Join us, as we pick up a "Long Staff of Impairing," dodge "dire badgers" and make friends with Omnoselaakk during our return visit to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

By Tom Bissell - Jeff Alexander

Published May 20, 2004 10:11PM (EDT)


Tom: Our first foray into the world of video game D&D-style role-playing. Ominously, the instruction booklet for "Champions of Norrath" is about as thick as a Chuck Palahniuk novel.

Jeff: Only better written.

Tom: Jeff, I honestly don't know if I'm up for this. It's been a long time. I associate D&D with too many unpleasant things: acne, chronic masturbation, Renaissance fairs, the lute. You know I once had a woman almost not sleep with me because I admitted I dabbled some in Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid?

Jeff: I can think of much better reasons not to sleep with you than that. You should calm down. Role-playing is not evil devil-worship. It's a small, pleasant escape nook for social rejects and the overly imaginative the world over. And really, who are we to judge?

Tom: You've reformed quite well, you know. I've always admired that.

Jeff: What do you mean?

Tom: I mean I can barely tell you're a recovering role-player. The only thing that gave it away was how your eyes sparkled when I suggested we review "Champions of Norrath."

Jeff: They didn't ... sparkle.

Tom: A little. They did a little bit.

Jeff: We've taken two hours to read the instruction booklet and here we go: The difficulty levels you can select from are Adventurous, Courageous and Champion.

Tom: I'm definitely feeling only Adventurous. Hey. You know what I always like about Dungeons & Dragons?

Jeff: What's that?

Tom: The complicated gradations of good and evil. You could make your character good, neutral or evil, but then you could shade it with "chaotic good" or "neutral evil" or "lawful evil."

Jeff: If only our leaders recognized such careful gradations. The Axis of Chaotic Evil is a much better way of looking at things.

Tom: Bin Laden is very much a chaotic evil figure. Lots of charisma points, though.

Jeff: How about Donald Rumsfeld?

Tom: I'm going to say lawful evil. How about John Kerry?

Jeff: Neutral good.

Tom: Ralph Nader?

Jeff: Definitely chaotic good. The bastard.

Tom: What's the plot of "Champions of Norrath"?

Jeff: I quote from the instruction booklet: "Kelethin, the treetop city of the Faydwer wood elves, is under siege! ... Your auspicious arrival in Kelethin during its darkest hour gives the wood king elf himself, Liethkorias, the glimmer of hope he's been seeking." We're fighting orcs and picking up treasure, in other words.

Tom: OK. I have to say here that the needle of my inner seventh-grader's gay-o-meter just went crazy.

Jeff: You can play as a Barbarian, a Wood Elf Ranger, a High Elf Cleric, an Erudite Wizard or a Dark Elf Shadowknight.

Tom: Erudite wizard?

Jeff: That's what it says.

Tom: Huh. They went a little heavy on the elves, didn't they?

Jeff: That's the funny thing about the fantasy genre. It promises unlimited imaginative scope, but it's always the same gallery of elves and rangers fighting some pointy-eared, blue-skinned humanoids by torchlight for gold and funny-named weapons.

Tom: It's sub-Tolkien humbuggery, I say. Although I do love how when you name your character they give you all these asinine runic letters. Just in case you want your character to be called Ömñösêláákk. Hey, come to think of it, that's not a bad name.

Jeff: So now we're walking around. We've got a nice God's-eye view of the action, we've armed and armored ourselves, and we're out in a forest fighting whatever goblins or monsters that come along. Make sure to use your spells.

Tom: I'm not at a high-enough level to use any spells yet.

Jeff: So we kill monsters for a while, garner experience points, then head back to Kelethin to buy better weapons and armor.

Tom: So it's mostly just hacking monsters and then shopping.

Jeff: They used to call these games "hack-and-slash." It's more like "chopping-and-shopping."

Tom: We're basically Candace Bushnell with broadswords.

Jeff: I'll give this to "Champions of Norrath": Each time you play, the maps are randomly generated. So you never visit the same dungeon twice. And the music is pretty good, too, if a little "Peter and the Wolf"-y.

Tom: We've now spent 45 minutes killing things and finding gold and gone back to Kelethin, the shopkeeper of which is called Nenmar.

Jeff: We don't like Nenmar.

Tom: No. Because the brother gives you jack for your old stuff and charges you up to your eyes for new stuff. Ömñösêláákk has been risking life and limb for this kingdom, and he's ripping us off. There's no way these "well built padded leggings" of Nenmar's are worth 3,000 gold pieces. Though they would go awfully well with my helmet.

Jeff: I see you're getting into the shopping.

Tom: The fighting is so tedious that the shopping is all I have to look forward to.

Jeff: Look at the names of some of this stuff: "Choker of Embers," "Masterwork Circlet," "Earrings of Warding," "Reinforced Short Pick." I just picked up "The Ring of Tainting."

Tom: Sorry about that. I think antibiotics clears it right up. I myself just purchased the "Long Staff of Impairing." That must be what you get when you hang out with someone with "The Ring of Tainting."

Jeff: Let's go fight some more monsters.

Tom: I like walking around talking to people, if only to hear lines such as, "Tunare willing, things will get back to normal before too long." Tunare willing, whoever wrote that will be hit by a bread truck.

Jeff: We're back in the forest of Lesser Faydark now.

Tom: Jesus Christ. This game is perilously underfunded imagination-wise. These orcs we're fighting have wargs!

Jeff: They're not wargs. They're called "dire badgers."

Tom: "Champions of Norrath" is "Beowulf" meets "Lord of the Rings" gets a lobotomy.

Jeff: How's your gay-o-meter doing now?

Tom: Off the charts. But I want to keep playing if only to get that "Summon Skeleton" spell.

Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."

MORE FROM Tom Bissell

Jeff Alexander

Tom Bissell is the author of "Chasing the Sea." Jeff Alexander is a writer living in Brooklyn. Their book, "Speak, Commentary," a collection of fake DVD commentaries, was published by McSweeney's last fall.

MORE FROM Jeff Alexander

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