“So what would you guys like to do?”
The question hung over the table for a few moments. Break into more safes? Explore another mineshaft? Head deeper underground in hopes of finding more treasure? Or just haul ass back to the surface?
One person at the table worried aloud about running into “rock people.”
“You haven’t seen any rock people,” says Jeremy Samson, who’s sitting at the head of the table.
“We know they’re there!” the person fires back.
Samson sighs. “You found a logbook stating there were rock people 300 years ago,” he told them in the tone of a high-school teacher trying to get his students back on track with the day’s lesson. “You have no other evidence that they’re there!”
“We have rocks!” another person blurts out.
Welcome to the twice-monthly Dungeons & Dragons game at the Anaheim Brewery. Though considered ancient by game standards (the first edition of D&D, as it’s colloquially known, came out in the early 1970s), the game is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Once the domain of nerdy teenage boys (I know because I was one of them), D&D now appeals to a far more diverse audience—many of whom weren’t even alive when the game first appeared. Also worth noting: Three of the seven players at Samson’s Anaheim Brewery game were women.
The New Yorker has written about the game. It’s been played on Big Bang Theory. Basketball player Tim Duncan, actor Vin Diesel, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and adult movie star Sasha Grey are reportedly dedicated players. Critical Role, a web series on Twitch during which voice actors such as Marisha Ray; her husband, Matt Mercer; and their friends play D&D is so popular that its fans recently pledged $6 million in just four days on Kickstarter to fund a new animated series, The Legend of Vox Machina.
“A very small percentage of our audience tunes in to see how the game works,” Ray says. “But the majority, I think, loves seeing the interactions between the players. This was our home game for about two years before we brought it to the public eye. Now, the audience is kind of like the 10th member of the table. Our fans will tell us, ‘I feel like we know you.’”
There even might be, possibly, a D&D movie. Maybe. Joe Manganiello—who appeared in TV shows and movies such as True Blood, Rampage and the recent D&D episode of Big Bang Theory—works as a consultant for Wizards of the Coast, which owns D&D. A longtime fan of the game, he pitched a movie a few years ago based on one of the many fantasy novels written in the D&D universe. Though that didn’t happen, it’s still possible some studio will put it on the big screen.
“It was the foundation of my creativity when I was growing up,” Manganiello says. “I’m more obsessed about it than anything else in my life. My group is predominantly sports athletes. We behave like we’re on a team. We grew up doing this. We really love getting together, telling stories. It’s our own weekly Game of Thrones.”
D&D is a role-playing adventure game. It’s entirely analog—nothing mechanized, computerized or online. It doesn’t even have a board. The only devices needed to play are paper; pencils; dice (it uses a lot of dice, ranging in size from four sides to 20); and the game’s voluminous rules, lore and stat tables (miniature figurines, often painted in exacting detail, aren’t required, but they can help players get a better grasp of what’s going on with their characters).
Dating back to 1974, D&D was developed by Gary Gygax (a legend in the fantasy gaming world who died in 2008) and Dave Arneson for the company Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). After TSR went bankrupt in 1997, Wizards of the Coast, which also makes the popular fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering, bought D&D.
The game takes place in a magical, Medieval setting and borrows heavily from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (early on, a lawsuit threat from Tolkien Enterprises even forced TSR to change many names in the game). A player starts by creating a character on a “character sheet.” The character has a name, species (dwarf, elf, human, etc.), class (fighter, cleric, rogue, etc.) and backstory. The more details the player can fill in on the character’s life, the better. The player then rolls a series of dice to determine the character’s skills, strengths and weaknesses. When finished, a group of players (three to seven is usually the best range) will team up with a “Dungeon Master” (DM), who will guide the players through a campaign; depending on how often you play, that can last from a few hours to a few years.
Action—usually in the form of swords and sorcery combat—is determined by both creativity and random chance. Players must plan ahead and think on their feet. Everything they do contributes to experience points (XP), which allow them to level their characters, which unlocks all sorts of new abilities, spells and other in-game goodies. Good Dungeon Masters are a mix of ancient bard and modern game-show host—theatrical, charismatic and dedicated enough to spend hours each week designing quests for their players.
