Monday, April 30, 2012

The Literacy of D&D

Long ago I sat down with friends to learn about a hobby they all loved: Dungeons and Dragons. Several years later I sat down to decide what to do for a writing project in an English class I disliked. This was the result. (Please forgive the superscript numbers, footnotes don't translate well into the blogger software and I had to redo them by hand. I couldn't find a 6, a 9 or a 0.)

Some people can describe in great detail every skirmish in World War II. Others can take apart a car engine and improve it while putting it back together. There are even people who can name every statistic about Husker football that you may or may not wish to know. Everyone has a hobby. Some people just dabble with their hobby, others devote every moment of spare time they have to it. Those outside the hobby sometimes do not understand why one would care what the Americans should have done differently when storming the beach in Normandy or what a carburetor is or who scored what touchdown in what game, but for those who love their hobby, those things are important. So you may question, in reading this explanation about tabletop roleplaying games,¹ “who cares?” The answer is: I do. The literacy of tabletop gaming is important to me, and the twenty million other people worldwide² who have made this activity their hobby. Though it is confusing to those unfamiliar with it, tabletop role playing is important. 
When I was a freshman in college, a friend invited me to watch a session³ of Dungeons and Dragons.⁴ I had heard of D&D before, but I had never met someone who actually played it. If I had turned down the invitation, I would not only have missed out on learning about a hobby I enjoy but I would also have missed out on meeting some of the people who are now my best friends, including my husband.
As the adventure was winding down for the night, I had decided that I liked D&D and wanted to try playing. It was interesting to watch the players interact with the Dungeon Master⁵ and see how the decisions the players made affected the story that the DM was telling. Some decisions had to be made by rolling dice and other less important decisions could be made by the players themselves. One such decision was made by Chad, a quiet but intimidating guy who had not said much all evening aside from reporting the results of his die rolls.
“I’m going outside,” he informed the DM. Instead of standing up to leave, Chad stayed where he was and continued to interact with the Dungeon Master. It took me a few seconds to realize that when he said “I,” he meant his character.¹¹ “Is there a tree out there?” Chad asked as he moved his character from inside the tavern¹² where the other characters stayed to out into the street.
“Yeah,” the DM reported, looking confused. “There’s one at the end of the street.”
A look of mischievous glee came onto Chad’s face, a look that I have come to know very well in the time since, but at the time surprised me. “I’m going to attack the tree,” Chad declared.
“Are you sure?” the DM asked with a tone in his voice that said there would be more consequences than Chad anticipated.
“Yup,” Chad responded, and punctuated his decision by rolling his d20.¹³ The room was rolling with laughter and continued to even though the DM announced that the town’s much loved villiage idiot had been living in the tree and had been killed. The party¹⁴ ended up being chased out of town the very night they were being celebrated as heroes for saving it, Chad had a good time and by extension so did the rest of us, and I decided that I liked both Chad and tabletop role playing.
A few weeks ago, I packed up my things and got ready to leave the house. When my husband Chad, who now only attacks trees on the very rare occasion, asked me where I was going, I reminded him that I was going to sit in on a session I had been invited to by a friend. “Do you actually know any of those people?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, “just one. But you know gamers.¹⁵ We’ll be best friends by the end of the night.”
I smile and glance in the open window of a friendly house full of people. I tote two twelve packs of soda up the steps and knock on the door. The door is opened and a huge black dog jumps on me; its owners call it off as they finish playing their song in Rock Band 2. I introduce myself and my friend Forrest drops his guitar and starts pointing at people. “That’s Diane, she lives here, Nikki, Justin, Rachael, um, that’s P.J., he lives here too,” he rattles off and I laugh, begging him to tell me again when I can associate names with faces instead of trying to remember them all at once.
“Dinner’s ready,” Diane calls from the kitchen.
“What are we having?” Forrest asks as he drags me into the dining room, which is dominated by a large table, full of books and papers.
