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Title: Night of the dragonslayers

Source: Times Argus, March 23rd, 2008

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Night of the dragonslayers

Staff Writer - Published: March 23, 2008

In a top floor lounge area of Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, a group of teens is poring over colorful tomes with even more colorful titles like "The Draconomicon," "The Book of Nine Swords" and "Magic of Incarnum."

A floor below them, a band of young adventurers has just reached the entrance of a hostile fortress.

Another floor down, a different group of adventurers examines the dusty contents of an alchemist's worktable.

It is late in the evening of March 14, the library's first all-night Dungeons & Dragons marathon. Volunteers have been running weekly sessions of the role-playing game at the library for two years as part of an after-school program. The game is so popular in Middlebury that the library had to turn people away from the all-night event.

Kathryn Laliberte, who runs youth programs at the library, says they'll probably hold another one in the summer.

"It's the longest-running teen program we've ever had," she says of the weekly games. "It's the one I have the most consistent interest in. You have to be in sixth grade or older. There are kids who can't wait to be in sixth grade because of this."

Twenty players arrive for the marathon at 6 p.m. and soon get down to gaming after feasting on donated pizzas. They'll go all night — except for brief catnaps by a couple of players, Laliberte says — until parents return for them in the morning.

The game they're playing is a more sophisticated version of childhood games of make-believe, like cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. But instead of running around pretending to shoot and lasso, players gather around a table and narrate the action, often using a map or chart to keep track of who is where.

D&D is far from the only game of its kind, but it was the first (dating to 1974) and remains by far the most popular.

The Middlebury marathon begins, as many D&D sessions do, with players creating their characters. Each person assumes the role of a character exploring a fantasy world. That world differs from game to game, but it's usually a mishmash based on the works of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber.You can buy books offering a choice of prefab characters and storylines, but this group takes the do-it-yourself approach.

One player, called the Dungeon Master, or DM, takes the roles of multiple other characters with whom the players' characters will interact. The DM also serves as a combination narrator and referee.

A roll of the dice determines each character's scores for strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, charisma and constitution.

Players also choose their character's race (classic ones include Humans, Half-Orcs, Elves, Dwarves and Halflings) and profession, or "class," which further determines their abilities. Wizards and sorcerers use magic. Rangers find their way through the wilderness. Fighters, well, fight, as do barbarians.

Josh Wight, 13, of Rutland makes an Elven rogue named Konric.

"Rogues have all the neat abilities like hide, disable device and pick lock," he says, going on to proudly describe how his character at one point climbed into a tree and picked off a number of his group's enemies with arrows.

Pulling off a feat like that or fighting a dragon or sneaking through a forest requires the player to roll the right number on the dice, depending on his ability score.

As characters overcome various challenges, they gain "experience points." When they get enough points, characters go up in "level," which allows them to improve their abilities.

The youngsters examining the imaginary alchemist's table are inexperienced players with first-level characters. The group in the middle, at the fortress, is slightly more advanced. On the top floor, Elliot Gowen, 27, of New Haven is overseeing the creation of high-level characters.

He's one of three adult fans of the game who are serving as Dungeon Masters.

As DM, Gowen will describe what the characters see, and the players then describe their actions. In some games, characters just wander through a dungeon (or an abandoned mine or a deserted castle) solving puzzles and fighting monsters and collecting treasure.

Other groups like a more story-like game. Their characters will take on missions such as rescuing a princess or stealing a magic artifact.

It isn't a game you play to win so much as to play, with the characters generally cooperating to achieve a mutual goal.

Gowen acknowledges that the game is violent, with a focus on killing monsters, but says he keeps the content at a "PG-13" level. He's one of the volunteer leaders of the library's weekly games and says he hears a lot of positive feedback from the parents of his players.

"There are parents who know what's going on," he says. "They'll drop off their kids and say, 'Have fun — don't get killed.'"

Laliberte says much of the game still goes over her head but that she looks at it as a more creative alternative to video games.

"It's intelligent," she says. "There's problem-solving. … I think it does wonders for the imagination. It's so complex."

Some players take great pleasure in immersing themselves in the game, acting out their character's words whenever they speak and trying to develop their characters as three-dimensional.

One pair of characters has maintained a romantic relationship and is engaged to be married in the game. The interesting part, Gowen says, is that the two players, while friendly, are not a couple or even that close.

"The way their characters interact, you'd swear they'd been married for 30 years," he says.

The game has contributed to many of the players' social development, according to Gowen.

"A lot of these kids were really shy and hadn't dealt with hanging out, with talking to people. A lot of the kids that were most shy are now the most social."

Fourteen-year-old Tyler Dunton of Middlebury says he enjoys the strategic aspect of the game, hanging out with his friends and "killing things." In the regular weekly game, he plays a character named Garrick MacCoun.

"He's a fighter, the leader," he says (prompting someone else to shout, "Self-proclaimed!"). "I'm the tank of the group. I do most of the heavy damage. I'm getting married to the paladin (a combat-oriented character who is supposed to uphold all that is virtuous) of the group — eventually."

Tenzin Chophel, 15, of Bridport says he usually plays a Half-Elf named Xilanus. His character was raised in a traveling carnival and is adept at juggling and picking pockets. He also makes the group's clothes.

Both boys credit Gowen with keeping them coming back week after week.

"It's like watching 'Lost,'" Chophel says. "He keeps us on a cliffhanger every week."

Downstairs, the beginners are in the middle of a climactic battle.

A grid map depicting a dungeon is laid out on the table. Miniature figures representing their characters are clustered around a doorway at one end of the map. On the other side of the doorway is another set of miniatures, representing undead monsters.

"Will you get over there?" Wight demands of Quintin Feehan, 12, of Middlebury. Feehan's character has hung back from the fight.

"I'm being strategic," replies Feehan, who is playing a barbarian, a type of character usually found in the center of a battle.

"That's what barbarians are known for," Wight shoots back sarcastically, "being strategic."

Feehan's character finally gets into the middle of events.

Feehan and Wight both say they have played a couple of times before and enjoyed it.

"I love all the permutations you can create with just a piece of paper," Wight says. "The DM can describe all these different objects in rooms, the characters can interact with them."

Keith Grier, the Dungeon Master for the downstairs game, later says the newcomers learned teamwork quickly.

"I was delighted running the game for kids who don't have a lot of experience. I notice the basics — not just the basic mechanics, but the joy of the game is more apparent to me."

Grier, 34, of Bridport plays in a weekly game with Gowen and got his start at the age of 10.

"I think at that time I was looking for a healthy way of escaping," he says.

On the middle floor, DM Mark Benton's group is making its way into the fortress and he is using a whiteboard to sketch out terrain. Instead of grid squares, he uses a ruler to figure how far characters can move.

Upstairs, Gowen's players are finally ready to go — creating advanced characters involves a lot more decision-making than creating beginning ones. He offers the players some quick exposition about how their characters met while dragon hunting.

"You guys are going to be starting out at the entrance," Gowen says.

"Of what?" Dunton asks.

"Of the House of Dragons," Gowen replies.

"What's that?" Dunton inquires further.

"It's a house, of dragons," another player quips. "What's it sound like?"

And with that, they set off to seek their destiny.

Contact Gordon Dritschilo at gordon.dritschilo@rutlandherald.com.

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