The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

How D&D modules might look in the future

tombThe novel Ready Player One takes place in the year 2044, where virtual reality videogames are the everyday escape from global misery. Earth has become poverty-stricken, with a 1% billionaire class lording it over the rest of humanity, and the OASIS is the globally networked virtual reality where kids attend school online, people hook up in chat rooms, and everyone who is someone is a gamer. The OASIS basically allows people to live exciting lives as powerful avatars in another universe.

By this point in the world’s history tabletop RPGs are a thing of the past, and the main character has difficulty grasping how they even worked. Here’s how he reacts when browsing through the classic 1978 D&D module Tomb of Horrors.

Tomb of Horrors was a think booklet called a “module”. It contained detailed maps and room-by-room descriptions of an underground labyrinth infested with undead monsters. D&D players could explore the labyrinth with their characters as the dungeon master read from the module and guided them through the story it contained, describing everything they saw and encountered along the way.

As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked, I realized that a D&D module was the equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual reality simulations, created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice, and a few rule books. This realization kind of blew my mind.

One the one hand, I look forward to virtual reality becoming more real-life (the day perhaps is not far off), but frankly, no matter how sophisticated, video reality will never hold a candle to old-fashioned tabletop RPG play. It may be more labor intensive and demand shitloads of prep work and brain power, but that’s the point: nothing beats the power of human imagination.

The Episodes of Stranger Things Ranked

And after this list, see the more detailed 20 Best Scenes in Stranger Things.


Episode 8: The Upside Down. 5 stars. This is everything a finale should be: scary and emotional, with the right payoff and unexpected surprises on all sides of the story. At the Byers’ house, Jonathan and Nancy bait the shadow beast with blood, and when it appears (on top of a surprise visit from Steve), hell breaks loose — gunshots from Nancy, morningstar beatings from Steve, a firebomb from Jonathan — in a furious strobe effect of blinking Christmas lights. At the Hawkins Institute, Hopper and Joyce enter the shadow realm and find Barbara’s corpse and Will barely preserved alive, facehugger-style out of Alien (above image). And at the school, the kids are apprehended by Hawkins goons after El goes bad-ass and kills some of them, and while Lucas stands up to the shadow beast impressively with the slingshot, it is El who vaporizes it, sacrificing herself and devastating poor Mike. Aside from Mizumono (the second season finale of Hannibal), this is the best finale to any TV show I’ve seen.

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Episode 3: Holly, Jolly. 5 stars. The end of this episode is the best scene of the series, when the kids see Will’s body dragged from the river. They have no reason to think it’s a fake, and Mike’s reaction in particular — yelling at El and running home enraged — had me in tears. The use of Peter Gabriel’s cover for David Bowie’s “Heroes” over this tragedy is a rare piece of genius scoring. The whole episode builds to this climax in one strong scene after another: the opening sequence of Barbara assaulted in the shadow realm; the dreadful scene in which El relives her killing two guards at Hawkins Lab, when she was dragged back to her cell for refusing to kill a cat; Joyce’s powerhouse scene, as she communicates with Will through the use of Christmas-tree lights, and he tells her to get the hell out of the house as a creature suddenly bursts out of the living room wall.


Episode 6: The Monster. 5 stars. The title defines the episode everywhere, because the true monster isn’t what it seems. It’s not the shadow creature (who just feeds according to its nature), nor even El (who opened the gate to the shadow world and let the creature through, in a terrifying flashback). The monsters, rather, are revealed to be people like Doctor Brenner, who recruits college kids for his nasty experiments which result in catatonic lives and child abductions. Or people like Steve, whose jealousy triggers life-threatening fist-fights. Or kids like Troy, whose bullying is carried to the extreme of forcing Mike to jump from the quarry’s cliff by by holding Dustin at knifepoint. All of these scenes are pulverizing to watch (I though Jonathan was going to literally beat Steve to death), but especially the last. Mike’s fall made my heart skip, and El’s telekinetic rescue completely astonished me. Her reconciliation with Mike is sublime.

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Episode 1: The Vanishing of Will Byers. 4 ½ stars. The opening D&D scene is my fourth favorite of the series (if you need to know my second and third, they would be the twin-climaxes of the finale, in which Mike’s promise to make El his girlfriend is thwarted as she sacrifices herself, while in the Upside Down Will is finally rescued and barely resuscitated). The boy’s 10-hour campaign is a perfect summation of my nerdy childhood and shows why the game was so fun in the early 80s. It establishes their amazing acting skills through great personas — Mike the group leader (and so of course the dungeon master) and the undeniable soul of Stranger Things; Lucas the pragmatic skeptic; Dustin ruled by his appetites and hilarious in every frame; and Will the sensitive kid who won’t be getting much screen time. The chemistry between these kids is incredible, and I fell in love with them right away.

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Episode 4: The Body. 4 ½ stars. This is a chapter of slow-burns and stinging revelations, in which Hopper and Jonathan, along different paths, come to realize that Joyce isn’t crazy and that Will may still be alive. Hopper finds the fake body at the morgue, and Jonathan hooks up with Nancy, who has also seen the creature without a face in searching for Barbara. The kids also realize Will is alive (despite their tragic certainty at the end of episode 3), when El channels his voice over the radio. Three particular scenes stand out: (1) the boys dressing up El and Mike becoming increasingly smitten by her; (2) the gymnasium incident where El freezes Troy and makes him piss his pants; (3) Joyce ripping down her wallpaper and seeing her terrified son shouting to her in a flesh-encased portion of the wall. That last would be my fifth favorite scene of the series, and it gave me a goddamn nightmare.

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Episode 5: The Flea and the Acrobat. 4 ½ stars. In which the kids learn about the shadow realm, and others get a direct taste of it — Hopper at the Hawkins institute, and Nancy in “Mirkwood” forest. Now that everyone is on to the fact that Will is probably alive, they decide to take action, but things end badly for all involved. El sabotages the shadow gate’s magnetic field, ruining Dustin’s plan with the compasses, prompting a jealous fight between Mike and Lucas. She then smashes Lucas unconscious, driving a final wedge between them before running off. But the pivotal scene is at the end, with Jonathan and Nancy out in the woods, and Nancy enters the gate and gets her (and our) first full view of the shadow beast. There’s great exposition in this episode, as the science teacher answers the kids’ questions about parallel universes, and the kids do their own research on the shadow realm in a D&D manual.

Image result for the weirdo on maple street
Episode 2: The Weirdo on Maple Street. 4 stars. The kids’ most iconic scene is their prepubescent horror at a girl who almost gets naked in front of them. Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role, but the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are downright hilarious. (Lucas: “Do you think she slept naked??” Dustin: indignantly mimicks her taking off her dress.) The other thread to this episode is the party at Steve’s house, in which Nancy loses her virginity. I wasn’t a fan of Nancy at this stage, and certainly not Steve; their characters are annoying in the worst way of teens. But the later episodes pay this off incredibly well, so it turns out to be a good foundation. By the final episode, Nancy and Steve have become likeable precisely for how the horrific events force them to move beyond their hollow concerns for high school popularity and sexual esteem.


Episode 7: The Bathtub. 4 stars. The road-chase prologue is the best part: it begins on a tender moment, with Mike telling El how nice it is that she’s back home, only to leave home immediately as fugitives; the road chase is intense, and El delivers her most spectacular feat of the series when she flips the van; it ends on a perfect reconciliation between Lucas and El/Mike. The rest of the episodes is somewhat underwhelming, centering around the plot of getting El in the bathtub to locate Barbara (dead) and Will (alive). I think it’s the way the three groups of characters — Hopper and Joyce, Jonathan and Nancy, the four kids — finally come together. These characters are at their best when they’re facing challenges on their own, especially the kids and teens who have to transcend themselves. Here they are just gathered around El so she can get the information they need. The Bathtub is still very good, but it’s a pause after the fury of The Monster and a calm before the storm of The Upside Down.

