GILLETTE — On a Friday afternoon in February, just after classes had dismissed for the weekend at Campbell County High School, there was a party in the classroom of social studies teacher Matt Woodard.
Woodard was actually the last to know about it, but that was by design. It was a surprise party for his birthday thrown by the school’s Dungeons and Dragons Club.
“Gadzooks!” Woodard said as he unwrapped a gift from the students. “Oh my goodness! People! You are just the best.”
The club had combined resources in a quest to give Woodard a small collection of gifts centered around the game they all love so much.
Woodard serves as an advisor to the club, but in actuality it’s much more like a player-coach designation because he so clearly revels in the gameplay just as much as the students do.
The sense of community in the room was palpable. Woodard is in his first year as a teacher in Campbell County School District. In fact, it’s his first year as a teacher, period.
A student asked him one day in class, “Woodard, what are you interested in?”
“Well, you know, longboarding, history, reading and Dungeons and Dragons,” he recalls answering. “They piqued right up and said, ‘Well, we have a Dungeons and Dragons Club; you should come by.’”
There is perhaps no more universal struggle than the search for a community in which to feel at home. It’s elusive for many. But those who have found it, especially in random places or against long odds, know that sweet sense of relief that washes over once in the midst of “your people.” In 2021, more than 47 years after it was created, more people than ever are finding that wondrous sense of belonging around the tabletop game known as Dungeons and Dragons, and Campbell County is no exception.
Dungeons and Dragons, or DnD for short, are words linked together to function as a proper noun and has evolved into a world unto itself. Most succinctly, Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game.
A leader, known as the dungeon master, essentially serves as narrator, crafting a story that the rest of the participants will enjoy. The players create unique characters of various races, genders and powers, and they respond to the dungeon master and the other players in making their decisions. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book, except there is no book. There often is nothing in front of them except for the dice they roll to govern their actions. It’s a collective imaginative experience, and the degree to which the players experience the same thing relies on how vividly the dungeon master can describe what’s happening. The rest is up to the players’ imaginations.
Tabletop games, especially DnD, have seen a huge rise in popularity during the pandemic and 2020 was the game’s biggest year ever. Sales grew in 2020 by 33 percent. It was the sixth straight year sales of the game have increased. The rise that began in 2014 is attributed to a revamping of the rules that made the game more accessible to newcomers. The lower barrier to entry, the rise of online streaming of games, widespread acceptability of “nerd culture” all met up with a year in 2020 where people were going out less, staying in more and looking for new ways to pass the time.
This could be seen locally. Dungeons and Dugouts, Gillette’s one-stop shop for all things nerdy, opened almost seven years ago, said co-owner Jessie Studle. At the time she and her husband opened the store, its business was about 70-percent sports collectibles and 30-percent gaming. Now, Studle said it’s about 85-percent gaming and 15-percent sports collectibles.
The shift was simply one of market demand; they sought to stock what their customers were after. But DnD isn’t the store’s biggest seller. That honor belongs to Magic: The Gathering, a card game owned by Wizards on the Coast, the same company that owns Dungeons and Dragons. Wizards on the Coast reported that Magic: The Gathering’s sales were up 23 percent in 2020. While Dungeons and Dugouts can’t brag that it saw a lot of new business during the pandemic, Studle said it’s fair to say business didn’t drop off either, not something many could brag about in 2020.
At CCHS, there’s a club because of Jacob Decker, a 17-year-old junior who created the club at the end of his freshman year with the help of a friend.
“The first meeting we ever had was me and my best friend,” Decker said. “Two people. Two people was all we had.”
He’d taught himself to play the game on his own.
“I ended up at the library one day, and I stumbled across the book,” Decker said. “I kind of knew a little bit about DnD, but I didn’t know how to play it. So I rented the book, and it took me a couple months of staying up late, reading all of the books cover to cover, trying to understand it.”
His first experiences with the game were with his cousin. They’d play over the phone.
“Every night he’d call me (and the) next four hours, two hours, three hours we’d spend on the phone, rolling dice, playing the game, just the two of us,” Decker said. “That’s really how I got my first taste of it.”
He wanted others to share his enjoyment of the game.
“I just love telling stories,” he said. “And I want to give other people the place and the opportunity to do the same thing. I knew there were a lot of like-minded people like me.”
