D&D Is Back With a Vengeance

Dungeons & Dragons is suddenly popular again, and the theories abound about why.


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Photo by Julie Anderson

You’re on a boat, sailing down the River Lethe, deep underneath the Earth at the base of an extinct volcano en route to the ancient library of Dharma Gunj, when a horde of goblynns astride giant birds attacks you. Do you a) run for cover? or b) join in the fight?

No, this isn’t a choose-your-own adventure book, and no, it’s not a sequel to Lord of the Rings. It’s Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s back with a vengeance. “This is the biggest surge of Dungeons & Dragons since the 1970s. I’ve never seen this many different age groups all playing at the same time,” said Will Wright of Games of Berkeley, among the largest gaming stores in the East Bay.

Why is Dungeons & Dragons suddenly so popular again? Theories abound. Some attribute its resurgence to Stranger Things, a hit Netflix series featuring a group of kids who play D&D. Others say that the role playing game’s resurgence is a response to all the time teenagers (aka “screen-agers”) spend online. A third theory attributes D&D’s revival to the rise of so-called “nerd” culture, and yet another theory has to do with the excellence of the fifth edition of the classic D&D Player’s Handbook. Then there are those who credit the growth in D&D’s popularity to the parents of the current generation of teens. According to this line of thinking, parents who came of age with D&D in the ’80s have dusted off their old manuals and started sharing their childhood pastime with their offspring.

Regardless of which theory you adhere to, what’s undeniable is that D&D is back big time and it’s no longer embarrassing to admit you play it. In fact, that’s one of the most refreshing aspects of D&D’s resurgence: It’s not just nerdy white boys playing the game anymore — or, at least, being associated with the game. Girls, people of color, nonbinary people, and people of virtually every age are openly playing these days. Ask Don Morey, the 50-something-year-old artist who owns Studio Morey, the art space and framing shop at 55th and MLK in Oakland. He’s a 13th-level Druid who sometimes plays with one of the owners of Earthly Coffee next door. Or ask Jeremiah Jackson, the 41-year-old director of equity and inclusion at the College Preparatory School in Oakland. He said that Dungeons & Dragons is “fun because it’s very egalitarian. You can be anything you want and so can everyone else. It’s a pretty open space, like science fiction.”

Avi Bhandari, a 15-year-old girl and person of color, agreed. She said that it can be “a little bit disheartening that so many characters in fantasy are portrayed as white,” but when she creates characters for Dungeons & Dragons, she’s able “to create them a little more like me. I want to be able to relate to them and play through them.”

For those unfamiliar with D&D, the game works like this: First, you create a character. You can choose from many races, the most common being dwarf, elf, human, and halfling. Then you pick your class — bard, barbarian, wizard, and so forth — as well as your spells, possessions, capabilities, and backstory. For the purposes of this article, this reporter created a nonbinary orc grifter character called Oudh with a penchant for mischief, adventure, and egregious forms of flattery. (According to the backstory, Oudh has family living in a ruined castle, but Oudh abandoned them because of the mother’s narcissistic personality disorder.)

After creating your character, you need a world to enter, and for that, you need a dungeon master — or DM. A DM is basically like God: The DM creates the world and the people who inhabit it, as well as the quest or storyline. DM Jeremiah Jackson’s quest was for a powerful legendary weapon called “The Heart of Pelor” hidden in Scelestus, an underground city seething with intrigue and corruption, but also pleasingly matriarchal in structure. Accompanying Oudh on this quest were Brother Tancred, a virtuous cleric played by 32-year-old Berkeley resident Gregor Nazarian, and Raven, a female gnome thief played by 51-year-old Berkeley resident Norm Prokup (Raven, like Oudh, was not to be trusted and was constantly trying to pickpocket the other characters). For four hours — no, this game is definitely not for the fainthearted — these characters journeyed through Scelestus in search of the Heart of Pelor, getting into occasional scraps and barfights just for the hell of it.

The Bay Area is unquestionably a hub for Dungeons & Dragons — indeed, for role-playing games of all kinds. Those who want to pick up a game but have no experience or no one willing to try it out with can go to one of several gaming stores in the East Bay. On the first Wednesday night of every month, Games of Berkeley hosts a beginners’ game for $5, which goes towards store credit. Likewise, Eudemonia on University Avenue hosts a Wednesday night D&D game to which beginners are welcome. You can also check out It’s Your Move, the cozy gaming store in Oakland that’s been around 17 years and offers role playing camps for kids, or D20 Games in Alameda. If you have people to play with but need a place, you can usually rent out space at one of these stores or, even better, head to the Victory Café in North Berkeley. One of the pluses of playing at the Victory Café is that you can pause the game, buy coffee, beer, or pizza, then continue. And if, for some unfathomable reason, you get bored of D&D, you can always try out another of the many games on the shelves.

So if you’re ever hankering to adventure deep underneath the Earth or in the ruins of an abandoned fortress, or if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have magical powers or inhabit the body of an elf, try out a game of D&D. As Jack Kelley, a high school sophomore from Berkeley, said, “You get to make cool characters, and you get to joke around a lot and hang out with friends — it’s just fun.”

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