On a recent Wednesday, a group of five high school students gathered in the community room of the Soldotna Public Library to continue a fantasy campaign that has thus far taken them from northeast England toward Scotland — with several stops along the way to battle orcs, elves and the occasional group of city guards.
Their next adventure will play out Saturday when they host the inaugural community-wide Dungeons and Dragons marathon designed to attract more tabletop gamers to the library.
The teens aren’t particularly enthused at the idea of hosting a community-wide game — but a deal’s a deal and the one they’ve worked out with the library will make it easier for them to access gaming materials that can be hard to get on a limited budget.
“They agreed to be a little bit more official — a kind of library sponsored event that we could advertise and open to the public — and in return we could use some of our youth and adult budget to pay for materials, like the latest version of Dungeons & Dragons that has come out,” said Soldotna Public Library Youth Service Director KJ Hillgren. “They’ve decided on books for the latest version, materials for the latest version and hopefully some new dice.”
So, the group agreed to run the marathon, but not without a fair amount of light-hearted protest and threats to build a temporary wall in the large community room where they regularly meet.
“You’ll be fine,” Hillgren said during a recent Wednesday game. “They’ll be nerds too. They’ll have their own games. It’ll be OK.”
Some in the group are relatively new to table-top role playing games. Others, like the dungeon master Johnathan Rine, know their way around a character sheet and the many-sided dice used to determine everything from action in combat scenarios to perception of the world around them.
“Everyone has different house rules and then we’d play and they’d say ‘you’re doing it wrong,’” he complained, with a smile, to Hillgren before turning to the group to explain the differences between how he runs his campaigns.
“The combat rules that I like are very much simplified. I don’t care for keeping track of your throwable weapons, like daggers or arrows, and I just decide that you have them all of the time,” he said.
While it may seem like a minor detail, the availability and type of weapons that a character has can be the difference between surviving and encounter with a hostile creature and dying — thus committing to several more hours of building a new character, filling out a character sheet, and giving the dungeon master time to come up with a plausible scenario to introduce a new character into the group.
As they play, the characters in the group take turns exploring new rooms, initiating combat and seeking out ways to navigate through the world that Rine has built around them.
“It’s a weird alternative universe, somewhere in between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance in Europe but it still has a lot of fantasy elements,” Hillgren said.
Their group consists of a human bard, played by Morgan Stoddard, who the group found in a dungeon during a recent session; a half-elf ranger, played by Shannon Bradford; an elf druid, played by Rine; a human rogue, played by Grassin Oskolkoff; and a character from Finland, played by Hans Hesse.
Each has their own particular skillset, equipment, ethical alignment and motivation both in-game and out-of-game. In-character, they’re all perception and skill but the out-of-character the group spends a lot of time laughing and joking around about dropping weapons, running into walls, or accidentally rolling so well in a combat turn that they inadvertently destroy an enemy.
Hillgren describes the world around them — but doesn’t typically manipulate them into making certain choices.
“It’s very important as a dungeon master to not try to control where they go,” he said. “You just kind of explain the world and then their motivations themselves make it change and that’s really neat because they might bring the situation to a place you would never have though of and make things interesting.”
He does weigh in on occasion.
When the group stumbled onto Stoddard’s character, in-game he didn’t have much equipment and out-of-game he was unfamiliar with the rules.
As Stoddard worked to get out of a dungeon, he found himself moving through hallways and opening doors freely.
“There’s a passage to the front and to both sides,” Hillgren told him.
“Of course there is,” Stoddard said. “OK, I take the passage on the left.”
Hillgren immediately rolling dice.
“OK, down the passage to the left — well, you should let him go in front of you,” Hillgren said as he pointed to Hesse’s character, who is one of the beefier fighters in the group.
“I don’t want that,” Stoddard said.
“You’re going to die,” Hillgren said, with a laugh.
“Oh, OK. Hans can go ahead of me,” Stoddard said.
The Dungeons and Dragons marathon will be held at the Soldotna Public Library, 235 N. Binkley Street, Soldotna, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.