The Evolution of Demogorgon

Stranger Things made me relive the horrors of Demogorgon in my D&D days. The Prince of Demons is described thus:

“Demogorgon is 18 feet tall and has two heads, which bear the visages of evil baboons or mandrills. His two necks resemble snakes. He is insanely powerful: (1) He can hypnotize up to 100 creatures with his gaze with less than 15 hit dice with no saving throw. (2) The left head has the power of a rod of beguiling. (3) The right head can cause insanity, which lasts 10-60 minutes. (4) He has a forked tail that drains 1-4 levels of the people it hits. (5) If he hits you with his arm tentacles, a limb on your body will rot off in 6 rounds, which permanently removes 35% of your hit points. (6) He’s got every psionic power, 95% magic resistance and plenty of spell-like abilities.”

The Demogorgon I know is represented by the lame sketch of the first image below. While I’m an old-fashioned curmudgeon who lives and dies by 1st-edition rules — the classic D&D of the 70s and early 80s played by our young heroes in Stranger Things — I will admit that some of the artwork from the early Monster Manual was primitive and silly. Later imaginations did justice to what the most terrifying demon lord should look like. Here are the best representations I could find. My favorites are the 2009 versions.

1978: Monster Manual (1e)

Demogorgon.JPG

 

1987: Dungeon Magazine (issue #120)

 

2007: Dragon Magazine (issue #357)

 

2009: Monster Manual II (4e)

 

2009: The Plane Below: Secrets of the Elemental Chaos (4e)

 

2015: “Out of the Abyss” adventure module (5e)

 

Deviant Art

Guest Blogger: Bob Kruger on the Setup and Play of D&D

[Editor: In his sequel post to The Essentials of Dungeons & Dragons, Bob Kruger continues his initiation of the beginning Dungeon Master. Here he warns against common traps that can quickly ruin a game — over-relying on combat, railroading players, and subordinating one’s godlike power as the DM to every roll of the dice. This is some of the best advice available, and if you take it to heart, you stand a good chance of making your D&D games fun and rewarding.]

D&D Setup and Play; or, How to Do It
by Bob Kruger

My first D&D essay for Loren’s blog ranked D&D elements from essential to arbitrary. I described how the D&D rules exist merely to get the Dungeon Master and the players working together to build a story. The rules formalize some activities that characters will engage in, and together with the dice, they facilitate the impression – one might say illusion – that the story world has objective laws. In short, the rules are indirection, a magician’s handwaving. You cannot be naively bound by them and expect to play a good game of Dungeons & Dragons. They exist to facilitate a story, not to dominate your attention.

My goal with this essay is to help you understand how that works.

Preparation

To play D&D, you should acquaint yourself at least with the tier 1 trappings as I described them in the last essay. At a minimum, you need to know about the five Platonic solid dice; the four basic character classes; the four basic races; the alignments involving good, evil, law, chaos, and neutrality; the six attributes of strength, intelligence, constitution, wisdom, dexterity, and charisma. You should understand skill checks, armor class, and saving throws. You should learn the main cleric and magic-user spells and popular magic items. You should figure out how you’ll grant experience points and what scale you’ll use to determine when characters level up and thereby gain more hit points and new skills and spells. You should know about gold pieces, and to a lesser extent copper, silver, electrum, and platinum (well, maybe not electrum), along with gemstones of various kinds. You should know what standard weapons and armor are available and acquaint yourself with the most popular monsters in the game (at the least: humanoids and giants, dragons, undead, demons, lycanthropes, a few squidgy things, and a variety of gigantic reptiles and arthropods).

Next, memorize the adventure you’re going to run. Buy The Village of Hommlet or one of the other low-level adventures in Loren’s post 40 Classic D&D Modules Ranked; get an idea of what makes it work and then use it or write your own. (Don’t worry that the adventure you buy has old rules; translating rules and stats should be trivial, and where it’s not trivial, dump the rules and stats.) Know the geography, know all the important buildings and their rooms, know all the major monsters and their treasures. Know what the probable endgame is, provided the characters survive. Will the characters ultimately slay a dragon? Retrieve a powerful magic artifact? Bring down an evil leader? Gain a clue to a greater adventure?

Evaluate the story possibilities of each intelligent monster and “non-player character” (that is, the people in the adventure whose roles you’ll act out). What does each monster and non-player character, or NPC, want? Which ones are allied with each other, and which are enemies of each other? How do the adventurers threaten the monsters’ goals? How might they advance the monsters’ goals?

Write down the names of the intelligent monsters and NPCs, putting them into allied groups, and draw lines to enemies, thicker lines for serious personal enemies. Beside each one, write what they want more than anything in the world, and their most loved companion and/or possession. Take a few notes about how the characters might fit into their plans.

List non-intelligent monsters and what relationship, if any, they have to intelligent monsters. How might intelligent monsters use them to help or hinder the party?

Finally, write out a list of names for good and evil characters and monsters, so that when you invent characters on the spot – and you should now and then — you can pick a name that has the right tone. If you have a name handy, your players will assume you’ve got an interesting background all prepared to back it up. That may sound like pressure, but with practice, it’s not hard make up a background as it becomes relevant. If you don’t trust yourself, sketch out some backgrounds to go with your name list.

Procedure

From a first glance at the D&D rules, you’d gather that the procedures are complex. They’re not. As Dungeon Master, you describe a scene, answer questions that arise, and act out the roles of NPCs. When the characters have fulfilled some scene objective, like having met a character and gotten information, slain a monster, or passed a locked door or dealt with a trap, you give a general narrative summary to move them to the next interesting situation. If there’s a question of an action succeeding, you do a skill-check roll, whose result you may only pretend to consider. When there’s a fight, you resolve blows in a round-robin, according to initiative order (look it up), rolling dice for monster attacks and letting the players roll dice for their characters’ attacks.

That’s pretty much it, but it’s a deep skill to see it goes well.

A Little More Procedure

First, you tell your players the large story of the world, who the famous political figures and monsters are, and what condition the world is in. This should comprise only a few sentences.

Next, you tell your players what the immediate situation is and immerse them in a scene. When they’re first starting out, you give them strong direction, but don’t explicitly hand them their motivation and goals. See “The Setup Problem,” below.

Narrate details to get the players asking questions. If they are asking questions, they are exercising their point of view, trying to visualize your world. See “The Point of View Problem,” below. It’s great if you do some acting now and then and address the players in the role of an NPC or monster, but you don’t need to push it. Simply stating what a character or monster says or does in third person will suffice most of the time.

Note that you set up a scene and narrate in real-time mode for mystery and conflict. Don’t linger in a real-time scene unless it has larger plot implications. Meeting various shopkeepers in town, for instance, to get the best trade price for gems should be summarized unless you want to acquaint the characters with a significant NPC. If the players insist on a real-time chat with a shopkeeper who has nothing to do with the plot, then make him have something to do with the plot. You might have to rewrite your script and move a character from point A to point B and change his name and profession. So be it. Always reward your players for taking initiative.

When there is a combat, all you really need to consider are surprise, initiative, ranged attacks, and melee attacks. Never dither in interpreting rolls, especially combat rolls. It’s enough to have a general sense of the armor classes the various characters have and the circumstances that might make fighting easier or harder. An average character with no armor is going to be hit on a 10 or better before modifiers. A heavily armored fighter might be hit on an 18 or better. Most monsters have bonuses, so a roll of 18 is going to be a hit most of the time. As Dungeon Master, don’t worry about getting it wrong: you’re never wrong, but you may have to stretch for a reason why you’re right, especially if your players know the rules well. Learn the intricacies of combat only to supply convincing answers to questions. Don’t slow down your combat to make allowance for the rules. Keep the combat moving, and start giving everyone cumulative bonuses if it threatens to drag on.

800px-RPG-2009-Berlin-2You are performing for an audience of players. It’s great to get input from the audience, and to work with the audience, but really you’re there to lead and entertain them. You definitely are not working against them. Here are some general tips for performing with confidence.

  1. High rolls always succeed in some way, unless success is proscribed ahead of time for a good reason, for example, if a key does not fit a lock because it’s important to the story they find the right key.
  2. Get players in tough situations, and then exert your imagination to help get them out. Make sure you have plausible levers to pull. For instance, have them run across strong NPCs who can come in and help.
  3. Lie shamelessly. The DM is right even when wrong. If the players catch you breaking the rules, cover it up with an excuse. Never concede a mistake; never be indecisive. You do not make mistakes. However, learn enough of the rules so that you’re confident you can break them without being called out.

You don’t make mistakes. But let’s pretend you could. Don’t make the following ones!

