Hipsters & Dragons

Because roleplaying is social, creative, fun… and kinda cool!

Category: Dungeons & Dragons explained

How Can I Start Playing Dungeons & Dragons?

One of the mission statements of this blog is to blow away some of the fog of mystery that surrounds this enigmatic game we call Dungeons & Dragons, and help people access this amazing past time. Aside from allaying fears about whether it’s satanic or not, or do you have to be some kind of uber-geek to play it (I’ll actually be addressing both those points in forthcoming posts, but spoiler alert: it’s no and no!), I think by far the best thing I can do is offer some practical advice on how to get started.

And that advice would be: to learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons simply join an existing D&D group.

By doing so you’ll very quickly grasp the concept of the game (which is notoriously hard to explain, but makes sense as soon as you start playing!), and slowly pick up the rules as you go along.

Generally speaking to play Dungeons & Dragons you need 4 or 5 people. One of those will be the Dungeon Master, the person who directs the game; the others will all be players who take part in the game. To be the Dungeon Master you need quite a lot of experience of the game and firm mastery of the rules… you on the other hand simply want to join the game as a new player. And to do so you need nothing more than an invitation from the Dungeon Master and his or her group of friends. You don’t need any knowledge of the game at all, or it’s rules, nor do you need any equipment. They will have all the materials needed for the game, such as the rulebooks and dice. (Although if you have a pencil, eraser and paper that’s great… and if you want to bring some food and drinks you’ll make yourself popular!).

Whilst the modern world has opened up the possibility of playing Dungeons & Dragons online I would strongly recommend trying to find a game where you can meet in person to begin with. You’re going to need people to take you by the hand a little bit, to help you create your character (ie. the hero you will play) and to advise you on the possibilities of your character (ie. what actions they can take in the game, what special skills they have etc) once the game starts. All of which is a little easier face to face than with a webcab delay.

Racking my brain I can see three possible ways a new player could find an existing group to join… so here they are.

Option 1: Ask a Friend Who Plays

The best opportunity to enter the world of D&D would be if you are friends with, or at least acquaintances with, someone who already plays. In that case don’t be shy and just tell this person you’re also keen to play and ask them if they have any room for you in their next gaming session. There’s a very high probability they’ll be delighted to have you along. Although if for some reason they’re not don’t take it personally, it’s likely that they just have too many players already (the game doesn’t function so well once there are more than 5 or so players at the table). Ask them to keep you in mind if a space opens up in future.

Skip the book and have a friend explain it…

Option 2: Join A Session at a Gaming Store

If you don’t have any friends that already play, you could try contacting your local gaming store. Wizards of the Coast, the company that own the Dungeons & Dragons brand and publish the official rules, which are now in their 5th edition, have a store locator on this page. It basically searches for shops that stock their products, and these stores often run D&D sessions at the actual store… you just need to contact them and find out when. I just tried and their store locator understands UK postcodes as well as US zip codes and there are several shops around London for example.

Option 3: Network Online to Find a Game in Real Life!

Your third option is to find a friendly group of strangers! And what was the Internet invented for if not that? Try posting in this massive Facebook group. Even better try searching on Meetup – in fact I’ve done it for you, you lazy so and so. There are currently over 800 meet up groups tagged with Dungeons and Dragons all around the globe! There are even more on roleplaying games in general (whilst D&D is the most famous roleplaying game, it’s certainly not the only one!). So there’s a high chance there’s a game you could join near you. Otherwise there’s scores of other social networks you could scour for a local gaming group.

And finally…

Option 4: Play Online

As I said, I don’t think this is the easiest option if you’ve never played, but as long as you can find a patient DM and group of players there’s absolutely no reason you couldn’t join in an online game. To do so register on Roll20 and search for a game that’s looking for players!

I really hope that helps and is the final kick up the backside you needed to get started! If you’re still trying to puzzle out what the hell is Dungeons & Dragons click on my attempt at explaining. Honestly though, it’s way easier just to turn up to a game and find out how it works!

One final tip, a great character to begin with is a barbarian or fighter as they are simple to play. Your main goal will be to charge at the monsters and hit them really hard with your sword, and whatever happens you tend to be in the thick of the action! (Some other characters, like rogues, wizards and priests, require a bit more fine knowledge of the rules to make the most of their abilities).

