Seasons in the Abyss: Pen and Paper Gaming around a Not-so-Tiny Table

Once upon a time — in an age before video games, the Internet, smartphones or Peter Jackson — there lived a strange race of people who worked underground, and met secretly in basements throughout the realms for a strange ritual: the game of Dungeons and Dragons. Theirs was a secret world of adventure where improbable knights in not-so-shining armor joined wily wizards, thieves and priests in a game of imagination, which generally consisted of exploring a hole in the ground, fighting the monsters who  lived there and taking their treasure for themselves…. All in the name of “greater good” and more XP.

If any of this sounds familiar to you – congratulations, you had a awesome childhood!

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is the venerable grand daddy of pen and paper gaming; a passtime shrouded in mysterious rulebooks, “character sheets” and funny little dice shaped like geometry problems. It is generally played by 4 or more friends, around a table, but can be played with as few as two. Unlike Chess or even Monopoly, D&D doesn’t require a game board, and though players may use tokens or miniatures to represent their character in the game, most of the action takes place between the ears of the players and their referee: the “dungeon master” or DM.

Today, after 40+ years, numerous editions, and spin-off’s, D&D is bigger than ever. Grown-ups play alongside their own children and grandchildren, and one can barely swing a +1 longsword without hitting a player or former player of the game.

The first chamber of secrets is open for business again.

Things weren’t always so rosy in Dungeon-Land. Over the years the game has seen its fortunes decline as newer pen and paper games, video games, and other increasingly popular diversions have grown in popularity. Dungeons and Dragons saw its heyday during the age of Reagan and big hair rock n roll, but lost popularity during the 90s and 2000s and has not fully recovered. Until now, that is.

In 2014 a new “players edition” was released after intensive play-testing by thousands of enthusiasts and by the games publisher, Wizards of the Coast (WoTC). The overarching design concept was to draw from the games vast history, keeping the best parts intact, while ridding itself of the dross and fluff, simplifying the whole experience. This back-to-basics approach was initially met with skepticism from players and fans, but has largely won them over in the year following the release of the new “Core rulebooks,” which have been consistent best sellers on Amazon.com. WoTC has been paying careful attention to its brand, releasing new content for the game in “seasons,” linking the release of source books, novels, video games and tournament style encounters so that franchise fans might choose their own level of involvement, based on their own preferences. The current story line is called “Rage of Demons,” and it promises at least two books for the game itself: “Out of the Abyss” (a complete adventure book for characters level 1-15), and the upcoming “Sword Coast Adventures Guide,” which fleshes out some of the most popular people, places and things in the Forgotten Realms, D&D’s home “universe” where the Rage of Demons storyline unfolds.

***

I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in 1979, and the first edition I ever read was the John Eric Holmes version of the Basic Set published in 1977. My friends and I played both “basic” D&D and Advanced D&D, as well as a smattering of other TSR games, including the original “Boot Hill” and “Gamma World.” Our longest campaigns were AD&D games, by far.  In one game I DM’d for our group of friends, I recreated the “7 Seas of Rye” based on my rather tweenish interpretation of an album by the rock group Queen, specifically side 2 of Queen 2.

For me, D&D was a pathway to story.  It opened up my eyes to the broader concept of a heroic journey where I could play the role of a lowly wizard, driven by his obsessive need to learn as many spells as he could find, or an immortal demigod fighter, who faced down recurring villains, devils and dragons on our “Isle of the Gods.” My best friend and boon companion at that time was a kid named Eric–scary smart where the rules were concerned and brilliant at drawing comic books about our adventures. This awoke a competitive urge in me, and I had to outdo him.  Bigger worlds, deeper dungeons, hellish landscapes, villainous adversaries.  I started turning my drawings into comic books too, and our competition drove us both to create like crazy.

So when I credit D&D for pulling me out of my shell, I’m not overselling it for sake of a blog feature.  D&D taught me how to tell stories with words, maps, and drawings.  D&D showed me how to write and spell and, most importantly, to let my voice shine through in the words I chose to tell the stories I told.  Being a DM, in a group of smart players, forced me to think clearly and write precisely. It was in the crucible of D&D that I first trained my presentation, speech and performance skills in real life, and I owe Gygax and Arneson, the games progenitors, a tremendous debt.

That said – Dungeons and Dragons was deeply uncool in the mid 1980’s. Worse, most parents hated it, televangelists raged against it, and Hollywood made truly awful films about everything it never was.  By 1986, I had moved on to other things, mainly girls and guitars.  I took everything I had learned from D&D and applied it to the creation of music and art in the real world because the one thing I couldn’t imagine was that it was possible to do both. I didn’t touch another pen-and-paper RPG for almost 20 years.

In the meantime, geekdom grew up, blew up and become a cultural force.  Geek culture was suddenly cool, and the media turned up stories about actors, writers and directors who had played or were playing still, and how formative the experience had been for their art and careers. I came out of the closet in time to see the launch of the 4th Edition, did date nights every Tuesday at the local game store in Colorado Springs with my ex-wife (who had never played), and taught my children to play the “Pathfinder RPG” from their beginner box set.

