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Dive into the medieval tactics of Dungeons & Dragons

Where the fantastical world of zombie dogs and spell casters meet the contemporary community of Columbia

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Dice, character sheets and miniature figures are used throughout Dungeons & Dragons gameplay to keep track of events and serve as a visual reference.

It is damp and muddy. Light breaks through the darkness and floods the cavern from an opening above. A rope sways to a stop as the final adventurer makes his descent into the chamber. Ahead is a stone statue of a dwarf. It stands alone in a room and has clearly been broken and reassembled. One adventurer kicks a small dagger; it makes no noise as it bounces across the ground and comes to rest at the statue’s feet. Four friends, along with their trusty zombie dog, Daisy, listen carefully. One mutters a few words of warning — someone is approaching.

A man clad in leather armor and holding a sword aloft approaches the adventurers. “We are the Bringers of Woe,” he says. “We have come to reward your curiosity.” He raises his sword, and the adventurers prepare themselves for combat. The human cleric Cyprus moves first. Glowing energy erupts from his hands and illuminates the tunnel. It streaks through the darkness and strikes the man.

“He howls in pain, and blood spurts across the wall,” says the game master Matt Birdsall, from his position at a table in Valhalla’s Gate, a game store in Columbia. The players hang on his every word as they wince and celebrate in equal measure.

The battle continues twofold: once in a mythical, damp cavern underneath the fictional town of Red Larch and again around a very real table at Valhalla’s Gate. Nestled between Highway 70 and Stadium Boulevard, just across the street from Columbia Mall, the store hosts tabletop gaming groups each Wednesday evening. The foes are defeated handily by the adventurers, a group of students and working professionals.

Birdsall, who has been gaming since he was 12 years old, is currently a consultant at MU Hospital, but that doesn’t matter much at Valhalla’s Gate. Here, Birdsall is game master, one of many who narrates and referees games such as Dungeons & Dragons for a few friends.

On this night, his group is battling cultists and monsters in the tombs beneath Red Larch, but this is not the first of their adventures together. They have traveled through their imagination as far as Absalom Station, a spaceport serving as the final bastion of humanity while playing StarFinder, a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons. Regardless of where their characters are, the players are always sitting around a table at Valhalla’s Gate.

The store serves as a haven for those looking for a gaming experience more social than video games that lend themselves to solo play. You won’t find racks of discs or controllers; instead, there is row after row of card and board games, rulebooks, dice and miniatures, which are small figures that represent different characters and monsters from the game.

people playing d&d

Ian Siercks and Matt Birdsall play Dungeons & Dragons at Valhalla’s Gate.

One half of the shop serves as an open play space for gamers every week. Cardboard standees and posters from movies and games alike crowd the walls. A quick scan of the room reveals artistic representations of heavily armored warriors adorned with skulls, characters from Lord of the Rings and other scraps of glorious nerd paraphernalia.

Regulars begin to shuffle into this portion of the shop around 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday. The number of gamers varies week to week, but the store can expect between 15 and 25 people with their heads in rulebooks and minds on strategy. They gather around small tables with friends, spreading fast food bags and soda bottles across every surface already cluttered with papers, books, laptops and dice. Some people spread out Magic: The Gathering cards while others get to work arranging maps for the night’s gaming session.

A member of Birdsall’s group pulls out a Lego Star Wars lunch box full of dice and other gaming necessities. Another reveals a Crown Royal bag that contains the materials she needs.

Sitting among the giddy adults, one can hear the intermingling of strategy and lore from various games. In the corner, a man reads off his phone the “Top 20 Ways to Maintain Insanity” while others set up for a Star Wars-themed game. Jokes periodically pierce the general hum of anticipation while players finish their meals and prepare for an evening of gameplay.

An argument over whether a well-thrown fire bead or powerful spell saved the day from a dragon in a previous adventure grows in passion and fills the corners of the room.

“I can be a follower of Hades!” one player exclaims, cutting the argument short.

“Real Hades or Disney-gray-skin-blue-hair Hades?” a friend asks, immediately forgetting the talk of what felled the foul dragon.

This near-constant banter and enthusiastic atmosphere brings the regulars here every Wednesday evening. This ambiance, which Birdsall refers to as an FLGS — a friendly local game store — coupled with the shop’s great selection, keeps him coming back week after week.

Humble beginnings

The year is 1974, and the unknown startup Tactical Studies Rules has just self-published its first creation, its brainchild, the culmination of lifetimes of gameplay. It would create a genre, strengthen an industry and bring long nights of adventure to countless people worldwide. The group released the first loose set of rules and traits known as Dungeons & Dragons.

The product was simultaneously revolutionary and highly derivative. The original version of the game made frequent references to Outdoor Survival and Chainmail, both successful strategy games. Outdoor Survival, published by Avalon Hill, was used as inspiration for the general setting of D&D. Chainmail was created by game enthusiasts Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren as an early war game involving medieval combat scenarios. Gygax would go on to become both the mastermind and the face of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise for decades.

