Sample Chapters from "Through Dungeons Deep: A Fantasy Gamers' Handbook" by Robert Plamondon
Part I: How to Play
Chapter 1: What Are Fantasy Role-Playing
Remember this from
English Lit.? As the men were sleeping, the monster burst
into the hall. It seized a man, sank fangs into his throat, and
drank blood until there was no more. Then, it began taking huge
bites from the still-warm flesh.
Not satisfied, it looked
around for another victim and spied a large man in a nearby bed.
It reached down its hand to seize him but the man was not asleep.
He took hold of the arm and grappled with the monster.
This man was stronger
than anything it had ever faced before. Fear entered the monster's
heart and it tried to pull away, to bite him, or rake him with its
claws--anything to escape the awful grip. The man avoided the
attacks and concentrated on his hold on the arm, bending and
twisting until the monster bellowed in agony.
The other men woke. They
seized their swords and attacked the monster as best they could
but their blades bounced off its horrible skin. Ancient spells
protected the monster from the cold bite of iron.
Slowly the hero tightened
his grip and, finally, the monster's shoulder burst, and the arm
was ripped from its socket. Mortally wounded, the monster fled
screaming into the night. It would never kill another man. Beowulf
had slain Grendel.
This is the famous scene
from the Medieval verse epic Beowulf. But the action could just as
easily have taken place in a novel, a movie, an opera, or a play.
Or, it could have taken place in a fantasy role-playing game.
What are fantasy
role-playing games? Answering that question was one of the most
difficult problems in writing this book because fantasy role-playing
games are similar to so many things, but different from all of
Is This What You Have
Been Looking For?
Have you ever wished you
could be projected into the middle of a movie and take part in the
action? Role-playing games let you do just that. Have you ever read
a book and wished you could create stories of heroic deeds? That is
the bread and butter of a fantasy role-playing game. Do you remember
the fun of childhood games of make believe? The excitement of
playing Cowboys and Indians? Do you wish you could find a game that
didn't bore you after five plays? Search no farther; fantasy
role-playing games are what you're looking for.
A fantasy role-playing game
(which I will also refer to as a "fantasy game," "role-playing
game," or just "game") is a game where people assume roles of
fictitious persons. To put it less pompously, they make believe they
are someone else. It's play-acting, but structured play-acting with
rules to make the game more meaningful and more enjoyable.
A player might choose to
play some strong but stupid warrior named Harald Bentnose. He gets
to decide what Harald is like--what kind of beer he drinks, whether
he kicks his dog, goes to church, or respects the King. The player
is an actor, but he gets to make up his own role. Sitting around and
talking about your character is not what role-playing games are all
about. The players need to have something to do with their
characters. To accomplish this, one player, known as the referee,
Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master (GM), or Judge, is put in charge of
the game and is expected to come up with interesting things to do.
The players then sit around and talk about what their characters are
I'll use Dungeon
Master, or DM.
Creating the Campaign
The Dungeon Master
prepares by blocking out some kind of adventure. For instance, he
can draw a floor plan of a ruined castle, note where some horrible
monsters have taken up residence, and suggest that the players'
characters (known, surprisingly enough, as the player
characters) go on a monster hunt. The make-believe world created
by the DM is known as the campaign world and the adventures
of the characters are the campaign.
On the monster hunt, the DM
referees the actions of the characters. How long does it take to go
from wherever they are to the castle? The Dungeon Master decides.
How do the players know what their characters see? The Dungeon
Master tells them. Who decides what the monsters are doing? The
Dungeon Master. The players decide what their characters are doing
and the Dungeon Master determines whether or not it works, how long
it takes, how much it costs, and all the other details.