What is Dungeons & Dragons? And How Do I Play It?

If you’ve heard the words “Dungeons and Dragons” a million times without actually having any concrete idea what it is, let alone how to play it, then don’t worry… you’re definitely not alone. Most people only have a very vague (and often wildly inaccurate) notion of what Dungeons and Dragons is at best; whilst the game’s abstract nature – most, or even all, of the game takes place in your imagination – makes it very hard for newcomers to understand.

Basically the rules meant nothing to me, because I didn’t have any context to understand the game. And probably you don’t either, in which case this post is especially for you.

I once had the same problem myself. I distinctly remember having a burning desire to play this game at 10 years old, but no one I knew could really explain to me what it was. That was until a friend’s older brother lent me the Player’s Handbook (the most important of the game’s core rulebooks) and a Penguin guide entitled: What is Dungeons & Dragons? Awesome! I got stuck in straight away, starting at the start, expecting it all to click within a few paragraphs. But it didn’t. I kept reading, and then re-reading, because I felt certain that I’d somehow missed that vital paragraph or page where the basic concept of the game is explained. Granted, the Player’s Handbook contained lots of seemingly useful rules and tables, and yes I could look up the price of a spear and see that it did 1d6 damage, which was all very well and good, but something crucial was missing… who is buying the spears? And why? Is it me? In which case, how many do I need? And anyway where is the board? Who are my opponents? How do I win the game? SOMEBODY PLEASE JUST FUCKING TELL ME!!!

Beginner's guide to dungeons and dragons

These are just confusing me! (Photo copyright Hipsters & Dragons).

Basically the rules meant nothing to me, because I didn’t have any context to understand the game. And probably you don’t either, in which case this post is especially for you.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

The short answer is that Dungeons and Dragons is a roleplaying game.

A slightly longer answer is that D&D (as we nearly always abbreviate it) is the world’s first roleplaying game first launched in 1974, which has since become much more than just a game, but a mega brand spawning novels, kids’ cartoons, computer games and even Hollywood films

An even longer answer follows after the question…

What is a Roleplaying Game?

Many people think that roleplaying is so called because you roll a lot of dice. But in fact it’s called roleplaying, because you play a role. In other words you act out a part or character. Whether you gave it much thought or not, you’ve almost certainly taken part in a little roleplaying already yourself, most probably in French class when your teacher asked you to read the part of Pierre who is calling Claudette (Bonjour Claudette, ca va?) to ask her if she would like to go to the cinema tonight. Or maybe you’ve indulged in a little roleplay when your partner asked you to dress up as a police(wo)man and handcuff them to the bed for being a naughty little… well it doesn’t matter why exactly.

The point is that a roleplaying game involves playing a character other than yourself, and pretending to be that person for the duration of the game.

The point is that a roleplaying game involves playing a character other than yourself, and pretending to be that person for the duration of the game.

In Dungeons & Dragons you typically play the role of a heroic character, which we call a Player Character of PC for short. Nearly all Dungeons & Dragons games take place in a fantasy setting, ie. in a world that is similar to Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

It’s worth noting that thousands of other roleplaying games besides D&D exist, and depending on which game you’re joining you could end up playing for example a detective in Victorian England, a soldier in World War II, a vampire in Imperial China, or possibly a paranoid fighter pilot in a dystopian sci-fi setting. There’s even a Star Wars roleplaying game.

Think you can pilot the Millennium Falcon?

Think you can pilot the Millennium Falcon?

Finally in this section, I guess I should also distinguish tabletop roleplaying games from live roleplaying games. Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game, meaning that you don’t physically act out what your character does… you simply describe it. If you’ve ever seen anyone dressed up as a barbarian chasing other people with a rubber sword in a woods somewhere that would be a live roleplaying game. You’d never catch a hipster like me doing anything like that! (And if you did it would be during a zombie apocalypse in a small Spanish town).

I Still Don’t Really Get It!

I know, I know. It’s still not really clear is it? But we’re getting there…

To play Dungeons and Dragons one person needs to perform the role of Dungeon Master, the rest all play Player Characters… let’s start with them…

What is a Player Character?