“Video games are great, but they take away from the creative process because everything is given to you onscreen,” Samson says. “In D&D, the only restraints are on what the Dungeon Master is willing to allow.”
For Ray, the appeal of the game is much more basic. “I think people still need genuine human contact,” she says. “I have a crazy theory that the further we get into social media, the more we need face-to-face interaction. We’re wanting to go back to our roots and sit around the table and play games. Nothing will replace sitting around a table, making dumb jokes with your friends.”
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Search Meetup.com for D&D and other role-playing games (RPGs) in Orange County, and you’ll find more than a dozen groups. And that’s just private games; comic-book stores and hobby shops such as the Game Chest in the Irvine Spectrum and Brookhurst Hobbies in Garden Grove also feature special D&D nights. One of the most popular of these takes place every Wednesday at Comic Quest in Lake Forest.
The store has been around for 37 years, which is nearly as old as D&D itself, it’s filled with comic books, toys, games and figurines. On major holidays, special collectible dice are handed out to customers for free. Among the décor are life-size statues of Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn, as well as a dry-erase board on which staff write each week’s special question. On Feb. 6, the first night I show up to observe D&D, it displays the previous week’s question (“Which 2019 would you pick?”) and the following results:
• Blade Runner: 38 percent
• IRL (now): 30 percent
• Akira: 19 percent
• Running Man: 13 percent
“There are no terrible retail stories here,” says Yvonne Gonzales, who manages Comic Quest’s D&D night. “People come in happy.”
The night is especially electric because an astonishing 80 people showed up the previous week (practically everyone I spoke to at Comic Quest wanted to tell me this). Though only about half that number of people show on Feb. 6, it’s still more than enough people to possibly add a second D&D game night, Gonzales tells me.
Players and DMs are from all over South County. Comic Quest doesn’t charge them to play, but players usually buy all their gaming materials from the store. Brendan Balcewicz of Aliso Viejo arrives at Comic Quest around 5 p.m. to start setting up (games don’t officially start until 7 p.m.). He’s been a DM for five years or so. For every hour of gaming, he’ll have already put in about a half-hour of planning.
Setting up next to Balcewicz is Christopher Robbins of Trabuco Canyon. He’s also a DM. Though each table is set up for about seven players, Robbins once led a dozen players through a game. Both are heavy into the lore of D&D and are currently leading their players through an official module—an adventure that’s already set up with a defined geography, monsters, combat and treasure. In fact, they’re using the same module—Balcewicz’s group is near the end, while Robbins’ is just starting out.
Balcewicz and Robbins say they see about one to four new players each week.
Shayna Nuzzo of Rancho Santa Margarita has only been playing D&D for a few weeks. “As a creative person, I really love being in an element that tests my boundaries,” she says. “I love fantasy, immersing myself in a fantasy setting.”
At one point during the night, a kid walks up to Gonzales and says he needs new dice because he feels “outclassed” at the table. Gonzales says this happens a lot, and she always walks them over to the store’s dice display case, which is filled with many elaborate and colorful sets of dice and asks them, “Which one speaks to you?”
Dice are an incredibly important part of the game, providing what Manganiello calls the game’s “craps table element.” Dice can determine anything from how much damage a character takes from an attack to how much treasure is in a locked safe. During his Anaheim Brewery game, I watched Samson roll a die to determine the length of a mineshaft his players were exploring. Players can get superstitious, even fearful, of their dice (and all new players learn very quickly to never, ever touch another player’s dice without permission).
“Dice are gamer jewelry,” Gonzales says. “Dice are how you flex.”
Gonzales says Comic Quest occasionally holds a “Bad Dice Day,” during which players are encouraged to bring in their unlucky dice. Gonzales says the dice are placed in a “Container of Shame,” where they’re subjected to hours of Nickelback music, then placed in a rock tumbler. Sometimes, they’re later burned.
Watching everyone sit and play D&D brought back a host of memories for me. I played the game as a teen in the 1980s—the so-called “satanic era,” when nervous parents and irresponsible media painted the game as some sort of dark evil. In fact, I remember one awkward conversation in which my dad wanted to make sure the game wasn’t inspiring me to murder someone.