  1. Getting the characters involved in a combat that has no relation to any larger story.
  2. Having combats last more than a few minutes, unless they’re showdowns elaborately staged with miniature figures. Long combats are for encounters with archenemies, with monsters the players know on a first-name basis.
  3. Spending more than a second looking up what any die roll means. It’s so tempting to do. Don’t do it! Pronounce your judgment. Bone up on the rules after the game and apply them next time if you want.
  4. Letting the characters roleplay with characters or monsters that have no relation to the larger story or who cannot lead them to an effective place.
  5. Asking players what their characters want to do rather than giving them an effective setup that gets them asking the questions.
  6. Letting the dice tell a bad story.

 

Problems

D&D has serious problems as a storytelling art form that are unacknowledged in the rules. Here’s what they are and how to address them.

The World Setup Problem; or, the Young Readers Problem

Why is there a dungeon stuffed with monsters and treasures nearby? Why haven’t powerful characters and disciplined soldiers already cleaned out the dungeon? Or why haven’t they crushed the assassins guild in the city or routed the wererats in its sewers?

I call this the Young Readers Problem. If you’ve got kids you read to, you may have noticed that in most children’s books, the hero is an orphan or the practical equivalent. Just as most of these heroes need some freedom from adult supervision, the beginning characters need to fill a niche in a larger adventuring ecology that has alpha predators at the top like giants, demons, demigods, and high-level heroes. Here are some excuses for why your characters might need to fill the big shoes:

  • There’s a major pitched conflict between the forces of civilization and those of chaotic evil, where all the proven heroes are called away to fight, leaving local ruins vulnerable to unchecked incursions of low-level monsters.
  • The campaign happens in the aftermath of a major battle that has annihilated most local heroes and boss monsters alike. The few survivors are regrouping in secret.
  • Higher-level characters inevitably get enmeshed in adventures that take them to the Outer Planes, leaving the prime-material world largely undefended.
  • High-level heroes and their antagonists are hiding in plain sight, concealing their powers for fear of attracting attention to themselves. There’s a sort of stalemate to which the player characters are mostly, but not totally, oblivious. The party can do their thing only because neither captains of good nor lords of evil really consider them a threat, though both sides will be watching as the characters mature.

All these scenarios accomplish two things: they give the starting characters ideas about the kind of heroes they can become and the interesting trouble they can aspire to, and they establish the campaign backdrop.

The Adventure Setup Problem

railroad“Thou shalt not railroad your players.” This is an important commandment. The characters must be free to go where and do what they want. The setting should not be so brittle that there is only one path, especially if that path can be blocked. But when you’re first launching a campaign, your players need direction. The players should not be compelled to follow a certain course of action, but the setup should be strong. If they exit the setup, hit them with another similarly strong setup from another direction.

Here are potential setups:

  1. “You meet as chance travelers on the road and get caught in a storm. You seek shelter in a cave, and a lurking ogre rolls a stone over the entryway and attacks.” [After defeating the ogre, the party sees the ogre’s wife fleeing with a basket of live human children. The cave is part of a complex that leads to ancient ruins. The party doesn’t have to rescue the children. They can roll the stone away from the entrance, and leave the cave, but how will they live with themselves?]
  2. “You meet in an inn. After getting to know each other over drinks, you’re approached by a mysterious gnome who says that he’s looking for stout adventurers to do a job for him.” [The gnome has a map to a treasure in some ruins. Maybe the treasure is a sham and the gnome just wants to get the characters isolated for an ambush. The ambushers may be cultists of an evil god and bear a map to the real adventure, or maybe they defeat the party and drag them to prison, where they find a way out of their cell into the cultists’ monster-infested operation.]
  3. “You answer the ad of a baron who had his men test your adventuring skills. The baron sends you to a hamlet on the edge of his lands where people have been mysteriously disappearing. He pays you silver upfront with promise of gold if you solve the mystery. You travel to the hamlet, where the town elder puts you up for the night in his spacious house. He and his wife are bringing you ale before the fire, when someone bangs on the front door, shouting, ‘For the love of God, let me in!’ There’s a scream. When you investigate, no one’s there. But then you see shadowy figures in the distance surrounding the house.” [I was in an adventure like this. Vampires attacked and carried away an NPC ally to a nearby keep, so we launched a rescue.]
  4. “You’re set upon by thieves in a town backstreet. They’re not very tough, and you beat them up, allowing them to escape with their lives. Afterward, an old man approaches you, and says he’s impressed. He wants to hire you for a job.” [The old man is a wizard who wants to rescue his girlfriend from monsters, but he can’t go to the authorities, because she’s wanted for thievery herself. It’s no accident he came upon their fight. He hired the thieves to test the party’s skills, and the party might figure this out. The party might refuse employment and instead report the wizard to the town authorities. Maybe he has rivals who’ll then take an interest in the party; or allies who’ll make things difficult.]

A good setup should put the characters in an angsty situation. People will suffer if the party doesn’t take action. Or, something mysterious is going on, and they’re torn by curiosity. Simply saying there’s adventure and treasure waiting in that cave yonder will serve for most players, but it’s a weak start, and you’ll have to overcome low expectations by being especially clever later on.

The Point of View Problem

In fiction writing, you tell a story through the viewpoint of one or more characters. The things that the characters notice reflect their mental state, their habits, and their preoccupations. The things they notice reinforce their character.

How’s that work in D&D? The Dungeon Master describes the scene, so the players borrow their own characters’ viewpoint from the Dungeon Master.

This problem is not completely solvable, but it can be mitigated a lot. Most of your narration should be prompted by what the players are interested in and ask questions about. In this way, you’re collaborating on the characters’ point of view. You know your game is working when the players are frantically asking questions, declaring actions, or hanging on your every word for information. You know your game is not working if you have to keep asking your players questions. Give them captivating details to ponder. Also, make sure your players understand their options and prod them about their skills and spells until they have some they regularly use, like spells to detect magic, know alignment, or see hidden objects, and the ability to hide, listen, or move silently. They should never be out of options. And if they try something, it should rarely just fail; it should give them a thread to follow to the next interesting situation.

If the players are not asking questions or otherwise taking initiative despite your best efforts to draw them out, you can get one of them to roll a twenty-sided die for a Perception check to notice something. You can let them apply their wisdom bonus or penalty. Ideally, you seldom do this. When you do, make it at least intermittently rewarding. Not only will it grab their attention from then on, it reminds them to ask questions.

A Perception die roll that indicates success shouldn’t really be more significant than failure. Both represent an opportunity for you to advance the story. For example, maybe the characters are at an inn and a cultist assassin is among them. You may decide a high perception roll indicates that a character spots a wicked curved dagger at the assassin’s belt, and something (poison) drips from the scabbard onto the floor. With a low roll, the character may glimpse something mysterious on the man’s belt when the man arranges his cloak but the character isn’t quick enough to see what it is; however, the character will notice a spot of liquid on the floor. Either way, there’s a mystery that amounts to the same level of direction. Unless the player is especially dimwitted, they will almost certainly ask questions about the mysterious liquid.

But what if the player really is dimwitted? Well, your challenge then is to make the character look smart. Maybe a fawning non-player character helps the player make connections. A knight’s squire may opine, “If only we had some way of sneaking up silently on the hobgoblins,” to remind the character of his elven boots of stealth.

It’s great to have smart players, but it’s also rewarding to overcome their limitations.

The Combat Problem

d_d_4.0_party_artWhat is combat good for? I think it was Ursula Le Guin who once wrote that the more action there is in a story, the less is going on. This can be especially true of combat in D&D, where the “action” is abstracted down to dice rolls and some narrative.

Far too may Dungeon Masters in my experience run their adventures as a slog from one session of dice-rolling combat to the next. Several hours of play can be summarized as “The party killed a bunch of orcs and an ogre in a ravine. Then the party killed some trolls in a cave. Then the party killed another bunch of orcs.” And so on, without much progress in realizing a story.

Monsters have stats for taking damage and dealing damage, and combat’s an obvious way to interact with them. The D&D rules comprise a lot of material on armor, weaponry, fighting, and damage-dealing spells, so it’s easy to get the idea that the game is all about combat. Combat is formalized and game-like in a way that’s easy to understand, and it’s a clear fallback when no one at the table knows what else to do. Characters and monsters run into each other, then you might roll for surprise, you definitely roll for initiative, and you take turns rolling to hit, and when someone hits, they roll damage. Repeat.

