Thursday, 18 May 2017

How Dungeons and Dragons will save your life (or something...)


I thought that, rather than another partisan piece about the forthcoming election (just vote Conservative), I'd comment on characterisation in Dungeons & Dragons. As you know studying for my first degree (Upper 2nd Special Honours) was largely spent playing D&D, quite literally thousands of hours playing, discussing, arguing and creating. I've written before how my moral thinking is, in large part, shaped by discussing D&D's alignment chart - what it actually means to be good or evil, to see the law as paramount or challenging it as a statement of freedom.

So let me introduce you to Maoul.

Maoul is a thief (as an interesting aside I'll note that when we played back in 1980 the character-type was thief not what it is now, the less immoral and slightly PC somehow, 'rogue'). Looking at the character sheet from all those years ago I can summon my mental image of Maoul - 4' 11" tall, dark-skinned, ambidextrous, 19 dexterity. From these attributes my cheeky little first level thief developed into an altogether more laid back figure, confident and assured but still a little chippy about six foot tall paladins who think they can boss everything because of their muscles (and righteousness).

Like any good (true neutral) thief, Maoul prefers not to fight - that is, after all, what huge barbarian warriors and that annoying paladin are there for. So he'll go find a rock to sit on while the scrap's on, fire a few arrows and check out where in all this there's a profit to be made. At some point in his travels, Maoul acquired a magic whip - it never misses but only does 1-3 points damage, which is fine when there are hundreds of goblins but worse than useless against a fire giant - so he'll crack this at anything from the fight getting too close to his place of comfort.

All this came back to me while playing one of the computer games derived from D&D (Icewind Dale on this occasion - I like this one because you get to create the whole party not just one character as in Baldur's Gate). Partly because, while Maoul is a 17th level thief, it is often more interesting to play lower level characters than super-powerful, magic-laden masters of the universe. I suspect this is because we are a little closer to understanding how a first level fighter might feel venturing into some kobold-infested hole.

The things we've rolled and the decisions we make based on that roll provide a loose outline. We know the degree to which a character is strong, fast, sturdy, bright, considered and engaging. We've maybe rolled for gender, height, handedness and physical characteristics (these weren't in the Player's Manual but the Judge's Guild produced tables for just about everything). From this we choose what they will do - hit things hard, cast spells, keep the party alive, pick locks and find traps (as the game developed sing heroic ballads and bore people about 'the balance' were added). And then the alignment - what degree of lawfulness and goodness our character will present.

What you have is a cardboard cut-out character that would suit the typical Hollywood blockbuster based on some comic book. But this is Dungeons & Dragons and you can do better. Your level one male ranger (OK you chose that because you fancied Aragorn maybe) has to round out by interacting with the other players - perhaps he's a bit grumpy when he doesn't get his way, maybe he never buys a round, or has a tendency to quote bad poetry. While doing this, of course, you have to stay alive which means you need to co-operate - even with the righteous lawful good cleric.

By the time Aerosmith (or whatever your ranger's name is) has survived to be 4th or 5th level, you know what he's like, how he'll respond to other sorts of character, his foibles and preferences. And with his recently acquire Sword of Daemon (+2, +3 vs evil things from hell) you have a real character. For sure, some of the character is the player themselves (we aren't all Constantine Stanislavsky, after all), but you'll have wrapped your mind round how to develop a character. And the wonder of this is that, for all there's a dungeon and a dungeon master controlling the game, the success or otherwise isn't just about the quantity of goblins slain or giants hacked to pieces but about having created, with a few others, a game within that game.

Dungeons & Dragons - the proper game not the computer versions - is back (they even sell it in Waterstones which is more mainstream than it was in my day), and a new generation of young people are creating characters, slaying bugbears, and learning about good and evil. I think this is great, Dungeon & Dragons remains the most creative game I ever played allowing players the scope to build their own worlds, to develop characters and to slay (or not slay) huge monsters. It also annoys assorted god-botherers into the bargain. I hope today's players do what we did - invent new monsters, create our own dungeons, and even a new pantheon of gods.


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