“Tater tot casserole,” she answers, and everyone migrates to the kitchen to get a portion of Diane’s awesome cooking. As we eat, they talk about a party they were at the night before, what they dressed up as for Halloween, and about people they work with.
To the untrained eye, this gathering of friends looks like just that. But the reason for the gathering is not to play Rock Band 2 or to have dinner. It is to play Dungeons and Dragons.
“We’re very different people,” Rachael told me later, “but D&D is something we can all do together.” Rachael, whose first tabletop roleplaying game experience was several months ago at this very house, does not know how true her statement is. By the end of the night, I, who have never met these people before, feel like I have been friends with them for years.
P.J. does his Dungeon Master duty by unrolling his gaming mat, a piece of vinyl with a grid on it. He retrieves some Warhammer 40K¹⁷ miniatures from a box nearby and Justin grabs one of them, announcing to me that it serves as his character. He launches into an unstoppable monologue about how awesome his character is while Diane and Rachael roll their eyes. I smile and listen politely; I can tell from everyone else’s attitude that Justin is just one of those gamers who never shut up about their character.
Generally, it is safe to put gamers in one of three categories according to their playing style. Role Players are in it for the story and like to play their character authentically, doing things like speaking with an accent or finding a diplomatic solution to a problem that could be solved with a fight.¹⁸  Loonies just like to have fun and stir up trouble for their fellow players; this type of player likes to do strange things, usually at inopportune times, such as accidentally killing a beloved town drunk and ruining the newly found prestige of one’s friends.²¹ There are also those who love to do everything they can to make their character as powerful as the rules allow. This type of gamer, the Munchkin, knows the rules inside out, or at least thinks they do, and is the type of gamer most often seen arguing a point with the DM.²²
“I feel like it’s been a million years since I played 3.5,” I say, referring to the older version of D&D that they are using. “I don’t even remember where things are anymore,” I tell Forrest as I reaquaint myself with the foreign looking character sheet.²³
“What are spell casters²⁴ like in 4.0?”²⁵ Justin asks me, hoping to expand his literacy of D&D.
“They’re really easy to play!” I exclaim. “I can’t play a caster in 3.5 because they’re way to complicated, but with the powers in 4.0 it’s as easy as playing anything else.”
“Except Fireball is a daily spell,” Forrest adds. I disagree, and as we squabble, P.J. slips out of the room and returns with his D&D 4.0 Player’s Handbook.²⁷ He reads the spell rules aloud and pronounces Forrest the winner. I figure that I must have been thinking of a different spell, and Forrest taunts me. He is not a very gracious winner.
“Can I see that?” Justin asks, and P.J. passes him the book and gets back to his preparations. Forrest, Diane, and Rachael talk about World of Warcraft as Justin asks me questions about a Wizard’s²⁸ powers in D&D 4.0.
“Okay, enough table talk,”³¹ P.J. announces as he places the miniatures on the grid. It is time to get down to business.
For most people, the first tabletop roleplaying game that they watch or play is confusing; the rolling of the dice and the many different rules make them dizzy. Once they get used to it, a lot of people enjoy the freedom of the mostly consequence-free world.
Justin said that his favorite thing about D&D after trying it was that “it gives me a chance to explore what I would do if I actually had these powers. There’s a lot of social norms that you don’t have to mind in the game. You don’t have to worry about, ‘oh, do I have a job tomorrow,’ you can just go knock someone down and take their stuff. There are consequences, but they’re far enough away from real life that I can do what I want.”
There are few gamers who were not hooked on the game after their first experience, despite everything there is to keep track of. “I fell in love with it,” Diane said, “even though I was the only girl.” P.J., who had to be the Dungeon Master of his first game as well as play, said that he liked it despite the fact that it was just him and his cousin.
