The hipsters playing Dungeons & Dragons, old-school board game that’s gone from nerdy to cool again

The fantasy role-playing game, launched in 1974, is having a renaissance, with growing numbers of people getting out their graph paper and pencils to play it in bars and coffee shops, and document contests on YouTube and in podcasts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 8:03pm

To all appearances, Emma Aprea is a tattooed and pierced 24-year-old, a bartender and freelance photographer who lives in the US city of Philadelphia.

She also, despite her petite frame, happens to be “a female, tiefling barbarian: half woman, half demon. I carry a huge green sword.”

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Fortunately, the barbarian only comes out in certain contexts – namely, in one of the three different fantasy table-top role-playing games she participates in each month. Two of those are Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), a collaborative storytelling game first published in 1974, decades before Aprea was born.

“The stigma of D&D is that you’re a hard core closet nerd; you don’t even see the sunlight,” says Aprea. “But not all nerds are that way. As people evolve, this is getting to be less stigmatised because it’s fun to come out and drink and be social, but also get to play a game. There’s a level of community to it.”

That evolution is already well underway: Dungeons & Dragons has, against long odds, recently become something vaguely resembling cool. Regular games are popping up in bars and coffee shops, and in people’s homes. They’re being documented in podcasts and recorded on YouTube or Twitch, in some cases drawing thousands of viewers.

The trend, which has also percolated around the country, has even fuelled kids’ camps and pop-up gaming cafes. Fans attribute the resurgence in part to improvements in the game itself. D&D – which offers a structure for characters from orcs to dragons to play out different scenarios guided by rolls of the dice – is on its fifth edition.

“It’s not nearly as complicated as it used to be. You don’t need a PhD in Dungeons & Dragons,” says Brian Bolles, 33, a bar manager and avid player. “The last version of the game was kind of confused in its complexity.”

It’s come a long way since the 1980s, when a moral panic surrounding D&D was triggered in part by the suicide of a teenager who had been an avid player. Today, it’s seen as a relatively wholesome pastime, and even a way to draw out autistic children in social settings.

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“I started playing around the end of the satanic panic, so it was the devil’s game and all that,” says Zach Ares-Deterding, now 37. “Then, in high school, we played as part of the drama club. When I got to college, that was the first time I encountered the stereotype of the sweaty, greasy dude with the neck beard and Motorhead T-shirt. I was like: wait, am I a nerd? But now, it’s getting more socially acceptable.”

He cites the infiltration of D&D into the media, such as in the Netflix series Stranger Things and seeing D&D ads in men’s magazines, such as GQ and Maxim. Now Ares-Deterding, the father of a toddler, plays a monthly game at a bar and hosts another one, biweekly, at his house.

“The game we run at my house is more like a day care,” he says. “We have three people that come over with toddlers and take turns watching babies.”

Some of those players are brand new to the game. For many, it’s an inviting alternative to the lonelier pastime of video gaming.

Will Calligan, 28, says that is what drew him. “I’ve played video games my whole life, but I only got into table-top role-playing games around college. I enjoy the aspect of community. It’s like a collaborative brainstorming session.”

He even developed a live-play podcast The Plane Shift, inspired by the success of other shows based on D&D campaigns. One, called Adventure Zone, is produced by Maximum Fun, which makes Bullseye, heard on national public radio stations, and the popular comedy podcast Judge John Hodgman.

I’ve played video games my whole life, but I only got into tabletop [role-playing games] around college

Helping drive the trend in Philadelphia are events like Drinks & Dragons, a game night that runs monthly at two South Philadelphia bars: the Black Cat Tavern on 12th and American Sardine Bar.

Don Caraco, 43, who started the series in 2016, says he first pitched it five years ago. “It was shot down. The restaurant manager at the time was like, ‘D&D? That is for geeks.’” Now, the game draws about 20 or 30 players on a given night.

Standing in front of a large piece of graph paper scattered with figurines and different shaped dice, Caraco says it’s more popular than even he realised. “It seems like weekly I run into somebody new who’s like, ‘I do this all the time’.”

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Players relish the chance to be dramatic, creative and silly. Overheard at Drinks & Dragons on a recent night was: “I am the beer pong champion of my village!” and, “OK, I’m going to turn into a giant lizard.” (This, spoken by a character who’d previously been just a moderately sized lizard.) Another is “He hits you, for five points of bludgeon damage.”

There were zombie attacks to fend off, a mysterious tomb to explore, an unexplained illness to diagnose, bloody snow angels to make in the corpse of a deceased mulch monster.

Jeff Waterman, 32, played in high school and returned to the game over the past year.

“The idealistic part of me says, as we get more attached to screens, we want to do things that are imaginative and where we talk to humans,” says Waterman. “Everything is so hi-tech and online now, people see this very old game, and they think it’s something new.”