In an English classroom at Tokay High School, a young man was engrossed in a moral dilemma. Should he slap the mayor of the small town he had just wandered into, or shake the elected official by the shoulder?
Don’t worry. Lodi Mayor JoAnne Mounce is in no danger.
This is a game of “Dungeons & Dragons,” an epic role-playing game in which a roll of a 20-sided dice determines a player’s fate. Players gather to storm castles, rescue princesses and explore foreign lands.
Each Tuesday about 20 or so students show up to classroom E-6 to carry on last week’s campaign or to create new maps, new characters and start fresh.
Above anything else, D&D is a story. It lives in the imaginations of each player. They enthusiastically shoulder the responsibility of carrying on the oral history of a world they created.
But how did this story come to Tokay High?
Enter WIlliam Hambrick, 15. He comes from a legacy of role players and learned the game from his dad. Almost instantly, he was hooked.
“I enjoy creating something someone else can enjoy,” he said. “You’re writing a story all your best friends are in.”
Those friends started talking to their friends, and interest grew strong enough around campus that this year, Hambrick decided to make it an official club.
English teacher Danny Knox is the adviser, though he’s never played the game.
“Mostly I observe and laugh,” he said.
Most of the members are boys, but one or two girls do stop by.
At the first meeting, Hambrick made sure to detail exactly what D&D is not.
It’s not a cult, or a religion. It certainly isn’t devil worship. It isn’t live action role play (picture a Renaissance faire), though Hambrick does own a piece or two of armor.
To start, all a player really needs is a set of polyhedral die, a notebook to keep track of character traits and some free time. Doritos and Mountain Dew are recommended snacks.
Each player creates a character using a basic template of various races and classes outlined in the D&D handbook. For example, it is not uncommon to see a half-elf cleric, a dwarf wizard, or a wood elf ranger.
It helps to have a map over the game table to keep track of the adventure’s path.
You can purchase premade maps online, but Hambrick doesn’t recommend it.
“They aren’t as fun. They aren’t yours,” he said. He prefers to sketch out an unknown land on an oversized sheet of graph paper.
In fact, most aspects of the game can be purchased online. Rulebooks of detailed game mechanics, fancy sets of dice and even miniature figures are available. All the props are intended to help players visualize the action. The costs can add up, but none of these are essential.
The real color is added by the dungeon master, or DM for short.
As the leader of the campaign, the dungeon master must be a dedicated and experienced player with the ability to improvise and adapt the story to the whims of each player. They are responsible for building the story. A DM also brings forth all the monsters and challenges the adventuring party will face.
“It’s his world. He’s basically all the gods,” said Hambrick.
Dice come into play when a character has to make a decision with the possibility of failure. If a warrior has to bust down a wooden door, there’s a chance he might not be strong enough. The DM rolls the dice. If a two comes up, the door might stay put. Or the effort could injure the warrior. It’s all up to the imagination.
Role-playing offers a unique opportunity. After reading epic novels like the “Eragon” series about dragons by Christopher Paolini or the classic “Lord of the Rings” series by J.R.R. Tolkien, it’s hard to avoid thinking about the crazy adventures they detail.
In real life, it would be dangerous and stupid to create a trap involving a doorway filled with horizontal spikes that crash into a person as they open the door. But in the game, players can construct this or any other obstacles and throw their characters against it in any way they might imagine.
It has all the fun of the gore and drama with none of the emergency room visits or arrests.
Playing D&D can also blur lines between social groups by putting characters in the same situation working toward a common goal.
“That’s the beauty of D&D. This is a senior, over here is a freshman. But when it’s D&D time, they’re all just fantasy warriors,” said Chris Golden, 15, one of four DMs in the club. He runs the campaign with change in accents, a bright tone and exuberant gestures.
But how do you know when the game is over?
Hambrick turned to the group of teenage boys engrossed in their maps and character sheets.
“Hey guys! How do you win in this game?” he called out.
The cheerful responses volleyed back.
“The DM wins!”
“You have fun!”
That last answer is the one Hambrick was looking for.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re losing,” he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.