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Sorcerers, Bards, Fighters

By Julia E. Hansbrough, Contributing Writer

“Alright,” I announce to tonight’s band of adventurers—really a roomful of teenage boys, huddled around a pile of character sheets and 20-sided dice, but in our game they are sorcerers, bards, and fighters. I’m reading from a script, setting the scene for our adventure: “You’ve been traveling through the stark hills for several days. The trip has been uneventful, though at times you heard growling and thought you saw vague figures lurking—”

“Hey, I’m getting drunk,” one of them interrupts.

I raise an eyebrow. “Getting drunk where?”

“Right here.”

“Um, ‘right here’ is the middle of the tundra. There’s no tavern or anything.”

“Then I brought some whiskey with me.”

I doubt he actually bothered marking that down on his character sheet, but watching a fighter blunder drunkenly around the battlefield sounds amusing enough to prevent my raising any further objections. “Okay, whatever, you’re drinking whiskey. Congrats. Anyway, um.... Right, you guys thought you heard growling and saw vague figures lurking—”

“Did I mention I have a huge rack?”

“You—what?”

One of my adventurers, Howard, is pointing to the little figure that represents his character, a red-haired elf sorceress. “I’m playing a chick, and I have a huge rack. It’s very important.”

“Uh...”

“Do I get to have a huge rack? Is that okay?”

Rolling my eyes, I confirm. “Yes, you get to have a huge rack. Congrats, Howard.”

He’s positively beaming at my affirmation. I continue: “Just at dusk, you catch sight of a town in the distance: rugged but bustling, nestled in….” I can feel their attention wavering—clearly, they aren’t getting into the scene-setting I’m doing here. But I’m nothing if not adaptable: “Blah blah blah, let’s cut to the chase. There’s a bunch of wolves attacking you; what are you gonna do about it?”

And thus began another night of Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D is a singularly strange experience for the uninitiated, and it’s hard to explain the game’s appeal without sounding like some kind of Renaissance fair wannabe. Part storytelling, part spreadsheet twiddling, part strategy game, and part playacting, the game essentially goes like this: the dungeon master, or DM, tells a story describing the monsters and the perils that the heroes encounter, and the players, who are the heroes, work together to save the day. There are other rules, of course—nitty-gritty details about magic use and damage reduction and the like. But, in general, the rules boil down to whatever the players can convince the DM to let them get away with.

That means that D&D games end up being just as varied as the people involved in them. Running a campaign for a bunch of teenage guys—like I did for Howard and his “enormous rack” when I was a staff member at computer camp—is guaranteed to involve lots of tomfoolery, drunken nights in taverns, and probably some good old-fashioned bad-guy slaying, whenever they get around to it. But running a campaign for my high school friends was a totally different experience. In a circle dominated by theater-folk and art majors, we ended up spending a lot of time exploring the setting and talking with townsfolk, and a few of my friends ended up doodling sketches to chronicle our adventures.

But, whatever the character of a campaign, when it’s done right, it’s just as engrossing as any book or movie. Freshman year, I broke my solemn vow never to wake up before noon on a weekend—not because of a club or work or any other sensible reason, but because D&D started at 11 a.m., and I couldn’t stand the idea of missing even one hour of questing.

And then there’s the other end of it: serving as a DM for a pack of ravenous players. I once served as a DM for my Girl Scout troop during a cabin retreat. We played D&D for a few hours in the evening before I quit to go sleep. I woke up the next morning after being literally dragged out of my bed, because evidently everyone else was awake, and they certainly didn’t want to wait any longer to find out what would happen next.

So I ended up doing a monologue in the role of the evil sorcerer-villain while munching breakfast cereal: “What you say is of no consequence, my friends,” I sneered in my best villain voice. “You see, I haven’t eaten in a very long time, and you are my next feast.”

The outcry was uproarious and instantaneous.

“Did that guy just betray us? Oh, I am going to kick his ass so hard.”

“Wait, he eats people? That’s just naaaasty.”

“Eat someone else! Hey, let’s negotiate; I’m out of spells.”

I grinned as I munched my Lucky Charms, waiting to see what they’d do next.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

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