The textbook answer is that it’s a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG for short), where you and a group of friends design characters to partake in an epic story as adventuring heroes. Or, depending on your group, utterly bonkers magic misanthropes that stumble blindly from one misadventure to the next and usually spend a few nights in jail.
If that seems incongruous, you’re absolutely right! Because literally anything can happen.
D&D is a game, but not in the traditional board game sense. There’s no set outcome. It’s much more free-form and collaborative, allowing you to make your own decisions on how a circumstance plays out. Very recently, D&D has become much more mainstream, with even a major blockbuster starring Chris Pine gracing the big screens. Noteworthy celebrities have come out as big fans, and even hosted shows where they play the game with friends or other celebrities.
Interest in this game is expanding geometrically as people begin to understand that it’s not just the hobby of nerdy kids sitting in a basement. In fact, it’s not even a hobby for just kids, nor are basements necessarily involved. That is an old stigma, one which is rapidly fading.
The very nature of the game is social interaction. Playing D&D is a great way to make friends, or even form closer ties to the friends you have. I’ve been playing the game since college with a group of friends, and it’s usually the highlight of my week. It’s escapism, and storytelling, and shenanigans, and all manner of ridiculous fun. The game’s popularity also owes a little to the pandemic, because playing the game virtually on video calls, and with almost no cost, provided much needed entertainment and social interaction when many of us were on lockdown.
So how do you play? First, find a gaming group. Or start one with your friends. The basic rules are available in the D&D handbooks, but if you’re short on cash, you can find the basic rules online as well, just search “System Reference Document 5e” and you’ll find the free content in no time. It’s going to be a lot, so depending on your learning style, you might want to learn as you go.
The second thing to do is to create a character, and here’s where things start to get fun.
A lot of people’s first characters in D&D tend to fall into one of the following categories: Id, Perfect Self, or Batman. Id means you get to act completely impulsively like rules mean nothing, reveling in your status as a self-indulgent gremlin to the amusement, or annoyance of everyone else. Perfect Self is exactly what it sounds like, you make yourself, but a “better” version that can slay dragons or whatever. It’s you, but a cooler you that can do things that you wish that you could, like hurl axes at all your problems, or public speaking. Then finally, there’s Batman, where you make a dark brooding, anti-social, anti-hero edgelord that lurks in dark corners but is simultaneously, somehow, good at everything.
If you’re looking to make a different kind of character, wonderful! More power to you. The above statement is a broad generalization, and not meant to represent the totality of humanity. D&D, especially the current edition, has tremendous flexibility: You can figure out the kind of character you’d like to play, and then mix and match things from the rule books to make it work. Or even, in some cases, start writing your own rules!
Yes, the heart of the modern D&D community is homebrew, which means you get to make your own feats, classes, spells, monsters, or whatever.
And this isn’t considered cheating. In fact, cheating is almost part of D&D in the first place. That’s sort of part of the appeal. If you want to do something, you make a roll of your 20-sided dice, and then add any bonuses from your list of cool things you can do, and the higher the number, the better you do. Anything you can do to boost that number makes a successful roll more likely. So if you sit down with the person running the game, talk about what you want to do, you can mod your character to what you’re looking for. Want to be the best golfer in the world and use a nine-iron as your weapon? Go for it! I won’t stop you.
And the reason this is allowed is that D&D isn’t a competitive game. It’s collaborative – collaborative storytelling at its best, guided by a framework of rules and luck. No one person wins D&D. There’s no big tournament with brackets. Because it’s more about the fun you have during the game, than getting any specific outcome. Some of the best games I’ve ever played in, we got our butts kicked repeatedly, often hilariously. And out of those came some great stories that my group and I laugh about to this day.
If you’re reading this, and are curious about playing D&D, then definitely give it a try. If you have ever had an incredible night out that ended in near-disaster, but resulted in an amazing story to tell, then I’m positive you will enjoy D&D because games very frequently wind up going just like that.
Some people prefer a more serious game, and that’s fine too, if you want to have an epic and immersive experience that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into the Lord of the Rings.
And of course, D&D isn’t the only TTRPG out there. I don’t just mean similar systems like Pathfinder, but there’s Vampire: the Masquerade, or Monster of the Week if you’re a fan of Buffy or Supernatural, and of course some Arkham Horror for my fellow mad Lovecraft enthusiasts or literally dozens of other games, of varying genres, entirely designed around having fun shenanigans with your friends.
And the best part is, you usually don’t wind up actually in jail because of a D&D game. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I don’t know your life. But it probably shouldn’t be a goal.
So if you’re interested in a game that can be either Monty Python silliness, or sober, reverent fantasy adventure, and everything in between, definitely give it a try. You might be surprised at how much fun it is.
And for people who are already fans of D&D, I hope you’ll return to this column as we discuss various aspects of D&D, like character building, monsters, encounters, running a game, or even discussion of different gaming systems. And, of course, we’ll touch on the loxodon in the room, the Open Gaming License. Until then, roll well, my friends.
This is the first in a new Motif series of articles exploring the TTRPG expanded multiverse.