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Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition: A Critical Hit

 

Last updated 8/13/2018 at 7:59am | View PDF

My home-brew gaming table with a LED TV under a plexiglass grid

In 2017, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) had its best sales year since Wizards of the Coast took it over from TSR in 1997. Interactive storytelling is still at the core of the game, with the books, lore, rules, accessories, and of course the players, all contributing to that end. For those of you less familiar with role playing games (RPGs), the idea is to participate in adventures, gain experience, find treasure, and level-up. The games are generally more open-ended than typical board games, with a lot of improvisation and spontaneity involved. Like any good improv, the key is in the preparation, knowing your character especially, and getting inside their head. Also reacting to players and events is important, with the "yes-and" improv philosophy holding true.

The core level-up system was put into the first edition of D&D in 1974 by its creator, Gary Gygax (true followers harken back to the earlier Chainmail, and older still, basic war gaming). A version of this level-up progression system is now at the core of virtually every video game with a leveling up scheme (Call of Duty, Overwatch, World of Warcraft, and Fortnite, to name just a few). While video games have reached mass audiences, the D&D tabletop system has, up to the 5th edition, been considered by many to be for wonky rule nerds, making it less accessible to the masses. There was even a brief period in the 1980s where D&D was falsely connected to the occult. After opening with a well received 3rd edition shortly following their acquisition of TSR, Wizards of the Coast missed the boat with their 4th edition (badly by most accounts). So bad was this effort that another company, Paizo, came out with an evolution of the D&D 3.5 edition called Pathfinder to carry the torch. In fact, these two systems are still both very popular and available today. Fortunately, after the disaster that was the 4th edition, Wizards listened to the fans, and came out with a very elegant and well designed 5th edition, following in the spirit of the first three editions. Often referred to simply as "5e," the current iteration is very user friendly, and offers the same expanded D&D universe in a relatively easy to use package. It is much more friendly for new players, and you don't need a PhD in D&D to play.

Like many others my age, I was a D&D 2nd edition guy, and have a fairly substantial collection of books and modules. I also played other RPGs (Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones to name a few). For a time as a teenager I played a lot, both as Dungeon Master (or DM for short), and as a player. After a long hiatus (some 20 years), last summer one of my English Education students developed a series of lessons for teachers on how to integrate D&D into an English writing curriculum. His task was to make D&D easy to understand, and when he delivered his workshop, it was one of the most highly attended workshops any of my students has ever delivered. That same student took me and some other students through a short home-brew adventure as part of another class, and after that I purchased the Player's Handbook, a Dungeon Master's Screen, and the 5e Starter Set.

After dabbling a bit more on my own, one of my work colleagues caught wind that I played, and invited me into a group. Basically, when you are invited to one of these groups, it is like a job interview. There is a compatibility check that happens among the players (no D20 role necessary), to see if people are enjoying themselves and have good chemistry. Fortunately things worked out, and we now have a flexible group of 5-8 players at any given time, playing once every 1-2 weeks. The typical session is 3 hours, although from time to time we will run longer. Like many groups, we have multiple campaigns going at any given time. And while gameplay tends to happen in slow motion that allows for a whole lot of embellishment of what happens while you play. The DM writes a summary of the session, so there is an ongoing record of what happened. This allows players who don't play every week to catch up and jump right in when they can play.

We currently have one high level adventure running, and another low level adventure running in parallel. The work of the Dungeon Master in preparing for the sessions is significant, so we share that responsibility (I run one campaign, and another person runs the other). We equate it to a TV show, where there is the core cast, and some regular guest star appearances. In terms of mechanics, we use the website D&D Beyond for our characters and materials (the website is superior to the app for now), although there is some pen and paper action as well. Others use roll20.net, or the STEAM game Tabletop (and there are plenty of other helper apps). We even built a gaming table that has a LED TV underneath it to project dynamic maps. We then added in some 3D prints and miniatures to help round out the physical objects to interact with, and altogether it makes for quite a fun gaming experience.

My home-brew gaming table with a LED TV under a plexiglass grid

And D&D has crept into general pop culture as well (not just in The Big Bang Theory). Perhaps the most widely known is Stranger Things, where the entire show is basically one big D&D adventure. Other notables include Critical Role, which is super popular on Twitch, and involves a group of professional voice actors acting out their games, most notably the fantastic DM, Matt Mercer. Finally, I can't end without mentioning Vin Diesel and his over-the-top witch hunter character, perhaps the most well known celebrity D&D Player. Overall, this Dungeon Master gives D&D 5th Edition a 20 out of 20, a critical hit in my book.

Dr. Anthony Betrus

SUNY Potsdam Professor of Educational Technology & Business Administration

The Game Connoisseur

 

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