By M. Scott Morris
Imagine a town with a church, some houses and assorted businesses, and a bar that’s under a magical enchantment of unknown origin.
Members of the Starkville Hobby Club have spent several hours in such a place. Of course, it was all pictures in their minds, so the town looked different from person to person, but they were caught up in the shared daydream that is Dungeons & Dragons.
“For me, it’s mostly the social aspect of it. You get together with friends,” said Kyle Dunigan, a 19-year-old Starkville resident. “It’s a lot better than sitting at a computer and playing with people online.”
Dunigan and his friends enjoy all kinds of role-playing games. In honor of its 40th anniversary, they recently began a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. A crew of six to eight people gets together each week to explore a fictional world.
“With a video game, you are stuck on rails,” said David Fulton, a 38-year-old graduate student at Mississippi State University. “You have to go through what you’re told to go through.”
Movies and books have the same limitation as video games: Somebody else decides how the story develops and what happens to the characters.
Players say the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons, Savage Worlds, Warhammer and other RPGs is the inherent creativity.
“You can play D&D just about any way you want,” said Patrick Sudduth, a 21-year-old Tupelo resident who doesn’t play with the Starkville group. “It’s a very malleable game. You can fight anything that moves, or you can be cooperative and build the story and interact with the other characters.”
From the ‘Ring’
It’s generally accepted among the gaming community that Dungeons & Dragons was strongly influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Ring” series, which the author described as being inspired by his Christian faith. In the books, the character of Frodo is a meek individual who must overcome numerous obstacles, not the least of which are his own desires.
Many of the races in D&D are also featured in “Lord of the Rings,” including elves, orcs and dragons.
Frodo is a hobbit or a halfling, a tiny but stout person. That’s just the sort of underdog character Fulton likes to play in D&D.
“They’re not big enough to take on guys with their fists,” he said. “You have to think your way out of trouble.”
In addition to picking a race, players choose different classes, including fighter, barbarian, cleric and paladin. The combination of race and class tells the players their character’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its magical ability and the equipment available.
When players get together, their characters form a party that boldly goes into an imaginary world in search of treasure, glory and good fun.
“A role-playing party has characters that have different specialties,” Fulton said. “Each of the players contributes to the whole. Some are better for fighting; some heal other players.”
As with most games, Dungeons & Dragons has set rules. That’s a large part of the fun for T.J. Jankun-Kelly, a 38-year-old professor at MSU.
The purpose of a game system, he said, is to create rules that players can understand and apply. D&D’s rules allow leeway for characters to act, while also providing consequences for those actions.
“You might approach the king in a way the king doesn’t appreciate and not get the outcome you want,” he said. “Another character with diplomacy as a strength could use a charm spell.”
The success or failure of the meeting with the hypothetical king is determined by the roll of dice. A character without access to a charm spell would have to roll a higher number than a character who understands the value of courtly manners.
It’s the Dungeon Master’s job to guide the party through the adventure, so he has to have a thorough understanding of the rules.
D&D books sell for about $40 each, and they’re packed with information. They’re reference books that players return to again and again.
“It’s a very expensive hobby starting out,” Sudduth said, “but once you get into it, it doesn’t matter. It’s an investment, really.”
When game time rolls around, Sudduth prefers to be the Dungeon Master, also known as the DM.
“The DM comes up with the story,” Sudduth said. “He’ll play the characters that your friends aren’t playing – the peasants, the bad guys. Your friends play the main characters.”
Philip Smith, a 23-year-old MSU student, is the one who dreamed up the fictional town with the enchanted bar that became his friends’ mental playground.
“I have broad ideas about what’s going to happen,” Smith said. “I let the world grow depending on what the characters do.”
Sudduth also likes to give players the freedom to shape the adventure, but other DMs take a more strict approach.
“It’s actually fun both ways,” said Dalton Stockman, 22, of Starkville.
The Starkville crowd gets together on Wednesdays for sessions that average about three hours. Sudduth meets with his friends on Saturdays for four-hour sessions.
“I had a session that went about 10 hours,” said 22-year-old West Point resident James Stafford. “But we planned it to last 10 hours because we had nothing else to do.”
A session is part of an overall campaign, and those last a while.
“If you want a short campaign, it would probably be about a month,” Stockman said.
“That’s really short,” said William Sabin, a 33-year-old from Tupelo who goes to MSU. “The shortest one I’ve done was six months. They’re usually about a year.”
That’s a major time commitment, so it’s good to have a hearty band of trusted compatriots who are willing to suit up and go on campaign.
“Our group’s been going strong for three years,” Sabin said. “Hopefully, we’ll carry on, at least until I graduate.”
In order to ensure he has RPG buddies in the future, Fulton married one of them.
“We started dating and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to play a role-playing game?’” he said.
“I was willing to try it for a night,” said Heather Fulton, 36, who’s now a regular at the Wednesday sessions.
The pair play a different RPG on Fridays, and they’re looking for parents with kids who might want to play a game geared toward youngsters.
They’re slowly introducing their 6-year-old son, Tristan, to their world.
“We play made-up games. He brings his army guys and we play with dice,” Heather Fulton said. “We’re trying to reinforce math skills.”
“We are slowly getting him into role-playing games,” Fulton said. “We need to get his math skills up and, honestly, we’ve been waiting for him to say, ‘Can I play?’”
Some might not understand the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs, but those who play them are passionate about their pastime. It makes sense that they would want to share that passion with their kids.
“When you think about it, it’s no different than when you get football fans who dress their toddlers in cheerleader outfits,” Fulton said. “This is what we do for our pleasure.”