While googling for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition, I discovered there is a "Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition for Dummies" book out there. I found that extremely weird. I know that there are "for Dummies" books about everything, including Farmville. But as D&D comes in the form of books, this is basically a book on how to read a book. But I also got comments like "I've never played a "pen & paper" RPG so I don't understand yet what you'll be doing" on my blog. So it dawned to me that so much time has passed that there are now a significant amount of people who play MMORPGs, but who have never seen a pen & paper roleplaying game. This post is for them.
Wizards of the Coast, the current owners of the Dungeons & Dragons brand claim that 5 million players play the game at least once a month. I consider that possible, but as playing with your friends around the kitchen table doesn't give any feedback to WotC, I would say this can only be a rough estimate. Nevertheless that leaves us with a game which has about half as many players as World of Warcraft, and more than any other MMORPG. So let's look at Dungeons & Dragons from the view of a WoW player:
When you play World of Warcraft (or another similar MMORPG), what exactly is the computer doing for you? The computer displays the virtual world with all its inhabitants and items, and it gives you a feedback on any input, telling you how this virtual world reacts to your actions. In pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons there is no computer, and that function of representing the virtual world is performed by one of the players around the table. He is called the Dungeon Master (DM) (other systems use the term Game Master), while everybody else are the players.
The obvious disadvantage of having a Dungeon Master representing the virtual world is that the graphics are lousy. :) Most of the time the players just get a verbal description of the world around them, sometimes with some visual aid in the form of sketched maps, or handouts, or miniature figurines. So if the DM tells you "you stand in front of a tree", you will need to imagine the tree for yourself, and if in doubts ask the DM for details like what size of tree.
But while the graphic representation might be less good than in WoW, a pen & paper roleplaying game comes with a huge advantage: There is no limit to what you can do with the virtual world that is described to you, except for human imagination. Thus the above-mentioned tree can be climbed, burned, hacked down, hugged, carved into an idol and worshipped, or whatever else you can think of. Try doing any of that with a tree in WoW!
The game of Dungeons & Dragons thus ends up as an interactive story, a dialogue between the Dungeon Master and the players. The DM describes the situation, the players describe what they do, and the DM gives them feedback on what the result of their actions are. As the reactions of the players are very often unpredictable, the DM must be able to come up with a response on the fly. Thus if the DM tells you that there is a 20-feet high tree in front of you, and you as player tell him that you want to lift that tree, the DM has to come up with a response like: "You wrap your arms around the tree and try to lift it. The tree doesn't budge. The villagers around you pause in what they are doing, and start watching you, while you get increasingly red in the face from the effort. What do you do?"
But what if the tree was only 10 foot high, was described to you as having been partially disrooted by a storm, and you play a burly fighter? Maybe you should be able to lift that tree? Ultimately that is the decision of the DM, but the general idea is that if an outcome of an action isn't very obvious, you use a combination of rules and dice rolls to determine the outcome. Thus the DM could reply to your action of trying to lift that tree with: "Lifting the tree has a difficulty class (DC) of 15, please make a strength check!". A "strength check" means you roll a 20-sided dice (a d20) to generate a random number between 1 and 20. You then add modifiers to that roll, in this case half your level plus a modifier based on your strength stat. And if the result is equal or higher to the announced difficulty class, you succeed. Thus if you roll high enough, you uproot and lift the tree, leading to a further development of the story. Maybe somebody had asked you to help him with that tree, or you just did it to impress the villagers with your strength. You tell the DM what you want to do next, and the DM tells you what happens next. Through this interaction between the DM and the players, the story evolves, and hopefully everybody ends up having fun.
