Be prepared. It's the Boy Scout motto. And I've taken it to heart. That's why I've made sure to have some basic characters drawn up to drop into any surprise D&D game that might happen at a friend's house. Or a café. Or on the side of the freeway on my way to work. You have to be prepared.
D&D is more mainstream than ever. No longer is it just for Satanists. although, without the Satanic Panic, it has lost some popularity because it's not as banned as it once was. In some parts of the world though, the hate still burns.
That's neither here nor there. At least not as far as I'm concerned. I got into D&D because I love stories. and I rationalized it to myself as legitimate college research. My major was in theatre, and D&D could be thought of as a small-audience long-form improv that focused on imagination, the magic if, and given circumstances. Stanislavsky would have made the same excuse to play if only he had a time-traveling DeLorean.
D&D has a lot of potential as both a cooperative story-telling exercise, and an efficient form of folk entertainment where there is no divide between artist and audience. Not that you can't still have an audience. Geek and Sundry's Critical Role proved that to be true.
But at its core, it's much like a traditional Irish music session you might hear break out at one of the more lively pubs. Anyone who's got an instrument, or even just a voice, can join in. Even those with no honed skills are welcome to participate as long as they give it all they got and have a drop of self-deprecating humility about it. And even the best players in the world would deeply dishonor themselves by lording their abilities over others. It's about the conversation, and all are equal in the eyes of that conversation.
That's a trad music session or a D&D campaign at its height. Equality made manifest.
And who knows when you might encounter that equality? Best be prepared. But how do you prepare for something as chaotic and disruptive as an impromptu D&D game?
First: Know what you'll need.
There are five roles That every party needs. So you should make up a character that can fill each of those spots.
- Meat Shield
Every party needs a Meat Shield - someone who draws the enemy's attention and can absorb abuse. Fighters, Barbarians, Paladins and Monks fall into this category. If they can deal some decent damage too, then all the better. That will only help draw attention to themselves and keep the enemy thinking they're a serious threat.
- Damage Dealer
Every party needs a Damage Dealer - someone who, while the enemy is distracted by the Meat Shield, can deliver devastating blows. But while the Damage Dealer can dish it out, they can't take it. That's why the Meat Shield needs to draw the fire so the damage dealer has a chance to dish. Sorcerers, Warlocks, Rogues and Rangers are especially good at this. If you only have two people in your party, a Meat Shield and a Damage Dealer are the two to have. They are the Yin and Yang of any adventuring party.
- Tech Specialist
Regardless of whether you're playing with a realistic backdrop, a futuristic setting, or a staple fantasy D&D milieu, any character who uses magic or science in any of its flavors is a Tech Specialist. The Tech specialist is another kind of "unexpected" that SunZi would have appreciated. Wizards, Druids, Sorcerers and Warlocks are all flavors of Tech Specialists. If your party has one and the enemy doesn't, it will be their undoing. If, however, your enemy has one and your party does not... Tech Specialists are important.
Buffers are the ultimate team players. They can make the strong stronger, the fast faster, the luckless lucky and do the exact opposite to the enemy. They add the extra push that can be the difference between victory and defeat. A strong buffer is everyone's best friend. who doesn't like someone who draws out the best in their friends and makes the team's enemies timid and demoralized?
Bards, Marshals, Druids and Clerics all make great buffers. Having a buffer is always helpful.
A healer is a special kind of buffer that focuses on erasing the damage the enemy causes, allowing their team members to continue the fight as if they were invincible. If team members like buffers, they love healers. Healers keep party members alive in a very direct and noticeable way. Strong ones can even bring team members back from the brink of death. Clerics make the best healers, but Druids, Rangers, Bards and Paladins can serve in a pinch. If you want to really be popular, chose to be a healer.
Second: Be ready for change.
Part of this is being ready for multiple contingencies. The party already has a Healer and a Meat Shield? They'll need a Damage Dealer. Already have all three of those? Someone who can fill a Tech Specialist/Buffer role will do. Only one other Party member? you'll each have to pull double duty. Just don't mix your Meat Shield and your Damage Dealer. And always aim to fill a needed position first. Don't double up until every role is filled.
Besides that, its a good idea to keep you character vague. You don't yet know the setting you're playing in or what the other players are planning. Let the setting and the other players give you the names. You just create the character functions to plug into the campaign’s big picture.
You'll want to make something that takes into account the choices of party members and the world in which they live. If you learn what the other players are trying to do for their backgrounds, you can use their names, work yourself into their stories and make everyone's characters more epic and meaningful.
But having a detailed history of how your brother was slain by a dragon won't work if the setting you find yourself in is set in space. Unless there are space-dragons (which could be awesome) you'll have wasted your time preparing for a too-specific circumstance.
Better to keep it vague and simple, but know what directions would be fun for you and helpful to the team. That way your preparation can integrate seamlessly without rework.
Third: There is no third.
It's really just two, but two looks lame so this is the third. But since you're still reading, I'll buffer the two above with an example of my own D&D preparedness. Here are my characters:
Meat Shield: Nonviolent Monk
Strong Stats: CON STR
Weak Stats: INT CHA
Abilities: Disarms her opponents, sometimes breaking limbs to do so, but does not kill.
Limitations: Has made a vow to her Dharma's guardians to never kill, steal, express disrespect, delude herself or others, intoxicate herself with herb or drink, nor eat flesh.
Allegiances: The law of her Dharma, Service to others, Peace
Personality: Has no problem with embracing technicality. Otherwise she's stoic and disciplined. Willingly accepts abuse and has trained herself to accept the anger of enemies in order to destroy the evil in the hearts of others, and to temper her own. Does not hold her party members to her own standards. There is no point forcing others to express values that are not in their own hearts. Only other monks of her Dharma have elected to take the vows and are trained to uphold them. Those she holds to the law. But how can she maintain her vows in a society which doesn't support them and in a profession where they are considered a weakness? Can they still lend her strength? Or is there no point in holding onto them when so many do not see things the way she does?
