Out of the D&D Closet

Dungeons & Dragons – or tabletop roleplaying in general – both repels me and attracts me. I can admit it now, freely. I am equally attracted and repulsed by rolling dice and pretending to be someone else in a dark room with an excess of snacks. I had never done it. Never thrown a d10 in anger. And I decided that it was about time that that changed. I will take the plunge; I’m coming out of the closet. I’m going to be a videogamer who’s lost my tabletop virginity, and I’m going to tell you how it felt to abandon the keyboard and mouse for a bag of dice and a pencil.


Why? Maybe it’s just the equanimity of age. I tolerate or even like things I didn’t expect to as a high schooler, like pop music, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or interactions with other human beings. It could have been a matter of time. There’s also Carlos the Dwarf, the fantastic storyline from the final episode of Freaks & Geeks, which normalizes D&D even for older, cooler future movie stars. Who could watch that and not be tempted? Finally, my then-roommate also started playing the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, so his gear was all around me.

There is a physical appeal to the tabletop games. Once upon a time, videogames came with interesting collections of documents, manuals, and knickknacks. Opening the box could be as fun as playing the game. Those days are long gone (unless you shell out twice the price for a “Special Edition.”) Seeing the gorgeous Pathfinder Player’s Guide is immediately appealing to me as a fantasy fan, and I enjoy the aesthetics of board games and books at the tabletop game store far more than being in a corporate GameStop.

Although I’ve never played an RPG on a tabletop, I’ve done it tens of thousands of times on my computer. Computer roleplaying games are my favorite genre. I like them in all styles. I’ve played every Ultima, every Final Fantasy. I can wax poetic about whether Disgaea or Wizardry VII is the most complex videogame of all time. I’ve also played many, if not most, of the AD&D videogames released for the PC, and while I enjoyed many of them, I rarely loved them. I came to believe that they were more interested in adapting the D&D rules than being great videogames.

So with the idea of roleplaying and not min-maxing or beating the system in mind, I rolled a halfling barbarian. His name was Min, and he was a barbarian because he believed that his great-grandmother had made love to a dwarf. The rest of Min’s family had forgotten this, but she was trying to reclaim their glorious barbarian past. His great-grandmother had even tried to grow a beard. I created Min because, well, I thought it was funny. Perhaps it would have been equally funny in Icewind Dale II – but I probably would have been the only one laughing.

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I almost used Icewind Dale II to create my character. I’m so used to a videogame doing all the dirty work, letting me know what feats are available and what feats aren’t, etc, that I was lost when confronted with just a rulebook. I realized that Icewind Dale II, with its D&DM 3.0 rules, was probably not going to work, but a quick Google search led me to a free character generator for the Pathfinder game. Ironically, I still needed a computer for my first experience with tabletop roleplaying.


I managed to get involved in two D&D sessions. Both were Pathfinder games, aka D&D 3.75. The first session was a long-running campaign, with a core group of players who were used to playing with one another. There were no more seats at the table the night I attended, so I was only able to observe. The second session was a Pathfinder Society game.

Pathfinder Society events are large, regular gatherings in gaming areas – usually game stores – which anyone may attend. Players are divided according to their character’s level, and are given a standard set of modules to play. The same dungeon that I traversed with my character and party was also plumbed by hundreds, if not thousands, of other characters all over the country that week. The gold rewards are standard, as is the amount of experience (every session gives a single experience point, with three experience points leading to a new level.) You’re also encouraged to register your character with the official Pathfinder Society website.

The regulated nature of the Pathfinder Society game allows very little room for getting to know your fellow characters, and the Dungeon Master is constrained by the module. For example, the party encountered a non-player character from a previous adventure module in the series. When the players whose characters hadn’t encountered him before asked those who had if the NPC was trustworthy, one responded affirmatively. Another immediately joked that while he agreed with that assessment, he had no idea how they had both had the same experience yet never adventured together before!

The whole situation felt more like a pick-up-group running an instance in

Fortunately, it was not my only experience with tabletop roleplaying. The longer campaign that I observed the night before provided a very different and more representative example of a tabletop game. The first thing that I noticed was a negotiation between the players and the Dungeon Master. As the players walked in, the DM told them that the party’s rooms had been robbed by a now long-gone player character at the end of the previous session. The party lost all of their items which would have been in their room at the inn. Each player tried to claim that they had certain items on them at the time of the robbery, or that they were staying somewhere else, or that something would take far too much time to move for the robbery to take place.


The negotiation was instantly appealing. Instead of the mechanical nature of videogames, which utilize a binary system of whether an action is possible or not within the game, here was a chance to bend the system. Of course, the key difference is the Dungeon Master, who must work with and against the characters. I like these grey areas within videogames and I was happy to see that experience realized around a table.

Even more appealing were the infinite options available to the players. When given a quest to investigate a forest with a mysterious silencing effect, the players sat around and debated how to proceed. Without the ability to speak because of the magical silence, should they tie themselves to a rope which could be tugged if something happened? Burn the woods down? Buy sandwich boards, a la Buffy in “Hush?” Do some perfunctory research in the local library and make a fake report, skipping the quest entirely? The group eventually chose to travel around the woods on the edge of the silencing effect and see what they could learn

Nothing in videogames compared to these few minutes of discussion and debate. Such negotiation between the players and the DM, more than anything, made me believe that switching to tabletop RPGs was something I might actually want to do.

Yet these strengths of the tabletop game and interaction with the Dungeon Master and other players also led immediately to weaknesses and un-fun concessions. The quest to investigate the wood was necessary for only a few of the characters in the party and one of the players – rightly – stated that there was no reason for her character to make this long and potentially dangerous journey.

In a videogame, of course, such conflict doesn’t happen. In a single-player game, you’re given a quest and you do it (or sometimes you don’t), and any party member’s protestations are almost always meaningless. In an MMO, a player asked to do something with no potential reward always has the ability to go do something else for a while and then reconnect when motives realign. In this case, however, the player has already planned her evening here. She’s obviously not going to go anywhere else if she has the option, and there’s only one Dungeon Master. Some motivation for her character has to be tacked on, or the whole problem ignored, for the game to work. The player went along with the plan in the end, of course, but I’m not certain that her character ever had good reason to do so. If such roleplaying concerns must be ignored, then what is the point?


Likewise, all of the options which the players discussed in trying to figure out a plan, while interesting, ultimately led to a simple choice: investigate the forest or don’t investigate the forest. The end result was almost exactly the same as a videogame which did not offer such infinite options. The party ventured towards the woods and encountered an ambush, the results of which would no doubt channel the party and story in a specific direction. The challenges faced by both Dungeon Masters and videogame designers are not so terribly different; both must encourage the players to do the “correct” thing to make the game run smoothly, while convincing the players that they are in control.

So would I play again? Yes, I think that I would, but I don’t feel compelled to actively seek out further games. I also certainly wouldn’t play in Pathfinder Society games often, though it could be a fun supplement. If a game came along with people I knew and conveniently timed and located, I would be tempted. I don’t think my fundamental position towards tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has changed since I’ve played it. I respect its influence on the games that I love, and I feel a kinship with its players. But I am still a videogamer, and that’s not likely to change.

Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the Bay Area. He blogs at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com, tweets @rowankaiser, and is currently working on a book about the history of videogames. He’d like to thank It’s Your Move and Endgame game stores in Oakland, CA for hosting his tabletop indoctrination.

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