Although most of my gaming posts have been about Heroscape, I have mentioned my love of roleplaying: primarily when I talked about playing post-apocalyptic RPGs and my extended discussion of the evolution of Pathfinder. I even went into a bit of details of why I like teaching my kids to play them.1 But I never actually talked much about why I enjoy playing such games.
You know, every copy of D&D rulebooks I’ve ever owned started with a “what is a roleplaying game?” section. This is because roleplaying games are quite different from other games. Games are competitive, almost by definition—
As it turns out, the answer to that is different for different people, and it can be quite disconcerting (and occasionally disruptive) to be playing a game where some or all of the players are aiming at different targets. For some people, it’s simple escapism: everyone should be having fun stepping outside their own lives for a bit. For others, each adventure or campaign has a stated goal—
I take a different approach from all these. Perhaps it’s my aspirations to be a writer, but, for me, a PnP RPG is a collaborative story. A bunch of us are getting together and we’re going to concoct an awesome piece of fiction, which, if it could be written down and sold to the masses, would undoubtedly be a best-seller. It’s just like we were all getting together to make a movie. We all provide different skills, but we all pitch in and help each other out and what we produce at the end is sheer entertainment. It’s going to have sympathetic characters and an amazing setting and a brilliant plot. And, just like when you go to see a classic movie and then you come home afterwards and want to tell your friends all about it, so a well-played game of D&D gives you stories that you are just bursting to share with other people. Now, generally speaking, only your other friends who also do tabletop gaming are actually going to appreciate those stories, but it’s still magical to me. You can meet anyone, from any walk of life, from any country, regardless of race, religion, gender, or anything else, and if you happen to find out that that person roleplays as well, you will be telling each other your favorite gaming stories within about 15 minutes flat. And you will each be impressed at the other’s ingenuity and marvel at their luck (good or bad) and be jealous of the experiences they’ve had. Remember the scene in Jaws where Quint and Hooper trade stories about their scars?2 This is just like that: you get a backlog of war stories you can trade with everyone you meet, without ever having to do anything dangerous to earn them. It’s not much compared to those folks who’ve actually been to war, granted, but then some of those folks enjoy swapping stories about their RPG characters too.
Now, given my feelings about roleplaying, it should be no surprise that my major focus as a GM3 is character. If I have an overriding philosophy as a GM, it’s a two-part one: As a player, I demand that you provide me an interesting, fully-fleshed character, complete with motivations, backstory, flaws ... the whole package. And, as your GM, I promise I won’t kill your character without your permission.4 Now, both of those things come with loads of caveats which could probably fill its own blog post, but for now I think that gives you enough background on my style to appreciate the story I really want to tell you.
See, my eldest child came to me and asked me to GM for him again. Which is so rare as to be unheard of these days: he’s a teenager with his own friends now, and typically he’s the GM for them.5 So we haven’t really roleplayed in a long time. But he wanted to try the latest edition of D&D6 and he knew I did as well. And we felt it was time to get my middle child into the game.
The boy that I’ve often referred to here as the Smaller Animal is currently 10 years old. Two years ago,7 we tried a game of Dungeon World, which is sort of like D&D Lite™.8 We did all right, but it was obvious that, at 8, he wasn’t quite ready. But my eldest figured now was the perfect time to get him hooked.
So we went to him and asked him what sort of character he might enjoy playing. It’s a fantasy game, we explained, and he knew perfectly well what that meant. Anything you want: wizard, knight ... what would you want to be? He said he wanted to be a character who turned into animals. My eldest and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously: “Druid.”
Now, the gold standard for beast transformation in fantasy fiction is generally held to be the wizards’ battle in The Sword in the Stone.9 And, indeed, D&D wizards can be quite good at transforming into animals ... at higher levels. But, if you want to start turning into cool things pretty early on, you really want a druid. In first and second edition, shapeshifting was a thing druids could do. In 3e, it was the main thing they could do. In 5e, you have a choice between two types of druids: you can be more of a magicky treehugger sort of druid, or you can be a full-on, constantly-being-an-animal sort of druid. So obviously that’s what my kid was looking for. Almost as an afterthought, he tossed out one last idea: “Can I turn into a dinosaur?”
