Here be dragons

Even after 40 years, the game Dungeons & Dragons remains popular. We explore the local scene.

Billy Wheeler and David Tolles play a short campaign of Dungeons and Dragons.

Billy Wheeler and David Tolles play a short campaign of Dungeons and Dragons.

“Your own imagination is more powerful than anything you can play on a screen,” says David Tolles, who’s been playing Dungeons and Dragons since 2002.

January saw the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game created by Gary Gynax and Dave Arneson in 1974.

Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D for short, is essentially a collaboratively told story. Each game is made up of players who control one or more characters and a dungeon master, or DM, who acts as a referee, determining the consequences of players’ choices, enforcing the rules of the game, and creating the details and challenges of the current campaign.

While the basic premise hasn’t changed, D&D has grown and evolved over the years. With the advent of a system with a 20-sided die, along with multiple publications to supplement the core books necessary for game play, and the integration of a gridded playing surface and figurines, the game has been perfected to a science.

Since its inception, multiple editions of Dungeons and Dragons have been released, with the fifth edition materials coming out on staggered dates that began in early July and will continue until early fall.

Currently, the fantasy genre seems to be at the zenith of its popularity. With the fanaticism over George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books and the Game of Thrones TV show based on them, the craze over the video game Skyrim, and so many other examples of fantasy works becoming fully integrated into mainstream culture, it’s difficult to see why Dungeons and Dragons hasn’t come close to garnering the same status.

One reason may be that since its release, D&D has fought a harsh social stigma against it, attracting negative publicity at one time or another over accusations of promoting devil worship and witchcraft.

Felix Danger, who has been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a couple of decades, says, “D&D had to go through the worst witch hunt since rock ’n’ roll because parents believed that their children were dumb enough to think these games were real. [It was] an insult to children and imagination.”

Another reason for the aversion to the game might be the stereotype of the kind of people that participate in role-playing games.

“When Dungeons and Dragons was released, it was kind of a way for social outcasts to come together and create their own world,” says Sierra Rambeau, another D&D player who works at a board game store in Reno.

However, the presence of D&D in current pop culture seems to help in breaking down the negative boundaries surrounding the game and widening the spectrum of where the players are coming from.

There are quite a few celebrities who are known to play, who bust through any molds of what a D&D player is supposed to be like or look like.

Political satirist and comedian Stephen Colbert has made several references to Dungeons and Dragons while hosting The Colbert Report and has even credited the game with helping his success in improvisation.

Actor Vin Diesel, who probably looks more recognizable in a tricked-out car that shoots flames than he does rolling a 20-sided die, is such a big fan of D&D that 10 years ago, he wrote a foreword to a book commemorating it, 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons.

Also, the game has made appearances on popular television shows, like Community, The Simpsons, Futurama and other programs.

While some of these shows might perpetuate the stereotype (thanks, Big Bang Theory), seeing D&D being played on television in any way really helped spark the interest in tabletop role-playing games.

“Here at the store, we have people come in from all walks of life who ask about [Dungeons and Dragons] and want to play because they’ve seen it on Big Bang Theory or something like it.”

In any case, the reputation of Dungeons and Dragons is progressing.

“[The social acceptance] has definitely improved since the media campaign of the ’80s that said D&D was a demonistic tribe. Not to say that no one says that now, they’re just laughed at more,” says Tolles. “But it’s had that stigma for a while and old habits die hard.”

One prime example of the change in sentiment towards Dungeons and Dragons is the story of when Nikki Dzadek, now Tolles’ wife, first learned that Tolles played the game, after going out for about a month.

“I walked in, and he was playing D&D and I said, ’What! This will not do,’” says Dzadek. “How are they so out of touch with reality? I thought I was going to have to break up with him.”

However, that was in 2005, and now Dzadek, like her husband, is a dungeon master.

While there might not be a line around the block to buy the new D&D fifth edition books, it doesn’t mean that Dungeons and Dragons is not doing well. In the 40 years that the game has been around, it’s made over $1 billion in profits and has boasted over 20 million players.

Playing roles

In a generation so fixated on technological advances, tabletop roleplaying games seem almost anachronistic in the midst of movies, smartphone apps and video games. So how does D&D manage to keep itself relevant?

First, some players who began playing 20, 30, even 40 years ago are still playing and are introducing the game now to younger generations.

Chuck Robinson, 41, remembers receiving Dungeons and Dragons as a gift years ago and playing with his father and brothers on his 12th birthday.

“I remember begging my parents to stay up late so we could just go a little bit further in the adventure,” says Robinson. “Even now, playing with my wife and 11-year-old daughter, I find myself wanting to stay up and finish just as much.”

There’s also so much to gain from playing D&D. All dragon-slaying, treasure-hunting, and princess-saving aside, Dungeons and Dragons is more than a refined game of pretend amongst adults. It gives opportunities to hone some real-life skills in addition to just being something fun to do with friends.

D&D fosters and encourages thinking on your feet, public speaking, and, frankly, just using your imagination.

“It’s [also] a great way to learn teamwork, problem-solving, moral codes, and consequences for your actions,” says Danger.

But the biggest strength that D&D has going for it is exactly what sets it apart from modern entertainment–it takes your eyes off a screen and makes you interact with people, face-to-face.

“What are the perks of a movie?” says Danger. “Now add interaction. Take the fun of watching a great show and then include your friends, and not just as other viewers.”

In Reno, there are several ways to get involved with Dungeons and Dragons if you endeavor to look for them.

In Meadowood Mall, the store Games Galore has a Dungeons and Dragons group that meets up every Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m., and UNR Dragons Club is a D&D club on the University of Nevada, Reno campus for university students.

But the most popular way to play is to join a group of friends who play or start your own.

After 40 years, Dungeons and Dragons continues to break players out of their shells and encourage them to explore the realm of imagination.

“You get to step out of your real life and do something magical,” Dzadek says.