If the game were supposed
to be a contest between the DM and the players, the DM would win
every time because he holds all the cards. But that is not what is
The Challenge is the
A fantasy game isn't played
so that a single character wins. No one is trying to beat the
others. The idea is to have a good time facing challenges and,
hopefully, overcoming them--all as a group effort. Everyone works
In many ways, the players
are acting the roles of the heroes in a play and the DM plays
everyone else, both friend and foe. The idea isn't to outdo the
other heroes, but to bring the story to a happy ending. The DM
contributes to this process; he throws in the troubles that must be
overcome but he also leaves opportunities to overcome them. He is
neither forcing the characters to win or abandoning them to die. He
puts them in a situation that, with skill, can be used to the
players' advantage. On the other hand, it can lead to disaster if
There is no way to "win" a
role-playing game in any final sense. The characters can become
fabulously wealthy and powerful or they can die, but neither event
means that the player is a winner or a loser. The game itself never
ends though it often stops. Each playing session leads to
For example, suppose the
players manage to kill all the monsters in the old castle. What are
they going to do with the castle? They may choose to fix it up and
become the lords and protectors of the immediate area--and collect
taxes, of course. The next time the players get together, or the
next six times, could be devoted to fixing the castle, fighting off
new beasties, and wresting taxes out of the local peasants.
If the players decided that
their characters weren't interested in a moldy old castle, they
would do something else. The Dungeon Master controls the world but
he doesn't control the player characters. The players alone decide
what their characters do.
Since players play the
parts of people living in the Dungeon Master's "world," they try to
make decisions as if that world were real. The Dungeon Master's main
job is to make his campaign world seem to be real by making things
behave as one would expect them to behave. All of this is done
sitting around a table, using verbal description and imagination to
describe what is going on.
But what about the rules?
Role-playing games have rules, like every other game, but there's a
difference. In a role-playing game you are trying to make-believe
you are a character in another world. Interacting with that world,
playing the part, and being involved with the stories that come out
of it are what make the game enjoyable. The rules are there to help
you do this. Since you can't "win the game," the rules can be fairly
loose, leaving room for change.
In fact, many of the more
experienced Dungeon Masters don't really need rules at all. They
know how far a horse can travel in a day and can referee a fight
between a cave bear and an armored knight without reference to any
rule; they just wing it.
Now, I don't do it that way
and no one who doesn't have a lot of experience should try it, but
it does illustrate the point that rules are much less important in a
role-playing game than they are in other games. There are more
important things than rules, especially role playing, a good story
line, a realistic campaign world, and a skillful Dungeon Master, not
necessarily in that order.
As a matter of fact, the
secondary importance of rules is what allowed this book to be
published. Good role-playing technique is the same no matter which
of the dozen or more role-playing games you are using. Therefore,
this book applies to every game.
Why Role-Playing Games
There are a number of
things that make role-playing games as interesting as they
are--interesting enough to have sold millions of copies. These games
are no fad. Their popularity is due to features that make them
superior to other games. These features include the following:
Playing a role is fun but
it has previously been assumed that make believe is for children.
Role-playing games are games of make believe that can be enjoyed by
A good role-playing
campaign is amazingly realistic--a person can play without the
slightest knowledge of the rules. He simply has his character do
whatever seems best according to what's happening in the Dungeon
Master's world. All he has to do is make believe that it's real and
have his character react accordingly.
A description of what the
characters do in the campaign sounds like the script from an Errol
Flynn movie. The characters gallivant around making friends, slaying
enemies, and accumulating wealth and power. The games have the
excitement of a good fight scene, the audience participation of a
play, and the swashbuckling story line of a pirate movie.
Unlike other games,
role-playing games are open ended. The characters can kill dragons,
save nations, build bridges, pick pockets, run an inn, or paint
wallpaper. The possibilities are endless, limited only to the
imagination of the players and the Dungeon Master. The characters
can hunt big game one week, rescue a friend from prison the next,
and solve a murder mystery the week after that. The variety possible
in role-playing games keeps them from getting dull.
What They Aren't
These advantages make
role-playing games very interesting and very enjoyable. Along with
everything else that is interesting and enjoyable, role-playing
games have their critics. It seems that role-playing games are
destined to join television, pinball, and presweetened breakfast
cereals as Great American Scapegoats.
If you are looking at this
book because you want to find out about the "darker side" of
role-playing games you are in for a disappointment. The "darker
side" is hype. Nobody plays role-playing games in steam tunnels or
goes nuts and believes he's a Medieval hero. Sorry.
The people who believe that
role-playing games are for unstable geniuses going off the deep end
have been conned. The ones who proclaim that role-playing games show
"Satanic influences" are as credible as anyone else who uses the
favorite lines of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Role-playing games are
engrossing and sometimes thrilling, but they are no replacement for
life and no one believes that they are.
