I've been part of a regular group playing Dungeons & Dragons for the past two years, missing only a handful of regular weekly sessions over that time (with the exception of Dan leaving last September to start school across the country). Every few sessions, I snapped a couple photos, and over time and as we became more familiar with the game, I began to think about why D&D has been such a mainstay in our lives.
For me, it had to do with two things: the characters we create and the moments we live through those characters. On one of our final sessions before Dan and I both leave for Masters programs in Ontario, I hosted a discussion — spanning highlights from each of our characters, character death, the role of the Dungeon Master, and what we learned from conflicts between players and characters alike — to fill in the blanks between the photos and explore the longevity behind these weekly sessions.
Cam: Hetol Cunnan. Level 5 Human Wizard.
Cam: The first couple characters I played were just characters that I wanted to play. But with those classes [barbarian and paladin] I just wasn't getting to role play because it was too similar to what I would actually do as a player. For my most recent character I just rolled the dice and played to the strengths of the rolls. I rolled really high intelligence, and knew it had to be a wizard, but I'm never a wizard. It forced me out of the box and it was cool to realize that I can actually role play this. It's been a lot more fun than being something you wanted to be from the start. I think in certain limitations and constraints there's a freedom. So this is my favourite character I've played just because it's something I look forward to playing every session. I've never put so much thought into a character. There's so many spells and so many tactics. You can perseverate on it! If you're sitting in traffic, you start thinking about spell combos and it's so much fun to think about.
Tyler: Are wizards your favourite class then?
Cam: Until recently it was probably paladin. Greystyle, my paladin who is now in the salt mines, was a character from when I played when I was a kid, but he wasn't my character. He was a longstanding NPC [Non-Player Character], and I always thought if I was going to play a character, that would be the one. That was the guy. But yeah, I think it's wizard now.
Dan: Boon Longbeard. Level 7 Human Wizard.
Dan: I think my favourite characters are always in service of the story. Boon was really good because I liked having this collection of things to be [as a wizard]. The things I explicitly dislike are things that violate plausibility. Druid was always the thing for me. I could never play a Druid without feeling off. The very thought of a person turning into a T-Rex, for example, my brain is like, "Okay, now it's no longer believable."
Josh: You know Boon can turn into a T-Rex at like, level 7.
Dan: [laughs] I know but that's the thing, I could never do it! I would never do it.
Boon was me trying to imagine what it looks like to grow old with grace, which is funny because Boon is not a very graceful character. When I wrote his backstory, part of it was that he had found a soft spot for goblins. Even though he was somewhat racist towards elves and he was in his own mindset about what was important. He was misaligned with everyone else [in the group] and it gave him a dynamic personality. When you meet someone old, they're not perfect. You find a person who becomes jaded in some respects, and a person that has decided what really matters to them. I was trying to figure out: when I'm old, what do I want myself to become? I realized through Boon that I want to become a person who is harsh, because life makes you that way, but is still trying to grow and has learned that there are some things that you need to fight for, like goblins, that no one else is going to see as important.
Tyler: I also love that Boon stopped being a part of our party a long time ago [because Dan left for school], but even now in Temple of Elemental Evil, he's still a factor. He's such a personality. He's just there. We still have to play around Boon, and he's such a fucking pain in the ass.
Dexter: Clawley Nightshade. Level 7 Drow Paladin.
Dexter: Dan, I've always thought you made really good characters. They feel like there’s a deep backstory to them. I always find that when I make characters, they never feel deep. Even Clawley doesn't have a lot behind him. I don't really have those skills to create a character like that.
Dan: This isn't a criticism, but you were the most jumpy with characters compared to all of us. You play a character, and then you're a DM [Dungeon Master] and you make an NPC that you think is cooler than your own character and you'll jump to it.
Dexter: I hate that I always do that! It's because when I create characters I like the aesthetic of them. I like seeing the hammer wielding warrior in my mind, but when that doesn't play out the way I want to mechanically or role playing wise, then what other aesthetic do I like? Maybe I like the bow-wielding archer. That seems cool.
Dan: So more of an archetype and less of a story. I've noticed you flavour how the spell comes out, and I'm like, "Okay he's trying to create that archetypal picture in his mind."
