Once again, the internet has gone mad for another Netflix series. And it's not about an upper-middle-class girl navigating her way through the American penal system, or the rise and fall of a Columbian drug lord. No, Stranger Things is about a group of young kids whose friend mysteriously goes missing after playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Every time I read reviews of the show, the word "nostalgia" appears, and that's OK with me: The series brings to mind the films and novels of Stephen King, Ken Russell's Altered States, and also some of Steven Spielberg's stuff.
Despite the game being around for decades, I'm not familiar with the fantasy paper-and-dice role-playing game that unites the series's main characters. The most I knew about it until now is that Weezer sang about a "12-sided die" and "a Dungeon Master's Guide" on their 1994 track "In the Garage." But the game pre-dates other tabletop fantasy affairs like Warhammer, and it has attracted a raft of famous fans over the years—Hollywood actor Vin Diesel and late comedy great Robin Williams among them. Munchies' own "Sex + Food" presenter Kimberly Kane is a player, appearing in the Escapist's "Meet the Party" film.
In the wake of Stranger Things helping to stir interest in the game, I wanted to see how it all unfolds firsthand, so I approached the London D&D Meetup group. They invited me to one of their events at a pub in Borough. On arrival, I'm greeted by Zander, the organizer and founder of the meetups. He's a veteran at the game, having played since the early 80s.
"I've been playing the whole way through," he tells me. "A lot of people played the game, lost interest, but then came back to it, but I've been playing the whole time." There are about 30 players who've come to the gathering, with gamers playing upstairs in the pub's tiny function room as well as spilling out into in its beer garden.
"We have this lovely spirit of coming together to create amazing stories and adventures."
At first glance, I'm puzzled about how the game works. Little figurines are placed on maps, and there are dice that have shapes and sizes that I didn't know existed. Zander gives me a very abridged run through of the logistics of the game.
"The rules consist of three fairly thick hardbacked books, but in essence, this is what happens. One of the participants, called the Dungeon Master, runs the game. He presents to the other players the world in which the action takes place, and also what the story and the mission is. The other participants have a character similar to something out of The Lord of the Rings, and they play according to the rules as set out by the Dungeon Master, and then work together as a team."
So, it's an interactive form of storytelling, akin to those role-playing game books you may have read (and cheated your way through) as a kid. How long do games go on for, though? Matthew, a veteran enthusiast (pictured above, with glasses on), has a surprising response.
"That's an interesting question. Back when Bob Geldof did Live Aid, some friends and I held our own "Dragon Aid," as a way to raise money. We were in the crypt in St. Martin in the Field, and we were going for the Guinness World Record for the longest continued role-playing game, in one sitting, I think we managed about 60 hours in total, and I made it to 50 hours. We actually got into the book."
There's a limitless feel to it, and when I ask Zander how long the game that he's currently involved with has been going, he casually replies "a year and half." It's seems in the right hands D&D can be as addictive as a never-ending HBO box set.
Mira, who has been coming to the meet up for just over a year, compares D&D sessions to the sort of writing workshops that are used to make hit series. "When you think about exciting things like Hollywood movies or great TV shows, those kind of things all start in a development room with people sat around a table throwing ideas at one another," she says. "Some of the great writers like Dan Harmon, who made Community, played D&D, and we have this lovely spirit of coming together to create amazing stories and adventures."
Mira's right: Harmon loves Dungeons & Dragons so much he's made his own viral series inspired by it, called HarmonQuest. Harmon and other actors and comedians meet up together and role-play in a live studio. It's accompanied by an animated cartoon of the improvised stories that unfold. You can watch the first episode on YouTube.
Becca—pictured (right) with Mira in the photo below—is fairly new to the game. She started playing when she moved to London from the States and thinks that it offers a refreshing change to staying in and accessing games and video content digitally. She also may have offered the most significant words I hear while I'm at the meetup.
"People love to watch Game of Thrones, but I think the drawback of doing something like that is you're sitting at home by yourself in your pajamas. With Dungeons & Dragons you get the same thing, but you get to do it with other people, which I think may be harder for people these days because everything is so digital."
Becca makes a great point, and if the success of Stranger Things is anything to go by, we might find back rooms in bars slowly filling up with a new generation of D&D players getting ready to escape into an alternative dimension of dwarves, dragons, and sword-wielding barbarians.
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