Perhaps some of the bad
press comes from the phrase "fantasy role-playing." In recent years,
fantasy has become almost synonymous with "sexual fantasy," and role
playing is associated with psychiatric role-playing therapy--so it
sounds like a game for crazy perverts.
Who Does What?
There are two distinct
types of players: the Dungeon Master and everybody else. The
everybody elses are called "the players." This implies that the DM
isn't a player. He is, more so than anyone, as you will see in the
The DM is in charge of
creating the campaign world which gives the player characters
somewhere to live. He creates all the inhabitants of this world,
with the sole exception of the player characters. The DM plays all
the monsters and all the people except the player characters. He
decides what the weather is like. He adjudicates combat. He does
How does he do all this?
How does he make all these decisions? A lot of this book was written
to answer those questions, but for now let it go at this: the DM
sets things up as he likes them--but, for events that could hurt the
player characters, he rolls dice.
Dice are always present in
role-playing games. In combat, determining whether you hit an
opponent with your sword is done by rolling dice. The result of his
return blow is done the same way. The world is not completely
predictable and this is reflected in role-playing campaigns by the
use of dice at crucial times.
The players don't design
worlds or monsters. Each player has a character and is in charge of
playing him in character, making decisions, and doing things
according to what is going on in the game.
It sounds like the DM does
all the work and the players are just along for the ride. This isn't
true. Playing a character well can easily engage your full
attention. The players are busy when they play their characters. The
DM has enough things to do so that he can't outguess the players.
They can scheme all the time, but the DM's attention is divided
between all his various tasks. The result is that the players almost
always do better than the DM expected. Players have time to be
Who Has More Fun?
My experience is that
playing is more fun but DMing is more interesting. Both roles are
entertaining and I'm not sure which role gives me more pleasure in
the long run, though some people have a strong preference for one or
What are role-playing
games? They're a structured exercise in make believe. The next
chapter takes a look at this structure and gives some information
that will help you get started as a role player.
Chapter 2: Getting Started
Fantasy role-playing games
are not played in caves or steam tunnels, regardless of what the
news media says. Like other games, they are played on a table or on
the floor, typically in the Dungeon Master's living room. An unusual
feature is that the Dungeon Master has a lot of material that the
other players aren't supposed to see, so he tends to screen his end
of the table from view or work from a different table. This
preserves the DM's secrets until the time comes to spring them on
the unsuspecting characters.
Sequence of Play
Acquiring a Player
There is a general
procedure that novice players go through when joining a group of
gamers. Before the expedition can begin, the new player must acquire
a player character. The new character must have physical
characteristics and possessions defined before he can be played. To
give a random set of attributes, the physical characteristics are
generated by rolling dice. (This will be discussed in greater detail
in Chapter 3.) The character starts with a small amount of money
with which to equip himself.
All of the information on
the character's abilities and possessions has to be put down in
writing, usually by filling out a printed character record sheet.
With this bookkeeping done, the new player is ready to
Setting the Stage for
The Dungeon Master then
explains the essentials of his campaign to the new players. All of
the players should be introduced to each other and all of the
characters should be described to the players. This lets the new
player know something about the characters with whom his character
When the adventure begins,
the Dungeon Master will explain where the characters are and what is
going on around them. In a continuing campaign, the experienced
players will already know most of this information since the DM's
narration will begin where play stopped last time. Relevant
information such as the weather, the political situation, and offers
of employment will be given to the players. The players, having been
brought up to date, will begin to plan their next actions.
The Dungeon Master is in
charge of his entire fantasy universe, including the player
characters. The DM can tell a player that his character is unable to
invent dynamite, for example, because the character lacks the
background necessary for developing such an idea. A good DM,
however, will leave the player characters to the players as much as
possible. When a DM starts meddling in other people's role playing,
the players are justifiably angered. A player character is supposed
to belong to the player and the Dungeon Master should interfere only
when the player is having his character do something clearly
impossible according to the structure of the fantasy world.
