Why Dungeons & Dragons quickly became my PC game to beat

PC Gaming Week: It's all finally come full circle

Dungeons and Dragons

You probably haven't noticed yet, but there's a PC gaming revolution taking place right under your nose – and no, it's not virtual reality. Oddly enough, it's Dungeons & Dragons.

Yep, that 40-year-old tabletop – i.e. a physical table in the real world – game that was once thought to be devil worship at worst and more like taxes than a game at best. D&D has always been there, enduring the Reagan era and Y2K, no less.

D&D has pervaded every corner of gamer culture short of eSports – from informing arguably every role-playing video game (RPG) to date to inspiring a score of its own. (Surely, you know the words "Baldur's Gate?")

When you put it that way, it's funny that only the past few years has seen the game itself adapted for the platform where the very digital RPGs that it had inspired began: the PC. And it's the best thing to happen to PC gaming since the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) phenomenon.

Dungeons and Dragons
Image Credit: The Orr Group

For one, it can be 100% free

Now, don't worry, you weren't buried under a rock for a few years: Wizards of the Coast (publisher of D&D) hasn't released a definitive online version of the game. There is no definitive "D&D app." The start of D&D play on the PC – simply enough – coincided with the advancements of video chat on the PC.

There are no scripted non-player character (NPC) interactions. There are no truly "random" encounters. There are no artificially forced decisions for the players to make.

Once you had a solid video connection with your friends (and some well-earned trust – no cheaters!), you had a remote D&D game. Those familiar with the game will know all it really takes is an idea, a basic understanding of the rules and some dice to make the game happen. (In this case, an ace Dungeon Master helps too, but anyway.)

Of course, it's impossible to say when exactly online D&D play began, but it's safe to say that it came part and parcel with the dawn of Skype. It wouldn't be for another few years that plucky game and app developers, like The Orr Group and SmiteWorks, would swoop in to give online D&D some major upgrades.

Creators of Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, respectively, these developers have grown the online D&D community enormously. The former is playable in your browser for free while the latter offers a more premium app experience for a fee. Both offer super robust mapping and video chat tools, with tons of character icons and even music integration.

But, even without the aid of special apps, you can play D&D online over any voice or video chat service for absolutely free, save for whatever rulebooks and sourcebooks you decide to purchase for the game. In a way, D&D fans have been doing free-to-play gaming way before it was cool.

It's apps like Roll20 that inspired me to rope my friends into a D&D campaign that I've been serving as the Dungeon Master for over the past year-and-a-half or so. It's the most fun I've had gaming on a PC in my life. Frankly, video games don't even cut it for me anymore.

Dungeons and Dragons
Image Credit: Chris Jernigan

It's the ultimate role-playing game

If you're a fan of RPGs on the PC, like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or Baldur's Gate, no matter the reason – the story, the combat, the numbers (even the graphics) – D&D is a better version of that.

Regardless of whether we admit it, we're exploring each other's (and our own) psyche through the characters we've created.

And, it all lies in the fact that the only limit of the game is the player and the Dungeon Master's imagination.

There are no scripted non-player character (NPC) interactions. There are no truly "random" encounters. There are no artificially forced decisions for the players to make.

Everything that happens within even a single session of a D&D game is the direct result of the players' natural decisions in the roles that they've come to the table to play.

This alone creates the potential for an infinite amount of storytelling hooks, possibilities and outcomes. No amount of Chrono Trigger endings will even get close to the possible outcomes of a D&D campaign.

That's because a player playing a wizard character could easily say, "I turn the orcish warlord into a squirrel," rather than see her fighter companion duke it out in the arena.

No PC game to date nor what's down the line can promise that sheer level of potential. It's this unpredictable nature of the game that's spurred some of the heartiest laughs and empowering experiences I've ever had gaming on a PC.

dungeons and dragons
Image Credit: Poppa VT

It inspires connection like no other game can

Since moving to New York from Philadelphia over four years ago, I've tried several different video games as a means of keeping in contact with my friends. (What? It's what we've always related over.) Nothing really stuck.

But, for whatever reason, D&D has stuck like Gorilla Glue. And, I think it has a lot to do with two things. For one, the first few minutes of every D&D session are sidetracked by catching up. And this is a good thing.

"How's your daughter," I ask my friend of 21 years, a newly-minted father. "Great! She laughed for the first time today, it was…" And this goes on for another 10 minutes before the game actually begins.

Had this been, say, a World of Warcraft raiding party, that conversation would've been much more short lived, likely interrupted by a pointlessly militant raid leader. And, it's because video chat, which few – if any – big-time PC games offer (it's just not integral to those games), does so much more for connection than solely voice.

Why do you think FaceTime has absolutely blown up? It's the closest thing to face-to-face interaction, and D&D thrives on it.

The other reason I think D&D has stuck for my circle of friends is because, regardless of whether we admit it, we're exploring each other's (and our own) psyche through the characters we've created.

After playing D&D with my friends online over the past 18 months or so, I feel closer than ever with them, as if – for but a few hours a week – I don't live 99 miles away. I'm learning more about who they are as people with every session. That's something that few – if any other – PC games can attest to.

All said, your enjoyment of D&D – online or not – depends entirely on what you and your friends put into it. That may sound daunting, but know that not a single DRM-ridden, $60 PC game can offer an ROI like that.

When you put it that way, it looks to me like Dungeons & Dragons has become the PC game to beat. Through and through, that's thanks entirely to the ingenuity of PC gaming.

Lead image credit: Michael R Lopez (iStock)

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