Columnist Nicole Brodeur got to take a step inside Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton, see what the makers of Dungeons & Dragons are working on, and even watch a test game with a Seattle Seahawk.
The elevator doors close behind you and you face a dragon. Razor-toothed creatures, some sleek as steel and others as gnarled as ancient oaks, are stretched across the doors. All the while, the lights change from purple to green to red.
This is where reality ends, and where the stories and characters that inspire awkward teenagers and accomplished adults to transform into wizards, clerics, bards and trolls begin.
On the third floor of a nondescript building in a Renton office park, a stone’s throw from Ikea and acres of car dealerships, Dungeons & Dragons — the tabletop fantasy role-playing game now in its 44th year — carries on under the ownership of Wizards of the Coast. (The Hasbro subsidiary has owned the game since 1997.)
In the last few years, Dungeons & Dragons — or D&D — has gained legions of new players, thanks to the rise of geek culture and the newfound realization that people need to look up from their screens, create their own stories and connect.
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“It was the cosmos and us colliding in one magic moment,” said Nathan Stewart, D&D’s brand director and executive producer, citing the popularity of films based on Marvel and DC comics and shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Stranger Things.”
“You’ve never seen geek culture at such a height as right now.”
He also pointed to the 2014 release of the game’s fifth edition, which was play-tested by almost 200,000 people, and designed to be more accessible to new players by streamlining play, simplifying the rules and putting renewed focus on the story.
There was also a new effort put on the inclusion and representation of women, Stewart said.
“As we went into development, we wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to play felt welcome at the table,” he said. “The more people in the hobby, the better.”
It worked; a 2017 survey found that nearly 40 percent of D&D players are women.
“It’s a special time, and I have a big belief that people are really craving face-to-face connections,” he said. “Gaming is the perfect construct.”
As a result, 2017 was “the biggest” in D&D’s 44-year history, Stewart said.
He declined to disclose sales numbers but noted that in 2017, the D&D brand had a 44 percent sales growth over 2016, and the most number of players in its history — 12 million to 15 million in North America alone.
And, because more than 50 percent of those who started playing D&D since 2014 watch games online, the company is hosting its third — and biggest — streaming event on Twitch. (Viewers can watch at www.twitch.tv/dnd)
“The Stream of Many Eyes” will originate from a Los Angeles soundstage June 1, 2 and 3. The story — which will be revealed on June 1 — was described by one D&D staffer as “The Da Vinci Code meets Gangs of New York.”
The event is being called a Theatrical Drama Reality Role-Playing Game — or the no-less-of-a-mouthful TDRRPG — with a cast that will perform a continuing story over seven sessions of D&D.
They will include sirens, rogues and something called a “high elf bard lizard,” all performed by “influencers” like Joe Manganiello and Deborah Ann Woll of “True Blood.”
At a recent planning meeting, staffers were tasked with finding “an actual blacksmith,” fire dancers and keeping a close eye on fire codes.
“It’s absolutely the most ambitious thing we’ve ever taken on,” said D&D communications manager Greg Tito. “But everyone loves this leap.”
D&D was created by the late Gary Gygax and his partner Dave Arneson. They dreamed up a fantasy role-playing game that brought the wizards and goblins that people had only read about in the books of J.R.R. Tolkien to their kitchen tables and unfinished basements.
“Fantasy has gone mainstream,” said Mike Mearls, the franchise’s creative director. “People know what an elf is. Now that society has digested those tropes, anything is possible.”
The people who work at the D&D offices serve as the stewards of Gygax’s legacy, refining the rules and expanding the stories.
Gygax’s pen is now in the hand of Chris Perkins, D&D’s senior story designer. He has over 68,000 Twitter followers and is a celebrity Dungeon Master who runs games at tables and on stages all over the world — sometimes in costume.
“Story is the most important thing,” Perkins said. “It’s the heart of it, and it’s my job to write that book.”
He calls the stories he writes “the framework” for whatever players come up with.
“We’re building the cup, not the drink,” he said. “Our stories are meant to be a starting point. I’m looking for great stories that become shared experiences.
“I want people to talk about it afterward,” Perkins continued. “These stories live on in their minds, and are almost as real an experience as any of them have had together.”
Jeremy Crawford is D&D’s lead rules designer, the game’s managing editor and also heads the design of the Player’s Handbook. He started playing D&D as a 6-year-old, from the first edition, and spent a day with Gygax.
“I am constantly working on things that we can do better,” Crawford said. “I have to restrain my impulse to revise things now.”
Feedback from players is “vital to us,” Crawford said, adding that there is one person on staff assigned to go through the comments and suggestions that come in.
It’s also not unusual for Crawford to sit down at a table and play D&D with fans during game conventions.
“I need to be in the world to see the blind spots,” he said. “It’s research for me. What’s confusing? What worked well? All is that is vital to how we shepherd the game.”
On this day, the team was play-testing a new D&D board game that will be released through Avalon Hill this fall. It is aimed at young players and families who are new to D&D and designed to be easy to learn and quick to play.
One of the testers: Seattle Seahawks running back C.J. Prosise, who was finishing up an internship at Wizards of the Coast. An aspiring game designer, he signed up to work here during the offseason. This board game will give him his first credit as an associate game designer.
“I just wanted to do something to better myself,” said Prosise, 23. “Game design is where my mind is going, my future plans.”
Prosise does most of his gaming on an Xbox console. Sports, shooting and adventure games.
“But this has allowed me to find a different part of myself,” he said of D&D, “and getting to know people I wouldn’t know otherwise. And gaming has always been a way for me to stay out of trouble.
“Plus, I can get away with being someone else,” he said.
“I can see myself as more of a wizard,” he said.
And there is the magic of the game. No matter who plays, or where, D&D is fed by imagination and fantasy and story — all made clear the minute you step through the doors of its headquarters and 44 years after it started.
“Given how open-ended D&D is,” Crawford said. “I can see people playing it a century from now.”
This story was corrected at 9:43 a.m. May 4 to correct the spelling of Mike Mearls’ name.