Playing Dungeons & Dragons at PAX Aus is great and you should do it

I’ve wanted to play a pick-up game of Dungeons & Dragons since attending the very first PAX Australia back in 2013. That inaugural year was the only time I’ve ever attended the show as a punter — by the time the show moved from Melbourne Showgrounds to Jeff’s Shed in 2014, I’d started writing here at The AU Review and have attended in a media capacity ever since. Attending as media means your days are very full — you’re taking appointments and meetings, doing interviews, appearing on panels, and spending hands on-time with games in the Expo Hall to spin into content. Little, if any, time at the show can be devoted to your own personal interests. And so, after six years of covering PAX Aus, I decided I was finally going to play some goddamned D&D on company time.

Getting into a game at PAX is fairly straightforward — you head to Tabletop and speak to the lovely people manning the sign-up table. This year there were three games running throughout the show — Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder. You pick your game, choose a one-shot that sounds interesting and jot your name down on the sign up sheet next to it. The organisers will tell you the name of your Dungeon Master, which table your game will be held at and when it’s due to start. Ours was 2pm on the Saturday.

Tabletop was busy that afternoon and the line to sign up was still quite long, despite the fact that most games had probably long since filled up. D&D was the popular pick, and most Dungeon Masters appeared to be running Adventurer’s League modules for expediency’s sake. These adventures are usually about 2-3 hours long and often embrace a more strategic, combat heavy version of the game. Whatever loot or coin you find is yours to keep and take with you into the next session. Players with high level characters, vast wealth and powerful weaponry at their disposal are not uncommon.

Our DM’s name was Russell, a cheery, round-faced man in his late 20’s. He welcomed everyone warmly and was eager to get the ball rolling — we needed to be done by 5pm as he almost certainly had other games to run that evening. Russell used no DM screen, preferring to conduct his rolls in plain sight. He used no digital tools and read from a binder with the whole adventure neatly printed and filed away. This set the tone for the kind of game he ran. A no-frills Dungeon Master, Russell able to keep the game moving and relatively on track despite our party’s inability to prepare for any scenario. He was brisk and effective, his rules decisions quick, fair and final, and he was able to key into the things that his players valued. Lacking the time to fully embody his NPC’s or come up with a voice, he simply read their dialogue as written to keep the story moving.

Our players: A smiley Filipino man no older than 25 who eagerly produced a picture of a beaming anime girl who would be his in-game avatar, an animal-loving goth woman in her mid 30’s who was determined to adopt every animal she came across, a soft-spoken red-haired man in his late 20’s who was barely audible over the Tabletop din, a lanky software engineer, and a taciturn man wearing a medical badge who took Adventurer’s League rules very seriously.

Between the six of us, the table had a wealth of experience — the red haired man had never played before, while the goth woman had played in three or four home games with friends. The Filipino man had been playing for about a year or so. The software engineer, myself and the man with the medical badge were all long-time players.

The module Russell ran was called “The Black Road.” This is a well-known Adventurer’s League module written by Paige Leitman and Ben Heisler about escorting a supply caravan through a dangerous desert to the town of Parnast. If it sounds familiar, it might be because it spent a little time in the games news cycle — earlier this year it was revealed that a pen-and-paper adventure tied to Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls Online: Elswyr expansion appeared to have plagiarised much of its content from The Black Road. (Bethesda quickly pulled the module from their official Dropbox but if you’d like to read it, it isn’t terribly hard to find online).

The game began as most D&D sessions do: Russell used the first few minutes to set the scene, describe where we were and how we’d arrived. We were then allowed to introduce ourselves and our characters. Because this was essentially a pick-up game, most of us had simply grabbed a pre-rolled character from the sign-up area. There had been eight to choose from, and a d8 you could roll if you couldn’t decide. I’d rolled the d8 for the fun of it and gotten a wood elf monk with a military background. Though my character had been a member of the Flaming Fists from Baldur’s Gate, I had since fallen in with the Zhentarim. We had Dragonborn sorcerers, Human clerics and fighters, a rock gnome rogue. The grumpy League lifer was a rogue as well, the atypical dark and mysterious D&D edgelord with a joke name — Mick Dagger. Mick had a pet owl he would use to distract his opponents. The animal lover asked for its name. “The owl doesn’t have a name,” Mick replied in fluent grimdark.

The adventure got off to a rough start. We were tasked by a half-elven man named Azam with transporting a statue and supply caravan to a town in strife and we would be greatly rewarded for this humanitarian effort. Immediately, the taciturn man began to argue with Russell about payment citing Adventurer’s League rules regarding payment by the hour. Everyone looked at everyone else for a moment, realising together that this man thought we were here for Competitive, not Casual. After his third interruption, each one ruder than the last, the goth woman had had enough. “I’m trying to learn D&D and that’s going to be pretty hard if you keep arguing with the DM about every little thing.” We all agreed as politely as we could — its possible you misread the situation, mate, and that’s okay, but the rest of us are here for a knockabout game and we only have a couple of hours. While he made no further complaints, Mick spent the rest of the session shaking his head at every unoptimised decision or attempt to roleplay.

