In a world where geek culture is becoming ever more pervasive, where videogames sell millions of copies and comic books are adapted into blockbuster movies, there still remains one hobby that rides along the edges. There is still one hobby that is shunned by the mainstream. Join me now as we explore the world of tabletop role-playing games. Join me, the TABLETOP WIZARD!
Something I’ve always wanted to try: Round up a bunch of adults who have never played Dungeons & Dragons and run them through a full-on fantasy role-playing D&D campaign. At this point, I’m kind of a role-playing evangelist. To me, the idea of role-playing is not a nerdy thing. It’s a creative and artistic pursuit that blends improv, strategic thinking, creative writing, visual art, problem solving and social collaboration. It’s uniquely social, it’s non-competitive and it relies on actual human face-to-face communication. Even the Dungeon Master needs to be a team player and productive member of the group, because if his intention was to just kill his friends each week, his friends would stop showing up.
Anyway, I obviously feel strongly about this. It’s something that I’m always willing to talk about and share, so why not try to spread the love? I tested the waters by asking my girlfriend if she would play D&D if I could get a group of newbies together. She seemed to like the idea; she’s a visual artist and I’ve been trying to get her interested in D&D for almost the entire time we’ve been together (over 11 years), because I figured the fantasy and storytelling aspects would inspire her.
[T]wo tieflings, two dragonborn, a halfling and a human. This is truly virgin territory
I know a lot of creative-minded people, a lot of people in book publishing, so I knew I’d be able to find some good players. I talked about the idea to various people for months, planted some seeds and found leads for potential new players. One of the first people I approached is an events coordinator, and once I got her to agree to try it, the rest of the group was recruited by her in one fell swoop. I sent out an email outlining my intentions and to my surprise they not only agreed, but were super excited about it.
Truth: Not all of them were complete virgins – three of them played when they were kids, but none had played past the age of 12. The group was a bit larger than I had originally intended it to be, but everyone was so enthusiastic that I felt bad cutting players. So I needed to design a campaign for six players that could be run in about four hours. I outlined a basic mission: The players were members of a school for adventurers – an adventurer’s guild – and for their graduation test they would be sent to a local town to root out some bandits. I also wove in a larger plot thread about an ancient demonic threat that was rousing itself from centuries of slumber. We met on a Saturday afternoon, and since we’re all adults that live in Brooklyn, we made a brunch out of it.
Character creation was more difficult and time-consuming than I thought it would be. Players were getting frustrated right from the start, which was frustrating me a bit, (though I think I hid it well). In an attempt to speed things up, I was using the official D&D Character Creator computer program, but I think it slowed things down due to the sheer amount of options we had to wade through and select. When I started printing out the sheets, the players looked at them incredulously, with some of them comparing them to tax forms.
DM’s Note: If there’s a next time, I’ll have them make characters straight from the book. It may take longer, but I think the detachment of using the program and just clicking buttons hindered the players from forming a connection with their characters. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this was a huge faux pas. In using the program, the players never understood the relationship between their initial choices: class, race, ability scores and the final product of their character sheets.
Since character creation took so long, I rushed through explanation of the parts of their character sheets. I kept it to only the things they’d need to look at when I asked them to roll a skill check or a basic attack.
By the end of character creation we had:
– Andrea Sparacio (Graphic Designer, Blog.artsparrow.com) playing Gertrude Star, tiefling warlord.
– Amanda Bullock (Events Coordinator, Housing Works Bookstore) playing Starbuck Coffin, human ranger.
– Justin Taylor (Justindtaylor.net) playing E.B. Dragonchrist, dragonborn cleric.
– Nick Douglas (Editor at Slacktory.com) playing PappaGiorgio, tiefling warlock.
– Liz Mathews (SF/Fantasy Copy Writer) playing Angie, halfling rogue.
– Rachel Fershleiser (Internet Book Nerd, Rachelfershleiser.com) playing Big-Tits McWizardson, dragonborn wizard.
That’s right – two tieflings, two dragonborn, a halfling and a human. This is truly virgin territory.
When it comes to actual role-playing, the TTW doesn’t do things by halves. I created a music soundtrack for the game and wrote a 13-page mini-module that outlined the story and was filled with plot prompts, as well as the history of the area (in case the players had any questions). I had also prepared a written introduction that I read out loud at the start of the game: I described a dream that all of the player characters were having. It was intended to be something that would introduce the flavor of the world, give them something to talk about with each other once they started interacting and would provide clues as to the larger threat in the game. These were virgins, after all, and I wanted to give them the full treatment. As I read the intro there was some giggling, snickering and hidden faces, but I sallied forth and by the end of it they seemed to get the idea – the Tabletop Wizard doesn’t mess around when it comes to role-playing.