The game gained underground success, largely with college students, and eventually managed to creep its way into more mainstream popularity. Rumored connection to devil worship seemed to only increase sales and popularity, according to The Economist in 2008.

The game has gone through numerous revisions, parallel publications and fan-made expansions. The Expert Rulebook, published in 1981, is the version seen in Netflix’s popular show Stranger Things.

Birdsall credits Stranger Things and an “’80s nostalgia wagon” for part of the game’s recent surge in popularity. “We are in a renaissance of tabletop right now,” he writes in an email.

He predicts that tabletop gaming will continue to gain popularity in the coming years, and with good reason. Nearly four years after its publication, the Player’s Handbook for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the 10th-bestselling book on Amazon in 2018, as of April 17. It ranks above classics, such as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Three other books for the game rank in the top-100 list for this year so far, and sales of all four books have risen drastically in Amazon’s ranking system since last year.

Strange influence

Kyle Schoenhals started working at Valhalla’s Gate five years ago and has been a manager for the last three. His love of gaming and desire for a low-stress job drew him to work at the shop he had already been frequenting after he left the Army in 2012. He first got into gaming as a kid about 20 years ago, starting with RuneQuest, the first role-playing game he ever experienced, and then the second edition of Dungeons & Dragons his freshman year of high school.

He sits behind a desk in a back room of the shop, mostly hidden from view by a large pane of two-way glass. Stacks of gaming merchandise surround him on every side. A large tattoo of a muscled red monster covers much of his right forearm, a nod to his call sign, or nickname, while in the Army — Demon. Although it doesn’t have any connection to his love of fantasy role-playing games, invariably it seems to become connected when speaking to others, such as being mistaken as a demon from Warhammer: The Game of Fantasy Battles. Despite the frequent confusion, he doesn’t seem to mind. “I can always pawn it off as nerdy if I need to,” he says.

Schoenhals says he has seen a huge revitalization in Dungeons & Dragons. Valhalla’s Gate has had a hard time keeping the fifth edition of D&D in stock, he says.

Recently, a woman came in saying that her child had watched Stranger Things and now wanted to play D&D. Surprised at all the board games available, she ended up wandering around the rows and left with another game as well. “People will come in for one thing and be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this part existed,’” Schoenhals says.

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out in late 2014, and Schoenhals has seen several families come into the store looking to get their kids started on the game after watching Stranger Things. He doesn’t know whether to attribute its rise in popularity to an increase in what he calls “nerd culture” or if the shift toward an acceptance of all things nerd has influenced popular culture. Either way, it means more business for Valhalla’s Gate.

Role-playing games have much the same appeal as video games, acting or fantasy sports. “For D&D specifically, I know the appeal is that it kind of lets you get away from your own for a little while, lets you go do something you don’t normally do in real life, lets you be somebody else for a little while,” Schoenhals says. “It’s a nice little stress relief for people.”

He doesn’t think the traditional stereotypes of tabletop gamers still apply to the extent they once did. “We don’t really have too many of those stereotypical, ‘I live in my mom’s basement and play games,’” he says. “Most people who come to the store are working professionals or college students.”

Dwindling taboo

Without having ever seen a game played or knowing anyone who has, many people have at least become acquainted with the game through television, movies or comedy.

A sign of the times is the growing popularity of many aspects of nerd culture, not just Dungeons & Dragons. Jason Jacoby, who has been a sales associate at Valhalla’s Gate since September 2016, has noticed this trend.

Jacoby has been gaming since he was a kid, but the intricate card game Magic: The Gathering got him involved with the gaming community in Columbia. “It used to be you didn’t tell people you played Magic,” Jacoby says. “Now it’s cool to be a dork.” Like many gamers, he has witnessed the taboo around being a gamer shrink over the past few years.

He’s optimistic about the cultural shift and says he hopes it continues. In a world filled with eyes glued to screens, he sees tabletop gaming as a better way to interact with others and have a good time. At the very least, the shop has been noticeably busier in the past few years.

Back in the cavern below Red Larch, the adventurers and their zombie dog have battled their way through the mines. They rescued a young child named Braelen Hatherhand, who was trapped beneath large rocks as a punishment for disobedience. They fought powerful yet cowardly spell caster Larrakh and eventually made their way back to the surface in search of more answers, where much of the town is panicking. People crowd to look into the mine and get a glimpse of the bodies being pulled from underneath. Drunken locals greedily help themselves to their fill of drinks once it becomes clear that the tavern keeper has left his post. In fact, much of the town leadership seems to have mysteriously vanished. This conspiracy goes deeper and wider than the heroes imagined — what they do next is up to them. 

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