It was only while reporting this story that I realized how weird my style of play actually was. Because I only had one or two other friends who played, we would each create a bunch of characters. We’d trade off being DM, with the other player leading their band of characters on the quest. Our dungeons were what we now call “homebrew”—basically, made up using our own imaginations. I don’t recall us ever using official D&D modules and adventures.
But I do remember emotions getting heated. One time, my friend who was acting as DM decided, for whatever reason, that one of my characters needed to die. So he led my group into a room and conjured up dangerous bugbears or maybe a green dragon. Within minutes, my wizard was dead. Then my friend took the actual wizard character sheet (which was just a sheet of notebook paper) and tore it up. That was the end of our playing D&D for some time.
* * * * *
According to Gonzales, about 20 percent of those who show up for Comic Quest’s D&D Game Night are women. “It’s our most balanced night,” she says. And if you think 20 percent is a strange definition of “balanced,” keep in mind that other game nights are about 5 percent women—at best.
The D&D game played now at places such as Comic Quest, Anaheim Brewery and Manganiello’s wine cellar basement (seriously, go on YouTube and watch the video of this place—it’s amazing) is very different from the one of my youth. Math and probability took precedence then over character creation, which in itself was embarrassingly sexist. Female characters had lower stats than corresponding male ones, and the old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons handbook even included a “Harlot’s Table,” in which characters encountering a “harlot” had to roll dice to see if she was a “brazen strumpet” or an “aged madam.”
Thankfully, all that’s gone. In the game’s fifth edition, which came out in 2014, there are no penalties for creating female characters. In fact, the new Player’s Handbook specifically asks players to be creative when assigning their character a gender. “Think about how your character does or does not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender and sexual behavior,” it states. “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. . . . You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female’s body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male.”
When asking people why so many more women were playing D&D today, I got a variety of answers. The fact that women such as Ray, Felicia Day and Satine Phoenix are playing and discussing the game on Twitch and YouTube helps a lot. “I tell women, ‘Be brave; try it,’” Ray says. “And I tell men, ‘Be open. The more diverse your game is, the better it will be.’ This is why I love Dungeons & Dragons so much: It’s like a life simulator, without real-life consequences. In this community, all are welcome. Let’s end the era of gate-keeping nerdy boys.”
But a big part of the reason dates back to 2014, when Wizards of the Coast reworked the game’s rules. “[T]he fifth edition shifted the focus of the game so that it centered heavily on the storytelling aspect,” Vivian Kane wrote in a May 10, 2018, essay on TheMarySue.com. “The minutiae of battle logistics, the specificity of miniatures and maps were no longer necessary for gameplay. Instead, the game embraced an open-world feel, where story rules. After all, so much of the game’s timeless success is due to humans’ innate love of storytelling. The fifth edition allowed that to flourish.”
Of course, math is still a huge part of D&D—I lost track of the number of times I watched players roll dice, then look up at the ceiling while performing arithmetic in their head—but the key to the game is sitting around a table with other people and taking part in a whole story about characters created by those people.
“The best way to play is to kinda surrender to it,” says Caleb Cleveland, a teacher at Laguna College of Art + Design and illustrator of the new children’s books A*B*Cs of D&D and 1*2*3s of D&D. “When you make a role-playing game that’s about relationships, you automatically get a broader audience.”
Santa Ana resident Madison Johnson is one of Cleveland’s students who says he inspired her to start playing. “He saw my friends and I were really close-knit,” she recounts. “So one day, he said, ‘Why aren’t you guys playing D&D?’”
Today, she works at Comic Quest alongside Gonzales and plays D&D about once a week, though never at the store. Like Gonzales, she plays at home or at her friend’s house. Her friends, who are also artists, will often draw the characters and situations that take place in their games. “I really like the character aspect,” she says. “We work together to make the craziest story we can with our characters.”
The way Johnson and Gonzales play is very different than, say, Balcewicz and Robbins, who play very close to official D&D lore. By contrast, Johnson and Gonzales homebrew their questlines. To be clear, there’s no wrong way to play—the key is finding a game that’s comfortable to you.
“It’s like writing a book, but way easier,” says Gonzales, who was an English major in college.
