WHEN I ENTER “dungeon master” Jason Smith’s basement room at Zulu’s Board Game Café in Bothell, he’s enthusiastically describing the action on his game table for four preteens whose faces are visible on a computer screen in front of him.
“You can see the stone kind of crumbling beneath his back foot as he stumbles,” Smith says, after one character is hit with a virtual blow. “Oh, that was a close one!”
Later, he marvels at the kids’ creativity. One of the players, he says, is a “half-orc barbarian ballerina.”
They’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game that’s been around for decades and is now more popular than ever.
For the uninitiated, D&D involves a group of people (ideally four) who collaborate to role-play an imagined quest, battling monsters and gathering loot along the way. A single session might last an hour, but a major campaign might take months’ worth of weekly gatherings. Dice rolls introduce an element of chance, and a dungeon master, or DM, acts as a guide.
A few things make the game a good fit for our strange current reality. For one thing, who couldn’t use serious escapism these days? While you can get elaborate with table designs and miniature dragons and wizards, all you really need are paper, dice and an imagination. The possibilities are complex, but the basic rules are easy to grasp.
“It allows people to play the game in lots of different ways — and they can all be at the same table at the same time,” says Mike Zaitchik, who found the members of his longtime D&D group via an online discussion group but usually plays in person. “You can play with as many or as few of the rules as you like.”
And devotees generally welcome newbies. “You can know nothing about the game and come to the table and play,” Zaitchik says.
D&D also gives people the kind of shared experience that’s all too rare these days. For role-playing friends, “It’s not just a minor acquaintance,” says Zulu’s owner Matt Zaremba. “It’s a bond that’s formed by forging together through a dungeon or a swamp.”
The game fostered exactly the kind of gathering Zaremba was hoping to host at his cafe. People crowding around tables were great for business — until March, when they suddenly weren’t.
He moved a summer camp online just as kids were getting to know Zoom through school. Three DMs now spend their days at game tables in separate rooms, using webcams to show characters interacting with miniature castles, forests and monsters. The players often didn’t know each other beforehand but become real-life friends through the game, Smith says. They’ll say, “When this is over, we need to get together and play.”
People have long found others to play with through in-person events, often at game-themed cafes like Zulu’s or Seattle’s Mox Boarding House. Many of them have taken their campaigns online, though small groups still meet up as much as social-distancing rules allow.
The company that makes all things D&D, Renton-based Wizards of the Coast, also hosts the Adventurers League website, where people can find online or in-person groups to join.
Interacting with other people is a basic human need that games help fill. “You’re not just hitting things with swords. There’s puzzle-solving and mysteries involved,” Zaremba says. “You’re having a shared experience.”