I gave them some information about where they were, who they were and what they could expect from today. They were heroes, trained at the exclusive adventurer’s guild (which I likened to Hogwarts or Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). Today, they were graduating and would be sent on their first quest. I told them that they had the morning off and, hoping that they’d use the time to role-play, asked them what they wanted to do next. None of them talked about their dream, and the warlock and the cleric went out to hunt rabbits. This was actually pretty good, because it gave me a chance to introduce them to skill checks (Nature to find rabbit tracks, Stealth to sneak up on them) and the basics of combat (when the warlock decided to shoot an eldritch blast at the cluster of rabbits). Proud as punch and carrying bits of exploded rabbit with them, my two hunters came back in time for their congratulatory ceremony.
The group took to the role-playing pretty easily. On the whole they weren’t that shy, and once I had their teachers interacting with them they were chatting, asking questions and offering suggestions.
They then left the guild to head out. Time was at a premium, so I urged them to stay on the road and didn’t hit them with any random encounters. Seconds later they were meeting up with their contact – a high-ranking merchant named Duke Coffin – in the nearby city of Anvaros-on-Hill, or The City of Tiers.
Actually, and here’s another little DM trick that I used to make the game go a little more smoothly, I approached one of the players (Amanda) beforehand and asked her if she wouldn’t mind having a different starting point from the rest of the group. She was fine with it, so I had her be the daughter of Duke Coffin. I wanted one character who knew the city really well, someone that I could relay information through. This way the PCs wouldn’t have to work for every scrap of info they’d need – they had a ready dispenser right in their party.
It worked out better than I expected. One of the early plot points deals with the group tracking down the murderer of a guard. The PCs began concocting a story about how Amanda’s character, Starbuck, was having a budding romance with the guard. Tracking down his murderer became a more personal quest. This was awesome!
They were going with it and realizing that they could be co-creators to the story that I’d started. It got better from there, but then got worse. The better first: They were able to track the murderer down to a scummy bar in the slum wardens, the bad part of town. They blustered into the bar as would two dragon-people, two demon-people, a halfling and a rich girl.
They spotted their quarry, but the locals don’t take kindly to adventurers interrupting their day drinks, so a bunch of half-orcs got in the party’s collective faces. The fighter attempted to intimidate them, but she rolled a natural one and I had her trip over a loose board and fall on her face. The halfling stealthed out of there, while the warlock tried to bluff his way out of the fight – it wasn’t working. Just as the half-orcs were about to rush them out into the street, Starbuck yelled, “Drinks on the house!” Boom, I had all of their opposition rush to the bar to grab a free drink. No skill checks, no combat, she solved the problem through sheer role-playing.
Now the bad: Things chugged along and got the information they needed to find the hideout of the thieves guild that had taken root in the town. But then they kind of blew it and the thieves knew they were coming. So being adventurers, they kicked down the door and initiated combat.
Here’s where it all fell apart, and this is, I think, the greatest weakness in 4th Edition D&D. Once combat starts it become a different game – a strategy miniatures game. This isn’t a bad thing – I had a great time playing the 4th Edition at NYCC. But those were combat-heavy adventures – mine was more about role-playing and introducing new people to this type of game.
When combat started, I had to move my players out of the realm of imagination and into a physical map in front of them with lines, grids and glass tokens. This is where my failure to fully guide them through character creation affected the game. They had no idea how to really read the character sheets, and they didn’t really know how to use powers or what the abbreviations meant.
I was losing them and losing them fast, because I didn’t have the time to show them what it all meant during combat. I needed to keep track of initiative and enemies and hit points. The wizard dropped out almost entirely; she had no desire to learn this part of the game and, in fact, compared it to algebra on more than one occasion. The cleric and the ranger seemed to pick it up fairly quickly. The warlock did as well, but warlocks are a tricky class that I have very little experience with, so I couldn’t help him too much.
I tried to make it as interactive as possible by describing the effect of each arrow shot and blade slice. We plodded through the combat encounter, then decided to end to the game after that. We’d been playing for close to three hours. There was still a lot more story to get through and, realistically, we’d never be able to do it.
Thus ended my D&D virgin sacrifice. As we were wrapping up, I asked them what they liked about it and what they didn’t like. Most of them were pretty vocal about not liking combat and preferring the more imaginative role-playing aspects. Both Justin (cleric) and Nick (warlock) expressed how they could get into the combat portion if they were a little more acclimated to it, but they also both agreed that it made them want to go and play a videogame, where all of the math is worked out for them. Rachel wondered aloud how 12-year-old boys could possibly understand this game. Regardless, when I asked if they’d play again, almost the whole group raised their hands.
Join us next Thursday for Part 2, where the Tabletop Wizard shares some reactions from his group of deflowered role-players.
Photos are copyright Artsparrow (Andrea Sparacio) Blog.artsparrow.com.