Damage Dealer: Rogue Infiltrator
Strong Stats: DEX WIS
Weak Stats: CON CHA
Abilities: Stealthy and acrobatic, Uses poison darts or syringes, also favors the garrotte. Uses sneak attacks and is excellent at getting into secret places.
Limitations: Can't take it like she can dish it out. If she's discovered or hit, it will be a serious blow. Uses her dexterity to avoid blows altogether. Uses her wisdom to observe her surroundings and ferret out traps and deception.
Allegiances: Uncovering weakness in what looks strong, Breaking the rules, Spoils of the hunt
Personality: She is very curious and will actively seek out doing things she's not allowed to do or being places she's not allowed to be. Nothing is sacred to her. She has no moral problems killing people, and rather enjoys doing so when the opponent thinks themself strong or able. She loves to uncover and expose what is secret or shameful in a person or organization as well. She loves the power she feels being nameless, yet bringing the great low. She has no ideology. She does what she does out of boredom and a sense of frustration at how insignificant her contribution to society was when she followed the rules. It's almost as if she's a soldier waiting for a just cause she can't find a way to sneer at. She might be waiting a while...
Tech Specialist: Hipster Druid
Strong Stats: WIS INT
Weak Stats: STR DEX
Abilities: Wields powerful organic free-range magic (before it was cool).
Limitations: Anti-magic and counter-spells manifest against him as gluten and whey protein. He's allergic to gluten. And he's ideologically opposed to whey.
Allegiances: Nature, Balanced Chakras, Enjoying things others don't know about.
Personality: A lot of the things he says are designed to alienate others and distinguish himself as "The only one who really gets it". But besides that, he is deeply enmeshed in the hum and flow of living things and of the biosphere. all things have a right to exist if only they could align their chakras and become in balance with nature. There is a strange duality in him. One part of him wants to alienate himself from everybody and become the only one who gets it, yet no one gets him. The other part of himself wants everything to be deeply connected, for all individuality to be absorbed and enmeshed in the living flow of nature, to live in harmony with the world around him, to heal the world and make it a better place. Which side will win in the end? or is there some way even the unbalanced have a place in the bigger picture?
Buffer: Bard Battle Cheerleader
Strong Stats: CHA DEX
Weak Stats: WIS INT
Abilities: Inspires her colleagues with her cheers, and shames her enemies with her taunts. Can do some healing and other magic buffs as well to help out her team.
Limitations: Her cheers and taunts draw attention and makes her a natural target. Also she has a tendency to ignore or forget about problems.
Allegiances: Friendship, Teamwork, Optimism
Personality: She is the eternal optimist. The very nature of high spirits made manifest. As such, she doesn't catch details with great clarity. And she hasn't paid much attention to books or technical analysis. Or reality. She's not a strategist, but what she offers the rest of the team is the added inspiration to push through even the toughest obstacles. She was originally part of a squad of battle cheerleaders in a large scale battle, and her new companions will find her not long after having lost her army and her squad to the enemy. She was particularly enamored of her squad captain, who could do no wrong in her eyes. But now, she is the only survivor. She's struggling to remain optimistic, and welcomes having the distraction and a new team to care about. She exudes confidence and optimism on the outside, but deep inside she's hurt, traumatised and grieving. She'll need to address those feelings some day. But can she do so and still give her team and herself support enough to keep them all alive? And what if she learns that her her old happy days are not what she thought they were? What if those too-recent-ghosts come back to break what remains of her belief that she has ever been a truly valued member of a team?
Healer: Cleric of Time
Strong Stats: INT WIS
Weak Stats: CHA DEX
Abilities: He has the aid of the God of Time, creator of all things, devourer of all things. As such his divine magic draws on that domain. His healing spells reverse the course of injuries by applying perfect force to the millions of effects the cause of a blow has. It causes tremendous pain, even more than the pain of the wound opening in the first place, but it heals. As he gains in ability, he can reverse greater, more complex damage, using first millions, then trillions, then counless micro-forces to stitch a wound back together. Death however, will be out of his reach to fix for some time.
Limitations: He doesn't yet realize the true scope of the powers of his deity. He limits himself by his misunderstanding of time as being of finite dimensions when it is not limited as such.
Alliegiences: The God of Time, Pure Reason, The Laws of Thermodynamics
Personality: He is always precise in his language and in his analysis. Newtonian in his world-view. What he knows he believes is all there is, yet he does not realize his perfect crystalline model of the universe may not be the only one, nor even a complete one. What will his reaction be when he learns there is more in heaven and earth than what is found in his philosophy? Will he shatter with his perfect crystal world-view?
Wait, what about Dice? Character Sheets? Minis?
Eh, those are just the trappings. Got a phone? There's free dice-rolling programs out there. In a pinch, I'm sure you can borrow the DM's. Character sheets? That's what a napkin is about. Again, the DM will have a player's handbook that you can use to create your character sheet. You don't need the official form. Miniatures? That's what lose change is for! The key question is whether your imagination is prepared? That's where all the action happens in D&D anyway.
But then again, if you carry around some dice, a couple blank character sheets, a pencil, maybe a fancy-yet-vague figurine that'll just make you look the part of a D&D ready member of society. Equality can happen at any time. D&D even more so. But you have to be prepared. I hope this post will help you on fulfilling your Scout motto.
Next: being ready for spontaneous viral outbreaks of musical numbers.