Story and photos by Tony Lystra
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Each Friday evening, a throng gathers at Uptown Espresso in Delridge to battle dragons, orcs, trolls, vampires, demon lords, and worse. They slide up to the coffee shop’s many broad, weathered tables and lay out their dice, “character sheets,” maps and figurines, then spend the evening in a fantasy.
They’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, the ’70s-created role-playing game, where players tell a story together, learning what happens next, deciding how they want to respond, and rolling dice to determine their success.
Game play at the Delridge shop (3845 Delridge Way SW) usually starts around 7 p.m. and wraps up just before midnight. The evenings can attract 50 people or more, organizers say. There’s even a custom gaming table in the store that opens up to reveal a pit where maps can be laid out and figurines maneuvered. (Uptown is under new management and has cleared its shelves of games it previously offered for sale, but the D&D nights are expected to continue.)
Dungeons & Dragons, once thought a bastion of the awkward and scorned by Christian evangelicals as occultist, has enjoyed a startling resurgence in recent years.
A younger generation, raised on screens where crystal-clear renderings of monsters lash out at them, are discovering joy in the kind of analog, offline socializing their parents once regarded as the only way to play a game. Games at Uptown are often punctuated by thunderous outbreaks of laughter, and the smiles are wide and anticipating.
D&D, as it’s known, is now increasingly thought of as therapeutic for those with autism, dyslexia, anxiety disorders, and more. And the game’s reputation as a dangerous form of escapism has waned. (Turns out late D&D creator Gary Gygax was a Christian.)
Max Ramawy, a 19-year-old student at the University of Washington, began playing D&D at Uptown Espresso two years ago, shortly after coming to the U.S. from Indonesia. He said playing these adventures eases his anxiety and gives him a chance to connect with people in a country that’s still new to him.
“I actually talk to people here,” Ramawy said. “It just feels brighter here.”
Last year, D&D enjoyed its biggest sales in more than two decades, with upward of 8.6 million Americans playing the game. The game’s $50 manuals are often kept behind sales counters, including at the Barnes & Noble in Westwood, because they are in such high demand. (Counter clerks said addicts often swipe the books and try to return them for cash.)
Game nights are popping up across Seattle, including at West Seattle’s Meeples Games (3727 California Ave. SW), which hosts dozens of D&D and other fantasy game events — and they’re drawing younger players.
Taiki Goto, 11, of Seattle, was the youngest person in a group of men, most in their 20s and 30s, who were making their way through a D&D adventure at Uptown on a recent Friday night. Goto said said he began playing earlier this year after a guest at his parents’ Airbnb taught him the game.
“I like the … creativity of doing whatever you want instead of following a set of rules,” he said.
That the characters on Stranger Things, the hit Netflix throwback to the ’80s, obsess over D&D is surely driving the resurgence. And it doesn’t hurt that Seattle is a gaming town, with all sorts of board and video game companies operating out of the city. It’s not uncommon for a game’s designer to be playing at Uptown with one or more of his or her creations on the shelves nearby.
Wizards of the Coast, which acquired the D&D brand from TSR, the game’s original publisher, in 1997, is based in Renton. (More evidence that D&D has gone mainstream: Wizards of the Coast is now owned by Hasbro, one of the world’s largest toy makers.) Amazon-owned Twitch was broadcasting more than 50 hours of live D&D games each week as of last year. You read that right: People are tuning in to watch D&D the way they watch the NFL.
“D&D is more popular than it’s ever been,” said Brannon Boren, 50, whose silver hair with a blue mohawk dashing across the middle is an easily spotted fixture on most Friday nights at Uptown.
A great deal of D&D’s newfound popularity stems from new and simpler rules, known as D&D’s Fifth Edition, which Wizards of the Coast published in 2014. The new rules made the game more accessible to kids and newcomers while rekindling the spontaneous energy of the original version, said Boren, who has played D&D since he was a kid and now works as a game designer at Seattle game maker Big Fish.
On a recent Friday, Boren and a group of a half-dozen other players were making their way through a classic D&D adventure called “White Plume Mountain.” Boren recalled playing the same adventure as a youngster in the ’80s and said he’s pleased new generations are getting to enjoy it as well as other D&D stories.
“I see more children playing the game than in more than 10 years,” he said.