So to elaborate in Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game, you play the role of a character… almost certainly a heroic character, which you create (if you’re new to the game someone might create one for you). Your Player Character has a gender, male or female are generally the two most popular options; a race, which is where things get a bit more fantastical, as typical D&D races include not just humans but elves, dwarves, dragonborn, halflings and gnomes, and a class. You can think of class as a little bit like an occupation, and typical classes include fighter, wizard, priest, thief/rogue, barbarian and ranger. In fact pretty much every D&D character can be summed up in three words.

“Hey Duncan, what PC (Player Character) are you playing next Sunday in my Curse of Strahd adventure?”

“Hey Bob, I’ll be playing a female elf wizard.”

Additionally, depending on how you choose to build your character (there are strict rules that govern this, which is why it’s better to have an experienced player do this for you to begin with) you will have different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different abilities and skills. For example typically a fighter is strong and tough, is great with a sword, but they generally can’t cast any spells nor are they the guys you turn to when you need someone to sneak into a castle undetected… that would be the role of the Thief/Rogue who are not so strong or tough, but are great at climbing, sneaking around in the shadows and picking locks (useful skills in many of the games scenarios). Meanwhile a wizard generally has to avoid hand to hand combat as they are neither strong, nor good with weapons, but their array of spells can be deadly in combat or very useful in non combat situations.

A character sheet...

A character sheet…

Normally we write on a sheet of paper (or on a purpose built Character Sheet) all of our character’s skills and attributes and then refer to them whenever the game demands it, to help determine whether our player will be successful in any given situation… whether they are trying to track a bear in the forest, interrogate a prisoner, or shoot an enemy with a bow from 200 yards.

Once the game gets started it will be up to you to control your character, reacting to events in the game, deciding whether your PC attacks the ogres with a glint of madness in their eyes, hides behind a pillar until an opportunity arises to stab their opponent in back or runs away screaming for his mummy. You decide what your character does, but the dice – and your character’s abilities – decide their success in doing it. One of the fun things about D&D is that there is a lot of luck involved, meaning events are rarely predictable and often amusingly absurd.

Roleplaying is lifted from a game, and closer to an art form, when we develop our characters’ backstories and personalities, bringing them to life and inhabiting them according to their unique identity.

There is one more very important thing to note on creating and playing a character, that relates back to what I wrote earlier about playing a role. When I was a kid pretty much all I cared about as a D&D player was how many orcs could I kill in combat, but anyone over the age of 14 should view their character as much more than a collection of stats. Roleplaying is lifted from a game, and closer to an art form, when we develop our characters’ backstories and personalities, bringing them to life and inhabiting them according to their unique identity. Thankfully the latest edition of the rules makes creating three dimensional characters easier than ever before, by offering players a choice of backgrounds and lists of personality traits, flaws and bonds to choose from (or select randomly). Maybe like BA Baracus, your character is scared of water and declares “I ain’t getting on no boat,” every time your party need to cross a river (leading to a merry pantomime of his teammates constantly trying to slip some powerful sedatives in his pint of ale). Maybe your fighter is actually a pacifist, who is determined to see the good in people, and tries desperately hard not to kill even downright dastardly goblins and ghoulies (“they just need a second chance in life!”), before lopping off their heads only as a last resort. Maybe your priest is a playboy and nymphomaniac who has to beg his deity for forgiveness on a daily basis after indulging in the sins of the flesh by corrupting the nuns next door. Once you’ve got a firm idea of who your character really is, from his unique upbringing to his motivation and personality quirks, you’re ready to play the game on another level, interacting in character with your fellow PCs in what is essentially improvised theatre (still with some orc slaying in between to keep it spicy). I don’t think it gets much better in this regard than Force Grey having fun with each other in this adventure chronicled on Youtube.

