D&D is back… and it’s breathing fire!

The new D&D Starter Set.

The new D&D Starter Set.

Not so long ago the game I grew up with was fading away: The pastime that has been my addiction for 30-plus years was on the critical list; The hobby that I have spent literally tens of thousands of pounds pursuing was dying.

To use Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) parlance, it was on minus nine hit points and had failed two death saving throws.

In short, the granddaddy of all roleplaying games was about to breathe its last – mortally wounded by flawed design.

Somewhere along the way, game designers and the people running Wizards of the Coast – the company which now owns DnD – had forgotten what had made the game great.

Perhaps in the pursuit of the mass multi-player online roleplaying game market they had churned out a system where characters and monsters alike were so over-burdened with powers that every combat situation, no matter how minor, went on for what seemed like hours and hours.

They’d somehow managed to create a version of THE classic fantasy roleplaying game where roleplaying was virtually impossible for the players who had to wade through pages and pages of abilities every time they took a turn.

D&D, or rather combat in D&D, had become soul-crushingly dull and tedious in the extreme. No wonder players deserted in their droves or reverted to using previous incarnations of the rules which had served them so much better.

What was worse for me, a D&D zealot, was that the body of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s wonderful creation wasn’t even cold and yet in its place had come a new pretender to the throne: Pathfinder.

With sharp artwork, a shiny new range of miniatures and a rules system that played like an enhanced version of the 3.5 edition of D&D, it was a refuge for all those who had fled screaming from the abomination that was the fourth edition of a gaming phenomenon.

Sure, the Character Builder programme and all those gizmos you were given access to when you paid to sign up for D&D Insider online were cool – but they didn’t make up for the fact that the fourth edition version of the rules were about as much fun as trying to fish your friend, the dwarf fighter, out of a gelatinous cube.

Even yours truly, who may as well have DnD tattooed on his forehead, dabbled with Pathfinder and wrote a number of supplements for it – all the while hoping that the game which hooked me back in 1983, courtesy of a UK-spun adventure called The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, would get up and starting fighting again.

But with a large section of its core audience alienated and facing a rival that truly meant business (just look at how many RPG slots were devoted to Pathfinder this year at UKGamesExpo this year), what could possibly save D&D from oblivion?

A new edition, of course! But, crucially, it could not be a new edition for the sake of it or because Wizards were trying to screw more cash out of us long-suffering gamers.

No, this new version of D&D needed to be the real-deal. It needed to address the fundamental problems which had made fourth edition such a rules-lawyer bore-fest. Indeed, I figured, a little humility on behalf of the powers-that-be might not be a bad place to start.

Then in August of 2012 something truly remarkable happened.

I was celebrating my 40th birthday at Gen Con Indianapolis (a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I assured the missus) when D&D woke up from its coma, looked over at the Pathfinder kid at the bar, and said in a gruff voice: ‘You’re sitting in my seat’.

The first Gen Con keynote address was given in the Indiana Roof Ballroom by Wizards of the coast bosses, supported by a raft of well-known authors and artists, and – courtesy my Roleplayers’ Chronicle press pass – I was fortunate enough to be on the front row that night.

I may have punched the air at one point. Several oohs and aahs definitely escaped my lips and I don’t think I stopped grinning for three hours or more.

D&D boss man Mike Mearls promised – through a huge public playtest – to deliver a new system which would give us back the game we all love.

This was a bold pledge and many people in that room doubtless wondered whether or not Mearls and his team could deliver.

After all, words are cheap, and it’s easy to enthuse a room full of, well… enthusiasts.

But 18 months later and with the playtest now complete, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all had our chance to help shape the 5th edition of D&D.

My group of nine, for example – based in Stoke-on-Trent, England – have played through every public version of the playtest rules and completed six or seven major adventures along the way.

We’ve revisited old classics such as the Isle of Dread and lapped up new scenarios like the impressive Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle.

Some things – like the advantage/disadvantage rule (Where characters are asked to roll two dice instead of one and take the highest or lowest result – depending on the circumstances) have gone down really well with our group.

Other things, like the chronically-low armour class of some monsters, have left us scratching our heads.

