Dungeons and Dragons. WTF?

Dungeons and Dragons.  There is perhaps no greater mystery to non-nerds than what would possess someone to play D&D; but at the same time the game itself is often a mystery.  A lot of people I’ve spoken to about it just know that it involves dice, nerdiness, and possibly takes place in a basement.  Here’s my experience with D&D: Dungeons and Dragons is an experience in mutual storytelling, where the players themselves help shape and craft a fantasy story, world, and characters often by verbally acting out scenes.  It’s part board game, part improv, part storytelling ritual, but all very social.  When it’s done right, it’s an incredible experience that creates awesome tales of adventure and intrigue written and experienced collectively by you and your friends.  So how do you play the damn thing?

In a word, dice.

Thanks for reading!  Next week, on…I guess there’s more…


D&D is a co-operative game for an indeterminate about of players (although 4-6 is ideal) and a referee known as the Dungeon Master or ‘DM.’ The DM sets the scene and then the players describe what they would like to do and then the dice, rules, and everything else exist as conflict resolution devices, whether there is a battle to work out (did you hit the enemy? Did they hit you? How much damage did you do?) or in conversation (did you convince the guard to give you the keys?  Tell you the code?) or in adventure (did you diffuse the trap? Did you manage to climb the wall?).  The actual dice rolls are used to determine success or failure of a particular task.  If you roll above a certain number (adding the bonuses given to you by your skills, abilities, powers, and weapons) than you succeed.  These numbers vary from situation-to-situation, with some rolls being easy, some rolls being difficult, and some being downright impossible.  The dice used include everything from a 4-sided die (D4), a standard six-sided die (D6) right on up to the most commonly used die in D&D the twenty-sided D20.  Using these rolls and their own narrative voice, the players move through the scenario the DM has set up and gain experience points, which allow the characters to level up and become better, adding new skills, powers, and abilities to their character.

So, what exactly is a DM and what does she or he do?


The DM’s role is to craft a series of scenarios such as battles, dialogues, puzzles, and events for the players to experience.  The DM also establishes the story of the game, either by using a pre-written ‘module’ (sold by Wizards of the Coast, the company behind D&D) or by writing their own.  This is a very creative and incredibly important role, equal parts living rulebook, referee, storyteller, and opponent.  It’s a tricky balancing act, particularly since the DM controls all the enemies; your goal as a DM is to ensure that the players have a great experience which often means that you lose.  A good DM stows their ego at the door, but maintains a competitive attitude to challenge the players without dominating them.

Sorry to disappoint you, the Gimp.


The players have each used the rulebook to build a character. This is done by choosing a race and gender for your character, skills they excel at (such as athletics, languages, stealth, etc), feats (special abilities that help customize your character), and powers (such as spells and special attacks), as well as weapons and armour.  The player also determines their character’s statistics, which will affect how good the character is at various things: are they strong? Wise? Charismatic?  Once all of these details have been sorted out, the player brings their completed characters to the game session and begin to develop the character’s personality.  This is usually done through an initial ‘introduction,’ where the players describe their characters, what they look like, and what their basic personality is.  This is one of the many things that separates D&D from a regular board game; it asks its players to assume the psychology of the character’s build and apply that to their in-game actions.  Only fairly recently has this ability to alter a character’s trajectory started figuring into mainstream video games, with multiple choice options such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age (with previous games of this type often being D&D related, such as Neverwinter Nights, Baulder’s Gate, and Planescape Torment.)

This element of role-playing is one of the things that attracts both nerds and actors in a big way: for nerds, it’s a chance to slip on a different persona.  Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t mean “everyone plays a one-line slinging ladies’ man” it simply means getting to speak, think, and act (in game) in a different manner than yourself.  Like reading a fantasy novel, it’s escapism, but self guided.  In a sense, like a lucid dream, where you are in control of your actions but often in a more fun and exciting way than day-to-day life.  It offers a large degree of control and achievement and can lend a sense of power and guidance to a player who feels they lack it in their personal life.  When I was most directionless in life, just after moving to Toronto, feeling overwhelmed by the sudden freedom of being out of school and lacking both routine and an immediate goal, I found myself playing a lot of D&D.  That certainly isn’t to say the only reason people play the game is to fill various voids in their life; it’s a fun, involved board game, and rarely fills all these roles in people’s lives as described, it’s merely one of the facets of the game and its popularity.  For actors, it’s a chance to improvise a lot and to get to apply all their character work skills to something fun and self written.  I have seldom laughed nearly as much as I have playing D&D with actors.  It adds a lot of flavour and depth to the narrative.

See, even Sir Ian McKellan gets in on the action.


Well, there isn’t one.  D&D can be played in many ways, from a straight board game, to a fully involved, in-character session.  Usually, they fall somewhere in the middle; in my experience with D&D different players each have a style to which they like to adhere, some engage in conversations in-character, others describe what their character would say (“So, my character asks the barkeep…”)

There are a lot of barkeeps in D&D.

And similarly, DMs have differing styles as well, with some preferring to run the story as written, or others creating vast worlds of their own invention.

Case-in-point for the latter.

For me, I’ve played everywhere from a cafe in high school, to a friend of mine’s apartment where he cooked us a gourmet, three course meal, while plying us with exotic beer all whilst throwing dragons at us to kill.  A lot of people, who can’t find a game session amongst friends, play at hobby stores.  I even played over MSN Messenger once (which was horrendous).   So there really is no rule for an average game, style, or group of players.  It’s whoever you have a good time playing with that matters.


Monica would be a terrifying DM.

For me, a successful session just requires are good friends, good food and drink, and a good time.  The social element has always been the most important, in my view, and one often lost on outsiders.  It’s not just about rolling dice and moving through a board, it’s about getting together with your friends an engage in an adventure together.  To this day, friends of mine and I who I have gamed with will recollect ridiculous things that we made our characters do, or epic things that happened in game.  These stories are memories we share and recall like favourite moments from a movie or tv show.

It’s a great time to be a nerd right now, with everything nerds love becoming mainstream (Star Wars Adidas gear?) but what’s always been funny to me is how nerd interests are so often viewed as anti-social.  For me, D&D has always been an incredibly social game, a chance to hang out with my friends and invent a story together.

Like TJ discovered in that Daggers and Dungeons episode of Recess.

I’ll be touching on this more in future posts, but I think it’s an important concept to earmark now: Dungeons and Dragons is an exercise in collective storytelling and without the other people, it just couldn’t happen.

And so ends our primer on D&D.  The Helpful Nerd is a brand new segment, so please let me know if this answered your questions about D&D and what you would like to see covered in future!

Additional Reading:

Wizards of the Coast: These are the guys behind Dungeons and Dragons these days and have tonnes of things they’d love to see you on their site!

Community s2 e14 “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”: This episode is actually a perfect depiction of how D&D should work and is all kinds of awesome forever, because this show is like that.  Here’s a clip.

Penny Arcade and PVP Dungeons and Dragons Podcast: Want to know what happens when hilarious people (like Will “Wesly Crusher” Weaton!) play Dungeons and Dragons?  Listen to these epic, hilarious adventure to understand how awesome D&D can be. (Start with the earlier ones, they’re better).

Star Wars Adidas Ad: This blows my nerd mind.

Recess s3 e10 “Lord of the Nerds”: TJ gets to know the ‘Pale Kids’ who stay inside at Recess playing Daggers and Dungeons.  Awesome.

Posted on December 16, 2011, in the Helpful Nerd. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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