Exploring Dungeons and Slaying Dragons

I grew up in a home where Dungeons and Dragons was verboten. My parents believed it was addicting to the point of being dangerous. I think I remember them mentioning that my dad played it in high school and had some bad experiences, or maybe he had friends that played it.

Anyway, the details aren’t important. What really matters is that I grew up in a home where D&D wasn’t allowed, neither was Harry Potter, or Magic: The Gathering. I actually remember buying some Magic cards and playing a few games, but then I was overcome with fear that playing Magic was actually a trick from Satan so I threw all my cards into a bramble bush at the edge of our property.

Fast forward two and a half decades and I now play every week and I fucking love it. My soul is still intact and I am addiction free…. from D&D at least, coffee still costs me a shitton of money and affects my mood greatly. I think there are a lot of people who have a curious interest in playing non-video RPGs. Since being so open about it I have had many friends ask me questions about it. It is probably one of the top five most common subjects that I’m asked about. The other four being open relationships or polyamory, MDMA use, veganism, and fasting. The questions usually come anonymously or in slightly hushed tones after a few beers, which is kind of a shame because I think having conversations sober and in the open about all subjects is really important. Wanna know my salary? thoughts on anal sex? Why I’m vegan? If I get hungry while fasting? What do I like about D&D? Ask away…

But, I’m gonna stick with that last question for this blog post. I love D&D for a lot of reasons but I think what stands out to me is how, with a good Dungeon Master (DM) and other players, you can weave together an everchanging but neverending story. I was once asked if you can “win” D&D. This question is pretty common and when it is asked with sincerity then I love diving into it. To be honest, it is kind of like the question “who will build the roads” is to libertarians. It can be a snarky judgemental question or it can be an authentic interest by someone who wants to expand their understanding of the world.

So, can you win D&D? Yes. But no. Maybe? It depends on how you define “win”. If you mean defeat some sort of universal boss that makes replaying the game repetitive, then nope. But if you mean to have a good time telling and experiencing a story until its conclusion, yes. Well, “conclusion” in the sense that you are done playing. D&D is like life, even when you die the world trucks on. There is no clear start or end. You can only win D&D like you can win life.

I love the story that develops around the parties involved. It isn’t like reading a book because you are an active member. The DM runs thing but a good DM allows the characters to shape the world. And good players will allow the story to shape their characters. For example, my character’s name is Gory and he is a Dragonborn Barbarian. I came up with a brief backstory for him (raised as part of the urban bounty hunter’s guild, sister was kidnapped, not very bright, gets angry easily but protective of those he loves) and I didn’t really think much about his future. I kinda had a plan but nothing set in stone.

As the story developed a lot of unexpected things happened that has lead Gory to being a Zealot for a recently revived (reformed?) deity. I didn’t plan that and it wasn’t necessary for the story but it seemed like what would happen to Gory because of the adventures. If I had been playing a different character then the development would be different. Not only has my DM worked my backstory into the story (I’m about to try and rescue my sister) but he has worked with random other stuff that we’ve created alongside him. For example, I’m going to be going to a city soon to build a temple to start a new religion. I don’t know what’s gonna happen with that but Gory is going to try to gather followers to help him spread the messages of his diety. This gives our DM something interesting to ground different parts of the story in (if he chooses).

Often the story even crafts without much input from the DM. One of Gory’s companions is named Ariel and they have had a strange relationship that bounces from love to disgust. It is mostly due to being raised in different cultures but recently they realized they love each other but it can’t really be a traditional relationship because Gory is asexual (didn’t plan that, he just is). So they are trying to navigate what that will mean for their friendship and whether they should explore romance or what. I’m sure the DM didn’t expect a DragonbornTriton side story, but I’m sure he’ll adapt if we decide to get married and have some kids… we still haven’t really clarified whether Triton’s lay eggs or not. Or maybe we will just stay friends who cuddle and talk and share an intimacy that doesn’t change to something else.

Playing D&D is like a dance between the players and DM. The DM is the lead, mostly, but each participant adds their own flavor to the routine, and in that anarchy, a beautiful universe is born. There are no limits to what you can do. Sure, the D&D rulebook provides rules and assistance but you can throw out rules, modify them, or create your own. You can make your own items, gods, races, or whatever you want. The rules are really just an explanation of how things generally work in one universe, what you do with that information is up to you. You can participate in political intrigue, start a small business, raise a family, hunt dragons, and travel across dimensions.

And you can die. After years of building a character and becoming one with it then you may die. No reset button. No second life. Just dead.

Well, that is partially true. The DM can be kind and duex ex machina back to life and there are certain spells and ways to raise the dead, but personally, I think that should be used very sparingly (and the duex ex machina not at all). The possibility of death adds a real element to me. I hope I get to have Gory go on many more adventures, all the way to Level 20, but he might not. He might face a dragon that kills him, just like last week (he was only saved because our Paladin had a spell slot left to Revivify me). I may have a bad roll while climbing a cliff face and he falls down. He may rush into a room to try and save my sister and find myself overwhelmed by assassins (Gory doesn’t think, he just rushes in even when Peter wishes he wouldn’t). A t-rex may eat him or a Kraken destroy the boat he’s on or he may end up in another dimension.

There are lots of options for what happens after you die. Maybe Gory will meet his deity or he will return to the planet in another body or maybe just disappear from existence. I don’t know what our DM has in store for us when death inevitably strikes our group. But I know that mortality gives the experience greater beauty and death. When/if Gory dies I will be sad, and so will five other characters who will have to decide how to honor him and dispose of his body.

So, when Gory almost died last week I did get emotional. I didn’t break down crying but there was a knot in my throat and I felt my mind whirling. It wasn’t because of a bad role or a misstep on my part (that crossed my mind with a weird sense of guilt that I may have killed him), it was just being outmatched while Gory did what he did best… rushing in to protect the ones he loved. D&D is an emotional game for me because of how much I love the story I’m helping create and I’m invested in the characters that I’ve both created, guide, and let free to do what they think is best.

Of course, not everyone plays the way I do. There is no wrong way to play D&D. Some people play it to try and create the strongest creature they can and get into fights. Some people like to explore every inch of the world and see what is hidden on every map. Some people want to get into political intrigue of kings, barons, and democracies. There is no wrong way to play, all that matters is you do what works best for you and enjoy the ride.

So, that’s my quick sell of D&D. I’d love to play more than I already do (and I’d love to explore a sci-fi setting using a similar system) but for now I will dive into the world my DM has crafted for us and enjoy every minute of it.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a Snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”


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