Kobolds & Cave Crawling

A while ago Chris and I were talking about the site. He wanted to write something but wasn’t sure what his subject matter could be. Of course, here at LMDS we cover pretty much anything – not exactly helpful. My only advice was the old trope: “Write what you know”.

Chris knows lots about lots, but one thing he’s amazing at is Role Playing. Here’s the first of a two-parter he’s put together – half review, half gentle introduction – about the wonderful world of Dungeons & Dragons… Enjoy!

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If you asked the general population the question, “tell me the name of a roleplaying game”, one name would stand out head, wings, and and firey breath above the rest. Ever since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson decided that it would be fun to play a ‘war-game’ where players controlled an individual instead of an army, people have been stomping through dungeons, searching for traps and secret doors, dispensing justice to all manner of evil creatures living therein, and then taking their stuff. I am talking of course, of Dungeons and Dragons. The game has changed a lot since the early days, and has been through many incarnations, culminating in the latest version of the game, known as “Fourth Edition”, which has been knocking around since June 2008. The game has spawned several movies, a cartoon series, several fine board games, and could without much hyperbole claim to be the progenitor of roleplaying as we know it. Today I want to talk about D&D, 4th Edition, the tabletop roleplaying game.

I’ll start with a very quick look at the basics. 4th Ed Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D4E for short) is a lot like Descent, or Heroquest, or another of the many dungeoncrawl boardgames on the market. The players each control a single character, and work together to defeat their foes, who are all controlled by the Dungeon Master, who exists to run the game and present challenges to the players. I won’t go into detail about what a roleplaying game entails, as the excellent article written by campfireburning on LMD a few updates ago already covers this (and if you’ve not read this already, shame on you, go read it now!). Instead, I want to focus on what makes D&D different to other tabletop RPGs out there. Firstly, let’s look at the nuts and bolts: what do you need to play D&D4E?

The bare essentials to play D&D are the following.

– A small assortment of different-sided dice, which can readily be found in any good gaming store, or online. If you’ve played Castle Ravenloft or Wrath of Ashardlon, you will already be familiar with the D20 (which means a twenty-sided die, to translate from dice-lingo), but D&D also uses 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12-sided dice from time to time.

– A copy of the D&D Player’s Guide, which is the book that contains all of the rules you need for everything from making your character to fighting monsters.

– A group of friends to play with: any number will do, but usually groups of more than 6 or 7 can become difficult to manage, or to fit around the table for that matter. Generally, the more players, the longer things will take.

– A brave soul willing to be the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master (or DM) will need a copy of the “Monster Manual”, which contains many different foes to pit the players against, from squishy minions to arch nemeses.

At its core, D&D4E is a combination of a roleplaying system with a skirmish-level war-game. The skirmish-game nature of D&D is evident from the recommendation that combat is played on a square grid: movement and attack range is measured in squares, as are the many area-of-effect powers. Good tactical positioning is rewarded with bonuses to hit, and many abilities revolve around either moving about the battlefield without getting hit, or actively preventing enemies from doing so. You can play without the grid, but it feels vague and less satisfying, and it’s harder to keep track of who will be hit by the wizard’s fireball spell, or the paladin’s holy explosion. A simple gridmap with tokens representing the characters and monsters makes the game massively more fun, and playing with actual minis is worth the extra effort I firmly believe. The game encourages teamwork: both in terms of positioning on the battlefield, but also in terms of the different roles making up the adventuring party. Each of the different classes have strengths and weaknesses, and finding a good balance brings the most rewards in combat. A ‘Striker’ class like the Sorcerer can hit monsters very hard and do a lot of damage, but they don’t have very many hit points, and will quickly be overwhelmed by tough monsters if left to themselves. Add a ‘Defender’ like a Paladin into the mix though, with their high defences and abilities that either make their enemies less able to attack other PCs (Player Characters, namely the other folks playing the game, excluding the DM of course!), or to punish them harshly if they do, and the Sorcerer can hide behind them and avoid being attacked, leaving them free to concentrate on melting their foes into ooze. ‘Leader’ classes (such as the Cleric) heal their friends, and can also ‘buff’ their friends with extra defences and even extra attacks. Finally, ‘Controller’ classes (including the Wizard) dominate the battlefield by moving monsters around, leaving them with unpleasant status conditions, and generally hitting several monsters with wide-ranging area effect powers. It’s not essential to have one of each of these in a given group, and there are lots of classes that ‘overlap’ more than one battlefield role, but on the whole, having a spread of roles in your party will be more effective than a group that is made up of only one role, to the exclusion of all of the others.

The influence of Massively Multiplayer Online roleplaying games is very evident in this latest edition of D&D, particularly in this area of party dynamics. Things truly have come full circle: tabletop games inspired the online games, which have now inspired the latest cut of tabletop games, and this cross-pollination is all for the good in my opinion. This is also evident in the special attacks and techniques that each character has: some can be used all the time, others only once per fight, and other, even more powerful attacks can only be used once per day. The wide range of special attacks is one of the defining features of D&D4E for me: they form a big part of what you will be choosing for your character, and they’re also fun in combat: you’re not just ‘attacking’ each turn, you’re using a Howling Strike, or unleashing the Thunder Wyrm’s Jaws. Each attack will do something slightly different too, be it extra damage, a status effect, or attacking an area rather than a single enemy, and these different attacks make for a great opportunity for extravagant descriptions of exactly what your attack does when you unleash it, which can make for really vibrant fight scenes.

When you build a character, most of your thinking will be about ‘how will this improve my abilities in combat’, and this includes your character’s attributes, which define their capabilities. The attributes haven’t really changed over the years: you have Strength (STR, which deals with physical might), Dexterity (DEX, for agility and nimble-fingeredness), Constitution (CON, which toughness, staying-power, and resistance to disease and poisons are based on), Intelligence (INT, for book-smarts and arcane acumen), Wisdom (WIS, for common-sense and situational awareness), and Charisma (CHA, covering force of personality and getting people to like you). Normally, you’ll pick your scores in these abilities from an array, or using the points-buy system, so you’ll need to either balance the scores out and be average in most of them, or (more likely!) pick one or two to be very good at, and leave the rest at a more mediocre level. All of these attributes can have an application in combat: each class has one or two attributes that its attack roles are based on (STR for fighters, or INT for wizards), and most have a secondary attribute that provides useful bonus-effects to certain powers. Having a high score in your class attribute means hitting more often, and doing more damage, so this is definitely to be desired. Even Charisma can be used offensively with the right class, such as the Bard, whose barbed insults and distracting ditties can be quite effective, and show that in D&D, sticks and stones are all very well, but words can be deadly too!

D&D isn’t just about combat though, although this is the primary focus of the game. Please check back later for part 2, where I’ll talk about skills, roleplaying, and setting.

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You can follow Chris on twitter under @RallyIV and email him via Chris@littlemetaldog.com. Part two of this feature will be published on Monday.

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