The Life of a Modern-Day Dungeonmaster

by Matthew J.X. Malady

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, Kickstarter community manager Nicole He tells us more about what it’s like to lead a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Nicole! So what happened here?

So we’re playing Dungeons & Dragons. For those who don’t know, D&D; is a classic fantasy tabletop roleplaying game about collaborative storytelling. Each player creates a character; say, a noble-but-asthmatic human fighter, or a sexy-but-irritating dwarf. Within the game, their goal as a team is to fight enemies and collect treasure. On a meta level, everyone is trying to invent a story and tell it together.

In this group, I am the dungeonmaster. (Dungeonmistress? Lol jk that’s a different thing.) While everyone else plays one character, I play the rest of the world. I control the monsters, the friendly townsfolk, the leaves rustling in the trees, and even the weather. The players describe through speech what their characters do or say (“I swing my sword at the orc!”), they roll some dice to determine the outcome, and I tell them how the world reacts (“You slice through his left thigh but he’s still standing. And now he’s mad.”). My purpose is to create meaningful decisions, encourage teamwork, and lead the narrative we are building together.

If all of this sounds kind of like a video game, it’s because lots of modern video games have basically been birthed from the loins of D&D.; But instead of sitting alone in your room staring at a screen and mashing RT on your Xbox controller to cast Fireball at the Hagraven, you’re sitting at a table with other people, a pencil, some paper, a bunch of dice, and your imagination. You have to make quick decisions and communicate with words to your team about what you want to do and why. As with anything involving human beings, it can get intense and emotional.

The version we’re playing here is real old school. We’re playing a module called The Keep on the Borderlands, which was first published in 1979. It’s essentially a dungeoncrawl, where the players explore an area called the Caves of Chaos, inhabited by a diverse group of monsters.

These old games are rather notorious for being deadly, and unlike video games, once you die in D&D; your character is dead forever. This sounds like not that big of a deal (IT’S JUST A GAME, RIGHT???), but the real life emotional involvement can actually be pretty serious. I once played The Keep on the Borderlands with another group, not as the DM but as a low-strength chaos elf. Ten IRL months in, one of our party — a Thief named Kermit — was attacked by giant fire beetles and died gruesomely. This was, no joke, one of the more traumatizing things that happened to me in 2013.

Anyway, back to the game you see in my tweet. It’s the dungeonmaster’s view, basically, behind the screen, which shows me the map of the world and where all the enemies and treasure are. The photo is a little spoiler-y, to be honest, so if you’re one of my players I wouldn’t try to look too closely at that map. This picture captured the second time we played, and unlike the first time, none of the players died! The only casualties were the orcs they were fighting and an NPC (non-player character) named Dun, a young boy who effectively acted as a meat shield. RIP Dun.

Lesson learned (if any)?

D&D; is having a moment these days. A lot of this is because it’s no longer being depicted as something exclusively for basement-dwelling, antisocial teen boys. I certainly didn’t play D&D; growing up; it didn’t seem like a thing that was particularly welcoming for someone who wasn’t white or a dude to get into, even though I loved both fantasy and video games. It wasn’t until a couple years ago when my coworker Luke started running sessions at work that I fell into this particular nerd hole and never climbed out.

After a while I felt comfortable playing roleplaying games, but DMing felt like it was a whole new level that I wasn’t quite ready for, even though this specific group of friends had asked me to run a game for them. But this summer, I went to Gen Con — the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America — for work, and everyone was so nice and friendly that I came back with a renewed sense of nerd confidence. Like, actually, this thing could be for me.

Playing this game with my friends and having a great time reinforced for me that this can actually be an extraordinarily inclusive space. It’s nice to have that reminder as a woman living in the midst of #gormergat.

Just one more thing.

The newest edition of D&D; was released at Gen Con this year, and the new rules make an effort to be explicitly inclusive. This is now officially in the most modern D&D; handbook:

You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. You can play as a male or female character without gaining any special benefits or hindrances. Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender and sexual behavior. For example, a male drow cleric defies the traditional gender divisions of drow society, which could be a reason for your character to leave that society and come to the surface.

You could also play as a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.

I think that’s pretty cool. If you’ve never tried D&D; before, now is the time to give it a shot.

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