Chances are you’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons at some point, either from a friend, a news report, or just that nebulous source from which common knowledge flows.

But if you’re like most people, you don’t really know what goes on at the gaming table. Players tend to only explain the hobby to those joining the game, and outsiders tend to give only vague information, since they don’t understand the game themselves. For the idly curious, then, here is an explanation of just what D&D (Dungeons & Dragons Cartoon) is, and why some people spend their weekends talking about elves.

Imagine a group of friends sitting around a table. “I throw a hammer at the nearest goblin!”, says one, but instead of reaching for a weapon, he simply tosses some oddly-shaped dice onto the table and announces a number. Another of the group, sitting behind a cardboard screen, then describes the goblin’s fate. If you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, this will all seem very strange to you. Why did the first player roll dice? How did the player behind the screen know what happened? And how do you know who’s winning? While it appears bizarre at first, it all makes sense if you stop thinking of D&D as just another board game, and start thinking about it as an interactive story.

A game of D&D needs two kinds of players: a few who each take charge of a single character, and one to take control of everything else. The latter is called the Dungeon Master, often shortened to the far less pretentious “DM”. The DM’s job is to set the stage, describing the scene and the action for the other players. Then the DM asks “What do you do?” It is then time for the players to describe how their characters react to the scenarios and events described. For example, if the DM says that goblins have arrived, one player might have his player attack, while another might try to make friends with the creatures. It’s a kind of improvisational theater, where only the director has a script, and everyone else is ad-libbing along. While this sometimes makes for shoddy dialogue, it also leads to twists and turns that can take even the DM by surprise. The game is an exploration, as both the DM and the players discover together what happens to the characters.

Is it strange to sit around pretending to be elves and gnomes?

Not as strange as you might think. Most of us have imagined ourselves in some exciting scenario, where we were stronger, wittier, or just plain better than in real life. From childhood we pretend to be what we’re not, as a way of relieving the stress of being ourselves. Dungeons & Dragons simply takes that very human impulse and gives it some rules. Since the players aren’t alone in their imaginations, there have to be some guidelines about how ideas interact. Rather than having every confrontation dissolve into arguments about how powerful a character is, D&D uses dice to resolve conflicts. If you want your character to climb a tree, you roll a die to see if that action succeeds. The character’s own traits and abilities, generated according to the rules in the Dungeons & Dragons Books, determine how easy or difficult it will be to succeed. That same system applies to any undertaking you can think of, allowing your character to attempt even the seemingly impossible. Success may be remote, or even unreachable, but nothing prevents you from trying.

Remember, Dungeons & Dragons is not a board game. Board games are usually limited to a small number of specific options: roll a die, move a game piece, and so on. Role-playing games, by contrast, offer a bit more freedom. Imagine playing Monopoly and suddenly deciding to take a left turn off the board, leave the business world behind, and build a farm. A board game won’t let you try such a scheme, but D&D does. The player characters can attempt anything they can imagine, and it’s up to the DM to determine the outcome. By removing the board, D&D offers a much more liberating game experience.

Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons

So now we have a group of people living vicariously through a story, as pieced together by the DM. He or she describes terrible monsters, perilous quests, and whatever else makes for an interesting tale. The players, in turn, describe what their characters do, and roll dice to see if they manage it. Most of our earlier questions are answered, but a big one remains: how do the players win? The answer is deceptively disappointing: they don’t. A game of D&D can often go on for months, with the players overcoming more and more of the DM’s challenges, and no end in sight. Instead of one large victory, there are a number of smaller ones, along with a few losses as well. The game itself, though, doesn’t have to end. So what’s the point? In this case, the fun lies not in the destination, but in the journey. The true goal of Dungeons & Dragons is to enjoy the story as it unfolds, not just to finish it, and that goal sets it apart from most board games. People seldom talk about the great game of Scrabble they once played. But if you hang around D&D players long enough, you’ll eventually hear them reminisce about the time they defended a town from hordes of zombies, or the night they sneaked into a king’s dungeon to free an innocent captive. Dungeons & Dragons provides all the thrills of a good book or an action-packed movie, but lets the audience have a hand in telling the story. The result is a game like no other, a social event that combines creativity, problem-solving, acting, and no small amount of luck. If that sounds like it might be fun, you might want to give Dungeons & Dragons a try. And if not, maybe you’ll at least find the hobby a little less strange. Yes, D&D players get together to eat snacks and enjoy a stylized simulation of battle. But then again, football fans do the same thing. If you step back and take a good long look, “normal” doesn’t really exist.

Dungeons Dragons Online