Monday, 29 August 2011

... played Dungeons and Dragons

Hard to believe, I know, what with me being female and in possession of a functioning social life (no offence meant, I assure you, to dedicated D&D players – I’m referring to the common clich├ęd idea of what they’re like …) but it’s true. Nonetheless, names have been changed to protect the – arguably – innocent in the following narrative.

As a small child I remember being fascinated by the eye-catching cover of the first ever Choose Your Own Adventure book, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – so much so that I spent a princely £1.50 of my £5 birthday book token on it. (Yes, I know this dates me, and I also wish books were still so cheap). I read the introduction with pop-eyed, slack-mouthed fascination: it seemed to be claiming to change the nature of reading itself: (“This is not a book you read straight through, front to back, like a normal book ...”). Wow! My tiny mind was blown.

I borrowed a couple of dice from the family Monopoly set and I was away. I breezed through the book and trounced the Warlock in a couple of tries, slaying everything in my path thanks to a naive misunderstanding of the rules, which meant I added all my dice rolls together as I progressed, ending up with Skill and Stamina of something like 127 and 145 (usual scores: 2 to 12). This was fun! Were there more? There must be! I collected the first 12 or so in the series (including my favourite, City of Thieves) before losing interest and getting into Transformers, or possibly Sylvanian Families – but up until last week, I had only ever been that saddest of role-players – one with nobody to play with ...

But don't cry for me, Argentina: my role-playing cherry was about to be popped. And a few days ago at the house of my boyfriend’s friend “O” (this is starting to sound a bit like 19th-century porn already ...), at the instigation – I won’t say will-sapping insistence – of the man himself, whom we will call “A” - it was.

A, it transpires, had a misspent youth in which, among various other unsavoury teenage  boy habits, he spent hours studying and practising that blackest of arts: the role of the Dungeon Master. In his (currently pretty limited) leisure time, he’d been designing a new adventure for O and another player – who, me? – and I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to piss on his bonfire, flaming pit or lake of lava.

So, having been sent to Sainsbury’s on my first mission (pencil buying), I repaired to O’s flat, carrying A’s massive hardback reference books on Monsters, Dungeon Mastering and being a Player. As it turned out I should also have brought a takeaway menu (roleplaying is quite the long haul, apparently) – but luckily the boys had that covered, and were poring over Crispy Fried Duck and spring rolls as I entered.


The first thing you have to do as a D&D virgin is create a character. Being a fiction-writing type, I perhaps added a little too much backstory to my Half-Elf Ranger, who had fled the mainland to (A’s adventure environment) the Isle of the Stranger after a bitter divorce from her Dwarf husband – but it was pretty fun flicking through the Player’s Handbook to check out the various races and professions I could choose.

Apart from the usual suspects (human, elf, dwarf, orc, etc.) you can be mixed-race (usually human and something else – elf, dwarf, troll etc.) as well as a Halfling, a Hobbit, an Orc, a Troll and various other species. Each one has its own merits and drawbacks, which usually boil down to sacrificing strength for speed/stamina, or vice versa. Each is also morally aligned as Good, Evil or Neutral – you get to choose. And then there's a mortgage application's worth of form-filling (and a bit of dice-rolling) to determine your chosen character's skill, strength, intelligence and so forth – there are six variables which, since I've lost the sheet somewhere (this is anathema in D&D world and akin to waking up on a beach with amnesia, robbed and naked) I can't recall.
This is what you get when you Google "half-elf"

And then, finally, you get to play the game. Right?

Oh. No. Then you get to choose your profession. It's like careers counselling at school, but slightly more fun, basically ...

In terms of your “job”, there’s even more variety available: I was advised by a friend not to go anywhere near a magic-using character, as “they have the life expectancy of a WWI Tommy”, and instead to pick someone who could handle themselves in a ruck. Despite A's heavy hints about being a Barbarian (quaffing, pillaging berserker) or a Paladin (knight/lady in shining armour), I went with Ranger in the end. They can fight with two weapons, and are generally good at outdoorsy stuff like climbing, swimming, foraging etc. Also, I was bored of reading the other job descriptions and wanted to get on with the game already.

After the small matter of equipment (weapons, armour and shield, basically) and skills, like swimming, listening, searching and so forth (it really was lucky we were eating takeaway during this bit or we would have gone mental with frustration) at last – drumroll please – my character was complete, and we could start playing the game!

After I had given my avatar a name. Glancing around wildly, desperate to get on, I saw a beige pencil on the table and asked if I could call myself IKEA, but this was vetoed as not being in the spirit of the game – so I ended up using my middle name, plus Aeki (the sharp-eyed amongst you will note that this is IKEA backwards). With hindsight I should have used my pornstar name, which is the rather brilliant Goldie Coxmoor, but perhaps I'll save that for online chatrooms ...
Anyway. Onto the game!

O and I were briefed on our orphanhoods as foundlings on the Isle of the Stranger, taken in by the monastic brotherhood of the Stranger, to worship and perpetuate the cult of the Stranger, which was a large black statue of mysterious origin and fabulous antiquity, its face taking on aspects, at different times, of man, woman, animal and alien. We were both now emerging into adulthood, and as part of our final initiation we were required by Master Thon (our guru/father figure) to perform the ritual of eating the petals of the hallucinogenic black lotus and embarking on a spiritual quest for the animal totems of the island.

Cool! And a bit spooky. I have to admit that so far I was impressed by the depth and detail of A's imagination: you'd never guess he studied Biochemistry. So, O and I, imaginary swords in fantasy hands, set off bravely across the A4 Wouldjadraw map of the Isle  which A had kindly designed and printed for us. We didn't have little figures to represent ourselves at this point, as we would have been the size of several elephants each, but this would come ...

After a slight hitch caused by my suspicious reluctance to eat the lotus petal, until A explained that it wasn't poisoned and the quest couldn't start without it, we set off on our first adventure across the four zones of the Isle of the Stranger: forest, beach, caves and campsite – it was strangely reminiscent, in structure, of the Crystal Maze, itself a live-action version of what most roleplayers do with paper and dice. On the way we encountered a superior satyr, uppity Griggs (small blue insecty things, like the bastard offspring of a cricket and a Smurf), and arrogant merfolk. All these roles were voiced and played by A, and I began to detect a theme.

Yep, he's a satyr all right ...
 “Why are all the creatures we meet on this island so up themselves?” I asked, having had yet another exhausting conversation with the monstrously vain and self-regarding satyr who kept making us get things for him on the promise of teaching us “the lore of the forest”. But A/the Satyr merely grinned smugly, and I was left to guess that they were that way was because it was more fun for him. It's also fun for the players to have a bit of banter, as although unlike in the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you can (within reason) choose to do anything because it's the Dungeon Master who will have to cope with your bizarre decisions (“I flash the mermaids”) it can get a little lonely otherwise, with only two players and lots of incommunicative animals.

We also helped a turtle lay its eggs (don't ask how), smacked up a couple of threatening Elementals (wind, earth, fire etc.) and fixed a heron's wing, the animals showing their gratitude by giving us valuable totems of jade eggs and gold feathers, rather than trying to bite or kill us, as in real life. After a fun Sorcerer's Apprentice scene where we were attacked by mops, buckets and cutlery, followed by a totally pointless jaunt into the island caves, where we helplessly watched some ghosts trying to run through a rock, we went back to the statue of the Stranger and sacrificed our totems to him.
The mops we met were less obliging ...

And then we woke up, and all the stuff we'd found (including our gold, jewels and fire arrows, dammit) had gone. Also, Master Thon had been attacked in the night and was on his last legs: with his dying breath he urged us to “find the flower ... seek the Stranger”.

At this point we took a beer break, and I will take a blog break to talk to you a little bit about the subject of dice, of which there's a boggling variety in D&D. Make no mistake, those six-sided ones (a “d6” in game terms) are far from being the only flavour of dice available in the wonderful world of fighting fantasy. There's (in order) a d4 (four-sided pyramid), a d6 (six sides in a cube, otherwise known as a normal die), a d8 which looks like a little dreidl or diamond shape, a d12 (dodecahedral) and the most commonly used one, a d20 (I'm sure you can guess how many sides that boasts).

In D&D dice are essential, because you have to roll to do pretty much everything. You want to climb? Roll a dice for that. Listen at a door? Dice time. Swim? Fight? Search a body? Time to make a throw ... it's rather like that irritating iPhone ad where there's an app for everything, except it means fighting someone is really slow, as you roll dice to determine the success of your blows, and searching or travelling across a large area almost instantaneous.
Mmm, dice!

So, after our beer break we realised it was nearly one in the morning, and had to pack up our various bits of geekery and go home – but next session, O and I were promised, we would get to leave the island and investigate the mainland – full of sharks, wrecks, ghouls (“maybe”, A said coyly) and ogres. Odd though it sounds, and mildly shameful though it might be for a grown woman to admit, I'm kind of looking forward to it ...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, that was a fun. Nice to read someone else's take on that first night of gaming. If you've continued, I hope you love it.

    ReplyDelete