The problem with combat, other than its being a crutch for the baffled, is twofold. On the one hand, if players routinely prevail, the combat becomes a rote distraction that doesn’t really complicate the situation in interesting ways. On the other, characters may get killed. A combat that isn’t clearly pointless can still be unpredictable and mess up the direction of the game.

You need to manage combats so that they build on each other to complicate and enrich your larger story.

The basic function of combat is to help players gauge how generally powerful their characters are. The academic term used by game mavens Richard Garfield, Skaff Elias, and Robert Gutschera in their excellent book Characteristics of Games is “positional heuristic,” or rule of thumb for knowing how you’re doing in a game. Combat is a positional heuristic. If it involves a little concrete math, it helps the game feel objective and sets player expectations. As players defeat and are routed by a few different kinds of monsters, they get a sense of how they’re doing, and when their characters advance in level, they can appreciate the advantages they’ve gained. As characters approach the heart of an adventure, say deep into the dungeon, or near the inner court of an evil king, the combats become incrementally harder, which can increase tension.

When combat goes against the party, the setback should hold the seed of an interesting development. Way back in junior high, I ran an adventure for my cousin where he infiltrated the home of evil merchants in a town. They got the drop on him, and knocked him unconscious. He had already pretended to be their friend and revealed that he knew about their plans, so it seemed logical that they would interrogate him. What’s more, he had been talking to powerful good citizens and told them that he would investigate the merchants and report back. So not only was he kept alive for interrogation, but help was on the way. The interrogation even became a de facto reverse interrogation, as the merchants let slip crucial information while asking their questions.

This seemed logical, but it was far from self-evident. You have to be creative. Always.

Keep in mind that combat may not be the only option for resolving an encounter, and may be the poorest one. Most creatures, intelligent or not, don’t want to risk their lives in a fight. Always think about their motivations. Monsters can try distraction, bargaining, and intimidation. They might try to dupe the party. Maybe they lure a party into a fight with other monsters that they want eliminated. Maybe the party does this to the monster. Rather than a liability, one’s opponent can be an asset if manipulated or recruited.

The Rules Problem

The rules get in the way of playing every bit as much as they make playing possible. D&D is not about following rules. Even so, it’s good to agree on a sizeable body of rules and encourage everyone to learn them. The rules applied to the dice in conjunction with the mistakes the DM inevitably makes prompt the DM to improvise and constantly scavenge for new storytelling opportunities. In short, covering up your rules mistakes can be a big and rewarding part of the game.

Say a player rolls to hit a ghoul and you declare a miss when the player, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Monster Manual, insists that his character should have hit. The wrong thing to do is concede a mistake. The right thing is to change the situation on the fly to make yourself right. As the DM, you must always be right. Maybe you decide that the ghoul wears a +3 ring of protection. Then you realize that when the characters defeat the ghoul, they’ll be getting a magic ring that will make them too powerful, so you decide it’s a cursed item that will turn a character into a ghoul, or an item with limited charges, or a ring only wearable by ghouls. Or maybe you decide that a +3 ring of protection is better than the treasure you originally assigned to the ghoul and let it stand. In any case, you want to apply the rules so as to avoid many of these improvisations, but every mistake should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich the story.

If no one is overly meticulous about given rule details, especially in combat, then you’re very silly if you track them. Combats should be fast, but often they’re very very slow, because players try to incorporate all the possible situational modifiers. Why? In the interest of “realism”? The DM should imaginatively describe the combat scene and then roll and look at dice just long enough to create a little tension, longer when the players are really on the hook, so that their imaginations have a little time to work. It’s more important that the DM master drama than the rules.

Players will generally not consider how fair the DM is to their opponents. But some may try to avail themselves of every obscure rule, bogging down the narrative. The DM needs to be familiar with the rules just enough to refute these players’ stratagems. Probably the easiest thing to do is to keep the narrative moving, giving the player scarcely more time to declare attack options and bonuses than is needed to swing a weapon (or roll a die).

The Dice Problem

A D&D adventure that really modeled reality would never get around to rolling dice. It would be run by a Dungeon Master who had godlike knowledge of an impractical number of variables. He would know whether the arrow hit the target because he would know the distance, wind speed, amount of coordination and muscle memory the shooter has, plus gazillions of other factors, reaching to the limits of time and space. If he rolled dice at all, they would not be “to-hit dice”; they would be judging events in the quantum foam, on a scale that makes a single atom the size of a galaxy.

Dice are generally too crude to model reality. But D&D dice are an exception! They are magic dice. They channel a world where your characters really exist. The dice tell the story of what actually happens. What’s more, this is always a fascinating story that will captivate, move, and inspire your players. For example, the dice never kill the characters. If the players are making an effort to use their brains, the characters will win through. Only willful stupidity, either yours or the players’, will get the characters killed.

If the dice are telling you that the characters are unfairly thwarted or killed, or even if they’re telling a boring story, you’ve made a mistake. You’re using the dice to judge the wrong thing. Instead of re-rolling the dice, use your power as Dungeon Master to change what you’re measuring the dice against. Is the axe-wielding ogre likely to smash the character flat? If the next die roll can ruin the story, then you’re missing something. The dice only tell good stories. You roll a hit. You roll lethal damage — closed-casket lethal. There’s no way out of this, right?

Wrong. There’s always a way out. For example, in this situation, the ogre’s axe hits not the character but his plate-mail breastplate. Roll to see what happens to the breastplate…. If the result is anything less than a 20, the breastplate breaks. The armor is ruined, and the character knows to flee. If it’s a 20, the axe is ruined. Maybe it even shatters, sending a chunk into the ogre’s eye, blinding it or even killing it outright. (Are you about to look for this in the rules? Don’t look for this in the rules.)

Maybe an evil wizard who’d been secretly watching the proceedings hits the ogre with a lightning bolt, slaying it mid-stroke. Of course, the wizard didn’t do this out of kindness; he wants to interrogate the character and find out how he got so far in his dungeon, or he wants the character alive so that he can feed him to his lycanthropy-cursed daughter, or have him serve as a cat’s paw and go to the Tunnel of Traps to grab the golden monkey off the pedestal. (You didn’t know there was an evil wizard in this dungeon before the ogre made the die roll? Well, lucky you: now you know.)

Or maybe you’re not comfortable going off-script. Maybe you just rolled the die wrong and need to roll it over. Yeah, maybe that’s it. This is an embarrassment, of course, but no one is likely to notice just this once. And it’s not near as embarrassing as having the dice tell a bad story. Because dice don’t tell bad stories.

Dungeon Masters do.

Guest Blogger: Bob Kruger on the Essentials of D&D

[Editor: The Busybody welcomes Bob Kruger, President of ElectricStory.com, who like myself grew up in D&D’s golden age, when rules were simple and adventure-modules inspired. Bob offers a sketch of what he considers to be the essential game elements.]

The Essentials of Dungeons & Dragons
by Bob Kruger

Every edition of D&D, including the new 5th edition, strikes me as poorly organized, with the essential game elements scattered throughout the lengthy rules rather than concentrated for easy reference. I think that’s a shame, because the activity would be a lot more popular if people could see through the nonessentials to what it’s really about: a group of people creatively improvising a story together. The Dungeon Master, or “DM” for short, with the complicity of the players, uses the game’s trappings like a magician uses stage props, to divert the analytical mind and draw out everyone’s latent capacity for stage drama.

After due consideration, I’ve decided that the newest edition of D&D does a good job of consolidating lessons learned by the community over four decades. Superficially, it looks like a big departure from the original game and even the 3rd edition major overhaul. But really, the essentials have been burnished to a high luster, and the dross has been minimized. If you read all the rules without guidance, you’ll probably come away with a better sense of how to conduct the game than you would by reading any other edition.

It is still poorly organized.

My friend Ken McGlothlen, a founder of Wizards of the Coast, likes to quote a statement by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” The rules in D&D are not like the rules in other games where players compete against each other to reach a winning objective; they are rather tools to achieve an effect, like a vocabulary or a musical scale. You can do a lot with little, and if you try to employ them all before you understand what you’re trying to do, you’ll make incoherent noise.