After killing some Goblins, Diane’s Ranger³² and Rachael’s Rogue³³ search for anything of value. They find a full water skin, a treasure since the party was running low on water before entering the temple, which is in the middle of a desert. We continue on down the hallway as Forrest and Justin’s characters begin to verbally snipe at one another. We search another room and find five fey, Sprites, hanging out on some boxes. As Justin’s Sorcerer³⁴ begins to talk with them, Forrest’s Cleric³⁵ sarcastically suggests that the Sprites kill the Sorcerer. P.J. grins and rolls a die, and the Sprites begin looking for some spikes to do the job. Justin protests.
I was just trying to talk to them!” he whines.
“They think killing you would be pretty fun,” P.J. tells him. Justin’s Sorcerer threatens Forrest’s Cleric and asks the Sprites if they would reconsider and kill the Cleric instead. When they seem not to have heard him, Justin decides that his Sorcerer will get the drop on them and casts Magic Missile. Luckily for the party, the Sprites scald themselves on the iron nails that hold the boxes together and decide that escape is the best option, exiting the room by a small hole near the ceiling.
One of the best things about tabletop roleplaying games is that you get to play with real people. Rachael grinned at Forrest and Justin when she told me, “we make fun of each other and still like each other the next day.” My mother, who does not play games, extolled the virtues of tabletop roleplaying games over video games when I asked her which she would rather play. “People have imaginations and there’s endless possibilities,” she said. “If you’re playing a video game you just have to push a button to get past the next thing, but if you have real people there with you, there’s all kinds of things that influence them and their decisions. You’re not a slave to the dice like you are to the machine.”
Justin decides that his Sorcerer needs to rest so that he can prepare the spell Comprehend Languages for the next day to read the archaic writing on some jars that we find at the end of a hallway. Even though the Sorcerer is supposed to be asleep, he and the Cleric continue to bicker across the table as the ladies take stock of the situation.
One jar is full of sand and the other two are completely empty. I am convinced that it is some sort of puzzle and suggest that we put sand into the other two and fill them enough to make all three jars even. Diane points out that the two empty jars have the same symbol on them and the one with the sand is different. Suddenly, Justin’s Sorcerer awakes with a jolt. “I’ve got it!” he yells. Forrest’s Cleric makes a snide comment but the Sorcerer lets it slide. Instead he stands and reads the symbols. “Sand” for the jar that had until recently benn full of sand, and “Water” on the other two. We question P.J. about the water and he shrugs.
I smack myself in the forehead. “So they were full of water and it all evaporated or something?” I ask. “There was no puzzle at all?” The only answer I get is P.J.’s smile.
A favorite character or a favorite game is most often recalled by a tabletop gamer as the most realistic, the most interesting, or the most fun. My friend Michael decided that “my favorite character was a Human Ranger who had grown up in Elf³⁵ society. He was just really well developed in his personality so it was really fun to play his character.”
JR, another of my friends, recalled in vivid detail the happenings of a campaign he played with his friends four or five years ago. “A Dwarf³⁷ Barbarian³⁸ is very conspicuous in most cases; the one place he isn’t is the bar. So I played drink slinger for the evening.” His character waited in the bar while his friends got on with their sneaky plans. “Towards the end of the evening something bad happened and we needed to make a fast exit. Being near an outside path, I yelled out into the crowd, ‘that one’s the last keg!’ causing an instant riot as I ran for the back door. It ended with us burning down the building and not getting much information.”
Though there are many other rooms and doors to check on this level, the party is curious about what lies under the chapel, and so descend further into the temple.
Everyone I talked to agreed that a good understanding of the system was a must in being literate in tabletop roleplaying games. Michael, Jonathan, and Chad broke it down a little more by pointing out that having an imagination, knowing how to read, and knowing how to do basic math are necessary. Chad felt that he was literate: “if I wasn’t I couldn’t DM, let alone [play the] game,” he informed me. JR stated that he felt he was literate in some systems but not others. Jonathan said, “Yes, the key is to not get so bogged down by the rules that you sacrifice the fun.” Michael’s confidence outshined them all when he declared himself to be far beyond literate, saying, “My capabilities in understanding [tabletop] roleplaying would put me, at least to a minor degree, into the ‘master’ ranks.”
