaign was over. As he explained to Mike afterwards, “she was just so excited about getting the wolf, I could never bring myself to seriously try and kill it. So I figured it might as well just keep the extra HP.”
Finally, the chick has unique access to the ultimate out-of-game persuasion factor, also known as “crying.” I never used this tactic during the campaign, but I did come close a few times toward the end. My character was the daughter of a duke who had led and fought with us throughout much of the campaign. During the last couple of games, he was terribly wounded, and insisted that we leave him behind in order to escape. I was pretty traumatized, and I mentioned to Mike that if the duke ended up dying, I was probably going to start crying during the final game. “Oh dear sweet Jesus, that would be the nuclear option!” he exclaimed. “They would do anything you wanted to get you to stop. Guys can’t handle crying. Duke Raymond would be dead on the floor and then all of a sudden, ‘Hey, he’s alive again and everything’s fine. You all go home and have a party.’”
Like I said, I didn’t actually use it during the campaign, but still…good to know. Good to know.
The “Cleric”: Under normal circumstances, the cleric is an extremely valuable member of the party. He is good at assisting in fights by using buff spells, as well as cleaning up after fights by healing the wounded. He may not be the toughest fighter, but the group would be lost without him.
Tom was our party’s “cleric” for the campaign. I say “cleric” because he was really only a cleric in the most nominal sense. He liked having the spells and bonuses that came with the class, but his character didn’t believe in any god, wasn’t particularly interested in converting or ministering unto the heathen masses, and—worst of all—didn’t consider himself to be a “healing cleric.” Admittedly, if you yelled at him enough, you could get him to cast Cure Light Wounds on occasion, but he was generally much more focused on casting Invisibility and/or Body Double than keeping his party members healthy. This was kind of a problem, since he was the only character in the whole goddamn party who could cast healing spells. Seriously. The fact that all of our party members actually survived the campaign was nothing short of a miracle. I am still not entirely sure how we managed it.
The Clown: It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing D&D, working on a group project, or serving in the actual Armed Forces, every group has a dud. This is the guy who is perpetually a) annoying, b) useless, or c) both. They can’t ever seem to do anything right, and they always end up as the butt of every joke. Now, if they are smart, they will play this up to the max and just laugh along with everyone else each time they fail, because it’s always better to be the fool than the idiot.
In our group, the role of the clown was filled by Ralph, who seemed to take a particular delight in making things more difficult for everyone else through periodic acts of brazen stupidity. Actually, I found him to be a pretty spectacular source of in-game comedy, and there are many D&D-related “Ralph” stories of which I am quite fond, such as “The Time Ralph Almost Drowned the Party by Casting Entangle While Underwater,” “The Time Ralph Burned Down a Village and Killed Everyone in It By Casting Grease on a Fire,” “The Time Ralph Soiled Himself to Avoid Being Eaten by a Bear,” and my personal favorite, “The Time Ralph Jumped off the Boat and Failed to Gain Experience Because He Did Not Help to Slay the Kraken.” A summary version of this story is provided below for your amusement:
Scene: The party is sailing on a boat that is attacked by pirates. While the rest of the party dispatches of the pirates, commandeers the boat, and fights a kraken, Ralph decides to take an alternate route…
(As the rest of the party battles the pirates)
Ralph: I jump off the boat!
DM: Ralph, don’t jump off the boat.
Ralph: I’m going to jump off the boat and swim to shore!
DM: OK, fine. You swim to shore. Then what do you do?
Ralph: Is there anything around me?
Ralph: Hmm…well, I guess I just start running. I have the Run feat, so I can go for a while.
DM: OK. You’re running, and some guys on horses come up behind you.
Ralph: I keep running.
DM: They’re going to catch you.
Ralph: But I have the Run feat!
DM: Ralph, they have horses.
Ralph: Well, I keep running anyway.
DM: OK…they catch up to you and club you over the head, knocking you unconscious. You wake up in a jail cell.
Ralph: Is there anything around me that I could use for a spell or a tool?
Ralph: Do I have any of my gear?
Ralph: Not even my clothes?
DM: You have a pair of pants on. That’s it.
Ralph: Is there anyone around me?
Ralph: Any animals? Anything?
DM: There’s a frog in the corner.
Ralph: I talk to the frog!
And so he did. It didn’t really get him anywhere, though. I think the party eventually rescued him. Or maybe he died and made up a new character. I can’t remember which.
The Guy Who Always Ends Up Playing Neutral Evil (No Matter What His Character Alignment Actually Is): Every time a player creates a new character, they must give that character a moral and ethical alignment that encompasses the character’s views toward Good and Evil, as well as toward Lawfulness and Chaos. Certain races and classes tend in one direction or another, but it is generally up to the player to decide how they want to act in character. Some players favor one alignment, while others like to experiment and change from game to game.
Of course, there are other players whose moral relativism dictates that all alignments are really just “guidelines” that are open to a wide amount of interpretation. I have only played one full campaign with Allan, but I have it on good authority that his characters—irrespective of their actual alignments—always somehow end up being Neutral Evil. Mostly, it probably has to do with the fact that all his characters are a) first and foremost self-preservationists, and b) very good at rationalizing their actions. Kill a couple innocent bystanders, ignore some starving orphans, swear a secret blood oath of vengeance against a party member, execute a hostage behind the back of the party paladin despite explicit instructions not to do so…all in a day’s work in service to the “greater good.”
Now, other than that, the Neutral Evil guy is not necessarily a bad party member to have around. He often proves quite useful, especially when you find yourself in life-or-death situations where things like morals just get in the way of having to make the hard calls. All I’m saying is, if you ever play D&D with him, you might want to watch your back. There’s always a chance you might get stabbed in it.
Next month: Part II – Getting into the Game!