Organizing the rules so that you need to read them all to get a functional overview is a terrible disservice to the game. Instead, the rules should outline the essentials, and then progress toward what is optional, with perhaps reference tables at the end. There have been several attempts at a Basic Edition of D&D over the years, but I’m not talking about leading with the basics. The essentials are not basic at all. They are more like the core, challenging tenets.

The word “level” has an honored history in the game. I’m tempted to organize this discussion by levels, with the higher levels being more arbitrary and dispensable, but to avoid confusion, I’ll call them “tiers.”

Tier 0: Emperor’s New Clothes

Before I get to the essential first tier of D&D, I’ll give a nod to the idea that D&D is really no more than group makebelieve of the kind that young kids spontaneously engage in, boys playing at being soldiers or superheroes and girls playing “house,” or vice versa. Maybe D&D is really no more than a group improv storytelling activity that involves medievalish heroes, monsters, and magic. If you’re intimidated by weighty rule tomes, grid paper, miniatures, and polyhedral dice, then console yourself with the idea that all that might be optional.

If you are the Dungeon Master, you want to fool your players into thinking you’re playing the game at the highest levels – employing all the rules in the weighty D&D tomes — while actually striving for tier 0, where you dispense with them all. But don’t underestimate the challenge. If your players think you’re just making stuff up, which they will if you don’t maintain the disciplined pretense of using the rules, your players will lose faith in the exercise and feel manipulated. The rules give players confidence that they are operating in an objective world – rather than being railroaded — and that the decisions they make have a real impact on events, which they should.

In short, D&D is an act of self-deception — even for the Dungeon Master – that paradoxically results in a true experience. If that perspective is too abstruse for you, look at it this way: it’s practically impossible to play by the rules without boring the ass off everyone involved. Those players who really try aren’t master players, they’re duped beginners. The game’s not ultimately about following rules anyway; it’s about evoking a living story. “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

It’s hard to overstate this. The only winning in D&D is sharing excitement. Players are excited if they feel they’ve exercised their minds to help bring out satisfying developments in a story. The Dungeon Master is excited if his players seem engrossed by his performance. Everyone feels a little ridiculous, which is why you roll dice to shake up the experience and make it seem like everyone is at the judgement of fate, but the best DMs understand the dice rolling and all the rules to be merely showman’s props. The possible developments should be necessarily limited and all should be interesting.

Once again, at its most essential, D&D is simply a magic trick conducted for a group by a DM, who uses dice rolls and rules as indirection to obscure his art, to create an emotional effect while the audience’s attention and thought are distracted.

Tier 1

To play D&D at tier 1, you need:

1. The referee storyteller, called a Dungeon Master, or DM for short, who describes the setting and assumes all the roles in the game except those of the player characters.
2. Players who assume the role of medievalish characters whose descriptions are set down on paper for reference, generally one character per player.
3. Dice that impartially represent the role of fate in determining the success or failure of an action like attempting to hit a target, scale a wall, or bluff a guard.

D&D has a few essential conventions and game mechanics. You assume the role of a character in a world with medieval-level technology where magic works and monsters roam. Your goal is to solve mysteries and defeat opponents to advance in experience level. As you advance in level, you increase the magnitude and scope of your abilities, which in turn allows you to take on more — and often more complex — challenges.

Why Medieval?

In a word, archetypes. Fighting, thievery, gods, and magic are concepts accessible to just about everyone. In all cultures, most kids get some instruction in these concepts through fairy tales, in addition to the idea of monarchy and to a lesser extent feudalism. We evolved to fight and steal and to attribute supernatural agency to things we can’t explain. If you stay close to these imperatives, you’ll be able to engage new people in a game of D&D very quickly.

Adults have a lot of unfinished business with fairy tales. Case in point: Star Wars. The basic concerns of fairy tales are lifelong concerns. In a modern culture that’s abstracted the fundamentals of life beyond recognition for many of us, D&D promises to set you back on a long-abandoned clear path toward making sense of the world.

The Setting

You solve mysteries, fight monsters, and gain treasure. Specifically, you explore underground catacombs, labyrinths, or cave networks, referred to as “dungeons” even if they don’t have anything to do with housing prisoners. You may also explore wilderness or town settings. What’s important in the adventuring setting is constraint. For some reason, this has never been acknowledged in any of the rules. A poor dungeon master has a poor concept of how the geography or architecture of his setting constrains and focuses story action. A good adventure setting offers the players a limited but rich set of options for exploration and plot progression.

The stonework “dungeon” is essential to Dungeons & Dragons for several reasons. It makes it easy to limit the set of possible actions that characters can take and to standardize rules for them; therefore, opening doors, checking for secret doors, fighting monsters, illuminating a space with lanterns or torches – all have become standard activities. What’s more, the dungeon-and-cavern setting has inspired monsters that have become icons of the game, like the gelatinous cube, a mindless, transparent monster that neatly fills dungeon halls and cleans them of debris; the mimic, which can look like a spot of floor or a treasure chest; the lurker above, whose underside looks like a dungeon ceiling; and the piercer and roper, which look like stalactites and stalagmites, respectively. Finally, the dungeon is often a multi-leveled construction, with the lower levels inhabited by the most dangerous monsters, the greatest treasures, and the most powerful ancient magic, which symbolizes the psyche and its layers. The deeper you go into your own head, the greater the hazards and the greater potential rewards of insight and power.

Wilderness and town adventures can be viewed as basically dungeon adventures with streets, paths, rivers, houses, meadows, and valleys standing in for dungeon halls and rooms.

Alignment and Cosmology

Related to setting is cosmology, and D&D outlines a multiverse of moral and elemental forces. Characters and monsters and even different regions of the multiverse have moral alignments, from Good to Evil variously mixed with lawful order and chaos.

The moral universe is laid out on two perpendicular axes: the Law to Chaos axis that intersects the Good to Evil axis, with Neutrality where the lines cross at the center: so you have the zones Neutral, Neutral Good, and Neutral Evil; Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral; Lawful Evil and Lawful Good; and Chaotic Evil and Chaotic Good. There are home dimensions, or “planes,” for each of these alignments. There are also planes dedicated to material elements, like Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. The characters’ homeworld is like a stew composed of forces from the various planes.

The morally aligned planes shape the expression of the physical worlds. Therefore, evil places on Earth (or Middle-earth or whatever you call your adventuring homeworld) that allow passage to the Chaotic Evil planes may be desolate and repellant, inhabited by diseased, asymmetrical plants and animals that reflect the even worse corruption to be found on the Evil planes themselves.

If you’ve read Leviticus (hint: in the Bible), you probably noticed that spiritual and physical corruption or perfection go hand in hand. This is an evolved bias. Our reflexive disgust at rotten or otherwise harmful things and our reverence of clean and pure things helped our ancestors survive, and insofar as we are naïve, we order our moral positions by that same physical disgust or reverence. So it is in D&D. Evil and Good infest the physical world itself. What’s more, they are not merely positions in the figurative sense; they’re also places you can visit.

D&D can get very complicated with its metaphysical maps. For tier 1 D&D, it’s enough to acknowledge the nine different alignments and the existence of moral and elemental planes you can travel to.

The Characters

  • Classes

Only four character classes comprise essential, tier-1 D&D: thief, fighter, magic-user, and cleric. In recent editions of D&D, the thief is called a “rogue” and magic-users come, at a minimum, in wizard and sorcerer varieties. These specialist classes complement each other, which encourages players to adopt different classes from each other and easily slip into different roles that are highly valued by the other players.

Whatever. The main archetypes represent: 1) loners who live by dexterity and wit, 2) fighting men and women, 3) magicians, and 4) holy men and women. You’ll find many more classes in the official rulebooks and supplements, but you’ve got a good handle on the game if you view them as variations on, and admixtures of, these four roles.

  • Races

Although the first popularizer and main author of D&D, Gary Gygax, tried to play down the influence of Tolkien on his work, it’s clear from early editions of the game that Tolkien influenced the game more than the Weird Tales swords-and-sorcery writers like Robert E. Howard and Lovecraft and their direct literary descendants like Fritz Leiber. The iconic (tier 1) races in the game are humans, elves, dwarves, and halflings. The earliest editions of D&D back in the seventies conceived of the races as their own character classes, but by the eighties, a race implied a separate set of special skills and adjustments to basic attributes. The only race that’s really essential to the game is human, but the races have been a respected part of the game flavor, so you’re kind of working against the D&D grain if you don’t include them.