We’d only gotten to know our travelling companions a little and travelled about a day before we were accosted by a group of goblins. They stole in under cover of night to raid the caravan, one of them riding a warg. Because the adventure was written for characters at Levels 1 – 4, it did not present a terribly steep challenge. Most of these enemies only took one or two hits before biting the dust. This was good because the constant din of the Exhibition Centre hall made it hard to hear each other unless we spoke at a half-shout. This helped keep our actions and descriptions concise and the game moving. Clear lines of communication with your DM and fellow players form the backbone of the D&D experience, something that makes PAX an even stranger venue to play in. And that’s just the aural component, there were plenty of visual distractions — crowds floating by our table to have a gawp, the constant flow of cosplayers with colourful and intricate costumes drawing the eye. People were respectful though — no-one bothered us, no-one tried to break in and ask us questions about our game. These are our people, they recognise a game in progress when they see it and how to comport themselves.

Anyway, my plan to perform a flying kick into the goblin on warg-back was damaged by the dragonborn sorc who unleashed an acid spray, dissolving the blighter instantly. With nowhere else to go, I resigned myself to running up and kicking someone’s fantasy dog. “How do you want to do this?” asked Russell, mirroring Critical Role DM Matthew Mercer’s now famous catchphrase for signalling the end of a fight.

“I kick the dog very hard and I’d like to feel shame as a bonus action.”

We were faced with several further encounters after the warg fight — the most dramatic of which was a sandstorm whipped up by a flying Cloud Giant castle. Its approach sent us scrambling to secure all of our carts and camels but it ultimately buried our caravan in sand. My character was also buried in the storm, copping so much damage that they were reduced to only four hit points. They began to struggle, fighting to free themselves from the sand, but I wasn’t able to roll above a 7 on any of my attempts. As a result, I took a full four levels of exhaustion, which meant disadvantage on ability checks, saving throws and attacks, and my speed and max hit points had been halved. To be clear, there are only six levels of exhaustion in the game and the sixth one is Death. Thankfully, the party quickly managed to locate my character and dig them out before they suffocated. We dusted ourselves off and started to inspect the damage to the convoy. The one factor we hadn’t considered as the storm rolled in were the caravan drivers, all of whom had been buried and were now lost, presumed dead.

We drove the carts ourselves after that.

Eventually, we came to a passage between two cliff-faces that had been overtaken by a few goblins and a bugbear. They demanded a toll from some passersby. Finally, the taciturn man had found his niche. He urged us to take the high ground and perform a neat, quiet flank. He’d been well-behaved since being set straight and we let him have his moment, stacking up along the cliff edge obligingly, ready to unleash on these unsuspecting goblins.

The gumpy boy sprinted to the cliff edge, fired off an arrow to claim one goblin, sent his owl after a second and immediately dropped to prone like a commando. The dragonborn sorc followed suit, slipping on a rock and spraying the goblins below with dirt and rock shards as he attempted to spell-snipe. The surprise round had lasted two turns and we’d been made. We made the best of of it, clearing the interlopers out without getting into too much strife. For most players, thinking your way out of the screw ups are what make D&D memorable and enjoyable. Grumpy didn’t feel that way, and was now back to sighing and shaking his head again.

Finally, we made it to the adventure’s conclusion, arriving in Parnast at almost exactly the three hour mark. Russell wrapped up the adventure with a bit of a loot drop and a significant amount of gold for all, far beyond what players can usually expect to recieve at Level 1. As we noted down our winnings, the taciturn man copied down of all the loot that everyone got so he could add it to his character’s inventory. I thought for a moment that he might be cheating but a quick Google search reveals this to be perfectly legal AL behaviour. We thanked Russell for his time and patience, bid our fellow adventurers goodbye and a happy PAX, and were on our way.

So what did I get out of this exercise? I don’t know that a convention floor is the perfect place to play D&D, but it’s certainly a great way to meet people who are interested in the game and be exposed to playstyles that may be similar or very different from your own. The oft-repeated truism is that there’s no wrong way to play D&D and playing in an environment like PAX Aus illustrates this perfectly. Even if you don’t wind up at a table of like-minded players, its nice to try something different. You might even like it. Maybe the next game will be full of people who play your way and now you have a huge new network of people to pull into your next campaign.

It’s also a great excuse to sit down for a few hours at a very busy convention and, if nothing else, that’s worth its weight in gold.

David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.