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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dungeons & Dragons bar pop-up lets players fight monsters and social anxiety

By Beatrice Forman The Philadelphia Inquirer The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA – A barbarian, warlock and a sorcerer walk into a bar.

No, this is not the setup for some lame joke, but it is more or less what happened when Dungeons n Drafts – a roving Dungeons & Dragons pop-up that takes over different bars – crowded the back half of Yards Brewing Company on Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia last month.

About three dozen novice and expert Dungeons & Dragons players gathered around communal tables as Dungeons Masters (aka game narrators and rulekeepers) led them through one-shot adventures across mystical forests, cursed farms and just about every corner of a made-up world where someone always needs saving.

The events are a boon for bars looking for ways to stay busy on slow nights, said Dungeons n Drafts co-founders Thomas and Dezarea Solar, who started the organization in August 2022 to introduce people to the tabletop roleplaying game. About 90% of Dungeons n Drafts’ almost-daily events sell out in the Philly area, the pair said, and the group has added chapters in New Jersey; Delaware; Pittsburgh; New York City; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Asheville, North Carolina.

Tickets cost between $15 and $20 per person, and can fill a bar for three to four hours. But the real magic of Dungeons n Drafts is that it can take the awkwardness out of meeting new people. Strangers are encouraged to strategize and be theatrical, with some players embodying their character by putting on voices and ad-libbing one liners.

“There’s something about DnD that doesn’t happen in other settings. The silliness of playing, like, a dragon-born paladin and using a funny voice relaxes the table and gives people the permission to let their personalities out,” said Thomas Solar. “That doesn’t happen at a singles’ night at a bar.”

Dungeons & Dragons has been around since 1974, sitting comfortably in the pantheon of nerd culture for decades – until the pandemic, when the game took on new life as a way to pass time and connect with others while shut inside.

Sales of Dungeons & Dragons jumped 33% in 2020 alone, and the game’s publisher told the New York Times that more than 50 million people have interacted with D&D since its inception, including movies, video games, books and traditional gameplay.

The game can also be healing. Therapists say it can help players become more assertive, get over their fear of mistakes, or better handle confrontation. Teachers use D&D for social-emotional learning, while others have incorporated the game into addiction or PTSD recovery or PTSD treatment.

Similar benefits hold for Carlos Chevalier, even if he’s only played casually at bars through Dungeons n Drafts. Chevalier attended his first meetup just after Thanksgiving and now goes to two to three per month. His go-to character is a warlock.

Chevalier called Dungeons n Drafts the “one hobby that can get me out of my apartment” regularly. Playing has also tamped down his hyper-competitive spirit and made him more empathetic, he said.

“You’re putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, even if it’s a fantastical creature in a fantastical world,” said Chevalier, an operations manager who lives in Center City.

Making fighters out of first-timers

Dungeons & Dragons has a reputation for intensity. A single campaign can involve months of multi-hour sessions, and there’s a lot to remember: Players toss a 20-sided die to determine the impact of their character’s actions, which can include a complex array of interwoven spells and attacks.

It’s the Dungeon Master’s job to keep everything on track, and if you don’t know a good one, it can be hard to keep up.

At Dungeons n Drafts, these adventures are tutorials that often end with a bar’s last call. At the Yards’ session, paid Dungeon Masters like Zachary “JJ” Salamon handed out multi-page character sheets to help catch up first-timers and would pause the action to provide hints.

Salamon, a 28-year-old West Chester University student from Downingtown, fell into Dungeon Master-ing by way of theater. At Yards, he led six players on a mission to save a farm that was overtaken by gigantic acid-spewing bug monsters. To help his group envision different plans of attack, Salamon moved figurines around a game board.

His play style – which involves a lot of comedic irony and over-the-top combat – let Matthew Misetic takes on a key role as Varg the Tabaxi, an agile humanoid cat that ended up clawing one of the monsters to death. It was Misetic’s second time playing.

“No one here is going to bite my head off if I make a mistake,” said Misetic, 27, who works in tech sales and lives in Fairmount. “I’m learning to think outside the box.”

Ankita Patil agreed. Patil has been playing Dungeons & Dragons online since 2018 as a way to keep up with her childhood friends, but she played in person for the first time at a Dungeons n Drafts session in November 2022. She’s now a regular.

“You can literally show up with no idea of what to do and a Dungeon Master will help you along the way,” said Patil, 31.

Solar, who managed a taproom in Orlando, Fla., before moving to Philly in 2020, interviewed all 80 of Dungeons n Drafts’ Philly Dungeon Masters himself, taking care to hire people who weren’t afraid to be over-explainers. Still, he attributes most of the group’s low-stakes environment to the game itself.

“I play a lot of other board games, and they’re all ultra-competitive. You’re there to beat the person across the table from you,” he said. “With DnD, it’s okay to have a laugh and be friends.”

Those connections spill into real life, too. Solar’s wife Dezarea said the game helped her stop worrying about how to make friends in Philly after being a lifelong Floridian.

Because of Dungeons & Dragons, “I now have really good friends who will show up at my doorstep if I really need them,” she said.