D&D, with ‘Stranger Things’ and Covid bumps, continues to be the mission at Pandemonium
When “Stranger Things” premiered on Netflix in 2016, it combined horror, fantasy and 1980s nostalgia to become a smash hit. The show, with its most recent episodes released Friday – ushering in what will probably feel like a long wait for the show’s fifth and final season – didn’t benefit just the streaming service; it also delivered a bump in popularity to Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game.
Dungeons & Dragons is a major inspiration for the show’s monsters, and the main characters are often depicted playing it – apt for a group of young misfits in the 1980s who even get caught up in a period-accurate satanic panic.
The game continues to be popular to this day, and an eclectic group of people comes together weekly in a Central Square basement to create a fantasy world they can explore by directing their characters.
In a visit to that world June 29, a wizard with a questionable reputation hired seven strangers to go on a mission to gather ingredients to an unknown potion.
Along the way, the success of many actions was determined by a roll of the dice. In D&D, rolling a one is a catastrophic failure; a 20 is considered extremely successful. Other than this, and a list of other predetermined rules, the game’s possibilities are endless – it relies on in-the-moment decisions from players and their dungeon master, a combined narrator and referee.
The Wednesday sessions at Pandemonium Books & Games, 4 Pleasant St., are regularly at or near capacity, store workers said. There are three tables that can sit up to eight players, each paying $15 for a typical three hours of play.
The group during a recent game included a mother, her son and his friend; two friends who appeared to be in their 20s; and three more young adults. Many experience levels were present, from beginners to seasoned experts such as Jeremiah Johnston, who has played D&D for at least 10 years.
He became interested in the game when it was described to him as collaborative storytelling, he said.
“I think collaborative storytelling is a great way to imagine yourself in kind of a situation where you can sort of make the change you want to see in the world,” Johnston said.
While “Stranger Things” is not the only reason D&D is rising in popularity, sales rose around the time the show was released. Nathan Stewart, vice president of D&D at Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that makes the game, told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2019 that sales were up 41 percent in 2017 and another 52 percent in 2018.
“I do think ‘Stranger Things’ brought a lot of people who didn’t have as many nerdy hobbies before into the fold,” said Em Arnold Mages, the dungeon master of Wednesday’s game.
But they also credit podcasts in which people play D&D, such as “Critical Role,” which has a cast of well-known voice actors, and “Adventure Zone.”
The game continued to grow through the Covid-19 pandemic despite people not being able to gather in person – which may even have helped, Pandemonium owner Tyler Stewart said.
“We’re stuck in this house. What are we gonna do? I guess we could play D&D, right?” Stewart mused.
He believed his shop did better than most during the pandemic. “People need to play games,” Stewart said. “They started picking up board games and role-playing games because they didn’t have anything else to do.”
While game events did not happen in the store during the height of the pandemic, things are going back to normal with precautions. Everyone at the game night was required to be vaccinated and wear a mask. The shop, founded in Harvard Square in 1989 and relocated to Central Square in 2005, also holds events for other tabletop games, including around the trading cards of the popular Magic: the Gathering, also made by Wizards of the Coast.