Later on in the session the party stumbles into a room full of Skeletons and their rather dangerous looking armored commander. Justin’s Sorcerer decides that the commander is probably the worst threat and begins to send spells his way. Forrest’s Cleric has the same idea and moves into position to sunder the commander’s weapon. Rachael is not rolling very high on her d20, and since her small Halfling⁴¹ daggers do not do much damage in the first place, she seems discouraged at her lack of opportunity to make any big impact in the battle. Diane’s Ranger stands in front of Justin’s physically weak Sorcerer to protect him from the advancing Skeletons. She fires her bow at them, knocking them down as they move toward her position. Before we know it, the battle is over, and we poke the still standing mummified commander, who never responded to any of our attacks. He was just a mummy welded into his armor; we decide the Skeletons must have been protecting their fallen commander.
Justin feels cheated; his attacks were useless. “Now you know how I feel!” Rachael exclaims. Forrest asks if there is anything of use in the scattered bones. “Anything magical?”
“There was,” P.J. says, and grins, and we all realize that the weapon that Forrest’s Cleric destroyed in the midst of the battle was the only valuable thing in the room.
“Way to go, Mr. Sunder-pants,” I scoff at Forrest. The table roars with laughter, and Diane declares that Forrest has earned himself a new nickname.
P.J. decides that this is a nice place to end the evening and doles out experience points.² Justin consults the 3.5 Player’s Handbook to see how close everyone is to achieving the next level,³ and Diane and I begin to pack up our dice.
We begin to shuffle out around 1:30 AM. I thank Diane and P.J. for the use of their house and Forrest for introducing me to his friends. It had been a while since I had played. Justin asks me, “are you going to become a permanent addition to our group?”
Maybe,” I say, and smile. “I hope so.”
Many hobbies are confusing to those who know nothing about them. Those who enjoy their hobbies value the literacy that goes along with it. D&D literacy is difficult to master. Those who are literate speak to one another in almost another language, intimidating those who do not understand. Because of this, tabletop roleplaying games are misunderstood and are often the target of jokes and teasing. However, D&D literacy has no more or less validity than Husker football literacy. Though hobby literacy may not be important to everyone, it is certainly important to those who love their hobby.
¹ Jonathan Seib and Patricia Livermore, “A Basic English to Gamer Dictionary: Dungeons & Dragons,” (unpublished manuscript for Part II of Writing Project 3 in English 354, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Fall 2008), 2
² Darren Waters, “What happened to Dungeons and Dragons?” BBC News, April 26, 2004, (December 1, 2008)
³ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 15
⁴ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 3
⁵ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 14
⁷ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 5
⁸ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 10
¹¹ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 4
¹² Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 12
¹³ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 5
¹⁴ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 7
¹⁵ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 11
¹⁷ A tabletop war game played with miniatures; players collect enough miniatures to build an army and then battle against other players.
¹⁸ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 24
²¹ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 23
²² Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 22
²³ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 16
²⁴ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 35
²⁵ The most recently released version of Dungeons and Dragons, which was released in June 2008.
²⁷ One of the three Core Rulebooks for Dungeons and Dragons; the other two are the Monster Manual and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
²⁸ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 37
³¹ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 21
³² Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 33
³³ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 34
³⁴ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 36
³⁵ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 26
³⁷ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 27
³⁸ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 40
⁴¹ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 28
⁴² Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 19
⁴³ Seib and Livermore, English to Gamer Dictionary, 18

A Basic English to Gamer Dictionary: Dungeons and Dragons
by Jonathan Seib and Patricia Livermore

If you know a gamer, chances are you have no idea what they are talking about most of the time. Many words they say seem to have a different meaning, or they may use terms you have never heard before. This guide is designed to help translate some key terms of the gamers who play Dungeons and Dragons. To help the non-gamer ompare what they know to a gamer’s knowledge, many of the terms in this dictionary are defined both by the “normal” definition (A), and by the “gamer” definition (B). Terms with only one definition are “gamer” terms and so have only “gamer” definitions. Hopefully by utilizing this dictionary, you and your gamer will be able to communicate more effectively. Good luck, and thank you for reading.

