WHEN should you start to play Dungeons and Dragons? How about right now!
Chances are pretty good that if you’re not already playing D&D, you’ve heard of it or you’re familiar with similar Role Playing Table Top/Video Games. For many, the 48-year history and 5 different editions seem to be an impossibly high barrier for entry. It’s scary! I felt the same way as a kid trying to get into comic books. Spider-Man was so cool to me, and something I wanted to get into, but do I hunt down Amazing Fantasy #15? Do I just pick a comic from a shelf and hope I understand what’s going on? Why is one Ultimate and one Superior? As some kindly elder-nerds once helped me understand Spider-Man, I aim to help you dear readers to break down the mystique around this magical game that’s been around for nearly half a century.
Over the next month, we will be covering the WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? and WHY? of D&D in a no-rules, no-math, hakuna-matata, no-worries kind of way. We’ll talk about WHO are the adventurers of D&D: the races and ancestries like elves and dwarves and how you can reflect bits of yourself through fantasy cultures. We’ll discuss WHAT adventurers do: the 13 classes and how each of them contributes to your adventuring party. We’ll go over WHERE your adventure will take place: the various worlds of the D&D multiverse and the genres you can use them to play around in. Finally, we’ll cover WHY you should play with first-hand accounts of epic moments from real home games. But first, we’ll cover the WHEN of D&D with a brief history of the game and where we are now in 2022.
Dungeons and Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. The two had been avid wargamers in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and wanted to improve their favorite pastime by making a game where you control a single character instead of an entire army, and also what if Dragons were there? They kept several aspects from wargaming, hand-painted miniatures, polyhedral dice, and gridded battle maps to help determine distances. Over the next few decades, D&D would experience epic highs and lows, from being a kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon to being demonized by the media as “satanic” and “evil”. Much has been written about the fascinating history of this game (my favorite being Art and Arcana: A Visual History) but no one expects you to read a history book before you pick up a new hobby! So let’s fast-forward to where D&D is now.
These days Dungeons and Dragons has maintained many of the elements that made it popular in the first place while allowing itself to evolve with the times. We are currently in the middle of the 5th Edition (or 5e) of D&D, which refers to the most recent revamp of the rules released in 2014. This edition has exploded in popularity by leaning into the Role-Playing aspects of the game, so even though combat and math are still a part of the game, 5e gives the option to focus on the “Theater of the Mind”. This emphasis on imaginative storytelling combined with modern technology has lead to the dawn of the Actual Play.
Critical Role, Dimension 20, The Adventure Zone, Not Another D&D Podcast, these are just the tip of the iceberg that is D&D Actual Plays. Some are streamed live over Twitch or Youtube, some are meticulously edited to include music and sound effects, some have huge audiences and fandoms, others are small streams of friends being silly and having a good time. D&D Actual Plays has been the biggest factor in the growth of D&D over the past five years because it allows viewers to take a peek at what these dungeons are and find out why they’re so full of dragons.
It’s like sports. Maybe you only ever play football once a year at Thanksgiving, but if you’re a fan and watch games live on TV you’re unlikely to need a refresher on the rules. The same is true of D&D Actual Plays. Watching Actual Plays because you like the stories or the players is a great way to learn and discover the great D&D secret: the rules don’t matter. The rules are just a tool that you and your friends use to tell great stories. Telling stories around the fire is one of the oldest ways human beings have been entertaining themselves, it just so happens that our fire is the glow of a computer screen filled with the laughing faces of your adventuring party, or a bowl of Flamin Hot Cheetos in your best friend’s basement.