All of the creatures
encountered by the players are referred to as either monsters--the
creatures encountered in hostile territory, some of which are
human--and nonplayer characters, or NPCs--the creatures that the
characters deal with in social (noncombat) situations. Both monsters
and NPCs are run by the Dungeon Master.
Since the DM is in charge
of the details of his fantasy world, he is required to narrate
events as they occur and to referee the actions of the player
characters among themselves, and their interactions with the other
creatures in the fantasy campaign.
A role-playing game
involves a lot of verbal description by the Dungeon Master. In some
campaigns, no other props are used. The DM describes what the
characters see and the players describe what their characters do. If
they feel that it is important, the players may make notes and draw
maps but, then again, they may not.
As an example of this style
of play, let's look at some dialog in a campaign with a Dungeon
Master and three player characters, a human, a dwarf, and a Hobbit.
The Hobbit is a safecracker and cat burglar and wears no armor; the
others are warriors and have armor and shields. The adventurers have
just finished looting the tower of an evil wizard who was
conveniently absent. They had a tough fight with the wizard's
household guards and all are slightly wounded and more than a bit
DM: About two
miles from town, just before you leave the forest, a man jumps out
ahead of you and says, "Stand and deliver!" He gestures to two
bowmen, who step out from behind the trees and aim drawn bows at
What kind of bow?
DM: Short bow--not very powerful.
Osric says, "Alright, alright, already. How much?"
DM: The bandit
Webli snorts and says, "We could take you before those puny arrows
could get us. I'll give you fifty sovereigns to spare us the
Osric says, "Look, we're tired, and we don't want to kill any more
scum today, so here's what we'll do. We got a little goody today
that you'll find very useful." Osric pulls out his pouch and walks
toward the bandit. He says, "I don't go in much for magic myself,
so I'll let you have it." He starts untying the draw- string, but
pretends it won't come undone. What are the bandits doing?
Fuzzfoot will now sneak into the forest and circle around the
rolling a couple of dice) He gets into the forest. Nobody but the
I'll take out the ring and say, "Using this is kind of tricky.
First, take a look at this ring. Notice the inscription..." I'm
gonna B.S. like that for as long as I can.
rolling still more dice) When the Hobbit is about 20 feet behind
him, the bandit leader says, "Get on with it!"
Dwarf Player: To
keep them interested, Webli shouts, "Don't show it to him, Osric!
You know how valuable it is!" How's the Hobbit doing?
DM: (To the
Hobbit Player) What are you going to do?
Sneak up and hold a knife against the leader's kidney and tell him
to keep his buddies peaceful.
DM: (After two
last dice rolls--one to see if the Hobbit's approach is detected,
and another to determine the bandit's reaction) He doesn't hear
you come up. When you touch him with the knife he jumps about a
foot in the air, starts to turn, decides against it, and
After you tell him what
to do, he orders his men to drop their weapons. They do it.
Fuzz-foot strikes again. They're all meek as can be. What do you
How about making them tell us where their hideout is?
How about not? Let's get them into town and collect the bounty for
live bandits. I can't take any more wounds.
Neither can I. OK, we're taking them into town.
rolling still more dice to see if they encounter more critters
along the way. No luck) You make it into town. The watch takes the
bandits, and you can collect the bounty when City Hall opens in
the morning. As you go down the street, you meet a stranger in a
dark robe ...
This example showed several things. One is that the
player characters never once made a decision based on game rules;
their actions were based on the situation described to them, their
knowledge of their comrades, and common sense. This is what makes
role-playing games feel so realistic.
The Dungeon Master, on the
other hand, had to use his dice several times. The bandit leader was
being conned and there was a chance that he would wise up or hear
the Hobbit. The DM assigned a percentage chance for this and rolled
the dice to see whether he would make it. He didn't and the Hobbit
caught him by surprise.
Speaking in Character. The players
and the DM talk both in and out of character. Sometimes the players
refer to their characters in the third person, sometimes in the
first--Osric was either "him" or "me". There has been some debate
over which pronoun is most appropriate, but I have no opinion on the
matter and mix first and third person references indiscriminately,
as do most of the people I play with.
