Words and illustrations by Tom Senior.
With a great iron clang, a gate opens. A dragon crashes into the room.” The group lets out a collective groan as we realise how screwed we are, but there's a hint of excitement too. We're playing Dungeons & Dragons. This is exactly what we signed up for, but it's too soon. We're only level two. Our characters have only just met. Now we're trapped in a dark basement with a famished lizard, and it's all my fault. If only I hadn't pulled that lever.
Pen and paper RPG battles traditionally unfold to the clatter of 20-sided dice and the leathery shuffle of worn character sheets. Here there is only our excited chatter and the clicking of computer mice. We're sitting at our PCs hundreds of miles apart, eyes fixed on a shared online game board built with a free program called Roll20 . Our characters are represented by small icons on an area map built and controlled by the DM. Dice rolls are resolved in a chat column to the right of the screen. That's where we learn how much trouble we're in.
We're attempting to infiltrate a nobleman's mansion by way of his basement. He has a penchant for rare, exotic creatures, which he holds captive near the entrance to his treasure vault. When the dungeon master running the session mentioned a nearby switch, I ran straight for it hoping to gain swift access to the gold. We gained access to an angry carnivore instead.
Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most admired and influential game systems of modern times, and has proved inspirational to many game designers. It's essentially a collaborative adventure simulator. A group of players choose their heroes and undertake challenges at the behest of a chief referee and campaign designer – the Dungeon Master. They lay out the scene, describes events and take charge of non-player characters to create an adaptive world for the party to explore in search of fame and fortune.
I'm new to all this – if you couldn't tell – and I'm struggling. I'm still playing as though I'm in a videogame. Why would someone put the unlock switch to their vault right next to their vault, in plain view? Before even thinking I'd blurted out the command. It was a knee jerk reaction. I'm Pavlov's action hero, trained through habit to push every button I see. In Dragon Age those habits helped me save Ferelden. In this world they make me a brazen idiot.
“Roll for initiative.” It's the phrase we've all come to fear. It's a pre-combat speed check that decides who hits who first. There's a moment of quiet as we look over our abilities and decide how the opening moments of our attack will unfold. In D&D, heroes have access to powerful strikes that can be used once a day. They're best saved for a special occasion. An unexpected dragon attack definitely counts, but the beast has the drop on us. It scans the group, takes a deep breath and then barfs everywhere.
“The dragon's icy breath spews forth with the strength of a blizzard, armour creaks and flagstones crack under its freezing touch.”
The breath attack hits half of the group, deals massive damage and instantly takes most of us down to half health. We can't die down here, I tell myself, we've only just begun. I feel terrible. As adventuring faux pas go, getting your entire party eaten at level two isn't a good way to get invited back for another session. Our band of weirdos need to hit back hard.
I joined the party with many preconceptions about Dungeons & Dragons. I expected a jaunt through another grimy fantastical medieval setting. I expected to meet elves and dwarves, peasants and annoying knee-high kobolds. I expected the same world I've absorbed over and over again in Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights. I was wrong.
Four editions and a wealth of official magazines and add-ons have generated a mega-trove of D&D lore. The staid, Tokien-esque lands of the Forgotten Realms are one facet of a connected universe that borrows just as much from Jules Verne and HP Lovecraft. It took three cups of tea to come up with my Hengeyokai ranger character – a shapeshifting fox spirit that can wield two blades to devastating effect.
My friends created equally strange personas, each with their own approach to dragonslaying. Chris is a Warforged warrior called Rune – a sentient metal golem from the steampunk universe of Eberron. As an opening gambit, he tries to kick the dragon back into its cell. This fails. Our gnomic bard Miles studies the creature and digs into his repertoire of songs and stories to learn more of its weaknesses. He rolls terribly. “Guys, I think it's a frost dragon!” he deduces.
Matthew steps up. He plays a humanoid from The Elemental Plane of Earth with glowing magical tattoos and fists of rock. He's a Warlord, which means he can assess a battle situation and direct allies to strategically advantageous spots, moving us around and giving us extra attacks. He points at the frost dragon and shouts “Hit that frost dragon!” and then throws in some inspiring words from a little self-help book on his belt. “True success can only come from within, or something!” That does the trick.
My ill-advised dash for the lever has separated me from the group, which means I dodged the icy breath attack. Boosted by Matthew's direction, my fox warrior deploys his powerful daily power, Jaws of the Wolf, which involves running and stabbing in a slightly more frenzied manner than usual. A series of fortunate rolls dish out plenty of pain. Perhaps I can make this brazen idiot approach work after all.
The DM intervenes. My attack has taken the dragon below half health. It becomes 'bloodied', triggering an instant counter-attack. The beast hocks up a big one and drowns me in damaging dragon slushie. Ouch. The next few rounds are tough, but the dragon has used up his breath attacks and falls back on a less deadly combination of bites and slashes.
Luckily, one of us is made mostly of metal. As Chris soaks up the blows we whittle the dragon down to its final hit points. With a gasp, it expires. The Dungeon Master congratulates us. “Well done, you've killed the baby dragon.” Wait, baby? The DM slashes a big red 'X' through the giant Roll20 dragon token. What have we done?
There's little time to mourn the slain monster. There's work to do. Our group met days earlier as inmates of a prison hidden between dimensions. We violently broke out of captivity, opened up a portal onto the deck of a space galleon, killed its crew and rode the ship to Sigil. Many things were set on fire. Harsh words were said. Space pirates were kicked into the endless abyss. In short: we're wanted. The owner of the prison, Lord Killick, has learned of our arrival and is plotting our doom.
