By EVANGELINE BRYCE
Four friends sit around a table sharing food and wine. Not literally, of course. One is in Australia, another in France, and the last two are in America, though in different states. The game they’re playing spans three different time zones and yet, here they all are, gathered together in a tavern. They wait as adventure is brought to the door. It comes only when Frank Bailey says it will, in the way he says it does. This is a game of Dungeons and Dragons – a ’70s relic finding a home in the hearts of contemporary players across the world. For Frank, it’s more than a game. It’s a way to build relationships, stay in touch with friends, solve problems, explore worlds, and tell stories. And there’s never been a better time to play it.
Since the fifth edition released in 2014, Dungeons and Dragons (DND) has grown in ways that even devoted fans like Frank couldn’t have predicted, especially considering the game’s controversial past. “In the beginning it was considered witchcraft,” Franks laughs, noting the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the ’80s. “There was a lot of bad press around it and that sucked, because kids found it a safe haven to express themselves.” He describes the movie adaptation in 2000 with the expression of someone reliving a painful memory. “I remember watching it as a kid and even then I thought it wasn’t very good.”
The unmistakable image shift of the last five years, however, has led to DND becoming, well, cool.
“It really is the golden age of DND,” says Frank. “It’s crazy, just from marketing purposes, all of the content that’s being made – and that just spreads the word.” This rebranding has come around partly thanks to a swathe of new media platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, on which DND dominates. Frank also acknowledges the Netflix juggernaut Stranger Things in bringing the name Dungeons and Dragons back into the modern vernacular.
But Frank believes the hubbub is well-deserved. Something made clear during his time working in customer support at Wizards of the Coast, the company producing DND. “People would ask questions that really make you think about the DND world,” he says. He details complicated queries about weapons and magic with fervour. “I loved the hard questions.” Then his tone shifts to something softer. He speaks of an email from a teacher who’d introduced their schoolkids to DND, creating space for them to play and be comfortable in themselves. He describes the photo attached – a huddle of grinning ten-year-olds playing the game at lunch. “It’s really heart-warming,” Frank says, “because people are finding this space to feel safe and do these things.”
In Frank’s opinion, a safe place for self-expression and storytelling is the true heart of DND. It allows players to try on different personas, emotions, and accents like clothing – taking them on and off at will. Frank laughs as he says that his own girlfriend can’t tell his real accent anymore, thanks to the game. But more than anything, it’s the freedom to tap into childish imagination that makes DND different. “People don’t usually come together to build stories with each other,” Frank says. “The game creates a niche for itself, a little pocket dimension of imagination and creativity.”
Like many players, Frank has plenty of hopes and fears about the movie adaptation, but is willing to give the creators the benefit of the doubt. “The community is very malleable – they’re open-minded, they’re kind, they’re forgiving,” Frank says. “That being said, they’ll give plenty of feedback. They’re all going to want the best for DND.” But in the end, Frank hopes it only brings more light to the game he adores. Something he strives to do in his own life. “I like sharing the word of Dungeons and Dragons across the land,” he says, “because I’ve only seen it do good.”
For the four friends around the table, the adventure is just beginning. They listen closely as Frank describes a crew of rowdy sailors entering the tavern. Frank asks them, “What do you do?”, and they hastily make a plan. But none of them know where the night will lead. After all, it’s Frank’s world, they’re just living in it. If only for a few hours.