Dexter: Exactly. And that ties into the problems I have actually creating memorable characters. I like the aesthetic of Clawley and I like playing him a lot mechanically, but he doesn't really have much of an interesting back story. I just like to imagine the theme of the character in my head, and it really destroys it for me if, for example, an ice mage were to cast a Web spell. Like what the fuck is he doing casting a Web spell? And that just ties into how I play D&D like a video game.
Dan: I get that. You're trying to create plausibility, but for you plausibility is based in the video game world. For me, plausibility happens with races. In Dex's campaign Tyler plays a Tabaxi [cat-person], but if I was the DM I would never allow him to be a cat, because I can't picture a cat in my head. Or even a gnome — like what the fuck is a gnome? I can't do it. It's got to be a Lord of the Rings race for it to be plausible: a dwarf, an elf, or a human. Otherwise, my brain is like, "Nope."
Tyler: How about Tortles?
Dan: [laughs] Tortles are a no. No way.
Josh: Locke Lamora. Level 6/1 Halfling Rogue/Sorceror
Josh: I like Locke because he has evolved. He started as a sad orphan that would stab things, and then he genuinely gained powers and made some friends and I needed to change his motivations around from cheating and always playing it safe. That was how he was supposed to be played, but after enough time with a party that doesn't approve of that, he needs to run into the fray a lot more. Now I have quite a clear spectrum of what he would do under certain circumstances and what he wouldn't do.
[The sorcerer level came about because] I was having fun as a rogue, but he needed a bit of magic. I needed more choices. Instead of just using a bow or weapon, I gave him Cure Wounds and Minor Illusion. I need those extra options, otherwise I feel that every round for me is pre-determined. As a min-maxer [a player who maximizes certain stats to the detriment of others, often to do one thing well at the expense of a well-rounded character], I feel like I have to play the "right" thing, and as just a rogue the right thing is always "stab it with your dagger".
I don’t think I originally chose characters based on personality, but I enjoyed playing certain characters because they were different than I would normally act. I like making a character choice as opposed to a Josh choice. My first character was just neutral, and I kind of tried to figure out a character around that, but I didn't have set ideals for him.
Dexter: See, I'd have a hard time playing Locke because, again, I have a problem with the themes clashing. It goes back to the idea of a themed wizard. I'd want it all to be cold magic or fire magic to stick with a theme, and D&D doesn't really allow you to do that well. So looking at Locke, a rogue who also has holy magic, just makes my mind melt. That magic is obviously useful, and you have a story for it, but it doesn't fit the classic archetype of a rogue: quiet, cunning, and deadly.
Josh: I had to have a good story for it or I couldn't do it. I needed some magic, and I had to think about how Locke could get magic realistically. So on his birthday he finds out his dad was an angel, and I work with that. All it really did though is it took away a level, which is detrimental from a min/max point of view, but it gave me options.
Tyler: Captain Bush. Level 5 Tabaxi Ranger
Tyler: Hiro Otuk. He was my favourite.
Dan: Wait, which character are we talking about?
Tyler: Hiro, you fucking dick! You should know him. You were there.
Dan: [laughs] I saved Hiro! But then... yeah... I killed him.
Josh: You saved him from a pit [of raptors] you put him in.
Tyler: We started the session out in this pit where we had to escape all these raptors. I got free from that and we carried on. But then later we were walking in the jungle and Dan kept fucking with some guy who happened to be a weretiger and killed me.
So when I made Captain Bush, I wanted to make a character who was the exact opposite of Hiro. One that was kind of out there and doesn't give a shit. He'll just gamble and be really loosey goosey.
Dexter: A little like Jack Sparrow.
Tyler: Yeah! His inspiration was Jack Sparrow, King Schultz from Django Unchained, and the main guy from The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Dan: I think that you've become a much better role player since you've started playing Captain Bush.
Cam: Yeah, Hiro was pretty stoic. He's a monk, so you sort of have to play him like that. But Captain Bush just has flair! He's a real personality.
Dexter: And I think Hiro more closely reflects your personality as well, so I think it's easier for you to play, and I think Captain Bush does not. I think he's very different.
Dan: I agree. Tyler's got an energetic side to him, but it's not his immediate go-to. People need to bring that out of him. When we're at work, and I start dancing, once I start dancing, you join in. He's like, "Okay, it's a dance party!" But Bush is the guy starting the dancing party.
Tyler: Isn't this what's so cool about D&D though? Like in this particular campaign, I've played two characters now, both apparently very different, and each represents a very different side of me. That's kind of cool.