Things are looking up, though. According to an employee we may have slightly tortured, an administrative ledger detailing Killick's illegal prison operation is secreted away in his mansion. All we have to do is steal it and use it to undermine his lordly reputation, robbing him of his power and staving off our imminent assassination.
It's been a strange ride so far. In straightforward combat encounters, D&D feels very familiar. The levelling systems and stat-based damage rolls have long been a part of the DNA of PC gaming. The tank, support, damage dealer and combat roles remain enshrined in the highly detailed rulesets that govern modern MMO games. But the more I play D&D, the more alien it feels.
At first I just put it down to the bewildering freedom of being a free agent in an entirely malleable world. Game mats, models, and some well-delivered oratory are all that's needed to evoke a location when roleplaying around a table. In Roll20, the DM can construct custom game boards using tile-sets. Free voice chat programs like Skype let everyone speak, and those with webcams can stream their video feeds into the playspace. The DM can even trigger audio cues from their advanced interface to herald a boss or introduce some mood music to a dungeon. If you miss the noise of tumbling ivories there's a setting that throws virtual dice across the virtual tabletop.
With this simple toolset and nearly 40 years of world-building fiction, the options are only as limited as the collective imagination of the party. But that's not the source of my unease. It's energising. We're fighting dragons in a vast floating metropolis with transport links to a dozen wildly different dimensions. I feel like a kid that's just bellyflopped into a trough of Pick 'n' Mix.
I put my concerns to one side for a moment. We've taken time to scrub the dragon blood out of our skin/fur/bronze casing and donned some formal wear. The basement yielded only dragons, so we're down to plan B: bluff the bouncers, crash the event, eat the canapés and infiltrate the second floor. I turn into a fox, drape myself around the shoulders of our sweet-talking bard and play dead, hoping to pass as an item of grisly upper-class accoutrement. Our Warlord from the rock dimension scrubs up nicely, but there's no obscuring the fact that Chris is an eight-foot-tall magic robot. It's up to our gnome to blag us in.
Miles passes his persuasion check. Just. The Gnome stumbles his way through a mumbled explanation with the charisma of a boiled potato. The door thugs glare for a moment, and let us in. Perhaps they're bored. Perhaps they sense that plan C involves a robot and a lot of punching.
Our band of misfits is met with shocked stares as they enter the grand front room. We make a group decision to skip the canapés. Conversation gently bubbles back to life as we slink toward the staircase and edge our way quietly upwards to the well-guarded second level. We try to stay as quiet as possible, which means passing regular stealth checks as we slide through doors, peer around corners and move from office to office in search of the ledger.
I advance on my designated office, open the door, and find myself face to face with a guard. But I rolled a maximum 20 on my stealth roll. A critical hit. The DM ponders for a moment, and explains how the fox's lightning fast moves prove too much for the dopey grunt. With the flash of a knife, the fox silences the guard forever. A perfect stealth kill. Then Chris kicks a man through a window. The guard flies head first through the pane of glass and falls screaming to the street below.
“Okay guys. That was pretty much the loudest thing that's ever happened. Every guard on the floor hears the crash. Roll for initiative.”
“Everybody get into the corridor!” cries the Warlord. Action stations! I rush into the passage and form a vanguard with the robot as Killick's hired muscle charge in from all directions. Miles, the precision musician with a wit that can crit, brings the snark with the aid of a Shakespearean insult generator. “Thou gorbellied motley-minded canker-blossom!” the gnome screams. A guard reels, clutching his ears.
That's when it clicks. Our cover is blown. We're outnumbered and fighting for our lives. We could have stuck to the plan and nabbed the ledger quietly – but no. Sometimes it's just too funny not to kick someone through a window. In Dota 2, endangering your team is a form of betrayal through incompetence. In D&D it's a dramatic catalyst.
I understand what I've been getting wrong about D&D all this time. I've been playing to win, but I had the win-state all wrong. Victory isn't about slaying a dragon or levelling up. These are just bumps on the road that measure the passage of time. You're winning when you crack a joke that leaves party members in stitches, or come up with an ingenious solution to a puzzle, or break the DM's mind with a course of action that they could never have anticipated.
When everything falls into place, a group can forge a series of dice rolls into a collaborative improvised scenario, and a story is born. The unease I felt when I started playing wasn't confusion – it was performance anxiety.
This changes everything. The baubles that I'm so used to fighting for to progress in videogame RPGs take on a different significance. Sure, my fiery Sun Blade lets me hit a little harder in combat, but really it's a souvenir that reminds me of the time we completed a series of elemental trials and our Warlord accidentally ingested a vat of hallucinogens.
Many videogame systems owe a debt to D&D's mathematical backbone, but so few apply it in the spirit the original RPG intended. As much as I love them, I feel like those influential early RPGs misrepresented the systems that inspired them. D&D's dice rolls are designed to put any idea to the test. Its rules provide a bedrock for player autonomy. Baldur's Gate carried the official license, but games like EVE Online, Wurm and Minecraft feel like D&D's true spiritual successors.
The rush of goons fares poorly in a confined space with an angry fox and a cybernetic behemoth. We escape. Lord Killick is nowhere to be found, but his personal army lies in tatters and we have the ledger. We're safe.
Now we face the hardest question of all. “What does the party want to do next?”
We consider remaining in Sigil to start a shipping business with our stolen space-boat. We could offer our services as mercenaries and build up a power base in the criminal underworld. Or we could take the boat and jet off to the far reaches of the known universe. We return to the boat. Someone hums the Star Trek theme. My fox takes his position in the crow's nest and I imagine how many more levers there are out there waiting. I make a silent pact to pull all of them. Every last one.