Dungeons & Dragons
A group of socially outcast middle school kids sit around a table amidst stacks of boxes and Christmas decorations, rolling dice and shouting "Cast Magic Missile!" A pile of books filled with illustrations of orcs, dark elf mages, and demon lords sit haphazardly on a chair as one of the kids perches behind a makeshift wall of Trapper Keepers, hiding stacks of notes and monster stats as he explains "Look out! It's the demogorgon!"
It's a scene straight out of Stranger Things. In fact, the storyline of Stranger Things models a D&D in many creative ways. If you've never played D&D or another role playing game system, you may have no idea what's going on. And if you're like a growing percentage of the population, you might be intrigued, secretly wishing someone would invite you to a group to see what it's all about.
Allow me to explain this 30+ year phenomena, along with a few steps on how to get started. You can do this. You should do this. Let's do it together.
Stranger Things is D&D set in our world
Dungeons and Dragons has been many things over the years, from being completely misunderstood in the 70s, to a highly complex, tactical grid-based battle simulator in the 90s, to what it is today: a group storytelling tool with unlimited possibilities.
D&D is a group storytelling mechanism with unlimited possibilities
At it's very core, D&D is an ongoing and potentially never-ending experience you share with friends. Or a group of strangers who will inevitably become friends. As a group, you create a world out of nothing, fill it with imagination, intrigue, combat, magic, and yes, monsters. Big bad villains. Evil wizards, cunning dragons, and doppelgangers masquerading as loved ones from your past. You make decisions, take actions, and with the help of some stats and a few dice rolls, anything is possible. Anything.
Being shot at by a goblin archer in a tower? Raise your shield and climb it, war hammer in hand! Or fire a volley of arrows right back at it. Or cast a fireball at the support beams and collapse the tower to ultimate the destruction and ruin of everyone inside. It's up to you. D&D's rule system has simple methods to resolve any action you can dream up.
Are you playing as a muscular barbarian in a full suit of plate armor? Yeah, it's gonna be hard for you to swim. Be careful on that ledge. Prefer a lute-carrying bard whose words and notes weave enchantments around all who hear? Be careful of tone-deaf goblin rogues trying to backstab you.
Who do you want to be?
Groups meets regularly, usually every week or two on a recurring night of the week. Each session lasts 3-4 hours and more often than not requires a sacrificial offering of potato chips, pizza, and/or adult beverages of some kind. And then there's the two types of people in a group: the Dungeon Master, and everyone else.
The DM is the person responsible for creating or facilitating the overall story, controlling the monsters and NPCs (non-player characters), enforcing (or breaking) the rules, managing combat, XP, and loot, and ensuring that the players are having fun. He or she is the first one to show up and the last to leave.
The DM spends their free time thinking about and jotting down plot arcs, surprise twists, incorporating character backstories, surfing reddit looking for ways to keep combat interesting and fresh, and deciding which mini-figure most resembles a flaming skull or a pile of gelatinous ooze.
Players each have their own character they play. They've spent time adding some personality and backstory to the character. They've studied their chosen class's abilities, picked out spells or special moves. They keep their character sheet up to date with weapons, armor, hit points, stats, money, and most importantly, the experience points.
And then they play. They jump into the world the DM has presented to them and make it their own. They step into character and begin to role play, making decisions the way their character would act, regardless of how they themselves would act in the same hypothetical and almost certainly impossible situation.
And then there are the books. The 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook is your guide to how the whole world works. It lays out races, classes, equipment, stats, and spells. It's your trail guide and compass into the unknown world. Dungeon Master's will likely want to have a copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide as well as the Monster Manual, but they're not necessary to get started.
Rules. Stats. Character Sheets. Books. Hours and hours of time. It sounds like a lot of work, right? Well it is. But it sure doesn't feel like it. The real magic happens once you've started to forget about all the stuff and let yourself get caught up in the moment. When you get invested in the story, or your character, and you forget about the iPhone in your pocket. When you blink and the bag of chips is gone and it's nearly midnight and you have no idea how it happened.
The real magic happens once you've started to forget about the iPhone in your pocket and let yourself get caught up in the moment.
It will happen. And you will be hooked. You'll smile to yourself the next day on the drive to work when you remember how your Elf Druid/Java Developer friend shape-shifted into a shark to help your other Paladin/Chimney Sweep friend find his coveted +1 Relentless Axe that had been tossed into a underground lake out of spite by an evil Dark Elf Wizard with a lisp.
Or when your Dwarf Fighter/Vice President friend came to the rescue in the middle of the night on horseback, hurling two sacks of flaming, enchanted ball bearings into the field of battle, lit only by a scorching roadside bonfire.
You'll make D&D references no one else will get. Congratulations, you now share a second life with a group of people in your Dungeon Master's basement.
We spend too much of our time distracted by emails and notifications and pointless meetings and phone calls and popover ads and autoplaying videos and commercials and marketing email and social media nonsense and endless reddit comments and oh my god what have we done to ourselves. We've broken our ability to concentrate. The average 21 year-old can't sit through a whole 30 minute sitcom without checking their phone. Think about that.
D&D, and the whole arena of other role playing games, provides something in direct contrast to our typical day. A safe space, face-to-face with friends around a table without electronics, for an extended period of time full of creativity. It's therapeutic. Like, might-someday-be-prescribed-by-doctors therapeutic. It's a balm for your distracted mind, and exercise for your fractured attention span. And it's super fun.
If you're interested in D&D, just let me know. Just tell me on Twitter and I'll write more on the topic. I have a lot to say if there are people willing to listen. It's not that hard to get a group going. It takes less than than you'd expect, and it's worth every dollar and every penny.
And in case you're curious, I am the DM for a group of 4 friends (Paladin, Fighter, Cleric, and Druid). We've been playing every other Tuesday night for quite some time now, and I never want it to end.
Here's some stuff you'll want to buy to get started, and a few extra links and resources if you're interested in becoming a DM.
Basic Shopping List
The D&D 5th Edition Starter Set is definitely the cheapest and easiest place to start. It contains an abridged player handbook, a solid starter campaign that can get you and your party from level 1 to level 5 (probably 8-12 sessions), some dice, and a few pre-generated character sheets so you can jump right in. $20.
More dice. Each player should have a set. It's only $10 for six sets
You'll eventually want a full Player's Handbook. You can probably get away with one copy for the party, but each player may decide that $30 is worth it to have their own.
Wanna be a Dungeon Master?
If you're going to DM, you'll want a DM screen. It's so much easier to buy one than to make one, so for $10 just pick it up on Amazon.
Matthew Colville is a life-long DM with hundreds of hours of content on YouTube on being a DM. He has his own unique and opinionated style and his advice is fantastic.
My party loves visualizing their combat and any dungeon-like areas they encounter. So I picked up a dry-erase grid mat and they went nuts. Draw your room, drop some minis, Lego figures, or even coins and watch everyone's eyes light up, Worth every penny of $15.
The Monsters Know What They're Doing is one of my favorite DM-focused blogs. It can be surprisingly easy for combat to fall into a scene that looks remarkably like a field of lumberjacks just chopping at each other. This site gives you tools and tactics to make things way more interesting.