However, we have faithfully reported our findings from each playtest – along with an estimated 175,000 or so other DnDers – in the hope that someone, somewhere has been listening to us.

The jury is, of course, still out on the new version of D&D but – from everything we’ve seen, heard, read and played through – we’ve got a good feeling about what’s going to be unveiled at Gen Con Indy next month.

In fact, as a proud owner of the new Starter Set I’m going to stick my neck out and say… daddy’s home.

Of course, we won’t agree with everything in the new rule books – we never do – but we can houserule bits ‘n bobs as we always have.

However, if the new D&D system is simpler to play and Wizards have indeed taken onboard some of the suggestions from the people who know best (the players) then it will get our vote.

You see, it’s not rocket science. All I believe we players really want is a rules system which is faithful to the original ethos of D&D – as envisaged by Messrs Gygax and Arneson.

It was Gygax himself who once said: “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

He was right. The rules are, ultimately, just the framework on which a great game hangs. In all honesty, having a decent, well-prepared Dungeon Master and half a dozen keen players is more important than any rules.

Strange as it may seem, looking back over three decades of gaming, I don’t remember specific terrific rules or how my friends and I once interpreted this rule or that rule brilliantly. Rules should be seen and not heard, in my opinion.

What we do remember, instead, is the legendary encounters, the off-the-cuff dialogue, the DMs who breathed life into epic villains such as Ravenloft’s Strahd von Zarovich, the magic items with a cool back story and the characters who never made it but whose deaths were glorious (and sometimes vaguely comedic) and whose loss is still felt.

We players want to work as a team, to grow our characters as personalities – rather than just viewing them as tables of statistics. We want to puzzle solve, to explore, to challenge great evils (or perhaps become great THE evil) and we want to make great memories along the way.

Whatever RPG you play today – be it tabletop or via a games console, it owes a debt to D&D – the game which has entertained me for more than 30 years and which has helped me forge lasting friendships with some of the nicest people to ever pick up a 20-sided die.

D&D is me on my best day, sat around a table with my friends – without the stresses and strains of real life, exploring a world full of magic and monsters, with a masterwork longsword in my right hand, a flaming torch in my left hand, and friends at my back – delving into a dark, dusty, cobwebbed passage that smells faintly of death and decay but promises untold riches to those brave enough to explore it.

Fortune and glory, kid… Fortune and glory.

Yours truly is a journalist by trade and a married father of two trainee dragonslayers. I’m a 30-year Dungeons and Dragons veteran who also likes to dabble with other RPG systems. A previous winner of the Red Steel tournament at Gen Con UK, I was also a finalist in the UK D&D Open. In 2012, I won the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con Indy during my first visit to the States and I was a finalist in last year’s inaugural Cthulhu Masters UK. I have co-written several supplements for the Pathfinder RPG system and write as a correspondent for Roleplayers’ Chronicle. My bags are already packed for Gen Con Indy this August. I kid you not…

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A warm welcome and fond memories of my first trip to States

It was with a mixture of fear and trepidation that I boarded American Airlines flight 55 from Manchester to Chicago. I had never travelled abroad on my own before and I had never been to America.

I passed the eight-hour flight chatting to Ollie, a second-year medical student at Keele University who told me he was visiting his girlfriend in Tennessee.

Tennessee? How things have changed. The furthest away any girlfriend of mine had ever lived was Tunstall.

Stepping off the plane at Chicago O’Hare was a daunting experience.

I had just over an hour to collect my luggage and catch a connecting flight to Indianapolis.

Of course, I hadn’t realised that O’Hare is the fourth busiest airport in the world and handles more than 66 million passengers each year.

The sheer size of it was what hit me – something which would be a recurring theme during my time in the States.

As I arrived at immigration a stern-looking bloke who was the spit of Poncherello out of CHiPs! (how are you on your Eighties TV trivia?) asked me whether my visit to the U.S. was for business or pleasure.

“Pleasure,” I replied.

“And what’s your pleasure?” he asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Playing Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu,” I replied, with utter sincerity.

“Oh,” said Poncherello.