You know, some folks don’t like to mix dinosaurs into their high fantasy. But D&D has a long tradition of doing weird genre-blender things such as that.10 We were going to play a pre-made adventure set in the Forgotten Realms, which is not my favorite setting, but it does have certain advantages. For instance, by virtue of having been around nearly as long as I’ve been alive, it has accumulated nearly everything imaginable—
So I said, sure, why not? You can turn into a CR 1 beast at level 2, we’re starting our characters at level 3,13 a velociraptor is a lion is a CR 1 beast which can neither fly nor swim, you are a druid from a jungle where dinosaurs roam freely and you are very familiar with them, so, absolutely: you can turn into a velociraptor. In about 20 minutes’ worth of conversation (and a bit of research on the Forgotten Realms wiki), we fleshed out a fairly complex backstory for him: Elmond Xilofeyr (his last name means “fairypetal,” which is a type of flower native to his homeland) is a wood elf from the Wealdath (which is elvish for “unspoiled woods”) who became obsessed with animal transformation, so he apprenticed himself to a dragonborn arcane scholar (part wizard, part druid, part who-knows-what) who lived in the Starspire Mountains, just south of where Elmond grew up, originally thinking he would become a wizard, until he figured out that druidry was the real way forward for an aspiring shapeshifter; after becoming an official druid, he traveled south, searching for the best place to settle, until a short ship ride from Calimport brought him to the Jungles of Chult, where he became fascinated with the local fauna and lived for several years, until one day he decided to take a journey to visit his old teacher and share whatever knowledge they’d both accumulated in the interim, only to find his master’s mountain hideaway in ruins, apparently the work of evil dragons, but, with no body apparent, it was possible that the scholar had escaped, or been captured, so Elmond traveled north, looking for signs of his mentor until, after traveling up through Amn all the way to Nashkel, a clue brought him down the Uldoon Trail as part of a merchant’s caravan that also included two other mysterious characters ...
And that’s how my ten-year-old developed a backstory with as much depth as any 20-year-old I’ve ever played with. Cool character concept, we wrestled the rules into submission to make it work, used the Internet to add a little flavor and specificity, then just brainstormed until we had some cool ideas that your friendly neighborhood GM can use to help shape the campaign: for instance, I’ve no doubt that we’ll run into Arjhan Kerrhylon, Elmond’s lost teacher, at some point in the future.
But I mainly gave you all this background so I could tell you this story.
Even for third level characters, first level adventures can be deadly.14 And of course this is the Smaller Animal’s first time playing proper D&D, so he can be forgiven for not playing his character in a strictly optimized fashion. So this is the story of how I managed to kill my kid’s character in the first hour of play.
Well, he was only dead for a little while. You know those stories of people that wake up in the hospital and are like, what happened? and then their friends tell them that they were actually dead for 4 minutes or whatever? Like that, only not even a whole minute. As I said above, I don’t actually kill characters. And, anyhow: with modern-day D&D it takes a while for your character to die really dead: you make death saving throws over and over until you either make 3 or fail 3, and he never even had time to make one of those.15 But he was at zero hit points, sure enough. Here’s how it went down.