The club he created grew a lot in the 2020-21 school year.
“It was about 10-11 at the start of this year,” Decker said. “And then something happened. Right around Christmas break, we just exploded back up to 22. I think it had to do with COVID. More people wanted a place to go. The more that people tried it, the more word spread. People wanted a place to go to not be in real life for a while. It’s a big role-playing game. It’s a very easy thing to slip into and forget about what you’re worrying about for a while.”
Holly Herman, 16-year-old sophomore and secretary of the club, said she didn’t initially seek out the club for DnD.
“Mostly, I just wanted to hang out, and then I got into the game,” Herman said. “I started seeing, ‘Hey, this is really awesome what we’re doing here.’ I really enjoy the storytelling and the thought-inducing process it really takes to do it, because it really takes a lot of imagination and creativity to get places and make it fun.”
The creativity starts, first and foremost, with a character. This is where a player can take his or her time, to craft the perfect avatar for himself or herself to enter this fantasy world. Clerics. Wizards. Rogues. Rangers. Druids. Monks. There are more, and they all have different attributes and abilities. Aaliyah Hanson, a 15-year-old freshman, chose a character with traits that represent her own.
“For me, I chose Arendel, who’s a fighter,” Hanson said. “I think it really brings out (who I am), because I’ve been through a lot. (With) my wheelchair, I’ve been through a lot with kids in general picking on me because of the wheelchair. Or leaving me because of the wheelchair because I’m an embarrassment to them. It really brings out me a lot of the time because I’m like, ‘I just want to fight!’”
Woodard teaches Hanson’s World Cultures class, and Hanson said he’s even been able to use her DnD character to help her understand a lesson.
“When I get kind of stuck on something, he’ll bring DnD into it,” she said. “It kind of makes it easier for me to think, ‘Oh, OK, this is what I need to do.’”
Woodard also finds transferable life skills in the game.
“As a teacher, you have to know how to adapt to whatever new situation is in front of you,” he said. “DnD is all about, ‘Well, shoot, I set a game up for the kids or buddies, and I thought they were going to do this, but instead of going to slay the giants, they want to go hang out in a tavern with some little goblins.’ You have to make that reality new for them.”
Like Decker got his start at the Campbell County Public Library by checking out a DnD book, others are getting their start in the game by taking advantage of the club offered there. Darcy Acord, the library’s youth services librarian, said groups have met to play the game at least as far back as 2006 when she started at the library, but it wasn’t an official library club at that time. It became an official club around 2008 or 2010, she said.
“It’s ebbed and flowed in popularity,” Acord said.
The sense of community, an integral part of the experience, is difficult for dungeon masters to manage in such a public setting as the library. It can’t be exclusive, Acord said. It has to be accessible for any person who walks in off the street, and that level of openness is sometimes at odds with a game that only gets stronger the longer a group plays together and gets to know each other’s habits and tendencies. But it introduces people to the game, and that’s enough for many teens to get hooked.
The club at the library and the club at CCHS are clearly focused around teenagers, but as Woodard at the high school made clear, adults can and do play the game.
“I always thought it looked cool, but I never really had the confidence to talk to friends about it,” Woodard said. “I was always interested in high school and college, and I was able to start playing by being a dungeon master when I had some friends approach me and say, ‘Hey, this looks cool. Would you want to try it? But you’d have to be the leader.’ I said, ‘Let’s do it. That looks fun.’”
He was around 25 years old. He’s now 30.
Woodard’s age group is the one that gives Dungeons and Dugouts most of its business, Studle said.
“Middle-aged male is actually our demographic,” she said. “I safely would say 80 percent of our demographic is over 20 (years old), and 60 percent of them are males.”
Games are often thought to be the territory of the young, but there’s nothing that says that should be the case. Dungeons and Dragons is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, a moment that didn’t come easily. It came more than 40 years after it was created. It came after early players were ridiculed and called derogatory names for being into such a nerdish pursuit. It went through a phase in the 1980s when parents were convinced it was satanic and a corrupting influence to young people.
All these years later, a new generation of players, who grew up in a time when all things geek are chic, can openly realize the benefits of a game that rewards imagination and creativity and togetherness.