  • The Dice

The Ancient Greeks recognized that there are five congruent polyhedrons where the same number of faces meet at every vertex. A simpler way of saying this is that they realized there are five different shapes that work great as dice: four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, twelve-sided, and twenty-sided. The Platonic solids have captured the imagination of mathematicians and natural philosophers for thousands of years. They give you a nice toolkit of probabilities to play with. Maybe there’s even real magic in them to represent the workings of fate in a living world. Who knows? In any case, they’re essential D&D equipment.

  • The Attributes

Characters have six basic attributes, namely strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, and charisma, each of which has a score from 3 to 18 and is determined by rolling three six-sided dice and adding the results together. Early editions of the game prescribed these attributes for characters only. Monsters weren’t really on this scale, even the humanoid monsters. But for several editions now, all creatures are measured by this scale, with weak ones being off it in the direction of 0, and extremely powerful ones above it, up to a score of 25 or, very rarely, more. The 3-to-18 scale works very well, and I’d say it’s a tier 1 element of D&D.

Because three rolls of a six-sided die are added together for each attribute, you get a bell-curve distribution that favors a score toward the middle of the scale. There are many more three-dice combinations that add up to 9 than to 3 or 18. Your chance of getting a 9 score is relatively high. Think about it. To get a 3, you need to roll a one three times in a row; to get an 18, a 6 three times in a row; but a nine could be three 3s, or it could be a 1, a 6, and a 2; two 2s and a five; and so on. The scale could have been narrower, say with three four-sided dice, or broader with three ten-sided dice, but 3-to-18 is a very nice range. It’s big enough to differentiate a weakling from a bodybuilder or an idiot from a genius without getting too nitpicky about scoring fine shades of ability, and it’s close to the range of 1 to 20 that is so important to skill checks.

The six attributes were variously important to the different classes, of thief, fighter, cleric, and magic-user (and their permutations like rangers, assassins, monks, and so on) all the way back in the early editions of the game. Fighters needed strength to wear heavy armor and wield weapons; thieves needed dexterity to open locks, climb walls, and pick pockets; clerics needed wisdom for their spells, and magic-users, intelligence; but that hardly justified the existence of attributes for the classes that didn’t use them. Intelligence and wisdom hardly applied to fighters at all, for instance. That has changed with the belated system of skill checks, which really should have been there all along.

  • Skill Checks

With 3rd edition and the D20 system developed by Jonathan Tweet, et al, the attributes translate to standard modifiers for skill and luck checks, like say a -4 added to a combat die roll for a strength of 3, up to a +4 for a strength of 18. Chief among these die checks is the “saving throw,” which determines whether your character avoids some baleful circumstance, like being charmed by a demon, poisoned by a giant spider, or affected by a magical spell. In early editions of the game, you’d roll a die and compare the result against a lengthy reference table for a particular activity, but this was silly and encouraged a proliferation of arbitrary tables. Also, saving throws were not cleanly tied to relevant ability scores, like Dexterity for dodging an arrow trap, or Wisdom to avoid a vampire’s gaze, which made all ability scores less meaningful than they could be.

The best approach is the current one, where a hypothetical average person succeeds at an average task by rolling a 10 or higher on a 20-sided die. The DM adjusts this 10 difficulty upward for harder actions or downward for easier ones. A DM needs to have a sense of drama and proportion and only employ skill checks to help focus the players’ attention, or to regain it if that attention is wandering. Therefore, you don’t employ a skill check for simply walking across a room unless there’s some special difficulty or consequence involved.

To make a skill check, a player adds any modifiers to the roll like, for instance, their character’s Dexterity bonus to dodge a trapdoor along with a bonus based on the character’s experience level, and if the outcome equals or exceeds the difficulty, the action succeeds. For some reason it took several editions of the game to hit on this superior approach. The term “saving throw” has a long tradition, but it’s not really an essential concept. It’s just a skill check.

  • Combat

Combat is much like skill checking, with some special added rules. Each combatant has an Armor Class, which represents the difficulty rating for an opponent to score a hit. So if you are an average person fighting a monster with a 13 armor class, you must roll a 13 to hit. If you are a hero with a magic sword that gets, say, +5 bonuses to hit, you’d only need to roll an 8, because you add your bonuses to the roll to try to get 13.

Different weapons do different amounts of damage and have various rules apply to them. The weapon rules can get very complicated. You can really dispense with the complications and just keep some rules of thumb in mind. A big sword or a spear will do about one eight-sided die of damage; a dagger or dart will do about a four-sided die in damage. Weapons that do more than a twelve-sided die, before any penalties or bonuses, will be very big and very slow to wield; ones that do less than a four-sided die will be very small.

Combat is conducted in rounds, which is an exchange of blows but implies a bunch of feints and dodges abstracted away for practicality’s sake. With a small weapon, you might get two attacks per round. With a big weapon, you might get as little as one attack every other round. You can look up exact rules if you want, but this is really up to the DM and most players do not keep close track.

  • Magic Spells

Borrowing a magic system devised by writer Jack Vance, D&D dictates that a magic-user undergoes a long apprenticeship and starts his adventuring life with a few basic spells in his spellbook. He studies a spell to commit it to memory, and when he casts the spell, the magical energy released scrubs his memory of the spell, so he’ll need to re-memorize it. The number of spells and the kinds of spells that a magic-user can hold in memory are dictated by his Intelligence attribute score and experience level. To get new spells, the magic-user will need to study under a more experienced magician or else find magic scrolls in the course of adventures that he can copy into his spellbook.

A cleric prays to her god and performs a ritual, which invokes a favor, in the form of a spell, from her god. To regain a spell, the cleric will need to dedicate time to uninterrupted prayer. The number and kinds of spells that a cleric can invoke are dictated by the cleric’s experience level and Wisdom attribute score.

So there is pseudo-scientific magic, gained through study, that follows predictable rules; and there is divine magic that is bestowed by a god or other powerful being. Players assume their characters are acquainted with the particulars of the magic they use. Players themselves don’t have to memorize any magical procedures themselves, just what a spell does. They simply declare their intent to use a spell, and depending on the rules for a particular spell, their character may have to employ special physical ingredients and/or words or hand gestures. If the character isn’t free to speak or move, or if they hadn’t secured the right ingredients ahead of time, they can’t cast the spell. These rules serve to limit the power of magic-users in the game.

The essential use of magic is pretty much the same across the board. A magic-using character has spell slots and chooses which spells to put in them before the adventure, and during the adventure when a spell is cast, a spell vacates the slot, and a character needs about a day of downtime to recover spells. Spells are divided up into levels, which are not the same as character levels. A fifth-level spell is a powerful spell, for instance, and a character needs to have much more than five character levels to use it.

(This is tier-1 spellcasting. Recent editions of the game have introduced “sorcerer,” or “artsy,” magic that derives from innate talent. A sorcerer doesn’t need to find new spells and enter them in a spell book. More about this later.)

  • Experience Points and Level Progression

Gaining levels is an essential D&D element. You do this by defeating monsters. To keep the challenge of level progression uniformly difficult, you need to defeat more or more powerful monsters to gain each successive level. So, for example, you might need a thousand experience points to go up to level 2 and then another 2000 to go up to level 3. The way experience has been awarded has changed over the years. While the concept of leveling is an essential concept, there’s no essential implementation. Basically, a DM wants to moderate the challenges so that a group will make regular progress in going up levels without having it be too easy, say one level per every ten hours or so of playing – less if the group meets seldom and more if they play a lot. It’s probably worse to make leveling too easy than too hard, however. Attaining a new level gives a character more hit points, and every few levels a character gets a bonus on various skill checks, or at least a to-hit bonus. Spellcasters can hold more spells in memory each level and qualify to cast more powerful spells every few levels.

Magic Items

Magic items are all arbitrary, but I’d say that magic swords and other weapons that give a bonus up to +3 on a to-hit roll, magic arrows that slay a certain type of creature if the creature fails a saving throw, rings and cloaks of invisibility, and magic potions that bestow various powers – basically any magic that can improve a character’s stats temporarily or permanently – are tier-1 elements.

