We’re awakened at knifepoint by the bandits from the bar. Lord knows how they managed to sneak into our quarters undetected, but if they want our gold, they’ll have to earn it. I foolishly surrendered my mace to the Edgewater blacksmith for repair, so bludgeoning our unruly guests is out of the question. That doesn’t stop our holy knight and bard from charging in for the assault. As the whistling steel of a sword wallops down on one ruffian’s leg, I conjure the power of the divine clergy, thrusting a devastating sacred flame at the others who dare run. They’re definitely smart to try.
Dungeons & Dragons has had many “moments” during its 50-year run. Like a formidable necromancer, the tabletop role-playing game has a way of resurrecting itself in pop culture, most recently through Stranger Things storylines, in the 2023 film Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and in the new Baldur’s Gate 3 video game. Hell, even Chris Pine digs it.
Meanwhile, D&Ders around the Valley continue to embark on their own adventures within the game, with more D&D nights than ever popping up around town.
“It’s become more socially accepted,” says Timm Metivier, owner of Meepleville Board Game Cafe, a place filled with thousands of board games and all the D&D supplies you need to get started.
“I’m turning 60 this year, and when I was growing up, there was a thing called the ‘satanic panic.’ If you played Dungeons & Dragons, people thought you were gonna kill your parents,” he says. “People understand now that it’s just a game. There’s nothing demonic or evil about it. It’s just fantasy. It offers people a really great escape.”
Meepleville has run as many as 10 D&D sessions a week, but the cafe ultimately ran out of dungeon masters—the experts who lead players through the adventures—and couldn’t keep up with demand. These days, individual D&D groups, some featuring longtime regulars, gather there on a regular basis. “People come in religiously every week,” he says. “It’s a big part of their life.”
Red Dwarf owner Russell Gardner and grand dungeon master Justin DiMatteo launched a biweekly Drinks & Dragons night shortly after the tiki dive bar opened in 2021. A self-professed board game nerd, Gardner always dreamed of making it a regular part of his programming, and it wasn’t difficult to convince customers to roll the dice.
“I’ve talked to some people that are still on the same campaign for five or 10 years,” Gardner says. “They get together once a month, they pull out their characters, they’ve got all these buffs and powers and they have fun. It’s this inside joke of guys who started playing when they were in college. Now they’re retiring, and they’re still playing together.”
I drop into Red Dwarf on a Tuesday night, and the place is predictably packed with D&D players. It takes mere seconds to find a group of girls(!) readying themselves in the corner. They blink up from their pints, their character sheets and pouches of dice pushed aside. And with a resounding “Yes!” they welcome me into their party, making room for a stranger. The acceptance is so immediate, so instinctual, it throws me.
Such is the overlooked beauty of D&D. You show up, meet some strangers, save a princess and head home—until next time, heroes. “It’s this really cool, shared experience where I think a lot of us at heart are still kind of kids who like stories,” DiMatteo says.
“The crowd we bring here at Red Dwarf is a fantastic microcosm of the role-playing fan base across the world. You’ve got young people, old people, men, women, non-binary.”
An IT guy during the day, DiMatteo debuts all of his creative writing material during his Drinks & Dragons nights. In his 20s, he went to school for video game art and worked on a few indie video games, but he says he didn’t play “proper D&D” until 2020.
“I still have that logical mindset that I exercise in my daily work, but there’s always going to be that little part of me that’s creative and wants to scratch that itch,” he says. “I couldn’t really find out how to do that. Doing this brought that back.”
DiMatteo fiddles with different storylines and themes to keep it fresh. Some weeks, Red Dwarf will do a steampunk D&D night; on others it’ll be cyberpunk. They’re essentially bite-sized novels, propelled by a strong and fanciful imagination, and DiMatteo takes the work seriously.
“I like world building and storytelling way more than I like being just one person inside the story,” he says. “That speaks to me.”
The women I join for Drinks & Dragons know DiMatteo’s campaigns well. “We play D&D every week,” says Jasmine Davis, who learned to play by attending the events. And when she, and her 30-something friends, Rachel Nash and Lillian Olney, aren’t playing at Red Dwarf, they’re rolling dice elsewhere.
“After we played this and had so much fun, we actually started a home campaign,” Davis says, glancing at Olney, who plays a musical bard. “She’ll literally have a recorder and a ukulele in her car, and she’ll bring it inside.”
The best part? “I can’t play any of them,” Olney says.
Despite that total dedication to her character, Davis admits she had to warm up to the idea of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a bar. “Oh yeah, I definitely thought it was gonna be, like, weird people in their mom’s basement. But then we turn around and our home campaign is in my garage and my mom’s in the living room fully bringing us chips,” she laughs.
Just after 7 p.m., DiMatteo lays down the ground rules of the night’s campaign—a four-hour adventure, broken into 30-40 minute chapters. Purchasing a beer shot special adds powerful buffs to your character.
“Rule No. 1, have fun. I recommend you f*ck around,” he says. “You can play it straight or you can improvise.”
Our heroes choose to do a bit of both. Nash, who has played D&D for five years, accepts the role of table dungeon master for us, using DiMatteo’s story binder to set the scene. I choose the mace-wielding (and somehow holy?) cleric, mostly because her “sacred flame” ability can scorch a monster into next Tuesday with the right damage roll.
“I play a paladin, and her name is Persephone. I pretty much just kick ass,” Davis says. “I enjoy making up a character that is what I would be if I was in that situation. You know when you watch a movie or you watch something in sci-fi, and you’re like, ‘Well I would do this. This is the character I would be’ … I like that I can finally make that almost a reality in a way.”
So a bard, a paladin and a cleric walk into a bar—er, tavern. There’s a sketchy gang checking us out. Or are they? Roll for perception. OK, better luck next time.
Our time in the fictional town of Edgewater goes on like this for hours. We chat with a goblin bartender. We foolishly give almost all of our party members’ weapons away to the town blacksmith (who has a terrible freaking repair rate, by the way). We wind up at a lighthouse, where a mysterious quiet girl knows more than she’s letting on. Oh, and did I mention some of the townspeople have gone missing? The plot thickens. And I can’t remember the last time I laughed this much at a bar.
“D&D is super fun. It’s great to come here, meet new people and have an extra place to socialize with people you never would meet before, which is really hard, because everyone’s just on apps,” Olney says. “I work in social media full-time, so all I do is stare at computers and message people. This is a great way to be in the moment.”
She’s right. I haven’t peaked at my text threads once. “People want to get out of their normal day-to-day, but still be social,” Gardner adds.
The pandemic, he says, accelerated that need. And more people have realized that D&D is just a nerdier means of connecting—and kicking your imagination into overdrive.
“You don’t necessarily have to be friends or even know the people that you’re in a campaign with,” Metivier says. “But as soon as you sit down with your character and you start playing and become part of the adventure, you’re all of a sudden like a family. You’re a team.”
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