Tyler: Have we all died in game?
Dan: I've died multiple times in Dex's campaign.
Tyler: Fuck, yeah... [laughs] I'm curious as to what that's like for everyone else.
Cam: Well, Irving Greystyle ended up trapped as a slave in a salt mine, so that's not really death. But Oo-kin-num being vaporized and then Dirty Billy eating his ashes as he walked by was also pretty brutal.
Dan: I didn't realize how much that affected you! After you died, I was trying to figure out if I did something wrong. Did I miss something? Did I not allow you to do the right saves? But it turned out that we did everything right. I spoke with you the next day and you told me you immediately went home and re-rolled your saves to see if it would have turned out differently.
Dan: And I was like, okay, that definitely means it affected him as a person in a way I did not anticipate.
Cam: In a good way, but yeah. It was not an unfair death, or an unfair situation, even though when it happens it feels like a setup. But when I went back, I realized that a bunch of different things went wrong, like my [hindered] speed and the fact that he shoots four different beams out of his eyes and it just so happened to be [a disintegrate beam] that hit me, and then after that I failed my save. It was like the perfect storm. I thought, Damn, that's like a 10% chance — if that — that Oo-kin-num would be vaporized. Fuck.
Dexter: Would everyone say they've changed over the course of our games?
Tyler: Yeah, in like every single way I have I think.
Cam: Yeah, tons.
Dexter: I wonder about you, Cam, because you have so much experience playing D&D. I guess just given the fact that you've had lots of time to figure out who you are as a player, I'm surprised to hear you say you've changed a lot.
Cam: Yeah, but I mean I played as a kid, not as an adult. I quit before I went to college. I didn't think you had the imagination [as you got older]. I thought it died. That's part of why I had trouble getting into the character. I was playing D&D like a board game at first without getting invested in the character. Then after a while it's just like a muscle — I just had to start using my imagination to develop it.
Dan: You must have been frustrated as hell when I first started DMing, because I didn't even know what the fuck was going on! [laughs] It was a unique place to be in, but the second you had the problem with Alan Gerrin, who wanted some child's blood or something, and you're like, "I'll come back and I'll kill you" and I was like, "What did you just say?!" That was the first role playing I saw as a result of expanding your imagination. I was like, Oh, that wasn't Cam, that was his character. It was really quick. All of a sudden it was this new experience.
Dexter: Josh, I think the way you and I play D&D is very similar. I play D&D more like it's a video game or a board game, and I think you do too, whereas I think the rest of the guys play it more like it's a novel or a story. So when I build my characters I'm thinking of the video game character generator and about the archetypes. So I build this dark elf, like — I picture him to be like a death knight. That's his aesthetic. So when unavoidable things happen to change him permanently, it shatters the image and system that I've built, and I wonder do you experience the same thing? When Locke went bald you seemed to take it pretty well, and I was actually surprised because I know we're similar in approach.
Josh: Yeah, but for me I try and think, Okay wait a minute, I'm not Locke. What would he do? But he swam in poop! He wouldn't care at all. People make fun of him every day of his life, and he takes it. I know that when he went bald, he's probably one of the few characters that would just take it.
The Dungeon Master's Role
For two years, each of us took turns as the DM — the player whose job it is to play the world, describe events as they happen, and create a narrative to be played through. This role presents certain challenges as you try to present the world fairly and control how information is learned, received, and acted on.
Dexter: Dan, I find your campaigns to be very linear and you always feel like you're where you're supposed to be, which is not a bad thing but —
Dan: It's railroady.
Dexter: Yeah. It creates a certain type of experience, and I really love campaigns like Tomb [of Annihilation] where you don't know if you're on the right track. You don't even know where the tracks are. You have no fucking clue. So you never really know if what you're about to face is above your level of not. When we hit that point in your campaign [just before Oo-kin-num died], we just kind of assumed that this is where we're supposed to be. We're supposed to be there. Then suddenly it felt very much like... we weren't supposed to be there.
Dexter: It was a total shift in how the campaign ran. At first I found that frustrating, but overall it was a good experience. It shakes you out of that railroad mentality. You're never where you're supposed to be. Don't ever assume that.
Cam: It's also where you're at as an experienced Dungeons & Dragons player. We should have known the whole time, but it was our own ignorance that told us we're always going to be safe. Now after — what, two years of playing? — you know that you're never going to be.