(UPDATE: 1/1/13 – I’ve now been able to include a whole selection of sketches done by my friend Jay (known as @uglynoodles on Twitter), all during the D+D games we played in 2012. Described as ‘doodles’, they’ve never failed to amaze me, and they’ll also give a better insight into the craziness that has been our D+D campaign…)
It’s the end of 2012. Like everyone else, I could do a round-up of the year at this stage (The short version? A few more downs than up, and many lessons to take through into 2013). But frankly, there are enough ‘here’s my take on the year’ posts out at the moment to last a lifetime. Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the highlights of my year, something which rarely fails to raise a smile – my 2012 experiences with the roleplay game Dungeons and Dragons.
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I’m not a roleplaying newbie, by any stretch of the imagination. I’d done a fair amount in my teens (although I had been put off D+D by one group of about ten people, where I’d essentially ended up spending most sessions waiting for the chance to do anything), and while some of it was fairly shambolic (especially a short Call of Cthulhu campaign which I ran and, for reasons I fail to remember, essentially played as a comedy), some of the games I did were exceptionally well planned – especially a DC Heroes campaign at University, where I ended up as a sunglasses-wearing amnesiac superhero in a version of Superman’s home city Metropolis that had been infested with vampires.
Once I left University, roleplaying was off the menu for a long time, and didn’t really return to my life until I moved to Manchester and fell in with the bunch of wonderful nutcases I met via my local independent comic store, Travelling Man. It had been ages, but I found myself tempted back into a little roleplaying – there were some Warhammer 40,000-related games, and a very brief bit of a fun post-apocalyptic game called Atomic Highway (where I played a truck-driving Gorilla who was also an ex-circus ringmaster). Then, when my girlfriend Emma moved to Manchester, we ended up experiencing a Warhammer 40,000 campaign involving plenty of mayhem, and more Al Jolson songs than you would have thought possible.
At the beginning of this year, Ollie – a wonderful shouty bear of a man, like Brian Blessed’s punkier, more aggressive little brother, and the Gamesmaster of our little group – was hankering to get a proper Dungeons and Dragons campaign going with our gang of players, but the venue was a problem – until Emma and I realised that as we’d recently sorted out our flat enough to make guests a possibility, there was no reason we couldn’t have a go at hosting it at our place. It’d make getting to games a hell of a lot easier. We figured we’d give it a go, and if it didn’t work out, we’d come up with something else. The longest of our previous games had lasted a couple of months, so it was probably going to be about that – especially as I’d found my previous experiences with D+D a bit finickity (especially when it came to combat).
So, we had our team: Ollie (aka @Hanbidge) as Dungeonmaster, ruling the game with an iron fist, always ready with an evil cackle when making dice-rolls that might do hideous damage to our characters. Tom (aka @ThermobaricTom), playing a fight-happy pixie with a love of yelling “ADVENTURE!” who started out called Tingle Treblebutt, but whose name eventually evolved into the slightly more worrying monicker of Gayfist Fagballs. Jay (aka @uglynoodles), who went through two separate characters before settling in as a seven-foot wolf-like Gnoll called Kleeve, with a chainsword and some truly terrifying personal habits. My girlfriend Emma (aka @emmajanedavies), playing a pixie named Bluebell Sparklefluff, who ended up developing Delusional Unicornosis (a mental disorder where she was convinced she was turning into a Unicorn) and varied between camp cries of “Darling!” and suggesting some of the most fantastically unspeakable things I’ve ever heard. Myself (aka @saxonb), playing a Dragonborn named Challa O’Fee whose usual response to anything going wrong was “Oh, COME ON!!” and who indulged in over-the-top acts of vengeance while still being convinced that worshipping a soul-stealing cult didn’t actually make him evil. There was Rachel (aka @Rachamuffin), who joined the game later on as a Revenant Palladin Dark Elf named Sunder, and who wasn’t having anything to do with any goddamn skeletons. And then there was Jehan (aka @Maustallica) – one of the most genuinely, wonderfully demented roleplayers I’ve ever encountered – who started out as a dwarf druid named Beardface Goldberg with a habit of nibbling on corpses, until he did something so jaw-droppingly horrifying that our party simply *had* to kill him – at which point his new character entered the scene, Metalfist the communist robot (actually a Warforged), who then spent the entire game failing to get any peasant masses to rise up against their oppressors (while regularly setting castles on fire).
Now, the plan was to play short-ish campaigns, because there was a selection of games people wanted to try (and some were possibly going to be GM’d by other people as well). It’d be a revolving cycle, and we’d start off with D+D, but the game probably wouldn’t take too long. Maybe 8-10 sessions, tops.
Initially, things went fairly smoothly. We were hired by a magistrate to take out a skeletal sorcerer. We fought swamp-dwelling frog-men called Bullywugs (whose menacing cries sounded worryingly similar to ‘The Frog Chorus’ by Paul McCartney). We even sorted out a whole issue with the weather in the region, thanks to a totem that had been hi-jacked by some fellow adventurers. Unfortunately, our method of sorting this out – ambushing the adventurers in a bar and killing them – resulted in us also getting banished from the city by the local magistrate, and even our newly liberated castle was taken away from us. Our response – and I have to admit, this was largely my idea – was to say “Bollocks to that!” and try and get revenge on the magistrate by killing him and taking over the country ourselves.
Now, this seemed to be where Ollie was aiming the end of the game – that we’d defeat the magistrate and then we’d shift on to play something else. But then, in a session that started off feeling like it’d probably be either the last or the next-to-last, everything exploded in a rather surprising way. Having been ‘escorted’ from the city by the magistrate, we had escaped and were heading back to the metropolis – and we were also extremely mad at Jehan’s character, Beardface Goldberg, whose decision to nibble on a decaying skull had ended up with us having to spend ridiculous amounts of money saving his life. So, we took the completely moderate strategy of sending him into prostitution (complete with a costume featuring assless chaps). It was the kind of decision that comes up a lot in our demented, anarchic gameplay, and we weren’t expecting anything to come of it.
