Getting reacquainted with Dungeons & Dragons

I've been playing Dungeons & Dragons for around 20 years now, primarily with a small group of friends that were into the entire role-playing thing to start with. In 2018 I am now a player in one campaign and a Dungeon Master (DM) for three. This feels slightly over-the-top compared to the years preceding it. And all because a Netflix-series decided to feature the game a bit more prominently in their nostalgia-induced tale.

Truth to be told, while I always had at least one campaign on the back-burner, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons proved to rekindle the RPG spark with a lot of friends and myself back when it was released in 2014. After the video game centric view of fourth edition, this went down more smoothly. Checks and attacks were streamlined and the issues we had with the new system was having difficulty with ignoring older more arcane rules from earlier editions.

Saving Throws proved hilariously difficult to us, as everyone was still wondering whether to throw above or below a certain calculated score as we did in the old days. It took a while for the "Skills are an activity, Saving Throws are a reaction, but otherwise the same" nature of it to settle. Now it makes perfect sense and slots in neatly with some of the other rules. Which in general is how fifth edition feels: everything fits together. There's a focus present that was absent for a long time.

It's been fun to see new players get to grasp with the system. Role-playing is usually best described as the talky version of improvisation theatre. But where improv demands to build upon each and everyone's blocks, role-playing puts up borders in the form of rules and dice. That might sound problematic from an improv point of view, but role-playing needs stakes, not just humour. Putting rules and chance in place creates those stakes. Improv never acknowledges failure, everything is a step up to the next gag. Role-playing does acknowledge failure, meaning there's a far larger range of emotions involved.

Some of the new players seem to take "the monkey approach". They fling poo everywhere just to look at what sticks to the wall. Either their backstory is disruptive in nature, or they act it out in a disruptive manner. The idea is to provide an improv-like level of comedy, but as you constantly bump into the rules these effects either don't work as intended or wreck plans of other players.

It can be annoying to get these players back in line. Some take cues from the negative feedback, others claim they are playing out their roles, but often this approach leads to caricatures. Granted it can be fun, but there's a time and place for everything. I try to reward humour where possible, a perfectly timed response or fun reaction is worth an inspiration point (D&D's get out of jail free card: you can re-roll any one roll of the dice with it). Just to make it clear the fun can be small and does not require grand events.

Another thing I've noticed with this influx of new players, are the gamers. That is, the video game players. These players know what an RPG is: they know Final Fantasy, The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, Fallout, Mass Effect. Their approach to Dungeons & Dragons is usually something like this:

Combine that "knowledge of RPGs" with the "the monkey approach" and things can get dicey in the wrong way pretty quickly. I've noticed that one way to counter this, is to let the players experience a normal day up front. Let them camp, experience food & drink, possibly familiarise themselves with a character that is their superior. It establishes some boundaries, which for gamers are non-existent: no more invisible walls and a storyline leash for them!

Just having a few normal scenes grounds them a bit more, and makes any subsequent actions regain some context. Also, be sure to have an NPC handy to 'lead' a bit if players feel a bit reluctant to play the hero.

There's also a perverse reverse case of gamers' expectations: sometimes they think that if it's high-powered and unique it must be a boss and they'll attack it head-on, which could potentially wipe them all out on the first round. Gamers can feel particularly destined to be a messiah for no reason whatsoever and I needed some moments to dish out heavy damage to make sure they got the message.

Likewise, gamers also may have some trouble thinking outside of the box. If I can't hit it and can't interact with it, what should I do? Often the answer they are looking for is survive, which in video games often means holding back the player or raising artificial barriers. It's quite interesting to watch gamers grapple with realising there may be a third option besides 'victory' and 'game over'.

I also had to upgrade my preparations as DM a bit. I've started fifth edition by using the official modules. Partially out of convenience and lack of free time to build my own campaign, and partially because revisiting the Sword Coast and Faerûn would make a few of the gamers happy as well. (I've never seen eyes sparkle that much when I told players they would be headed for Baldur's Gate. Next time, I'll throw in an iron crisis for good measure.)

Based on Reddit's obsession with monster cards, I decided to create my own based on index cards. I put a sticky note underneath to act for HP tracking and comments and away we go.

Ditto on some item cards.

Creating these cards does require me to scan through the adventure beforehand and filter out all the monster types. Yet, they can be recycled for subsequent sessions / campaigns and they speed up setting up combat immensely. If you haven't tried making these as a DM, get on it now. I also noticed people like it to be handed physical cards when they acquire magical items. So even those add something to the (loot) experience.

Another tool that has proved immensely useful is D&D Beyond. This official character generator oddly requires a Twitch account, but considering what you get in return, it's more than worth it.

It guides you through the process step by step and let's you edit stuff regardless of the rules anyway. Lastly, you can export it neatly into a form-fillable PDF, meaning you can actually use it for your games.

When your players are intimidated by the Player's Handbook, this tool is brilliant. And you'll probably use it as a DM to quick-build some NPCs to go along with it.

Another thing I invested in earlier (and which paid off handsomely) was buying into the Spellbook Cards. It just makes everything move a bit faster when your magic users can just throw a card on the table knowing beforehand what it will do. The alternative is of course letting players maintain personal spellbooks and copy them from the Player's Handbook, but players will most likely balk at that option.

So yes, maybe Stranger Things set things in motion for Dungeons & Dragons in 2017, but looking back on the year, I have to say D&D as a platform has grown significantly. It's not exactly light on rules, but Wizards of the Coast is doing its darnedest to streamline every aspect of it.

Being able to play multiple campaigns with different groups in both player and Dungeon Master roles, is really opening up the experience to me. Being able to replay the same adventure with different results is also a treat, there's a certain glee in watching differently formed groups take aim at the same problem with wildly different solutions.

This year should be a great one for Dungeons & Dragons.