Game Opinions: What in the world is Dungeons and Dragons?

Dungeons and Dragons, otherwise known as D&D, is often understood as a ‘fantasy tabletop role playing game’ designed in the late 70s as an evolution from miniature wargames such as War Hammer.  In fact, you may have only heard of D&D because it was featured on the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, so without wishing to patronise, I’m going to attempt to give a clearer explanation of the game for anyone interested in giving it a go.

The suggested ‘fantasy’ element of the game is probably its most well-known attribute; you often play as elves, dwarves, humans, gnomes and halflings (who, by the way, were briefly known as hobbits, before Tolkien’s estate heard about it and laid down the law). These characters can cast spells, wield swords and – most importantly – kill orcs by the dozen.

The ‘table-top’ element suggests pen and paper gameplay, where players describe to one another what their characters are doing in the fictitious universe of the game. You can play part – or sometimes all – of a game by moving miniatures on a grid of some kind. This grid can range from very expensive Dwarven Forge-type pieces that fit together and offer a three-dimensional terrain, to a literal grid on paper, on which a map of the players’ design is drawn. This type of session is often the ‘Dungeon’ part of D&D, where players move their precious minis cautiously through twisting corridors, hoping to avoid whatever traps have been placed in their way.

But that’s not the only way to play D&D; coming up with new dungeons is a difficult thing for the person running the game – called the ‘Dungeon Master’, or ‘DM’ for short (yes, I know) – to constantly create. Sometimes they may decide that less is more, meaning that sessions can often be focused on just a small group of friends sitting around a table describing their actions in battle and debating what the best strategy is to get the shady Innkeeper to talk to you about that crazy bard over in the corner, for instance. The important thing to remember here though is that the miniature element – as suggested by ‘table-top’ – is not an essential part of the game.

Role-playing (as RPG denotes) isn’t essential either. If you’re not comfortable putting on a voice and pretending to be a brusque, iron-willed Dwarven shield maiden, you’re not expected to. Having said that, if you enjoy acting and improvisation, D&D may be perfect for you! Talking to the Dungeon Master and the group about what kind of game this is and what is expected of players is a relevant tip for all of these points, but role-play doesn’t have to be as intense as D&D is sometimes depicted to be. It’s entirely reasonable to want to show up and play a character that doesn’t have a backstory five pages long, although if you’ve put that much thought and effort into a character that’s great too!

One final point to mention is that in D&D you use polyhedral dice to determine whether an action is successful or not (these can range from trying to persuade the town guards you don’t have any hidden weapons to ducking the fireball the traitorous mage has cast at you). But on the whole, as cheesy as it is, D&D really is meant to be fun. You get to tell a story about a crazy group of characters with your friends, and if it’s a hobby you’re interested in, I’d recommend trying to get a group of friends together and giving the game a spin – or a roll, should I say?

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Colin Sheeran

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October 2021
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