Introducing The Dungeon Master… aka God

Everyone growing up has played board games or computer games, and its pretty obvious what they are and how to play them. There is an objective, clearly defined rules and strict parameters… for example if you’re playing Call of Duty you can move and shoot, and well that’s about it. The reason is the “architect” of the game only was able to programme a finite number of scenarios and he figured the only thing you’re going to want to do is kill the enemies so he made a game to fit those criteria, and didn’t bother giving you any other options. What makes Dungeons and Dragons so appealing to its fans is there are no limits to what you can do (or rather try to do, because if your character can’t fly then he will die when jumps off a cliff). And what makes this possible is The Dungeon Master. The DM is the “architect” of any given session of Dungeons & Dragons, aka God… he creates the world in which your characters inhabit and he describes the scenarios that your characters find themselves in, and with the help of the rules and the dice, he determines what happens when your character tries to do something a bit tricky, like hit someone with their sword or ride a horse through a raging river (you don’t have to roll a dice to open a book or eat a bowl of soup). And whilst sometimes we use maps and miniatures to help imagine the exact locations of characters, especially in combat, when it’s often important to know whether you’re 10 or 30 feet from a door, or whether a troll stands between you and the cave entrance, but generally speaking most of the action takes place in the DM’s and players’ collective imaginations.

Imagination is essential, miniatures are optional... (Photo copyright H&D).

Imagination is essential, miniatures are optional… (Photo copyright H&D).

Importantly the DM also controls all Non-Player Characters (NPCs), ie. any character in the fantasy world that is not controlled by one of the players. If the Player Characters (PC) meet a traveller on the road, or decide to speak to the local innkeeper, it’s the DM who relays how they behave and what they say. Similarly the DM controls all monsters and bad guys (often taking an unprofessionally sadistic glee in them thwarting, injuring or even killing the PCs). As you can probably tell by now the DM uses NPCs to stage much of the adventure and provide the challenges that make the game so much fun. A good DM will give his NPCs as much personality as the players have given their PCs and they will have their own way of speaking, character traits and motives.

Sessions, Adventures and Campaigns

A session of Dungeons and Dragons is the physical time a group of friends spends playing the game, typically a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. An adventure gets underway when the PCs (Player Characters) decide to take on a quest usually suggested to them by an NPC… for example the mayor of town offers the characters a pot of gold if they will journey into the hills to kill a foul giant that continually steals their livestock. Depending on the adventure it might typically take two or three sessions to run. A campaign meanwhile is a series of adventures which are related to one another, and take place in the same fantasy world. So carrying on from the aforementioned adventure, maybe when the characters kill the giant in his lair, they discover a magical item that, unfortunately, bestows a curse upon them… and so they set off on a second adventure to remove this curse. Usually in a campaign the players play the same characters (unless until they die, perhaps crushed by the vast foot of that giant, in which case they will need to make new ones with new histories – and then the DM will integrate them into the story). Campaigns can go on indefinitely, and indeed many do go on for years. During this time characters gain what are known as “experience points” which accrue after each adventure and enable the character to gain new powers and skills, and generally be a lot more badass. This is a lot of fun for players who enjoy seeing their characters progress from “have a go heroes” to perhaps the most powerful beings in the realm (although they will have to play for a long time for that to happen… there are strict rules governing how characters develop!). A good roleplayer may well factor this change of character status by altering the way his character behaves… perhaps they turn from idealistic young man intent on saving the world, to power-crazed politician seduced by his own status and a taste of the finer things in life.

Campaigns can go on indefinitely, and indeed many do go on for years. During this time characters gain what are known as “experience points” which accrue after each adventure and enable the character to gain new powers and skills, and generally be a lot more badass.

Preparing an adventure, let alone a campaign, in a fully fledged fantasy world of your own making is a massive undertaking for any Dungeon Master, and luckily the game’s publishers, Wizards of the Coast, not only publish the core rulebooks of D&D, but they also publish readymade adventures, most of which take place in a fantasy world called the Forgotten Realms. There are in fact several official D&D worlds, like Dragonlance, Greyhawk and Dark Sun, but the Forgotten Realms is perhaps the most detailed and has been developed as a D&D setting since the 1970s. Nonetheless many DMs, including myself, prefer to create their own worlds, as that’s kind of half the fun for those of us with too much time on our hands…

How Can I Get Started?

By far the best way to get started is to join a game of experienced players, which admittedly is not always as easy done as said. However if you search around on community websites like Facebook, Craigslist, Meetup, Couchsurfing etc. you might a group of people like you looking for one or two new players. Also gaming stores are often a meeting point for those who want to run adventures and these days of course it’s also possible to play online – sign up to Roll20 and look for a game to join!