Using Props. Narration is easier when
the Dungeon Master uses props, such as miniature figures, rather
than relying solely on verbal description. Miniatures for
role-playing games are usually inch-tall lead figures of adventurers
and monsters painted by their owners. However, chessmen, pieces of
cardboard, or any other convenient objects can be used. These
figures are used to show the relative positions of the adventurers.
If the DM has a surface he can draw on, such as large sheets of
paper, he can draw in the terrain and the figures can be placed in
their positions. This allows everyone to have a better picture of
what is going on and stifles arguments over just where in the room a
player character is or who is hiding behind whom.
This technique is possible
with any game counter that lets the players tell each other's
figures apart, but the lead figures are much more impressive and
informative than improvised counters. When the Dungeon Master places
a figure on the board that is nine times taller than the character's
figures, everybody knows they're in deep trouble. The problem of
players wailing, "But I didn't know it was 80 feet long!" disappears
when the DM has a complete selection of monster figures--everyone
can see for himself. Unfortunately, the DM can become very poor this
way. A complete bestiary is expensive.
Kind DMs will have figures
to loan to novices, although many are too poor to have any extras or
value their paint jobs too much to let others handle them. I have
always thought that players should have figures of their own for
each of their major characters since there is a strong
identification between the character and the figure used to
Working Toward a
The players characters are
usually confronted with a distinct goal, and the playing session is
devoted to working toward it as best the players can. The Dungeon
Master, in his role of impartial (more or less) referee, will be
providing both obstacles and assistance to the player characters,
according to what they do, whom they encounter, and how the dice
The expedition may not be
finished when it becomes time to quit, so the players and the
Dungeon Master make a few notes about what was going on and pack
everything away until next time. Some campaigns last for months of
weekend play before the players achieve their goal. In others, the
goal is reached in a matter of hours. A typical game session is
long--most are at least four hours long and "all-nighters" are
common, at least on college campuses.
The players will meet
people, travel, and probably fight. Combat is essential to fantasy
games. It adds excitement, danger, and a chance for heroism. Many
campaigns deal with combat almost to the exclusion of role playing.
This is going too far, however, since much of the excitement comes
from the involvement of the players with their characters.
The Rules of
Combat rules take up a
large portion of any role-playing game's rule book. This is due to
the fact that the players will not settle for the same kind of
free-form refereeing that they get when their characters are buying
ale in a tavern. When the player characters are in deadly danger,
the players want well-defined rules to keep them from croaking on
the whim of the Dungeon Master.
Thus, the combat rules tend
to be complex; the action is divided into small units; there are
rules for who strikes first, how many blows can be dealt, and
detailed tables showing the effects of all kinds of weapons and
armor. Everyone wants both perfect accuracy and great simplicity
and, so far, no one has been able to produce both at the same
Movement and the
Exchange of Blows
The main features of
combat are movement, where the players move their characters and the
DM moves everyone else, and the exchange of blows. Once the
combatants are in a position to beat on one another, dice are rolled
to see if anyone scored a hit and again to determine the damage
done. There may be several dice rolled in the more complex systems
to determine where the blow landed and whether it was a "critical
hit" that disables the opponent or a light wound that allows him to
Defeat, Surrender, or
Combat can end when one
side is wiped out or surrenders, or the losers may just run away.
Sometimes a truce is worked out in the middle of a fight when both
sides decide that they are getting nowhere. Player characters rarely
surrender unless they know that their captors will hold them for
ransom and that the ransom will be paid. Otherwise, the fate of a
captive is slavery or death. Nobody wants to play in an adventure
where they are a helpless slave, so the players would rather have
their characters die gloriously.
In addition to traveling
and fighting, the players are faced with problems of supply, getting
loot back home, negotiating with monsters, buying goods from greedy
shopkeepers, and avoiding tax collectors. Although less thrilling
than doing battle with dragons, these activities are interesting and
fun and should not be neglected.
Playing is more fun when
you can pretend that your character is a real person in a real
though strange world. It allows you to plot and plan because you
have a background upon which to base your schemes. A good fantasy
campaign has a lot of material for the characters to draw upon,
which lets them develop more and more elaborate plans as they become
familiar with the campaign.
