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Here be dragons

15 February 2013

By Josie Gunn

I NEED to make a confession. Once a week, I like to spend a couple of hours with like-minded individuals, listening to strange music, poring over arcane volumes, and re-enacting rituals that are incomprehensible to the outside world. Yes, I play Dungeons and Dragons.

But what exactly is D&D, as players call it? Ask around, and the answers will probably be confused. Does it have something to do with dice-rolling? Wasn't there a cartoon? Isn't it associated with witchcraft?

D&D is a role-playing game - the first ever to be published, in fact - although now it is just one of many games on the market. In it, players create and act out a character in a fantastical setting, typically Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, with elves, dwarves, wizards, and plenty of monsters.

The game is run by a games master (GM), who controls the narrative. He or she describes surroundings, acts out characters that the players meet, and referees any fights that occur. Important actions, such as launching an attack or casting a spell, are dictated by a complex set of rules, with success or failure judged by the roll of a die. The result is an addictive cross between amateur dramatics, Jackanory, and a board game.

D&D has had a chequered past in relation to Christianity. Its huge popularity in the late '70s and early '80s attracted the ire of fundamentalist groups, who were nervous of its "pagan" fantasy setting. D&D was accused of encouraging everything from witchcraft to teenage suicide. Now, most of the arguments against D&D have been refuted, but the stigma remains.

What is true is that D&D can be time-consuming - although no more than many modern console-games. And, unlike computer games, D&D's tone and content is shaped entirely by its players. You could play a violent, depressing game, but you could equally create something more uplifting. The story you tell is your choice. Even the high-fantasy setting is optional: the D&D rules can be adapted to any setting.

For me, it is a chance to tell stories in a truly immersive way. It is more exciting than a board game, more sociable than a novel, and more interactive than an Xbox. It allows a freedom that you probably last felt in a game of make-believe in the school playground, coupled with structure, problem-solving, and strategy. Most of all, with a friendly set of players and a talented GM, it's just sheer, unadulterated fun. Role-playing seems to touch something in people, the part of them that longs for adventure, for the classic battle of good versus evil.

D&D can become expensive, but all that is really necessary is a set of core rule-books, which can be bought online or from a specialist gaming shop. Wizards of the Coast (the publishers of D&D) provides online lists of clubs that are open to new members. Or you can find some like-minded friends, and try running a game yourself. Just don't forget to buy plenty of dice.


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