For more details check my in-depth post on how to start playing Dungeons & Dragons.

Introducing Hipsters & Dragons…

Welcome hipsters, geeks and gamers to the inaugural Hipsters & Dragons post! I’m really excited to launch this blog and share some of my gaming know-how and experience with you guys, and hopefully as well be part of bringing roleplaying (and specifically my favourite roleplaying game – Dungeons & Dragons) to a wider audience.

I first started playing D&D back in the late 80s when I was a small boy (I’m 39 now!) and loved it so much that I carried on playing it right up until adulthood, ie. long after it was socially acceptable to do so. However I did eventually hang up my dice around the time I went to University – mostly through lack of time, but partially at least because playing Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t the kind of association I wanted at college when I was trying (very hard) to be cool and attractive to women.

…playing Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t the kind of association I wanted at college when I was trying (very hard) to be cool and attractive to women.

It’s a shame that roleplaying has such an awkward reputation in this regard, because, as I will no doubt repeat many times in the course of this blog, roleplaying is in fact primarily a social activity. The rules and events of the game are in some ways just a platform for a group of friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company whilst solving the game’s problems, making jokes, acting a little and of course enjoy sharing some food and beers. The elements of make believe and the innumerable rules (which aren’t that important actually) can make things a bit nerdy, but it depends a lot on your group and their approach to the game. The humour and camaraderie is about as nerdy as you are. At any rate if you’re having fun, none of that should matter, and I honestly believe that 90% of people would enjoy some kind of roleplaying game (there are many that exist in real world, historical or sci-fi settings if you hate fantasy) if they gave them enough of a chance and met with the right players who share their style of play.

Getting around for a game. (Photo by Wizards of the Coast.

Getting around for a game. (Photo by Wizards of the Coast).

The good news for secret or ashamed roleplayers out there, as well as curious onlookers, is that Dungeons & Dragons seems to be enjoying a huge renaissance at the moment, making it possibly even more popular than in its 1980s heyday. The game is being repeated referenced in modern culture, such as this episode of Community, in several episodes of Stranger Things, in the IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory, to name but a few. And whilst these references often contain a healthy dose of mockery at some of the peccadillos of the game, they do with a knowing fondness that feels much more of a tribute than a parody of the game. Meanwhile many celebrities are also championing the roleplaying cause (when once you felt they may have stayed shtum) and stars like Vin Diesel, Tim Duncan, Matt Groening, Chris Hardwick, Stephen Colbert and Kevin Smith have all “come out” as gamers. Such is the epic rise of D&D, that in fact I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before roleplaying zones start to make an appearance in zeitgeist-sensitive bars, so that hipsters can roll dice whilst stroking their beers and enjoying a craft beer. I certainly hope that’s gonna happen anyway. It’s got to beat cereal cafes right?

The rules and events of the game are in some ways just a platform for a group of friends to get together and enjoy each other’s company…

This fantastic renaissance has been boosted by the publication of a 5th edition of the Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks by the brand owners Wizards of the Coast (they bought it from TSR many years ago and also publish Magic The Gathering the card game). Without going into too much detail now, the D&D rules have changed many times since they were first published in 1974, and each edition of the rulebook has aimed to improve the way the game is played to make it more entertaining. A bit like a new version of Windows, sometimes the publishers have succeeded, sometimes everyone has groaned, clicked on uninstall, and stuck with the old rules. But certainly this new 5th edition of the core rules has garnered praise from nearly everyone for its (relative) simplicity and its emphasis on roleplaying through creating interesting three dimensional characters (rather than geeking out on complicated combat skills etc.). It seems everyone in the D&D community has got behind these new 5e rules, and Wizards of the Coast I believe on are their fourth or fifth print run by now as sales have matched reviews by going through the roof.

It’s an exciting time for D&D and for roleplaying in general and if you fancy joining the ride Hipsters & Dragons will be here to stamp your ticket and help set you on your way… no minimum height requirement. You can read a bit more about my personal relationship with D&D here and how I got back into it after a 20 year hiatus, or you can wait eagerly for my second post.

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