Monsters

Monsters represent the key antagonism in the game. They can be very arbitrary, but a few do seem to be essential. Humanoid monsters play on our xenophobia and help us to articulate ideas about evil. Monsters may have more or less power from culture to culture, but so far it seems that the following are durable monster archetypes that should show up at some point:

— Humanoid: goblins, orcs, ogres, and giants. There are various giants, but hill giants, frost giants, and fire giants seem most important.

— Undead: vampires, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and wraiths/shadows/ghosts (permutations of the same incorporeal undead). Undead complement clerics, because clerics have special powers to address them. If you get rid of one, you need to get rid of the other, and I think undead address universal anxiety about corpses, death, and the extinction of the self. Some undead can only be affected by magic weapons and holy water. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get holy water, which is magical where undead are concerned. Thus, the mere threat of undead helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world by forcing them to think about holy water. (In response to Christian churches that will not condone gay clergy, I joke that as long as gay priests can make holy water that will burn vampires, they should be allowed to keep their perquisites.) Sacred rites run deep in our psychology, and undead support this idea nicely.

— Lycanthropes: werewolves, werebears, and wererats. Maybe werewolves are the only essential lycanthropes. After all, “lycanthropy” derives from the Greek lukos, meaning wolf, but werebears appear in Tolkien’s work, and wererats touch our anxiety about a creature that has parasitized human civilization since the beginning. The idea of sewer-dwelling riffraff that can turn into rats seems essential to me. In any case, lycanthropes reflect our ambivalence with our animal natures. Because lycanthropes can be hit only by magic or silver weapons, players need to think about having extra equipment to address them. Beginning characters have no magical weapons. But they can get silver weapons, which are magical where lycanthropes are concerned. Thus, as with holy water, the idea of needing silver weapons helps situate the players in a spiritual and magical world.

— Demons and Devils: demons and devils are essential to the game. They are like undead, but they come from realms of perfected evil, whereas undead merely channel the energy of those realms. Heroic fantasy deals with abstractions like good and evil as absolutes. Demonic forces reflect the higher order of the cosmos.

— Dragons: dragons have a long fantasy tradition. Whole scholarly books have been written (in the real world) on how they embody a mixture of traits common to the ancient predators of humanity: serpents, raptors, and hunting cats. The idea of them is readily at hand. We may have dedicated brain circuits to processing the idea of clawed, flying, scaly things with fear and awe.

— Giant Animals and Plants: gigantism in many forms evokes a number of important feelings, from otherness to awe to revulsion. A very small creature like an amoeba, cricket, or spider becomes a positive horror when made gigantic; same with carnivorous plants.

— Greek Myth: Just about any creature from Greek Myth should be considered a part of the tier-1 D&D canon.

— Weird: D&D needs a few weird monsters to evoke anxiety about Otherness and shake up the Manichean expectations set up by demons and devils. Maybe even demons and devils are ultimately too cozy and human-centric. Maybe at its deepest levels, the universe is a scary, unknowable place where all we cling to as order is arbitrary and vain. The Weird would include monsters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or their close cousins like mind flayers, but the particular weirdness isn’t important, just that there is some.

Treasure

Essential D&D recognizes the gold piece as the primary unit of currency. Gold does not tarnish. It has a long tradition in alchemy, and is a great metaphor for purity. Copper, silver, and platinum coins are also essential D&D, but they all have value in reference to gold. Gems are also essential, as are various magic items, but the particular ones aren’t so important.

Traps and Puzzles

Pit traps, arrow traps, riddling sphinxes – traps and riddles are essential dungeon furnishing and can provide interesting roleplaying opportunities. They involve skill checks and so remind players of the various capabilities of their characters and help them maintain sight of the roles they’re playing.

Weapons

Swords, spears, bows and arrows, crossbows, and maces. Thieves generally do not use heavy weapons. Some clerics may not be able to use blood-letting weapons. These restrictions help enforce class specialization and limit their powers.

Armor

Shields, leather, chain, scale, and plate, or admixtures, are essential. Armor is used to balance out the powers of the various classes. Thieves and magic-users generally cannot use metal armor. The in-game reasoning for this is that metal armor interferes with their movement, but the restriction also balances their powers with those of the other classes, of course.

Tier 2

Beyond tier 1, you really can consider yourself on your own and still solidly within the realm of D&D. I’ll just share what I think are a few elements of the game with a solid tradition that arguably lie closest to essential D&D without being archetypal; an example is monsters that were created specifically for the game.

D&D-specific monsters

In D&D trolls are a special type of green-skinned, dim-witted, regenerating monstrosity, very tough for low-level characters to kill, but generally solitary so they’re a common monster encounter. They’re nothing like the Nordic troll, which really can be replaced by ogres and hill giants anyway. Since trolls in the game are a D&D innovation, I wouldn’t call them essential, but most D&D games use them. The same could be said of other creatures like the gelatinous cube and the piercer, or the mind flayer, which is like a race of wingless, human-sized Cthulhu monsters. The mind flayer is a great D&D innovation. It has a hideous parasitic life cycle and has captured a lot of people’s imaginations.

Other Monsters

Lesser-known monsters from world mythology, like weretigers, rakshasa, and so on, are tier 2. Is this a Western bias? Of course it is, because D&D is a game that started in the West and was primarily inspired by Western Classical culture. If you don’t live in the West, though, feel free to consider your local beasties tier 1.

Extra Classes

Tier-2 character classes include paladin holy warriors, rangers in the idiom of Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings, monks like the kung fu warriors from chopsocky movies, and what D&D calls “sorcerers,” which are artsy-fartsy magicians whose spells come from an innate magical gift rather than disciplined study. Sorcerer-type magicians as defined by later editions of D&D have a solid tradition in genre fantasy literature. I don’t think they’re archetypes like wizards and priests, so they’re not essential, but they’re close.

Extra Races

Gnomes, deep gnomes, drow — drow are dark elves. Elves in Tolkien were arguably like humans before the Fall, so Dark Elves are like, I don’t know, elves who made a pact with demons to act wicked and still keep their immortality? Anyway, the idea of debased subterranean elves, suave but impossibly evil, worshippers of a hideous spider goddess who demands blood sacrifice and favors women so as to set up a dark matriarchy – it’s provocative stuff. The idea of drow is only a few decades old, though, not quite tier-1 stuff. Maybe I’m too conservative.

Recent editions of D&D have promoted dragonmen to first-class race status. In terms of importance to the game, I’d call them tier 3, at best.

Spells

All spells are tier 2 or lower. Some of them have a respected tradition in the game and in mythology generally, and should probably be considered canon, insofar as any spells are. That would include Web, Magic Missile, Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Polymorph, Cure Disease, Cure Wounds, Shield, Light, Strength, Bless, and arguably a few others.

Outer_Planes-2013_(1980-12)_TSR_AD&D_1ed-Deities_&_Demigods-1Specific Moral and Physical Planes

Every edition of D&D since the first “Advanced” D&D books published in 1978 has outlined a cosmology where each moral alignment has its home universes – or “Outer Planes of Alignment” [click on image below] — that bleed through a layer of elemental, or “Inner” — planes to intersect our own. [Click on image to the right.]

outer planesNow, whether the elemental planes in your D&D game follow the classical model, with realms of Fire, Earth, Air, and Water (and Ether, or “Quintessence”) and whether you recognize the existence of the Nine Hells and the 666 layers of the Abyss, divide the planes up into Inner and Outer Planes, mix in Light and Dark as elements, stick in an Astral Plane for good measure, and talk about “Demi-Planes” – whether you accept these specifics is really a tier 2 and lower consideration.

Some may argue that the nine alignments and a cosmology of moral Outer Planes and physical Inner Planes are not really essential, but I disagree; they unify discussion of monsters and magic and have such a deep tradition in D&D that without them, you’re really playing a different game.

Specific Rules

Most of the specific rules of D&D are tier 2 or lower. The six basic attributes and the concepts of skill checks are essential, as I explained, but what about the exact numbers you need to apply to a 20-sided die and the names you give the various skills? Tier 2, or lower. I won’t go into which have the more solid tradition. Specific rules, as opposed to the general concepts, are really up to your taste. You’ll want them, but remember that ultimately you don’t need them.

