To all appearances, Emma Aprea is a tattooed and pierced 24-year-old from Fishtown, a bartender and freelance photographer.
She also, despite her petite frame, happens to be “a female, tiefling barbarian: half-woman, half-demon. I carry a huge green sword.”
Fortunately, the barbarian comes out only in certain contexts — namely, in one of the three different fantasy tabletop role-playing games she participates in each month. Two of those are Dungeons & Dragons, a collaborative storytelling game first published in 1974, decades before Aprea was born.
“The stigma of D&D is that you’re a hard-core closet nerd; you don’t even see the sunlight,” Aprea said. “But not all nerds are that way. As people evolve, this is getting to be less stigmatized because it’s fun to come out and drink and be social, but also get to play a game. There’s a level of community to it.”
That evolution is already well underway: Dungeons & Dragons has, against long odds, recently become something vaguely resembling cool. Regular games are popping up in bars and coffee shops, and in people’s homes across Philadelphia and its suburbs. They’re being documented in podcasts and recorded on YouTube or Twitch, in some cases drawing thousands of viewers. The trend, which has also percolated around the country, has even fueled kids’ camps and pop-up gaming cafés.
At Redcap’s Corner in Powelton Village, events manager Kris Zwack said the Thursday D&D nights have been drawing strong crowds.
“We’ve been regularly selling out of new printings of the latest D&D expansion books, like ‘Xanathar’s Guide to Everything,’” she said.
Fans attribute the resurgence in part to improvements in the game itself. D&D — which offers a structure for characters from orcs to dragons to play out different scenarios guided by rolls of the dice — is on its fifth edition; Zwack said many of her customers had dropped out of the game over the years, but are now returning.
“It’s not nearly as complicated as it used to be. You don’t need a Ph.D. in Dungeons & Dragons,” agreed Brian Bolles, 33, of South Philadelphia, a bar manager and avid player. “The last version of the game was kind of confused in its complexity.”
It’s come a long way since the 1980s, when a moral panic surrounding D&D was triggered in part by the suicide of a teenager who had been an avid player.
Today, it’s seen as a relatively wholesome pastime, and even a way to draw out autistic children in social settings.
“I started playing around the end of the Satanic Panic, so it was the devil’s game and all that,” said Zach Ares-Deterding, now 37, of South Philadelphia. “Then, in high school, we played as part of the drama club. When I got to college, that was the first time I encountered the stereotype of the sweaty, greasy dude with the neck beard and Motorhead T-shirt. I was like: Wait, am I a nerd? But now, it’s getting more socially acceptable.”
He cites the infiltration of D&D into the media, such as in the Netflix series Stranger Things, and seeing D&D ads in men’s magazines, such as GQ and Maxim.
Now, the father of a toddler plays a monthly game at a bar, and hosts another one, biweekly, at his house.
“The game we run at my house is more like a day-care,” he said. “We have three people that come over with toddlers and take turns watching babies.”
Some of those players are brand new to the game. For many, it’s an inviting alternative to the lonelier pastime of video gaming.
Will Calligan, 28, of Wayne, said that’s what drew him. “I’ve played video games my whole life, but I only got into tabletop [role-playing games] around college. I enjoy the aspect of community. It’s like a collaborative brainstorming session.”
He’s even developed a live-play podcast, the Plane Shift, inspired by the success of other shows based on D&D campaigns. One, called Adventure Zone, is produced by Maximum Fun, which makes Bullseye, heard on NPR stations, and the popular comedy podcast Judge John Hodgman.
Helping drive the trend are such events as Drinks & Dragons, a game night that runs monthly at two South Philadelphia bars: the Black Cat Tavern on 12th and American Sardine Bar. (House rules include a shot of Heaven Hill, “the table quaff,” that can be consumed for a mulligan.)
Don Caraco, 43, who started the series in 2016, said he first pitched it five years ago. “It was shot down. The restaurant manager at the time was like, ‘D&D? That’s for geeks.’” Now, the game draws about 20 or 30 players on a given night.
Standing in front of a large piece of graph paper scattered with figurines and heaps of dice, Caraco said it’s more popular than even he realized. “It seems like weekly I run into somebody new who’s, like, ‘I do this all the time.’”
Players relish the chance to be dramatic, creative, and silly. Overheard at Drinks & Dragons on a recent night:
“I am the beer pong champion of my village!”
“OK, I’m going to turn into a giant lizard.” (This, spoken by a character who’d previously been just a moderately sized lizard.)
“He hits you, for five points of bludgeon damage.”
There were zombie attacks to fend off, a mysterious tomb to explore, an unexplained illness to diagnose, bloody snow angels to make in the corpse of a deceased mulch monster.
Jeff Waterman, 32, of West Philadelphia, had played in high school and returned to the game over the last year.
“The idealistic part of me says, as we get more attached to screens, we want to do things that are imaginative and where we talk to humans,” Waterman said.
“Everything is so high tech and online now, people see this very old game, and they think it’s something new.”