Our most recent session of Dungeons and Dragons was fun . . . but in the end not much ‘happened’. We spent the entire evening (about 6 hours) on reconnaissance — as just about every route we attempted to take proved a no go.
Now, I’ve had various questions through the life of this series — which has been going for over a year now (I know!) — from those of you who have never played D&D or similar before, about how the game works. I thought therefore this might be a good opportunity to outline some of the game mechanics. (After a year, I’ve almost got the hang of it, although I still feel like a novice myself!)
How, you might wonder, could we play for 6 hours with ‘nothing happening’ and still have fun?
Six of us sit around a dining table. There’s wine and nibbles in the centre, but then we clear some space for various hand-drawn maps used to show the lay of the land we are adventuring in. (The maps are drawn as needed by the dungeon master (DM) aka game master (GM) who sits at the head of the table, hiding behind a barrier so we cannot see what he is doing behind there… hmmm.)
The five of us who are ‘playing’ also have our miniatures out on the table. They are to represent our characters and these are generally only used when we get into a skirmish. (More on that later.)
Meanwhile, our all-important character sheets are like our DNA. Just about everything stems from the six “ability” scores (strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, charisma) and the traits specific to our ‘class’ (ie ranger, cleric, rogue etc). The character sheet therefore gives weightings to every dice-roll, depending on what action is being attempted.
It also tells you how resistant the character is to getting hit by enemies (armour class), and how many hits it can take before getting knocked out (hit points).
I know it looks complicated — and I guess it is at first, particularly when things keeps changing as you get magic rings and swords and stuff… But after a while it starts to make sense.
Oh, yeah, and we have DICE out on the table. The game uses various different polyhedral dice, but in version 3.5 which we’re playing, the main one is a d20. This is rolled frequently to determine how effective an action is, based on a par score set by the DM (with weightings added based on a character’s specific abilities).
I should mention I have several d20s so I can swap one out that isn’t working. They’re all so pretty, sometimes it’s hard to decide which one to use! The new d20 I used on Saturday (the green and purple one) proved most satisfactory, rolling reasonably high all night.
The other die I use the most is a d8 to determine how much damage I do with my longsword, once I’ve managed a hit.
To get the game going, the DM asks us what we’re going to do. The five of us have a discussion (in character if we’re brave) and decide to, say… explore a cavern. This may pan out as follows:
- The mage casts a spell to provide light (using up a certain number of ‘spell points’ which lasts for a set time). Alternatively, we may light one of the torches we’re carrying.
- The rogue is designated to search the cavern, because she has special skills in detecting traps and the like. She rolls her d20 (and adds her weighting factor) to see how effective her search is. If she manages a high roll (say >20) she might find something interesting, like a hidden door. If she rolls badly (say <10) she probably won’t find anything.
- The ranger might also decide (if the DM permits) to see whether she can pick up any tracks in the cavern floor. She rolls the d20 and adds the appropriate modifier to see how effective this attempt is. Even if she rolls high, there may be nothing to find.
- The DM might then suddenly say “someone roll a listen check” and the ranger (who has the best modifier for this in our party) rolls the d20 again. If she rolls high enough, she will hear the oncoming menace (how effectively will depend on how high the roll is). If the roll is too low, the party may very well be ambushed…
- At this point, the paladin might decide to ‘detect evil’ (one of his special abilities) to see if he can get warning of what might be coming to get us.
And so it goes on… One decision and action after another, one dice roll after another to determine how it turns out.
As I mentioned, not a lot happened in our recent session, although we did cover a LOT of ground:
- There was the tunnel near the eyrie which proved too unstable for us to risk travelling down (after our previous cave-in experience). [The rogue rolled against ‘knowledge engineering’ to obtain this information.]
- There was the valley which proved to be blocked by a massive stone wall manned by humanoids (probably goblins). We decided we were too outnumbered… [We walked far enough to ‘see’ the wall, although I seem to remember Ash rolled a ‘1’ against ‘spot’ which is a disaster roll and meant it was far too misty for her to see anything until we were quite close.]
- There was the river that churned through an impassable chasm. We didn’t have a boat.
- In the mountains on the far side of the valley from the dual staircases and eyrie, there was the small chamber being used as a goblin forge, which we liberated in one of three minor skirmishes (carried out by Intan, our Paladin). Huzzah!
- Further on from the forge, there was the secondary tunnel that possibly contained a deathly gelatinous cube. [Ash did some tracking and found some mysteriously erased or disappeared tracks…]
- There was the secret tunnel we couldn’t find… [Here the dice roll wasn’t high enough for the rogue to detect anything.]
- There was the elevated ‘goat track’ deemed too high and precarious for most of our party to navigate without dying. [To traverse it would have meant ‘climb’ rolls from everyone, and some of the party have negative modifiers!]
- Which left us with the valley on the far side of this new network of tunnels, blocked by the rotting carcass of some massive animal, covered in spider webs. Intan and Ash took out the spiders (see below), so we could pass down this new valley.
- At the far end of this valley, there was yet another stone staircase leading upwards, which took us to a path and a cave under a waterfall. There our rogue, Saffir, did battle with another creature. Again this route was deemed a bad option due to the creature and the extreme slipperiness.
- Which left us with a locked door near the top of this most recent staircase, which is where we camped and called it a night. [The initial ‘unlock door’ roll failed, so now we have to come up with another solution.]
For five days (in game time) we trekked back and forth across all this territory, passing through the forge at least four times (and camping overnight there twice). It was most inefficient and not a little frustrating — although still fun! In truth, we probably had too many options.
Skirmish with the giant spiders
To illustrate a skirmish, I’ll describe our defeat of the giant four-foot spiders — and this was only a very small battle.
First, the DM describes the scene and draws it on a grid made up of 5cm squares. We assemble our miniatures on this grid so we have a spatial idea of what is happening where.
We send Intan (paladin) forward with a torch, while Ash (ranger) and Saffir (rogue) cover with bows. However, the spiders move too fast and leap onto Intan before we can get any shots off.
At this point we roll the d20 to obtain ‘initiative’, which determines in what order we take action during a ‘real-time’ melee. The enemy (giant four-foot spiders) have their initiative as part of this. I can’t remember what order we went in, but it might have gone something like this:
- Intan attacks spider #1 (rolls d20 to determine whether it’s a hit… rolls a d6 to determine the damage done by the short sword)
- Spiders #1 and #2 attack Intan (DM rolls to determine whether they hit… They DO and so Intan takes some points of damage and…)
- Intan rolls a ‘fortitude saving throw’ to see whether he gets poisoned by the spider bite. (He rolls high enough to not be affected – yay!)
- Saffir’s turn — she waits with her bow, but it’s not safe to shoot the spiders while they’re on top of Intan.
- Ash’s turn — She drops her bow and draws her longsword to attack one of the spiders. (Rolls a d20 to see whether she hits, rolls a d8 to see how much damage…)
And so it goes on, each player and the spiders taking their turn, attacking where possible or waiting for an opportunity… Until the spiders are defeated.
[NOTE: I have updated to reflect correct nomenclature for the dice! It’s d20 not D20 apparently…]
All right, if you’ve made it to the end of this massive post, I hope it’s shed some light on the mechanics of how Dungeons and Dragons is played (version 3.5 anyway). Now perhaps subsequent posts may make a little more sense.
As I’m sure I’ve said before I’m loving it for several reasons: it gets me away from the desk, socialising with friends, exercising my brain (there’s actually a lot of thinking and planning that goes on!), and having adventures!
Let me know your thoughts!