What the heck is a topiary beast?

This is one of a number of things I have found myself asking this week. It turns out it’s an animal shaped piece of topiary which can move, attack and potentially kill you. Luckily it’s in a game rather than the local park.

The game in question is D&D (Dungeons and Dragons), a group storytelling game. The game is played through a mix of storytelling and dice rolls. A DM (Dungeon Master) tells the story while those playing pretend to be a particular character and work together to make decisions, solve puzzles and complete quests, rolling dice to decide how successful they are in these enterprises. It’s an excellent game, ticks off loads of Curriculum for Excellence outcomes and played around the world but for many reasons but I’ve never played.

It’s not some weird midlife crisis that has made me think now is the time to learn but rather necessity. This year I was asked to host a D&D club in the library (it has been something I’d been toying with setting up for a few years but never actually done anything about). Excitingly about fourteen pupils want to play but since a game usually has only 6 or so players we are short a DM, so I have stepped into the breech.

Although new to D&D I am not new to some of the ideas. I’ve been a fan of the card game Munchkin for a long time and as a fan of fantasy and choose your own adventures over the years there are a number of familiar ideas. Where I am on a steep learning curve is the terminology and technical aspects to game play. There is a lot more maths in this game than I would like.

The game has a series of books to support play (the main ones being the Dungeon Masters Guide, Players Handbook and Monster Mannual) but while these are full of information they are very text heavy and I have found them useful if I know what I want to learn but hard to get into as a starting point. Luckily I have a variety of people to aid me in my quest and none of them as asking me to defeat an Owlbear or pay them a pile of gold peices before they will share their knowledge. I have two S6 pupils teaching me, the other DM (who is a pupil) plus my librarian chum Frances who has been running her school library D&D club for 17 years but does live rather far away. Plus of course the wealth of material online (see bottom for other places I’ve found useful).

Even with all this support it is a massive task to be knowledgeable enough to run a game I’ve never played. Fortunately the seven pupils who will be playing with me are only a few weeks into playing themselves and are still learning.

I’ve decided to blog my adventures here, reflect on my performance as a DM, ponder where I could improve and note information or sources I’ve found useful. The aim being partly a personal record but also as a resource I can come back to or share with others.

Starting Points:

If you don’t even know what D&D is then you can get a pretty good idea from watching Stranger Things (though it isn’t going to help you actually DM a game).

You are going to have to buy some dice if you are actually going to play. Not least since even how you read the dice can be hard to understand if you haven’t seen them before. There is a Starter Set for D&D that’s a good jumping off point and it includes the five most common dice plus a basic how to guide, pre-made characters  and a story to play. (You can also just buy the dice online – the bunch I got from amazon the other day averaged out that each set only cost £1:15.)

Like many things D&D has a vocabulary and style of writing the information unique to it so I have found making my own notes to be really useful. You can also google the terms by simply adding ‘D&D’ to your mysterious term.

It doesn’t always work though I spent most of a morning confused by the phrase ‘they will find it guarded by 1d4 topiary beasts’. I knew the word in bold was the monster and that was the keyword I’d look up online or in the Monster Manual. I also knew a d4 is a pyramid shaped dice and that 1d4 means you roll one of them. What I had failed to understand was that that number rolled represented the number of topiary beasts the players would be fighting (I had assumed it was one monster and the dice roll indicated difficulty or something). It’s for little bits like that that I have found the pupils invaluable. I have a list of questions and when I see them we go through it and I’ve found it incredibly helpful.

Frances has a really great blog full of information and advice for running D&D in a school library. It’s a really practical resource.

Detentions and Dragons is a podcast aimed at teachers wanting to run D&D in the classroom for after school. It’s an enjoyable listen and full of useful advice.

Dungeon Diaries is a short comic by mrjamesgifford it’s a enjoyable and more visual way of seeing the game play. It’s also written from a learning to play angle.

Wizards of the Coast who created D&D are the source for all thing official and their website has lots of information including basic guides but I have found that borrowing or buying the three key texts is the only choice for being the DM. (Curiously this is blocked in school).

The pupils also recommended Critical Role this is a group of voice actors who play D&D. I didn’t find this that helpful at this stage. Each episode is long (like hours long) which is similar to friends playing the game but I only have an hour to play in school so it doesn’t help show what my session would be like. Plus while watching (or listening) to them play is enjoyable story wise I found it wasn’t helpful for picking up the basics of how-to. The players are all high level and experienced which means that they don’t spend time showing what dice they are rolling or what bit on a character sheet they are adding to the number they rolled – which is very much the level I am at. I can see why it would be pleasurable for more experienced players or as a way to attract new audiences to the game as but it’s not a helpful starting point. It’s also a bit intimidating for a total novice – the DM is really good.

NB: D&D has been around for a long time now so multiple editions exist and each has changed how the game is played a bit. I am learning the 5th edition (5e) so everything I use will be using that version of the game.

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