What *actually* happened was that within half an hour, we’d ended up running the city’s main brothel, and alongside our new duties as adventurer-pimps, we were also planning an assasination attempt that involved us being smuggled into the magistrate’s castle hidden inside giant dragon-sized books. I think everyone around the table knew that something kind of wonderful had happened – it’s unique to roleplay, a kind of fabulous synthesis where the game acquires its own energy and starts heading in its own direction.
Pretty soon, we weren’t just adventurer-pimps – we were running the country as puppet-dictators, although rather annoyed at the religious atrocities that had been pulled off by our ‘backers’, the Church of Tiamat, courtesy of their leader Logarr (who soon turned out to be a deeply frustrating thorn in our side). Pretty soon we were engaged in diplomatic tangles, trying to prevent a war with nearby country Shorwyn, and also attempting to figure out how to correct all the mildly horrible things that had happened courtesy of the Church of Tiamat. Ollie was now talking about taking our characters all the way to level 30 (and because of our gameplay style, that’s going to take a loooong time), and the end result was that a game we’d thought was going to end within a couple of weeks simply kept going. And going.
It hasn’t stopped yet. We’re taking a brief break for a couple of months in order to play a different game, but we’ll soon be back to D+D, and up until now we’ve played for virtually the whole of 2012. While there have been plenty of points where I’ve gotten a little frustrated (either with the story – especially on the very lengthy journey we ended up stuck on at one point – or with the epic combat sessions which, with D+D’s complex rules, could go on for a long time), and Monday nights haven’t always been the ideal time for me (thanks to regular deadlines that usually fall on a Monday morning), any downsides have been more than outweighed by the sheer amount of fun I’ve had. Roleplaying is an art that does sometimes get a bad reputation, but there’s nothing quite like embarking on a freeform adventure with nothing more than your imagination, and a gang of friends who are determined to have fun. It’s also helped that Ollie’s sense of humour has resulted in the year-long saga of our attempts to defeat Logarr being crammed full of unexpected homages to things like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the Dolph Lundgren 1994 action movie ‘Men of War’. Combining this with Jehan’s lunatic gameplay has resulted in plenty of sessions where I’ve spent most of the time laughing my head off.
Highlights? Almost too many of them to count, and some of them involving humour so deeply wrong that it’s probably not the best idea to recount them… but there was our extended sea-voyage in the company of Captain Bulge-Eyes, a grizzled sea-dog with a crew of children and a romantic attachment to a flock of scat-hurling Harpies. There was the ‘rescue mission’ we were hired to perform, only to find out halfway through that instead of rescuing people we were actually kidnapping them (an act which then went on to cause a gigantic calamity in the war against Logar). There was the unexpected bout of turnip sculpture, as Metalfist tried to win over villagers with his artistic side (during which Kleeve also tried to sculpt a nearby tree with her chainsword, but ended up flattened beneath it). There were Shorwyn’s batallion of amphibious dwarf soldiers, known as the Iron Snorkels. There was the extended period during which we had to prevent Bluebell Sparklefluff from being forced into an arranged marriage, which was only solved (in an accidental way) by Metalfist deciding to burn down the castle we were staying in. There was Metalfist’s trip to a wizardly gay bar (and Bluebell’s unexpected debut as a drag artist). We also had the trip to the Island of the Sadness Monkeys, where I managed to nearly get killed by being pelted with coconuts (following a brief bout of illness thanks to being pelted with dung from the Harpies), and our epic journey to the Kord-Mania festival, a wrestling competition where we finally had to face off against the Muscle Pope himself, Randall Sauvage (who of course, bore no resemblance at all to WWE wrestler ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage…). There was even the spirited argument I tried to put up in insisting that despite the whole vengeance-seeking and soul-stealing, my character wasn’t really evil, resulting in someone else saying the line: “Of course he’s evil, IT SAYS SO ON THE CHARACTER SHEET!”
My ultimate highlight, and the proudest moment of my gaming ‘career’, came late in the game – we’d defeated several major villains (including Keefer – taken from the aforementioned ‘Men of War’, an insanely macho bare-chested mockney with an overstyled goatee), and having snuck back into Logarr’s capital city, we were trying to figure out a way of disrupting Keefer’s state funeral (Keefer having been turned into the most improbable ‘hero of the people’ ever) which would stand any chance of messing up Logarr’s plans. Having gone through one of my brief bouts of feeling a bit frustrated with things in the game, I didn’t have any clue as to what we could do to make a real difference – until I came up with the idea of trying to fake Keefer’s ghost so that he could pull a Banquo, accuse Logarr of having killed him, and incite the people into a full uprising. Amazingly – everyone in the group went for it, we gave it a try – and it actually worked. We ended up with a ghostly version of Keefer stirring up rebellion and almost emptying the city before the final confrontation, and I couldn’t help feeling oddly proud of having pulled off such a wonderfully ridiculous result.
It’s had its ups and downs, but our D+D games have also pulled me through some difficult times this year, giving both me and Emma a bit of socialisation and fun at times when we’ve needed it. All of our friends have had difficult or trying years in one way or another, but D+D has given us a way of getting together, forgetting our cares, and revelling in the art of pure silliness (as well as a selection of completely unprintable jokes that had us howling at their sheer wrongness). And, at the end of the year, if I’m thankful for anything, it’s for a brilliant group of friends, and for Ollie, who’s done a wonderful job of marshalling the game for the whole year and steering us the right way. It’s been a riot in the best sense, and I hope we’ve got many, many more games ahead of us…