Dungeons & Dragons grows up
As Todd Beaubien's character moves down the bridge in a dungeon, he asks, "What do I see?"
"A skeleton," replies Zero Diaz. "And it's on fire."
Drawing his weapon, Beaubien's character, along with the other five players in the game, makes quick work of the undead minion after a few rolls of the dice.
It's a typical Wednesday night at Dragon's Lair on Burnet Road, and about 40 players are gathered in the back room of the comic and game shop to play Dungeons & Dragons, the iconic tabletop role-playing game developed more than 30 years ago.
But these are not the stereotypical basement-dwelling, Doritos-munching geeks who have become fodder for gamer parody, and this is not your dad's edition of D&D.
Industry experts and gamers agree that tabletop gaming, particularly role-playing games like D&D, are seeing a revival. With more games on the market than ever before and more gamers from all walks of life rolling the dice, it's a good time to play.
"There is a renewed interest in this type of gaming," said Paul Chapman, director of marketing for Austin-based Steve Jackson games, the publisher of the popular GURPS game series. "Where gaming always used be this thing you did in college or small groups, it has become more mainstream and it lost a lot of the stigma that it used to have."
RPGs work like this: Players design characters using certain rules in the game universe, whether it's the Tolkienesque D&D or games based in the "Star Wars" or "Doctor Who" universes. Game Masters set up situations for the players, who use their characters (and all of their abilities) to navigate those scenarios and solve problems. Miniature figures on game boards can be used to represent movement through the universe. Add a dash of play acting and a healthy dose of imagination and serve up for an interesting evening with friends.
The kids who played D&D and other RPGs are all grown up, and they finally have the free time and money to devote to the hobby, they said. Many have ditched the basement for the high-end game room and swapped the Doritos for more gourmet fare. Though some gamers stick to junk food out of sense of tradition, you're more likely to find vegetarian Japanese curry or menus to match the theme of the game on offer. Potluck lunches or gourmet dinner parties now accompany many games.
"We're not teenagers anymore," said Beaubien, 45. "We make more money and we all have cholesterol counts. There's no reason to eat junk."
Experts cited several factors for the resurgence in interest.
Thanks to digital publishing, print-on-demand models and online ordering there are more games than ever before, with titles to match any interest. Players can explore totally original universes or become characters from their favorite movies, books or TV shows.
In addition to hardcopy runs, publishers such as White Wolf (known for the World of Darkness series) and Steve Jackson Games sell the downloads and printable PDFs online.
This, company representatives said, allows them to personalize the gaming experience and go in-depth on certain game mechanics for the players who want it. This model even allows writers and artists in their living rooms to design games and sell the downloads online.
While most publishers would not release specific sales figures, all reported that sales of RPGs were doing well and interest was strong. Austin's Steve Jackson games reported "a slight increase" in download sales in 2010 compared with 2009.
According to company reports, sales have seen a steady increase since 2004. "Greater personalization has led to greater interest," said Chapman of Steve Jackson Games. The online publishing model means "more games can be published economically and profitably."
The Internet has allowed gamers to find each other more easily and organize games. The economy has also played a role, said Alan Rogers, communications coordinator for Dragon's Lair.
"It's a lot harder to afford a 'World of Warcraft' account on an unemployment check than it is to go to a friend's house, drink Mountain Dew and eat Doritos and play D&D," Rogers said. "You still get the same competition, the same creativity, and you also get to socialize a little."
That socialization is key, gamers said.
After spending all day on a computer at work, gamers Brandy Hamblet and Travis Fricke said that sometimes the last thing they want to do is go home and stare at a screen for entertainment.
"It's nice to be able to sit down with several friends at once," Hamblet said. "I probably wouldn't get to see some of these people very often outside of the game. I get social-ed out pretty quickly, but that doesn't happen with D&D. I always want to keep playing."
Because the games are collaborative rather than competitive, it makes for better party games, she said.
The burned-out video-gamers, like Hamblet and Fricke, are exactly who Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of D&D, tried to target with the launch of the fourth edition of the game in 2008. Many gamers have called the new edition a simplified version of the game aimed at those who grew up playing video games or who were too intimidated by thick manuals to get started with the game.
"It does seem that the pendulum is swinging away from the digital gaming side of things a bit to the analog side of things — people are really starting to recognize and appreciate the benefits of in-person social gaming you just can't get out of digital games," said Liz Schuh, of Wizards of the Coast.
That's one reason the company launched D&D Encounters last year, a series of once-a-week games where new and old players alike could get a feel for the new edition in one-off scenarios. While each scenario fits into larger weeks-long story arcs, players can jump in and out at any time using customized or pre-generated characters. Game masters and veteran players tutor newcomers.
The Encounters sessions, like the one at Dragon's Lair, act as a social network for gamers, leading many to hook up for at-home games outside of the comic store, said Diaz, the game master on a recent Wednesday night.
"If you've never played an RPG before, D&D Encounters is a fantastic way to get started," said Rogers of Dragon's Lair. "I've seen people walk in off the streets, kids as young as 12, adults as old as 70, and start rolling dice."
Esther Robards-Forbes is a reporter for the Westlake Picayune.