I used to scoff at the idea of Dungeons and Dragons. Well, at the very least, I was only passively aware of it.
Like many, my experience was limited watching it played in school libraries, or by a bunch of kids in Stranger Things. I’d heard of online shows like Critical Role but never considered watching. Despite being obsessed with fantasy lore and probably a little TOO into open world games like, I’d always thought “nah, not for me”.
But then came a little thing called the COVID-19 pandemic.
After what felt like my 743rd Zoom Trivia game, I wanted something new and different. I was tired of winning (humble brag: I’m a trivia queen) and needed a challenge. There are only so many times you can put yourself through themed quizzes before you simply don’t care about Harry Potter facts anymore, not to mention how often the questionable Zoom connection led to disputes over who got the answer first.
So after much pushing and prodding from my fantasy-starved friends — and the fact that I would have a built-in reason to buy a whole lot of dice — I decided to start playing D&D over Discord.
And it was a breath of fresh air.
A group of my friends got together to stream our sessions every fortnight. In our session zero, or planning session, we all had a drink and chatted about what we wanted from the game and how we’d draw connections between our characters. There was already a growing history and lore to our story — and that was enough for me, someone who can’t get enough lore [link to a lore piece] at the best of times, to be hooked.
And because I’m the type of person who goes all or nothing, I quickly became so engrossed that I was actively thinking about my character even outside of those hours. Her history, her skills, all the quirks and habits she must have picked up in her 624 years of life.
A forest gnome ranger, my D&D character Maude is as old as time and grows more crotchety with every passing day. She was probably once beautiful, but now her permanent scowl gives her the vibe of a grumpy French bulldog — made worse by the fact that her pointy dentures were actually stolen from a goblin. She’s deceptively spry, sometimes using her longbow as a walking stick, but sometimes capable of leaping full pelt with daggers drawn, à la Smeagol on Mt. Doom. She’s a treasure.
After a while, all my leisure time became dedicated to D&D. I stopped playing Mass Effect. I stopped playing World of Warcraft. I even stopped playing my go-to comfort game, The Sims. Instead, I read pages and pages of D&D books. I unwrapped innumerable packets of the new D&D x Magic: The Gathering crossover cards and even played a oneshot with the team from Wizards of the Coast. I studied the art (it’s stunning). I even sketched my own. I watched countless hours of sessions from other players.
I went all in on D&D. And it was fantastic.
Now, however, I’m ready for more. I’m ready to leave Zoom entirely.
I want to become a Dungeon Master.
A Dungeon Master is, in the simplest terms, the catalyst for everyone’s adventure. They plan the setting, the task, the triumphs and the battles — all the while allowing the players to forge their own story.
My first DM and creative brain behind popular D&D podcast I Speak Giant, Zac Naoum, described the experience as a multi-faceted story that everyone builds together and has an equal stake in making it rewarding.
“Being a DM is the same joy you got from playing with toys as a kid. You tell a story that only lives between you and your friends, you do silly voices and tell stupid jokes,” he said.
“It’s an outlet for storytelling that is super important and that we rarely get opportunities to express … Entertaining your friends with a silly story about forging a pair of sunglasses for a Medusa wanting to hit the town is a feeling you can’t get anywhere else.”
It’s something I would never have considered before the pandemic. But with Sydney in lockdown again for yet another outbreak, I’ve realised the escapism of worldbuilding and guiding adventurers is exactly what I need to stop my mental health from going down the toilet. At this point, control over where and what I can do is soothing.
As a writer and theatre kid, it’s second nature to want to weave storytelling into everything I do. I’ve got pages upon pages of family history for my legacy Sims game, with annals of notes like “Adult Sim Jasper Schaefer is actually quite fond of grilled cheese — new aspiration???”
So when it comes to D&D, my character and world creation have the same energy.
And right now, with the way of the world, I can’t roam in a cave — longbow at the ready in case a Lurking Roper strikes. But Maude could. And so could the characters of my friends, if I put in the effort to help create that world for them.
But there’s more to being a DM than just making up a story. There are rules they need to be able to enforce, instincts to hone, flexibility to learn and a collaborative story to structure. And I had absolutely no idea how to start, so naturally, I asked Twitter.
There were some pretty consistent responses: Plan, but don’t plan too much. Have a bank of NPC names in case you get stuck. Edit on the fly. Occasionally introduce a roll just for the sake of keeping things interesting.
Here are some of my favorite responses:
The running theme though, was simple: Be flexible. We’re all looking for escapism and if your players do something ridiculous — why the hell shouldn’t you let them?
So that’s what I’m going to do.
My family have unwittingly signed up to be my guinea pigs, though none of them have played before. My Dad,that he is, is ready for his next challenge. Mum is probably going to be the only one who actually makes logical choices and keeps them all from going off the edge, but as for my brother? Well I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t wind up accidentally burning the whole world down.
But it’ll be fun and it’s a way that we can explore together without being together. And at least then they can’t get mad at me for winning trivia yet again.
After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll convince my colleagues to do “CNET Does DnDNET”.
I reckon it’s worth a roll.