Now my kids are fairly typical for their ages, and are both certainly a product of their generation. They grew up on video games, and love to make new things, to draw and create. One is an artist, who puts me to shame, and I am particularly gratified that she has many creative, brilliant and fun friends to do podcasts with and art for. My youngest is a mad scientist, who loves math, physics and survival horror games – especially if they are retro influenced or feature retro graphics and sounds. Both love playing Dungeons and Dragons with me and with their friends, and neither remember or understand a time when D&D wasn’t “cool” or part of “almost everyone’s” day to day routine. They take it for granted that their favorite singer plays D&D. They make “let’s plays” for their own youtube channels and then switch gears for some pen and paper gaming and never miss a step. When they meet new friends they inevitably teach those friends how to play the game, and the cycle repeats itself. I have had the privilege of watching my kids teach others how to play D&D several times, and I love seeing the look on a new persons face when the role they are playing breaks out during a game, and the person playing that role comes to life in a brand new way.

The new edition of Dungeons and Dragons is the best intro to the hobby I have seen yet. Refined through extensive playtesting, it is truly a players edition, with a focus on simple rules and accessible gameplay. These rules are easily taught over the course of an afternoon, creating a fairly low barrier to entry for new players of all ages. It is harder, in my opinion, to teach a new player how to play Scrabble or Pictionary than it is to teach them D&D using the 5th Edition basic rules. This baked-in accessibility is vital if the game is going to catch on with kids and other grown-ups jaded by years of Facebook, Netflix binging, and video games.

When I started running my current game, I borrowed freely from spaghetti westerns and zombie survival horror to twist the town of Phandalin – the focus of the starter set campaign. When my players return to town after a session or two spent underground, exploring a goblin hide-out or bandit cave, they tell me what they wish to accomplish between sessions, what kind of problems they run into, and what kinds of skill checks they expect to use to achieve their goals. In this way, we “drill down,” focusing first on what makes the game fun for the players, highlighting scenes we might wish to explore in greater depth and detail during the next game.  If a character falls unconscious, or dies, I  find a way to keep the player engaged by letting that player run a Hobgoblin Chief or Bandit Prince against her former friends.  Or, I give them control over one or more storyline non-player characters and have them join the party on a temporary basis. In this way, even relatively major setbacks become story hooks for the campaign, and no one feels left behind or left out when their dice grow fickle or their character isn’t the focus of the current scene. The toughest trick in the modern world is getting a group of people together for face-to-face fun without smartphones or tablets crowding out human interaction. Properly played, D&D can make a teenage girl forget to check her phone for hours, and that is a gift, by any definition.

DnD_Starter_Art

When my current group finishes the Lost Mines of Phandelver their characters will be around level 5. I’ll follow up with a trip to the Underdark, by way of the Rage of Demons storyline and “Out of the Abyss” sourcebook. Right out of the gate, their ability to not only play and direct their own characters, but also direct and control a large cast of non-player characters will be put to the test. But this season offers so much more – in terms of novel gameplay – than simply a romp through Dungeonland. Along the way we will use a new simplified exploration and travel mechanic, as well as rules for traveling great distances in the dark, while mapping, foraging and eluding pursuit deep underground.

They must explore a continent sized world, filled with dangerous and intelligent foes and antagonists, who wish to make their party slaves or worse; –sacrifice them to the oozing, gibbering horrors from beyond the Abyss.  They will have to come to terms with their predicament against a backdrop of ever shifting loyalty and sanity among their friends, allies and enemies, while moving forward to both escape the Underdark and uncover a plot which threatens the entirety of the world, above and below ground.

Illo1

Anything more would be telling, of course, and I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone who might wish to play through this “season,” so I’ll refrain from further detail. Suffice to say the Rage of Demons storyline is epic, and can be enjoyed from many angles, whether you prefer pen and paper D&D as I do, “Neverwinter Nights” style RPG computer gaming, MMO’s or simply reading the books and novels yourself. You can also get involved in a weekly tournament style pen and paper session at your local game and comics store or hobby shop via the official Wizard of the Coast’s “Adventurers League” ongoing play campaign. You can find a participating store location using the tool located at the bottom of this page on the WoTC website: https://dnd.wizards.com/playevents/organized-play

***

Dungeons and Dragons has come a long way since the mid 1970’s and the new 5th Edition is an ideal way to refamiliarize yourself with the game. If you are a new player, it has never been easier to get into the game, and much of the stigma surrounding it has faded over the years, with the “ascension of the geek” in mainstream western culture. Fantasy (and by extension fantasy role-playing games) are now a cornerstone of geek culture, and are more popular than ever before. The community surrounding table-top pen and paper games thrives on a cooperative ethos that strives to be inclusive, while growing its fanbase, one player at a time.

“The darkness wraps itself around you like a blanket, sucking the air from your lungs. Your breath comes in ragged, shallow gasps as you struggle for air in this foul place. A growing panic rises from deep within your belly as you begin to make out the mad chant of the cult leader, who – even now – leads your enemies down, into your hidey-hole. “Times up!” he roars, and the gibbering horde replies in unison: “One of us! One of us! One of us! One of us!”

About Triality Lens

Writer, Infonaut, Gamer.

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