The situation which is covered by the most rules and needs lots of dice rolls is combat. You and your friends come round a corner in a dungeon and see a group of hostile orcs. While (unlike WoW) there is at least a possibility of other solutions, like negotiations, often you will want to fight those orcs and gain experience points and treasure, just like in WoW, as well as advance the story because the orcs block the way to the princess you're trying to save. So who reacts first? What spells can your wizard cast? How hard is it for your fighter to hit an orc, and how much damage will he deal? All that is covered in the rules and often determined by dice rolls. Playing through a combat is obviously more complex in a pen & paper game than in a MMORPG, because there is no computer to handle all the random number and rules. But the rules are simple enough and are quickly learned, so apart from unusual situations you won't need to look up anything in a rule book. The mage knows how his spell works, the fighter knows what modifiers to add to his to hit roll, and the DM will just need to tell him the difficulty of hitting that orc.
Compared to World of Warcraft, combat in pen & paper Dungeon & Dragons is a lot more tactical. It matters where you stand in relation to the monster, which is where square tiles and figurines come in. There is no "taunting" or aggro management, but which monster attacks which player is decided by the DM based on position and common sense. And of course combat is turn-based, thus the speed with which you can roll your dice or shout out your actions doesn't count for anything. While combat is important, ultimately it is just part of the story in Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of wiping at a boss fight, rezzing, and starting over doesn't exist in D&D. If your whole group gets killed, either the DM has to come up with a Deus Ex Machina story twist, or everybody has to roll new characters. But because the DM is more flexible than a computer, he can also adjust the difficulty on the fly to avoid wipes. The general idea is to drive the story forwards together, and a wipe would be a defeat both for the players and the DM.
While historically pen & paper roleplaying games came first, computer roleplaying games came later, and MMORPGs are the latest development, the rules for pen & paper games evolve and take inventions from MMORPGs into account. In previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons, fighters mostly used standard attacks, while wizards had lots of spells and were a lot more interesting to play. In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons every class has exactly the same number of abilities at the same level, just like in World of Warcraft. For example a level 3 D&D character has 2 at-will powers he can use as often as he wants, 2 encounter powers he can use once per combat, and 1 daily power he can use only once per game day. He also gets 1 utility power. For a wizard these "powers" will be spells, while for a fighter they are other sorts of combat moves.
So how many character classes are there in Dungeons & Dragons? That is actually a trick question, with the correct answer being "as many as the DM allows". Dungeons & Dragons is a game whose physical representation comes mostly in the form of books. But there are a LOT of those books, from the essential to the optional, and if that isn't enough you can add house rules. Dungeon & Dragons can be played in many different fantasy worlds, from classic high fantasy or low fantasy to exotic worlds like the harsh desert world of Dark Sun or the nearly steam-punk world of Eberron. Each of these settings can add new character classes, new powers, new monsters and lots of other stuff to the game. It is the responsibility of the Dungeon Master to filter the rules and tell his players what rules are valid in his campaign. For starters you can play with everybody having just a Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition Player's Handbook, and the DM having a Dungeon Master's Guide and a Monster Manual. The DM might also want to use pre-made adventures, so he doesn't have to come up with all stories and handouts on his own, although he will probably alter them to fit his campaign.
Once you have an agreed set of rules, and the DM has prepared a campaign world and a first adventure, you can start playing. Players will create characters, usually of level 1, the DM describes the initial situation, and the players tell him what they do in that situation. It is not a competitive game, you can't really "win". Either everybody "wins" by having fun, or nobody wins because you couldn't play together. Just like in WoW there are experience points, levels, and treasures to be found. But the main purpose is for the DM and players to all together create a story and have fun. And that fun can last many years. Groups of players often stay together for a long time, meeting regularly to play, starting and ending adventures and campaigns, even changing from one rule system to another. Besides the actual game, of course this is also a great opportunity to regularly hang out with your friends, talk, joke, eat junk food, and have a good time. It is not so much a "game", which you start playing and the stop, but often rather more of a "hobby", which you keep playing for a long time. And what a great hobby it is! Not only is it fun, but it is also essentially an activity about communication, about social interaction, and thus can teach you a lot of things that are useful in real life. It is harder to get going than starting your computer and playing WoW, but in the end it is also a lot more rewarding. The possibilities for fun are endless!