A gnome, a Halfling, two elves and a dungeon master sat around a small table in a Maria Hall study lounge. Their task was simple — handle the band of well-armed Halflings that stood guarding their entrance to the kingdom of Kerth.
Kerth, a kingdom now known for its involvement in the trade of the illegal narcotic substance known as Lotus, is run by evil dictator Nikolai. The band of four approached the short-statured soldiers at the border at the word of their master and the game began.
Led into battle by dungeon master (DM) Jacob Kelleher, a freshman video production major, a group of Webster University students has taken up Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a tabletop role-playing game involving dice. Players create characters by choosing a race (such as an elf or dwarf) and a class (professions such as a cleric or a thief). Players carry items and earn experience to overcome different challenges and battles.
The Webster group led by Kelleher, nearly 25 players depending on the campaign and time of the meeting, is split into three groups: the good group, the evil group and the neutral group. The game play became so popular it has now spawned several side campaigns, with storylines that follow themes such as Star Wars and zombie apocalypse.
Kelleher’s job as DM is to facilitate game play by preparing storylines for the campaign and creating the non-player characters. A campaign consists of however many games necessary to reach the end of the master’s plotline. Kelleher’s current campaign is nearing a close.
“I’m a fairly new dungeon master,” Kelleher said. “I ran a campaign during junior and senior year of high school, but never really went anywhere with it. I’ve been playing D&D with my friends for a few years. I hang out with my friends at this game shop and (D&D is) one of the things they do a lot. I believe my first campaign was a zombie campaign they had set up.”
Kelleher’s first campaign as a DM was based on the television show “Heroes,” and was his longest-running campaign to date. The campaign had the most sessions of game play he’s experienced. His current campaign is based off the classic D&D model, where players must role die of various values to determine the outcome of their desired actions.
Gabe Burns, Halfling rogue Rosco and sophomore journalism major, approached his roommate Kelleher after he and some friends watched an episode of the television show “Community.” An episode of the show featured characters playing D&D. Burns and two other friends approached Kelleher and asked him to set up a campaign for them.
“I remember walking into the room, and there was a group of 12 there ready to play,” Burns said.
Burns grew up playing video games, and was introduced to tabletop gaming by a friend in high school. He said his main gaming experience has been online role-play games, like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
“(D&D) is not the only geeky thing I do,” Burns said. “Tabletop is so open depending on the DM. Really, you can do whatever you want. When I play video games, I would always wonder ‘why can’t I just do this? Why can’t I just sweep this guy’s leg and run for it?’ In a tabletop game, you can. I like the freedom to be as creative as I want in solving a problem.”
Kelleher, who has also played role-play video games, said D&D allows him to take game play past the bounds of imagination.
“If I wanted to I could pull a door off of a wall and then use it as a giant shield,” Kelleher said. “Now, I’ll take minuses and rolls, and it may not be the best shield, but I can do it. It’s the same appeal as games like Skyrim or Oblivion because you have that free world, only more so because you can do what even the game designers didn’t think of.”
Sophomore film major Sean Nielsen, whose D&D character is a gnome rogue (a loose-cannon figure who may not have a specific alliance) named Chompsky, said he began playing a Star Wars role-play game as a junior in high school. After running a few Star Wars campaigns himself, including one here at Webster, Nielsen got involved in D&D play. He said he sees a lot of similarities between the storylines in D&D campaigns and his work in film.
“I’m most attracted to the storytelling and character development of (D&D),” Nielsen said. “It’s one of the reasons I’m a filmmaker. I love telling a story, I love adventure. That’s all an RPG is really, a huge in depth story that you get to experience first hand. In a tabletop especially, that story has no limits. You are the sole creator of your own destiny, and no game is ever the same as the next.”
As a DM, Kelleher likes to drive campaigns through the characters he creates. He said he doesn’t always spend a lot of time preparing storylines for individual sessions, choosing instead to let the players shape the outcome. He also likes for plotlines to be character driven, instead of relying on natural disasters.
“I am a more free-realm DM, I let the players do whatever they want,” Kelleher said. “But it’s always annoying when the players ask for a name of a character I intend to kill later. Usually I sort of just make (characters) up off the top of my head. I think of like, ‘what would be someone that would really mess with everyone in this situation?’ and just throw them in, usually just sort of as an homage to myself as a DM. I usually have them take one of my personality traits to an extreme. I try getting the players to love or hate characters.”
Burns said he and other players in the campaign have a long-standing tradition of trying to piss the DM off. In one session, Burns’ character Rosco nearly died trying to loot a burning pirate ship due to an unfortunate series of low rolls. If a player rolls a low number, his chances of completing his desired action may be lowered. If a player rolls a one, they not only fail to complete the action but face a consequence. Burns managed to escape drowning with a tightening noose around his neck after rolling three 1s in a row, a feat nearly impossible in D&D play.
“We’re constantly doing what he doesn’t expect us to,” Burns said.
Nielsen said playing D&D has allowed him to not only think creatively to overcome challenges, but has given him insight into relationships as well.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot about people,” Nielsen said. “You can tell a lot about someone by how they play their characters in the game. They exude a part of themselves that is rarely seen outside the game. Some people play seriously, some more jokingly, and some fall in between. I feel a lot of players express a side of themselves they feel for one reason or another they can’t express in their actual lives. Sometimes it’s someone they strive to be, sometimes it’s an outlet to express that guilty pleasure of being an evil character, and sometimes people just like to put on a mask and act, stop thinking about their own lives.”
None of the players said they’ve felt looked down upon for playing a tabletop role-play game. Kelleher said he believes online gaming has helped ease some of the stigma around D&D players, but Burns said that stereotypes of “game geeks” are something he does encounter.
“I have friends that are not quite as geeky as me, and sometimes they ask me where I’m going,” Burns said. “I just kind of scratch my head and say, ‘to play D&D.’ They laugh, but they don’t look down on me. You’re going to run in to stuff like that, because as a whole that stigma is still there- that idea of a fat 30 year old guy living in his mom’s basement.”
Nearly two hours after the four travelers met the Halfling army on the border of Kerth, Rosco and Chompsky entered the kingdom with their companions as victors. Though they had thrown their master for a loop, choosing to engage the Halflings in battle rather than working out a diplomatic agreement to allow passage into their country, the group had overcome a reckless dragon (a transformed elf from their own band) with the help of vampire companions and a celestial badger. They lived to see another campaign.