Dirk the Thief has been down on his luck. He’s worried about where his next meal is coming from. He needs a score. At the local inn, a shady guy is recruiting adventurers to plunder the monster-haunted multi-level Labyrinth of the Mad Archmage. Everyone knows about the labyrinth, but going into it beyond the second level is suicidal and even going into its first two levels, which have already been stripped of treasure, is very dangerous. A recent expedition of powerful fighters and magic-users managed to penetrate to the third level but then were defeated by a wraith in a crypt just when they glimpsed a hoard of gems and gold. Only one man survived, so shaken he’ll never go back. The party kept maps and a journal, and the survivor sold them to the guy who is recruiting Dirk and the other adventurers. The recruiter has also managed to buy magic arrows that kill wraiths. Getting the treasure should be a piece of cake!
A few troubling further details: There are all kinds of monsters in the labyrinth. How do they survive? Is the Mad Archmage, thought to be long dead, actually still around? If so, what might his powers be? How deep is the labyrinth? Is there any truth to the rumor that the labyrinth holds a gate to other worlds and that the Archmage comes and goes?
This is a typical setup for a D&D adventure — maybe a little better than “typical.” There’s motivation here, mystery, and a call to action.
Let’s assume that we’re new to RPGs. How do we become Dirk the Thief and probe the mystery of the Labyrinth of the Mad Archmage? How does this game work? It sounds mysterious and interesting. Can it really deliver on its promise to put me in the action? Will this really be fun?
What’s the next step to entering the story?
Do you feel intrigued and excited by the possibilities, by what you know so far but even more by what you don’t know? Hold on to that beginner mindset. It will be key. You never want to lose it, as either player or DM. And if you lost it once, maybe you can get it back.
So the beginner wants to learn a bunch of rules, right? Read the history of the campaign world and the Monster Manual? Find out what all the gods are, where they live, and what their stats are? Figure out how to optimize their character’s damage-dealing potential?
This is one approach: treat the game like a board game. Reduce Dirk and his equipment to numerical stats. Circumscribe the possibilities. We may not know how many hit points the Mad Archmage has or what armor class or spells, but we might know all the possible spells, and we certainly know how hit points and armor class work. In short, to actually play this game, we need to suck as much mystery out of it as possible, right?
If you’re completely new to the idea of roleplaying games, you might want to approach the adventure like that, like a board game, where you learn all the rules and all the values of the various pieces (that is, monsters and characters), and then try to “win” by moving your character piece across the labyrinth board, defeating the obstacles with dice rolls, and getting the wraith’s treasure. This can be fun. You gain an increasing sense of mastery as you earn experience and advance in levels until you realize all the possibilities. And, heck, if you don’t start with a literal mindset about the game, how are you and the other players ever going to be on the same page enough to play at all?
But eventually, if you are a grownup, you’ll become self-conscious playing a game that’s just about rolling dice to kill monsters.
In the next installment, I’ll begin to discuss what seems to me a better game, one where the DM and players all work together to decide what the mysteries of the Labyrinth and the game itself actually are and how to move beyond just throwing dice, to get better and better at explicating and inhabiting your group’s personal myth. In the next installment, I’ll look at the tension between mystery and mastery, in not just Dirk’s quest to get the gold but in the players’ quest to create their game.