Characters also deal with
each other and with the nonplayer characters. Characters can haggle
with tavern keepers, bribe guards, plead with powerful monsters, and
generally interact with the creatures around them. This puts the
role-playing aspect of the game into high gear and gives everyone a
chance to indulge in a bit of play acting, which is, after all, what
role-playing games are all about.
In a good campaign, there
will be many opportunities for this sort of thing. Role playing is
the thing that keeps these fantasy games alive, since a straight
"hack and slash" game gets boring after a while--I've tried it and I
If the game emphasizes role
playing, there will be a tendency to analyze the situation as if it
were real as opposed to being "just a game" with a rule structure
you are supposed to exploit. This is analogous to the "willing
suspension of disbelief' when reading a book; you think of the
action as being real rather than being something that has to be
wrapped up soon because there are only 30 pages to go. The mechanics
are intentionally ignored so you can enjoy the story. The difference
is that you are helping to make the story yourself.
Finding a Game
Few things are more
frustrating than finding a great game and having no one to play it
with. With fantasy role-playing games, the problem is even worse
than usual since someone has to be the Dungeon Master and being a DM
is much more difficult than playing, especially for novices.
Thus, it is a good idea to
learn to play in an established campaign where the DM and most of
the players already understand the rules. Although it is perfectly
practical to learn to play on your own, it is more confusing that
way. The best way to learn about role-playing games is to play them,
and the easiest way to start is in a campaign where the players can
lean on the expertise of the DM. Finding such a game can be
Hobby stores that sell
role-playing games often have game announcements posted on a
bulletin board. Calling the DM who posted the notice will usually
get you into a game. Some stores sponsor gaming clubs or game
tournaments; if these include role players, you can probably find a
friendly soul who will let you play.
If all else fails, you can
collar people coming out of the hobby store and generally ask
everyone you meet if they know of any active campaigns. I know
several people who got started in role playing because they
introduced themselves to a person carrying a rule book.
If you have the good
fortune to know of several campaigns that are accepting new members,
there are several things to keep in mind while choosing between
- The best campaign
to start in is one with low-level player characters and an
experienced DM. High-level characters (i.e., characters with lots
of experience and magic) are confusing until you learn about
high-level spells and special powers and have a good grip on what
the more powerful monsters can do.
- Unless you are
overwhelmed with free time, don't pick a campaign that meets too
often. Once a week is about as much as most students and working
stiffs can afford. If the campaign meets too often, you'll either
spend more time than you can afford or miss a lot of expeditions.
This is frustrating, especially when you show up to find that your
character is far poorer than everyone else, or dead.
- Try to avoid
campaigns where the DM kills all of the player characters every
time (the killer campaign) or runs a treasure giveaway show (the
"Monty Haul" campaign). These campaigns are useless for anything
except a bad example.
If nothing turns up, you
can start your own campaign, assuming you know some other novices
who want to play. Although more difficult than starting with an
experienced DM, it isn't a particularly painful experience and the
section on refereeing in this book will help make it easier. The
main problem is in wrestling with all of the unfamiliar rules but,
after a couple of gaming sessions, everything tends to straighten
out. When I first started playing fantasy games we had a series
of incredibly bungled campaigns, teeming with misinterpreted rules,
arguments, and general confusion. We had a lot of fun anyway. The
first games you play tend to be very exciting; partly because you
don't really know what's going on. Later, a certain worldliness
tends to set in and the excitement can wither when experience makes
every danger familiar.
Many would-be players have
the bad fortune of being unable to find anyone to play with. An
option open to these people is the solitaire adventure.
Solitaire adventures are
designed to take the place of the Dungeon Master. In a typical
solitaire dungeon, you start at the entrance and have several
options as to what you can do. A typical entry in the solitaire
dungeon book would be, "Dungeon Entrance. There is a long corridor
going North, another heading East. To go North, go to 57; to go
East, go to 63; to leave go to 125." The player then chooses an
option and turns to the paragraph indicated in the book to read what
A solitaire adventure is
better than nothing, but is necessarily less entertaining than a
good live adventure where there are other people to interact with, a
clever Dungeon Master to keep things interesting, and opportunities
for creativity. The worst flaw of a solo adventure is the limited
number of options presented in each situation; you can't do anything
that the author hasn't thought of first.