Tier 3, and Beyond

Tier 2 represents the time-honored, if arbitrary, core traditions of D&D. Other traditions and have come and gone in the past forty years. In tier 3, I’d place the Energy and Transitive planes of the cosmology; monsters other than demons and devils that inhabit the Outer Planes, like devas, angels, and so on; specific gods like Lolth; combat rules involving weapon speed factors; advantage dice, critical hits, and skill and feat trees. If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. It is not “advanced” stuff; it’s just more stuff, some good, some not so good. All of it dispensable.

Summary

D&D involves several players and a storyteller referee that mediates the storytelling. Essential D&D resonates with our evolved cognitive biases, and explores archetypal symbols. It takes practice to do it well, but doing it well is less a function of adhering to the rules than mastering the art of appearing to faithfully apply them. You actually use the rules only to help the players suspend their disbelief and to suggest new, better dramatic possibilities for your story.

Coming Soon: D&D Setup and Procedure

(Dungeons and Dragons and D&D are registered trademarks of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, a division of Hasbro, Inc.)

Playing Evil Characters in D&D

dragon 89In September 1984, a controversy broke out in the Reader’s Forum of Dragon magazine (issue #89). Katherine Kerr wrote a letter condemning D&D gamers who play evil characters. In her strongly stated opinion, such players are unhealthy and reinforce their baser nature in the scenarios they fantasize about. As an example, she decried the following group of acquaintances:

“This group I knew played for several months, with the ante getting higher and higher. Soon they were stealing from the starving poor, burning temples and forcing the priests to stay inside to burn with them, and torturing prisoners in more and more inventive ways. Finally, some of the players insisted on having their characters gang-rape and murder a princess.”

I was reminded of this controversy in light of a recent commenter (Tam Lin) on this blog, who, like Kerr, objects to strong elements of torture, sadism, and depravity in role-playing games. Even a rebuttal commenter (Emirikol), while defending both me and D&D’s transgressive roots of the ’70s, believes that rape goes too far. I will address both Tam Lin and Emirikol directly in a second post, but first I want to set some groundwork by revisiting the Dragon controversy. 1983-84 was around the time D&D was taking a dramatic turn: the Reagan years had brought out Christian fundies and hollow secular psychologists who wanted to censor music, film, television, and role-playing games to “protect” America’s youth. Katherine Kerr’s objections fit squarely within this trend.

Basically, there were two concerns emerging from Kerr’s grievance, and to which other readers of Dragon responded in later issues. The first is what exactly constitutes “evil” role-playing, and the second is why players enjoy evil fantasies.

(1) Evil morality in D&D

The first question was answered head-on by Scott Hicks in Dragon #91 (Nov ’84). Hicks rightly pointed out that mindless campaigns like the one described by Kerr, in which players go on mass-killing and/or raping rampages are usually not realistic and certainly don’t represent the vast bulk of evil characters played by most gamers — whether lawful evil, neutral evil, or chaotic evil. (See here for how the nine moral alignments are defined in D&D.) Hicks wrote:

“Evil isn’t stupid, nor is it sick. No reasonably sane party of characters would take the course of action taken by the party Ms. Kerr writes about. If these actions follow the precepts of any alignment, it is chaos, and chaos and evil are far from interchangeable, as any lawful evil character would tell you. However, insanity seems to be a better choice to explain the actions of those characters (see the Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 84, specifically homicidal mania).”

That’s right. The moral alignments of D&D reflect general leanings, not absolutes. Even a saint-like paladin isn’t lawful-good 24/7. That paladin could snap in a situation like war and start murdering innocent villagers. Good characters can just as easily succumb to bad temptations while not under any kind of psychological duress. On the flip side, the most vile chaotic-evil person is capable of goodness. No one is so one-dimensional or unrealistic that their moral alignment rules their behavior in a cartoonish fashion. This is how Hicks, for example, role-played his lawful evil character:

“I have played the D&D game since its first publication in 1974, and my longest-lived and most powerful character is a wizard of lawful evil alignment, as are his wife (a thief), their adventuring companions, and their henchmen. In nine years of regular campaigning we have never reached the level of depravity described in Ms. Kerr’s campaign, nor has any other group of evil PCs with which I am acquainted. We have robbed princes and merchants, tortured prisoners for vital information, poisoned a pesky paladin, and helped a goblin army destroy an elven out-post. We have also rescued a very good princess, stopped a demon invasion, and broke the local assassins’ guild. The actions of an evil party? Certainly. And no PC has ever stolen from the poor, destroyed, killed, or tortured without cause. Why? Because they are acting like proper evil characters!”

The idea that evil campaigns, as a rule, escalate (or deteriorate) to mindless scenarios of carnage, torment, and unrealistic mayhem — as in the example of Kerr’s acquaintances — is absurd. That’s stupid behavior (though obviously evil too), and ultimately doesn’t result in a very rewarding game. Evil PCs do engage in murder, rape, or torture when situation and context demands. If they engage in these behaviors for their own sake as a constant priority, they’re not role-playing very well.

(2) The “unhealthiness” of evil fantasies

But let’s focus on the second issue, which was Kerr’s major concern. Why do people enjoy enacting evil scenarios — whether realistic or off-the-scales  — to begin with? Kerr wrote:

“The ‘it’s just a game’ defense begs one very important question: Just why do the players of evil PCs enjoy the sufferings of those who in no way deserve pain and death? Role-playing involves what the name implies — acting out roles, giving life to our deepest fantasies. Whether they like it or not, evil-style players are revealing that they enjoy fantasies of inflicting suffering upon the innocent and that they fantasize about wanting power so much that they don’t care how they get it.”

The answer to this is simple, but you couldn’t get away with saying it so easily back in the ’80s. People enjoy evil fantasies because they are perfectly normal. Human beings have natural homicidal and sadistic urges. To only scratch the surface, 91% of men and 84% of women have homicidal fantasies, and 31-57% of women enjoy rape fantasies (with themselves as the victim, let alone the rapist). This is “why” people enjoy such fantasies. Evil inclinations are hard-wired in our genes.

Kerr acknowledged these human impulses but didn’t understand them. She could only condemn fantasies:

“Although everyone has evil impulses at times, few of us give these impulses a lovingly detailed expression in our games, nor do we spend long hours dwelling upon and cultivating this side of our personality as do the players in evil campaigns. I maintain that spending all that time pretending to be evil is dangerous to the players themselves… If you think poison, torture, murder, and rape are fun, then you’ve got a big problem, even if you confine that problem to fantasies.”

That isn’t necessarily true. People should indeed cultivate their dark side and work with it artistically. Otherwise that evil may come out in ways that truly damage others. It’s probably no accident that an actor like Michael Landon was so destructive in his personal life (he beat his wife among other things), even though he played morally upright roles on TV: the wise father in Little House on the Prairie, and the angelic figure of Highway to Heaven. Meanwhile, actors like Robert De Niro and Anthony Hopkins have immersed themselves in some exceedingly depraved roles, have enjoyed playing them, and are (by all indications) none the worse for it. Whether it’s actors who spend long amounts time reinventing themselves to play a cannibal, rapist, or pedophile; or novelists who spend years inside the heads of thoroughly depraved characters; or D&D role-players… repressing our bad impulses is the problem. D&D is like film and novels, allowing us the harmless release of our natural inclinations.

Scott Hicks addressed that point in another way, responding to Kerr’s accusation that players engaging in evil fantasies are “weak”:

“As to Ms. Kerr’s assumption that those who play evil PCs are ‘weak,’ I must ask: Who is weaker — he who resists temptation or he who walls himself in so as to face no temptation? Any player of a good character who had that character murder an innocent, helpless victim could, and should, suddenly find himself at a lower experience level due to alignment shift, or even, as in the case of paladins and good clerics, stripped of all his power. The ‘thrill’ of committing such an act is hardly worth the cost, so this is no temptation. But what of the evil thief who, in the course of robbing a manor, chooses not to kill the sleeping guard, knowing that he could do so easily and with no repercussions? Which player has shown greater strength of character?”

Even as a snot-nosed teenager, I could see the wisdom in this.

I realize that it’s probably unfair to judge someone by what she wrote in the ’80s on this subject. Katherine Kerr’s position may have changed by now. But then again, maybe not: her past self still speaks for many, and in the next post I will look at some recent comments on my blog that evoke the same concerns. In particular, rape seems a sensitive subject, even for those who advocate the transgressive spirit of the old-school.