Revelations of a Dungeon Master

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This post will delve into the mysterious world of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) and reveal some shocking details about being a Dungeon Master. It is almost quaint to imagine how this fantasy role playing game, first introduced in 1977, is still being played today. Massive multiplayer 3D video games like World of Warcraft, video sharing websites like YouTube, Snapchat and other screen-based media would seem to be more engaging forms of entertainment compared to the dice and miniatures tabletop game. But I can attest to the modern popularity of AD&D first hand, as my 13 year old son, his friend and I have been playing every other Saturday night since 2012.

The popular new TV series Stranger Things makes frequent references to the game, using it as a plot-framing device and to help characterize the 1980’s setting. The game was very popular at the time, but became the subject of controversy when a 10 year old player committed suicide in 1982. His mother Patricia Pulling, searching for answers, assumed it was because of a curse put on his character in the after school D&D club he was a member of. Blaming the high school principal and publishers of the game, she campaigned to link D&D to Satanism and the occult. At the core of her argument against D&D was her assertion that, “a significant amount of youngsters are having difficulty with separating fantasy from reality”. Introverted young people needed to be protected against their own imaginations, so under pressure from Pulling and other religious groups, the publishers of D&D changed core elements of the game in 1989 2nd edition.

Gone were references to demons and devils; these entities became rebranded as tanar’ri and baatezu, respectively. Also absent was the assassin character class, with the thief class renamed as the rogue, and players could no longer have characters of the half-orc race. Similar business-related decisions further weakened subsequent editions, leading to an obsequious, token version of a game that was once edgy and irreverent.

loremasterVersion 3.5 is an especially bloated, unwieldy example of the parade of money driven rewrites. Needlessly complicated, rules such as “when someone gets a 20 on an attack roll, you should point out that this is a threat, not a critical hit” (version 3.5 D&D Core Rulebook II, pg. 26) take major amounts of fun out of playing. Come on, people. One look at the illustration of the Loremaster character class from pg. 191 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide also proves my point.

When my son was in 4th grade, the hot TV show on Cartoon Network was Adventure Time, which is heavily influenced by AD&D. He asked if he could try the role playing game, and soon I found myself acquiring many of the same miniatures and rule books I had back in 1981. I used many of the ideas presented by Dave Hargrave in his Arduin Grimore, including the fabled Critical Hit table, the liberal blend of sci-fi and fantasy and other rich embellishments that make the game more interesting.

Personally, AD&D has always been about the magic of how the game table scene looks; painted miniatures, dungeon walls and dice like precious gems. I did my best to convey that feeling of wonder to my players, even adding the touches of candlelight in a darkened room and Baroque background music.

I especially enjoyed painting the miniatures, some of which were vintage cast lead pieces miniaturefrom as far back as 1976. Together with the jewel-like set of dice, dark grey foam rubber for dungeon walls, wine corks for columns and miniature trees made from hobby store moss and sticks from the back yard, these game pieces were gateways to the realm of fantasy and imagination where D&D lives. I kept all the miniatures hidden from my young players until they encountered them in the game for the sake of mystery. Their faces lit up when I finally set them on the table and combat began.

In that environment we enjoyed imagining the game action, each of us seeing it in our minds eye. In describing what happened during an adventure, I made a point to involve as many of the five senses as possible for a more immersive experience. For example, the acrid stench of trolls breath, the tortured screams of attacking ghouls, the chill of the stone hallways, and the mayhem and debauchery of the drinking taverns. I would borrow from everything I could remember, Moorecock books, Frazetta paintings, any interesting names I heard, and fantasy films ranging from Labyrinth to Legend. It was useful to have a list of interesting names in reach for the inevitable improvisation required of a Dungeon Master. I also made liberal use of different voices for the many non-player characters, monsters and other entities, and insisted my players speak appropriately during gameplay. “Dude, watch out for that Orc, bro” was unacceptable.

While I always had a basic idea of the plot of an adventure, I allowed my players to exercise their free will (to a point) as a metaphor for real life. We began each session of the game by reciting the rules, “Don’t interrupt, wait to speak. Just like reality, if you’re stupid, you will die. If you’re smart, you will gain magic items and level up”.

Recently I have given up my unlimited power in order for my players to experience the game from a different perspective. I am now a lowly player character at the mercy of a 13 year old Dungeon Master, but enjoying it perhaps even more than I once did 30 years ago.

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