  1. Roleplaying; noun
    1. The modifying of a person’s behavior to accord with a desired personal image, as to impress others or conform to a particular environment.
    2. When a gamer pretends to be someone or something other than who or what they are
  2. Tabletop Roleplaying Game; noun
    Games normally played on a table or other flat surface; a particular form of roleplaying game played by two or more players face to face using interactive storytelling and dice to determine action resolution.
  3. Dungeons and Dragons; noun
    A fantasy tabletop roleplaying game in an imaginary medieval world; the most famous and most popular tabletop roleplaying game; often abbreviated “D&D”
  4. Character; noun
    1. A part or role, as in a play or film; representing a personality type, especially emphasizing distinctive traits, such as language mannerisms, physical makeup, etc.
    2. The role a gamer plays in a roleplaying game
  5. Dice; noun
    1. Small cubes of plastic, ivory, bone, or wood, marked on each side with one to six spots, usually used in pairs in games of chance or in gambling.
    2. Small polyhedral objects used for generating random numbers most often with four, six, eight, ten, twelve, or twenty sides.
  6. Rule; noun
    1. A principle or regulationn governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.
    2. The system used as a guideline to balance players’ strengths and weaknesses so that every person can be equally useful in the game. The rules can be adjusted as needed to meet the needs and desires of the players.
  7. Party; noun
    1. A group gathered for a special purpose or task: a fishing party; a search party.
    2. A group usually made up of all the player characters involved in a certain game, often working together toward the same purpose or goal.
  8. Player Character; noun
    A fictional character in a video game or roleplaying game who is controlled or controllable by a player, and is typically a protagonist of the story told in the course of the game. Often abbreviated as “PC.”
  9. Non Player Character; noun
    A character that is controlled by the game master, typically the antagonist(s) or an ally of the player character. Often abbreviated as “NPC.”
  10. Roll
    1. Verb: To cast, or throw (dice)
    2. Verb: as above; Noun: referring to the outcome of a dice roll: “my roll was a 4.”
  11. Gamer; noun
    A person who plays games
  12. Tavern/Bar; noun
    1. A room or establishment where alcoholic drinks are served over a counter; a public house for travelers and others; inn
    2. As above, additionally a convenient meeting place for player characters to gather information, meet important people, drink alcohol, start unnecessary fights, etc.
  13. Campaign; noun
    1. A series of actions advancing a principle or tending toward a particular end
    2. An adventure told by a game master and completed by the player characters over several sessions
  14. Game Master; noun
    The storyteller and rule enforcer for a particular campaign; often shortened to “GM.” Known as a “Dungeon Master” or “DM” in Dungeons and Dragons.
  15. Session; noun
    1. A single continuous sitting, or period of sitting, of persons so assembled.
    2. The meeting of players for the purpose of participating in an adventure. An adventure could take several sessions to complete.
  16. Character Sheet; noun
    Paper or papers that contain a certain character’s attributes, abilities, weapons, equipment, and all other information about the character. Many tabletop roleplaying games provide a ready made character sheet with blanks for the player to fill in as they so choose.
  17. Statistics; noun
    1. A numerical value, such as standard deviation or mean, that characterizes the sample or population from which it was derived.
    2. The numerical building blocks of a character; the primary indicators of how well that a character performs certain tasks. Often abbreviated as “Stats.” In Dungeons and Dragons, these are Strength (STR), Constitution (CON), Dexterity (DEX), Intelligence (INT), Wisdom (WIS), and Charisma (CHA); 10 points is an average score while 20 points is very good and 5 points very poor.
  18. Level
    1. Noun: Relative position or rank on a scale. Verb: to raise or lower to a particular level or position; to make horizontal.
    2. Noun: the power a character holds. The Game Master uses this rank to prepare challenges for the players. As a player gains levels, new abilities are available to them. Verb: the act of gaining experience to obtain a higher level; the act of choosing new powers once enough experience has been gained.
