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Title: Players battle demons, rescue teammates in classic role-playing game

Source: Gazette.net (Maryland), March 17th, 2010

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Players battle demons, rescue teammates in classic role-playing game
Dungeons & Dragons class a creative outlet for Takoma Park youth

by Jeremy Arias | The Gazette

To all outward appearances, Takoma Park resident Erick Carroll is an average 16-year-old. But every Thursday after school, the unassuming teen transforms into the warrior-druid known as Felen Leafwhisper, bane of a thousand demons.

Carroll is one of about 35 participants, from ages 9 through 18, who take part in one of the Takoma Park Recreation Department's longest running and most popular after-school programs: Dungeons & Dragons.

In the fantasy role-playing game, players use multisided dice, a paper scorecard and their own colorful imaginations to solve puzzles, outwit enemies and survive the many twists and turns thrown at their team by the dungeon master, who is the player appointed to prepare each group's adventure.

"Right now, my character is a druid and due to some things that happened in my past adventure, he's also part tree," said Carroll, explaining Leafwhisper's detailed history in the newest session's opening class last Thursday. "I once turned into a rosebush to protect my friend from flying squid."

"It happens more often than you might think," added dungeon master Andrew Simler, 14, with a knowing smile.

Despite the popularity of spinoff role-playing games, including such hits as the "World of Warcraft" computer game and "Magic: The Gathering," a fantasy card game, the original D&D paper-and-pencil game — created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 — has retained a sizable following. This is largely thanks to the open-ended freedom offered to players in the imaginary game, according to class facilitator Dave Burbank, a Takoma Park library specialist.

"A lot of kids nowadays don't get an opportunity to express their creativity; they spend a lot of time on the console playing games with their thumbs, but the limits of those games are as created by the game creators," he said. "You can't argue or negotiate with a monster. Instead, you can pretty much just walk up to something and hit it and hope that it goes away. ... [Dungeons & Dragons] at its base is playing ‘let's pretend.'"

Once a player has chosen a character class, ranging from magic-using wizards to dwarves, they begin with low-level powers. They gain experience points to reach more powerful levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. A dungeon master, selected to lead each group of about five or six players, prepares a general storyline and sets the players on their way, adding plot twists and random enemies to force the team to work together to win, relying on one another's special abilities and ingenuity to overcome each challenge.

The game also builds a surprising amount of math skills in players, according to Sam "Shammo" Flower Horne, 25, a 15-year D&D veteran and one of Burbank's most seasoned dungeon masters.

"People think about it as, ‘Oh, you just run around hitting monsters with swords,' but it's not always the case," he said. "Kids come out of this class a lot better at math, because there's a lot of it in there, and it's not presented in a classroom setting."

Taking a break from training his new dungeon master hopeful, Flower Horne touched on the basic allure of the game from his perspective: He never stood out in sports and found a welcome alternative to team play in the dice-rolling game.

"I always wanted to be somewhere else when I was having a bad day, so I would think up where I wanted to be," he said. "[Dungeons & Dragons] teaches people that the little stories in your head aren't wrong; it's not bad to be a little escapist."

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