The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.

It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.

When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.

While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.

You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.

Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.

As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.

As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.

Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.

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