Basements and Beholders

Here’s the second part of Chris’ splendid tutoreview (it’s a new word, honest) of Dungeons & Dragons. If you’ve missed out on the first bit, it’s right here: Kobolds & Cave Crawling. Enjoy!

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Dungeons & Dragons‘ focus is on combat: this has been the case since the earliest editions, and this continues to be true to date. As mentioned before, when picking attributes, most decisions will relate to how the choice will affect your class in combat. That said, attributes are also the base for the limited number of skills you can choose from, that will be of use outside the realm of bashing in skulls. D&D4E is not a game where you will find ‘Basket-weaving’ on anyone’s character sheet, and the skills that are present are all tightly focussed around the games core aspect. They cover the essentials of What You Know (such as Religion, or History), What You Can Do (including Stealth, Endurance, and Athletics), Interacting with Others (Bluff, Diplomacy) and What’s Going On Around You (Insight, Perception). Each skill is based off of a stat, and then a small number of skills can be increased further by being Trained in them. At early levels, if you are Trained in a skill, you’ll probably be quite good at it, otherwise, you’ll probably be quite bad at it.

You don’t have much choice when it comes to skills; you’re either Trained or Untrained, and you won’t be trained in more than three or four of the seventeen skills on average. Compared to many other roleplaying games, this is very limited, but that’s not the point of D&D. If you want to play a deeply political game, with intrigue, subterfuge, with an emphasis on specialist skills and very little combat, then you can do that with D&D, but that’s not what it is best at. Criticising D&D’s lack of skill depth would be like complaining that Fluxx is too random, or that Diplomacy isn’t fast-paced enough. Combat is what D&D is all about, and that’s what it does well.

All of this focus on combat might lead you to think that there’s not much scope for roleplaying in D&D. Thankfully, this is far from the truth. You don’t need hundreds of stats to role-play a character well, in fact, too many rules can stifle a character, or distract from the elements that make them entertaining. The key details to flesh out your character’s personality are there in D&D4E. Is your character a scoundrel? Then take the Bluff skill. Are they big and tough? Endurance sounds good then.

By focussing on a few key aspects, D&D characters keep that fantastical, larger-than-life element that fits the game so well, and also means that there usually won’t be one character who can do everything, out of combat: usually, each person in the party will have a skill that will allow them to shine. There’s plenty of scope for dialogue and discussion in town, and the Dungeon Master is encouraged to fill the game world with as much, or as little, roleplaying and character interaction as their players want. It’s quite possible for entire sessions to pass without the immortal words “ok, roll for initiative” being spoken, if the group is enjoying some tense negotiation, or investigation, in-character, with a few Skill Checks thrown in to help determine how their efforts are received. Even once the gridmap goes down and the dice get picked up, that shouldn’t be the end for roleplaying: combat contains plenty of opportunity for heroic action, or amusing banter between the characters, and angry taunting of their enemies. D&D4E can be tailored to whatever the group finds enjoyable: it’s playable as a pure dungeon-crawl, with little or no roleplaying, right through to constant roleplaying with a detailed and exciting plot for the heroes to solve.

One of Dungeons & Dragons’ strengths is the amazing number of supplement books that are available to buy, to flesh out characters, add new features, and to describe the fantastical worlds that the game is set in. There’s a wonderful history that has been built up over the various editions; or I should say, there are wonderful histories, as a number of different D&D settings exist, many of which are supported with their own rulebooks today. Alongside this, there are books for the domain of the gods, books about demons, books for each of the varieties of character classes, books about the different races and peoples… If it’s part of the setting, chances are there’s a special book telling you more about it that you can add to your collection. This gives the option of tremendous depth, and is an excellent source of inspiration for any budding Dungeon Master, but can also sometimes be a drawback to the game however: there’s just so MUCH stuff out there that it can be overwhelming, and the books aren’t exactly cheap.

Thankfully, to be a player in a D&D game, you only need one book: the Player’s Handbook, which contains all the rules, and core races and classes (human, dwarf, elf, eldarin, dragonborn, halfling, and fighter, paladin, wizard, rogue, cleric, ranger, warlord). The DM (Dungeon Master, the person running the game, controlling all the monsters, describing the setting, and ultimately making sure everyone has a good time!) will also need at least a copy of the Monster Manual, which contains rules for bad guys to throw at the player characters across all levels, and will benefit a lot from a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which contains extra rules, info on traps, and general good advice on how to run a game. Any of the other books are entirely optional: a tasty sauce to go with the meal.

I’ve been playing roleplaying games for many years: 18 of them in fact, ever since I started going to school on a schoolbus every day, and played freeform roleplaying games with my friends to pass the time. Despite that, I’m a relative newcomer to D&D, having only been playing for a year or so. The things I like about D&D4E are the combat system, which has satisfying depth without being overly complicated, the wide choice of characters that there are to choose from, the simplicity of the skills setup that doesn’t distract the player with too many variables, and the rich background(s) that can be used as inspiration for your game. As with any roleplaying game, what you get out of D&D4E is very much dependant on what your group put into it. With some thought and effort from the DM, and a group of players working together, very soon you’ll be raiding the Dungeon of the Dragon Lich to seize the Eye of Vecna before it can be used by the Cult of the Hidden Eye to conquer the world, and all before bedtime to boot!

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition was released in June 2008 with the three core books, and supplements have been released almost constantly from then on. The D&D Player’s Handbook 1 can be acquired from games shops and good bookstores, for around £20/$30, or for a basic introduction that covers all the important bits you can also check out the recent reprinting of the legendary Red Box Starter Set – it’s around £15/$20. Availability and prices for the other books vary, but usually weigh in at around the £20/$30 mark. Many games stores will advertise local gaming groups who are looking for players, which can be a good way to find a group to play with if you’re new to the hobby. Give it a try, you never know – you may actually enjoy it.

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