Since I started this blog or overall the idea for writing anything its always been in the back of my mind to write about one of my all time favorite hobbies, D&D. Just today Gabe (Mike Krahulik) from Penny Arcade posted a write-up about his ten year anniversary since he was paid to play in his first session. Reading it over it brought back my own memories of following along in his journey as I was also at the time reacquainting myself with the hobby after a long hiatus. For people who were familiar with Mike and his feelings on D&D prior to this game we got what we mostly expected from that first episodes, he seemed to treat the whole thing largely as a joke via naming his character Jim Darkmagic, of the New Hampshire Darkmagics. Tycho (Jerry Holkins) and Scott Kurtz definitely approached their characters with a somewhat more serious attitude as they already had a long history with the game at this point. The difference in the approaches I think illustrates something important about the game itself wherein a variety of personalities and viewpoints can occupy the same table without it being an unplayable mess. Real life groups of friends or colleagues share this dynamic of conflicting but also complimentary views on life and how to approach it. I’ve often told my players when they are making their characters or deciding on their party’s overall goals that while keeping everything homogeneous might be easy it can also be somewhat boring. Personality conflicts can help characters grow and change over time as they come to understand the world from different viewpoints.
At roughly 26:45 in that first episode we reach the point where Mike rolls his first ever d20 in a tabletop roleplaying game and I have to say the results of it are one of my favorite things in all of the recorded D&D I have listened to since. They’re looking for an Orc they know only as “Irontooth” which is about as classic a first quest for D&D as you can get, which is great. On the stairs as they descend their DM Chris Perkins tells them that they are stepping on small animal bones to which Mike quips, “Maybe we should check to see if any of them have iron teeth.”. As a side tip for DMs pay close attention to how Chris handles this joke, instead of laughing and just letting them continue he turns it into a moment where he can introduce Mike to one of the subtle joys of this game by asking him for a perception check. After some back and forth Mike says the following:
“So I’m actually rolling because I said I wanted to look and see if they have iron teeth?”
Everyone confirms that is whats happening and he goes through the process of learning to do the math for the first time. Scott even points out what Chris did by turning Mike’s joke into a teachable moment as well which I deeply appreciated. As the dice gods are want to do they gifted Mike with an impressive 19 on his first roll modified to 20 with his perception. Mike then continues:
“Okay so what? I’m like able to look and see…”
Chris then explains what the result of the roll it,
“You’re able to take a look at the bones and you are able to see, you don’t see an iron tooth, but you’re pretty sure that these scattered bones were kinda left here deliberately and that they have been gnawed on. That something lives down here and it basically feeds on animals and scatters their bones on these stairs. And you also notice as you’re going down the stairs that you’re stepping on a few of them and making soft crunching noises.”
Jerry chimes in with his interpretation that it seems to be an alarm system of sorts for whatever lives down below. He then wants to roll his dungeoneering skill to see if his character can glean any additional information from their surroundings. His roll reveals that most likely the creatures who live here that are clever enough to make this type of alarm system are goblins. What follows is a Mike connecting the dots from how his offhand observation and joke led to them gaining some actually helpful intel on what they faced below.
Mike, “Okay so we saw the bones..
Jerry, “You saw the bones.”
Mike, “I saw the bones and I investigated them and was able to determine that they’re some sort of alarm, they crack when I walk on them. Then you (Jerry) were able to deduce what ate them.”
While its only voice and we can’t actually see the look on Mike’s face I have to imagine that it was at this point that he became actually interested in the game before him as something more than a reason to sit around with his friends for a couple hours. It reminded me so much of my fathers first interaction with the game years ago where at each step he would ask if he could do something and I told him, “You can do whatever you want to.” Each time he heard that there was a small blip of surprise when he wasn’t limited by some mechanical barrier or me just simply saying, “No.” Like every time he reached towards some preconceived barrier it would simply fall away revealing some new horizon to explore. Watching new players realize that the only limit to what they can do is their imagination is fascinating and rewarding every single time. Sure it leads to some ridiculous things like crazy acrobatics or attempting literally impossible feats but if not in D&D then where? What Mike learned in that moment is I think what eventually hooks people into playing at all beyond that first session, the sheer possibilities. From then on everything he did he knew had consequences, good and bad, which instantly makes the things you do matter. The worst thing a game can do when one of its central pillars is freedom of choice is make you feel like the things you say and do ultimately don’t matter. From the smallest character quirk up to life and death decisions, all of it can significantly affect and inform you and your characters journey through an adventure.
Its hard to quantify exactly why D&D has exploded so incredibly in popularity over the last decade especially after its tumultuous early life with controversy. What Mike experienced in that moment though I think is an important example of at least one of the major reasons. The depth of a given experience can be as important as the overall quality or uniqueness of it. Movies and books allow us to experience other places and events through the imagination and prose of their creators. Choose Your Own Adventure books and text based games like Zork took the concept and added the depth of interactivity where beyond interpretation your experience could also be distinct from someone else. Video games have done the same thing for visual mediums by placing you the player as the central actor and narrative driving force in a story that reacts and chances to the things you do within it. The limitations of both mediums are apparently even though they are slowly being done away with. The surprising thing is that some 47 years ago a game was created which did all of the above with little more than a pencil, some paper, a handful dice and a combined 112 pages describing how to use them.
I was watching Moneyball the other day and Brad Pitt’s character Billy Beane had a line after watching tape of an unlikely minor league player hitting a home run, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” I’m not a huge fan of baseball but I still love that and several other movies about the sport. In the end I can’t help but agree with Billy. Looking at the breadth of experiences, joy and creativity that D&D has provided over nearly five decades, even if you aren’t a fan or just don’t actively participate, I ask, how can you not be romantic about it?