Nothing quite ends a conversation like telling someone you’re attending a games convention.

It was sod’s law that my plane to Indy would be delayed but nothing could diminish my enthusiasm.

As I waited by the departure gate, soaking in the sights and sounds, a woman sat next to me, leaned over and said: “Excuse me. Would you like a hamburger?”

As chat-up lines go, it was a new one on me.

“I don’t know why but they gave me two,” she added – motioning inside a McDonald’s paper bag.

Well it would have been rude to refuse and for the next hour and a half I chatted to Pam – a 59-year-old psychologist.

She was so friendly and so interested in everything from the royal family and the Titanic to the Olympics that I actually enjoyed being delayed.

By the time we boarded the plane we had swapped business cards and she had invited me and my family to her farm in Nebraska where she and her husband breed horses.

That has certainly never happened to me while waiting for a PMT bus up Hanley.

Pam sort of set the tone, really. Almost everyone I met – with the notable exception of Poncherello (who, to be fair, is paid to be miserable) – was incredibly friendly. People of the south of England, please take note…

Take, for example, Herschel – my 70-year-old taxi driver.

He brought me up to speed on the trials and tribulations of the Indianapolis Colts American Football team and gave me the heads-up on their new quarterback.

This was to come in handy the next day when I toured the impressive Lucas Oil Stadium – the 63,000 seater home of the Colts which comes complete with a retractable roof and artificial turf.

I learned that the Colts had only won two games last year and their fans had endured a torrid time.

As a Vale fan I could empathise and I adopted the Colts there and then.

That is where any similarities between the Hoosier state’s finest and the Valiants ended, however.

In light of their terrible season, the Colts were given the first NFL ‘draft’ pick this year – allowing them to choose from the cream of the crop of young players coming out of colleges and universities.

As a result, they picked up Andrew Luck – the best young quarter back in the country – for nowt, on account of how bad they were last season.

It’s the equivalent of the worst team in the Premier League being given first dibs on the best teenage footballer in England – irrespective of how much money Manchester City or Chelsea wave in his direction. Can you imagine?

Having ticked off a top-flight football stadium, a visit to a genuine diner was next on my list.

I finally settled for Johnny Rockets and enjoyed chilli beef sandwiches and a strawberry milkshake at the bar while throwing money into my own personal five cent jukebox.

Eat your heart out, Fonzie.

It was while walking around Indy that I realised that everything in the U.S. is BIG – from the blocks and the skyscrapers to the vehicles.

I was told that Indianapolis is a relatively modest, mid-western U.S. city, so Lord only knows what the really big ones are like.

Then there are the people.

We think we have an obesity problem over here but I can tell you it is nothing compared to the epidemic America is facing.

I was genuinely gobsmacked at the sheer girth of some of the folks waddling down the street and how many of the people were grossly overweight. It made me think long and hard about portion-sizes and the kinds of food I shovel down.

Not that I had much time to eat.

I had booked myself in for four solid days at Gen Con – the world’s largest gaming convention – showcasing tabletop games, board games, card and computer games.

Yours truly and 40,000-plus other geeks met authors, game-designers and artists, play-tested new games and took part in competitions.

I actually won the blue riband event – the Cthulhu Masters tournament – a horror roleplaying game based on the writings of American author H.P. Lovecraft.

It was a special moment and the perfect end to my first Gen Con Indy. I was taking home a trophy which had never before left the U.S.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

Yours truly being presented with the Cthulhu Masters brain case trophy at Gen Con 2012.

When I arrived at customs at Indianapolis airport I wondered how I would explain the large, heavy rubber-plastic brain I was carrying in my hand luggage to the nice men with guns.

Sure enough, when my backpack went through the scanner one of them said: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step this way. You have something organic in your luggage. Can you tell me what it is?”

“It’s my trophy for winning the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con,” I replied, nervously.

The customs man gingerly removed the brain case from my rucksack. “Joe, come look at this!” he shouted, beckoning his buddy over.

He then turned to me and exclaimed: “Dude, that is awesome!”

“I know,” I said, with a very relieved smile.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel