Playing Another Life — Dungeons and Dragons Learning Diary 1
With being such a fan of fantasy, it seemed odd that I’d never played Dungeons and Dragons. But it’s difficult as an adult isn’t it? We’ve all moved across the country in different directions, and booking long trips home every other week to make a group isn’t feasible. There’s things like work getting in the way. But alas, technology to the rescue! Skype exists!
I have been thinking about Dungeons and Dragons for a while now. Something about exploring cardboard dungeons with snarling miniatures reminded me of when I visited my partner’s family home, the old D&D miniatures of his and his mum’s sat and leered threateningly at each other in the living room next to a wooden chest filled only with dice. Apparently a good number of his first English words related to wizards and warlocks.
I devoured high fantasy from a young age, had my own universe, and characters from Final Fantasy were practically childhood friends. Why had I never role played as a teenager? Correction, roleplaying neopets was all the rage in the early 2000s — does anyone remember “the elegant lupe scanned the forest with his crimson orbs, a scar on his cranium”? Always orbs and craniums!
But anyway, no tabletop roleplaying.
It was partly due to money. Buying all the necessary books takes a sizeable bite out of finances. It simply would have been impossible for me in high school when I was working a paper round. Back then it could be hard to even find the books if you didn’t live in the capital city. It seems strange to think about it now with the proliferation of niche shops and handy internet orders. Braving any local shops that would maybe have sold Dungeons and Dragons as a thirteen year old girl was awkward enough. Indeed there was only one such shop that I would dare to enter, as the others required the dreaded nerd-knowledge-interrogations that many “geek interest” women will be familiar with.
But it was also difficult finding the right group; one person I spoke to about starting a role playing group delightedly informed me that you can introduce custom rape rules. Yep.
Given that introduction it’s not entirely surprising it took me this long. It should be said that many aspects of the games that are unfriendly to women are mostly created by the players –- this is not by the design of the game itself. The books all contain images for both male and female characters, and there’s a range of clothing styles and even a little variation in body builds (though mostly among the non-human races). The site for 5th edition displays many female characters, and uses non-sexualized images to represent each race.
My Dungeon Master (DM) uses fourth edition, so this is what I am learning. The first stage in any learning diary is of course the learning. And what an amount of books to read! I initially picked up the Player Guide thinking it would cover everything, only to discover it included a mere third of the player races and classes! The rules themselves are relatively straight forward given my immersion in fantasy, RPG board games, and video games. The influence of Dungeons and Dragons on modern Western fantasy is pervasive.
Of course the main thing isn’t the rules — it’s the exceptions to the rules, and there are many. The rule books, while beautifully illustrated and probably as efficient as possible, can be difficult to navigate. Rules are scattered around in different locations. Your class may be in Player Hand Book three while the weapons are in book one and your race attributes are in book two.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon the Dungeon Master and I got together to create a character. Obviously the amount of choice is staggering; this is a game about forging your own character and staying with them while they grow. I have a soft spot for animal-type fantasy races, so the shifter class stuck out as one of the most interesting, and was what I went with in the end. We created Thistle, a female shifter druid. As a longtooth shifter she is descended from wolf-like lycanthropes. Coupled with the druid class she can turn into beast form. Yes, at least in the fourth edition player handbook, the shifters can’t shift!
Thistle is essentially a dog-like person, and I’m basing her personality and behavior on canines. After losing her tribe in mysterious circumstances she attaches herself to the first humanoid she encounters. She’s loyal, naive, perceptive, athletic and (like any pack-animal) terrified of loneliness. We thought she would interact interestingly with another character who is essentially a golem; a non-breathing humanoid would set any animal’s fur on edge.
Quick sketch of Thistle.
We are planning to play over Skype while using the site Roll20. The Roll20 client is elegant in design and so far has been easy and intuitive to use. You can use a microphone and webcam through the site and the game master can add background music! I love this touch so much! I usually pop on some thematic music while playing board games and I’m looking forward to hunting monsters and rocking out.
You create your characters by inputting stats, boosts, biographical detail, inventory, and even photos. Before I penned my own avatar I was using a Google-found image. There is a lot of awesome art out there, but it was a little difficult to find any female shifter pictures that weren’t of them lounging about semi-nude. I suppose this comes with the territory.
We talked through her stats and agreed that she would have high wisdom, strength and perception with low charisma and intelligence. The stat categories are fairly similar across fantasy games. Anything I hadn’t encountered before, such as Nature, are intuitive. I personally like a high number of different stats as it can lead to interesting character choices. Thistle’s perception allows her to be sneaky and could pickpocket easily enough, but a low charisma means if she is caught she will be flustered. This made me think of a “guilty” dog caught sniffing around the treat bag.
Thistle is caught pickpocketing.
The whole character creation process took about an hour and a half for me, and more time for the Dungeon Master who was kindly formatting my skill documents. I didn’t really need to consider other player’s class choices as I was the second person to craft my avatar. I also left Thistle’s history vague in case the Dungeon Master wanted to explore that in a quest.
Will we ever find out where her family disappeared to? Who knows! That’s the fun part. I can’t wait to get stuck into the adventuring!