Johnson describes her character as an “emo punk warlock” nicknamed “Mage against the Machine.” One of Gonzales’ characters is an Orc named Bloo. “That’s short for Bloodcurdler, but he doesn’t like that,” Gonzales says. “And our characters are dating—I’m really proud of them.” Gonzales is playing three characters right now—one guy, one girl, and one who’s non-binary. Another friend of hers is playing a character that’s a halfling and a gnome in a trenchcoat who are pretending to be one person. Often, Johnson and Gonzales say, they will conceal key details of their characters’ personalities from everyone except the DM, who will try to engineer big reveal moments during their quests.
Gonzales says romance plays a huge part in her D&D adventures. In fact, she says, her friends’ characters often end up romancing the “boss”—the powerful enemy at the end of virtually every D&D quest. “It’s really rare to have a straight romance in D&D,” she says. That’s because so many players are LGBT, so they create characters that mirror their own experiences.
* * * * *
Now all this isn’t to say that D&D is perfect. In fact, a number of players I spoke with shared the same criticism.
“It can be really intimidating when you start,” says Gonzales. “The fifth edition rules are much more beginner-friendly, but the game can be hard to get into.”
This has always been true of D&D, and it’s doubtful it will ever change. The game requires players to be creative and patient, as well as do math. It needs them to imagine they’re someone—or something—else entirely, in a foreign and fantastical setting. The game mechanics, which often include phrases such as “Roll for initiative” and “Do a dexterity check” can be frightening to new players, unaccustomed to the practice of rolling dice and referring to stat tables to determine the outcome of a relatively simple move such as picking a lock.
Which is why Samson’s game every two weeks at Anaheim Brewery is so welcoming. Usually, they play on benches outside, but when it’s especially cold and rainy, the staff set up a special table for them inside the brew room.
Samson, who manages landscaping for the city of Anaheim, advertises the game on Facebook through his D20 Adventure Realm page. He charges players $10 each session, and in return, he provides them everything: character sheets, dice, trays, access to a library of D&D manuals and handbooks, miniatures, and as much assistance as they want to create their characters and play. He even has premade characters that people can play if they don’t want to create one.
His choice to hold his game sessions at the brewery wasn’t an accident. “It’s easier to attract beginners to a brewery,” he says. “It can be intimidating to go to a comic-book store. I ask that people should bring creativity and a thirst for craft beer. I have three or four players who are really consistent. But for the past six months, there’s been at least one new person every time. I like that what I’m doing is attracting the brand-new player. I’m kind of honored by that.”
In contrast to the DMs at Comic Quest, who set up little screens in front of their notes and modules (which I can remember doing as a kid when my friend and I played D&D), Samson simply had a bunch of typed notes in front of him outlining the dungeon his players were exploring. Whereas some DMs stand in front of their groups and gesticulate wildly while leading their players, Samson is chill, content to sit, almost like a college professor sitting in on a discussion session.
He’s also considering experiments in breaking down the wall between D&D and reality. For example, he’s considering the following deal with his players: If they get certified to perform CPR, he’ll give their characters the “Medicine” skill. And though the night I saw it had women making up nearly half his players, Samson says his group usually isn’t quite that diverse.
“Generally, we have one or two women in the group,” he says. “Again, I think it’s because of the setting. I generally have more women here than when I play at game shops.”
The session I observed lasted about an hour and a half. It fit into the classic D&D adventure structure: initial exploration, a little lock-picking and thievery, some combat, and then the all-important looting. But I was amazed at how everyone at the table found a way to participate that brought out the uniqueness of their characters. Samson was also very generous doling out XP and treasure at the end—perhaps a little too generous, but that’s because he’s trying to convince the group to head deeper into the elaborate mine he’s constructed for them. But other sessions aren’t so clear-cut, and that’s a good thing.
“We’ve had a couple of sessions where barely any dice were thrown,” Samson says. “Those are my favorites. The players were mostly just interacting with townspeople, and it seemed everyone was okay with that. That’s like the quintessential D&D experience, in my opinion. You can get combat in a lot of games. But people sitting around a table, role-playing these characters—that’s so cool.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.