  19. Experience Points; noun
    The numerical reward that players gain by completing tasks given to them by the Game Master. These points are then used to advance the character’s level.
  20. Skills; noun
    1. Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience.
    2. A more specific numerical statistic of how well a character performs a specific task. Often these are coupled with a Stat.
  21. Table Talk
    Any amount of talk between the players or the Game Master durin a session, whether on the subject of the game or not.
  22. Munchkin; noun
    A person who focuses on making the most powerful character possible by exploiting the rules of the game to their favor, especially focusing on loopholes in the rules.
    Synonyms: Rulemonger, Twink
  23. Loony; noun
    A person who focuses on the fun and mayhem. A loony gets bored easily and is apt to do random things, usually at inopportune times.
  24. Role Player; noun
    A person who focuses on playing their character authentically. A role player may speak with an accent or make decisions based on their character’s likes and dislikes instead of their own.
  25. Race; noun
    1. A group, class, or kind of persons
    2. One of two main things necessary for building a character. In addition to the human race, Dungeons and Dragons has many other exotic races to choose from, the “core” races being elves, dwarves, halflings, half-elves, half-orcs, and humans.
  26. Elf; noun
    1. One of a class of preternatural beings, esp. from mountainous regions, with magical powers, given to capricious and often mischievous interference in human affairs, and usually imagined to be a diminutive being in human form; sprite, fairy.
    2. A long lived and wise race; choosing to play an elf grants the character extra Wisdom but has the drawback of less Constitution.
  27. Dwarf; noun
    1. A person of abnormally small stature owing to a pathological condition, esp. one suffering from cretinism or some other disease that produces disproportion or deformation of features and limbs.
    2. A hearty and strong race; choosing to play a dwarf grants the player extra Constitution but has the drawback of less Wisdom.
  28. Halfling; noun
    A small but quick race; choosing to play a halfing grants the player extra Dexterity, but since smaller weapons have to be used, the character will do less damage in combat.
  29. Half-Elf; noun
    A half-elf belongs neither to the elven race nor the human race; choosing ot play a half-elf grants the player no real advantage. However, many Role Players enjoy playing half-elves in order to think up a tragic past for their character.
  30. Half-Orc; noun
    A large and barbaric race; choosing to play a half-orc grants the player extra Strength but has the drawback of less Intelligence.
  31. Human; noun
    1. A member of the genus Homo and expecially of the species H. sapiens.
    2. A race comprised of quick learners; choosing to play a human grants the player ther choice of an extra power.
  32. Class; noun
    1. A social stratum sharing basic economic, political, or cultural characteristics, and having the same social position.
    2. One of two main things necessary for building a character. A player’s class determines what role the character will fill in the party and what talents and powers the character has.
  33. Ranger; noun
    A hunter and tracker; the ranger usually uses a bow and arrows as weapons.
  34. Rogue; noun
    A stalker and thief; the rogue usually uses a dagger or short sword as a weapon.
  35. Spell Caster; noun
    Any class that primarily uses magic as a form of combat. Generally refers to Sorcerers and Wizards, but can also refer to Druids, Clerics, and Rangers.
  36. Sorcerer; noun
    A spell caster whose power comes from within; the sorcerer uses spells instinctively.
  37. Wizard; noun
    A spell caster whose power comes from long hours of study; the wizard wields spells based on knowledge.
  38. Cleric; noun
    A healer; the cleric’s power comes from a deity who grants spells to the cleric through prayer.
  39. Fighter; noun
    The fighter specializes in combat, any weapon they choose is deadly.
  40. Barbarian; noun
    A combat oriented character that cannot be stopped once they fly into a rage.
  41. Druid; noun
    1. A member of a pre-Christian religious order among the ancient Celts of Gaul, Britain, and Ireland
    2. A nature loving wizard; the druid fights for the protection of nature and sometimes fights as nature by morphing into different animals using the Wild Shape ability.

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