We’re fighting a bunch of kobolds. Now, if you don’t know what kobolds are, they’re little lizardy-looking things, smaller than a hafling, even, but vicious. We’ve been fighting them all night, and for the most part kicking their reptilian asses. They’re not much of a threat for 3rd-level characters such as us, but of course they have numbers on their side, and we’re not getting a lot of time in between skirmishes for resting up. In this particular battle, we run up against a group of two humans and eight kobolds: the biggest group we’ve faced thus far. My elder son’s shadow warrior and my dragon sorcerer/avenger16 jumped in and took out the two humans first, figuring they were the most dangerous, while Elmond hung back and picked off kobolds with his longbow. Finally deciding it was time to stride in, my son made the mistake of attacking first, then charging into the melee. He took down another kobold, but ended his turn right in the thick of the battle. With the inevitable result that, on their next turn, three kobolds decided it was time to jump on him and take him down. So he strides up, ready for serious battle, and immediately 3 scaly little buggers leap on him, stabbing him with their wicked knives. And, due to some unfortunate rolling on my part, they all wounded him, and he went down hard. “How many hit points do I have left?” he asked. “Let’s not worry about that right now,” I said diplomatically, looking at the dice. “Let’s just say you’re too wounded to be able to attack this round.”
Next round my character strides over, jams his arm into the pile of squirming kobolds, and jolts 6 hit points into Elmond’s unconcious body. Then it’s Elmond’s turn. And suddenly a velociraptor bursts up out of the pile, and kobolds go flying.
Now, honestly, he missed all his attacks as a velociraptor, but that’s not even the point. That imagery was so iconic and dramatic that it was easily the highlight of the night. Our characters were taken aback at seeing their new companion arise from near-death as a terrifying (if no bigger than man-sized) dinosaur, and the kobolds were shitting their pants in fear. They were quickly dispatched, some of them while attempting to flee, and our characters became a little more comfortable with their now-reptilian compatriot. My eldest, playing a young dwarven maiden, wondered if the size ratio was right, and, once again, I saw no reason to rain on anyone’s parade. So she lept on the back of the velociraptor, who let out a blood-curdling roar, and we charged off into the night, looking for more foes to slay.
This is a story which I, my middle child, and probably his big brother too, will all tell with great joy and enthusiasm for years and years to come. Anyone who’s played D&D, or any fantasy RPG, will hear this story and practically wet their pants over how cool it is. This is, hands down and without question, a great story. And that’s why I play D&D. Because there just isn’t any other way for my ten-year-old to turn into a dinosaur and burst up out of a pile of small lizardlings and have everyone around him go “oooohh!” And I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
1 To review: they’re educational, particularly in a mathy sense.
2 Happily, in the Internet age, you needn’t actually remember it: you can just go watch it online.
3 For the uninitiated, that’s “Game Master”—
4 You might imagine that no one would ever give their permission for you to kill their character. But, you know: in a good story, it’s sometimes dramatically appropriate for a main character to die, and if your goal is to tell the best story ... Believe it or not, I’ve actually seen people offer to sacrifice their characters just to make the story better.
5 I’d like to think that’s because he has the most experience as a player, since I started him so young, but I may just be flattering myself.
6 5e, that is—
7 Nearly exactly: it began during our Vegas trip.
8 Although, to be fair, the latest version of D&D has borrowed liberally from Dungeon World and its work-alikes, including the very cool concept of “bonds.”
9 Again, if you haven’t seen it, the Internet is your friend.
10 Such as having wuxia-style monks as a class, and sci-fi-type psionic powers. And don’t even get me started on the giant space hamsters.
11 In 5e. Note that, in 3e, certain animals, like rats, centipedes, spiders, and so forth are technically “vermin,” and druids can’t turn into them. Which is a bit weird, but then D&D rules can often be a bit weird.
12 Yes, that page I linked you to says the stirge is a magical beast. But that’s just because it hasn’t been updated to 5e yet.
13 The main reason for this has to do with one of the few things I dislike about 5e, which perhaps I’ll go into in another post. But this one is getting too long as it is.
14 Yet another reason I like to give my characters a bit of leg-up when starting fresh. Also, adventures are typically designed for a party of four, and we are only a party of three. So a couple of extra levels can really make a difference.
15 Well, technically speaking, he should have had to make one. But I didn’t want to freak him out by telling him he had to make a “death save.”
16 By which I mean I started out as a sorcerer with the draconic bloodline, then switched to a paladin aiming for the oath of vengeance. In case you happen to be versed in 5e and wanted more details about that.