The never-ending story

Some men have been secretly playing Dungeons & Dragons for decades

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / January 10, 2009
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Johnny Liu keeps his love for Dungeons & Dragons on the down low.

"I guess it's the stereotype of playing it - they are usually fat, sweaty, hairy dorky men who are socially inept who happen to live in their mom's basement," said Liu, 23, of Somerville. "It's not the stereotype. Vin Diesel played that game."

That's one way to look at the enduring phenomenon of Dungeons & Dragons, the iconic game that has come to symbolize both intellect and geekdom. But for some players - adults well into their careers and married with children - the game has cast an undeniably cool and timeless spell on them. Some of these warriors started playing when they were teenagers in the 1980s and can't stop.

In the confines of basements and living rooms in Greater Boston, these devoted players surface for a chance to role-play and quietly immerse themselves in the storytelling wonders of the 1970s-era game. Many of these wannabe dungeon masters, druids, and sorcerers are closeted D&D players who delight in morphing into their otherworldly characters but are more than a little embarrassed about it. They have plenty of company in fellow fanatics who are trying to shatter the stigma of their fellow brethren. At least three new books - including one titled "Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress: A Girl's Guide to the D&D Game" - illuminate this cultish phenomenon and attempt to explain why its followers are often a misunderstood lot.

Message boards on Facebook are filled with call-outs for fellow players who may not be conspicuous in their real-life roles as husbands and wives, parents, accountants, lawyers, and Web developers. Liu is a member of a Boston MeetUp group that introduces players to one another with gatherings at Pandemonium Books & Games in Cambridge.

Why do these adults remain so charged about a game they learned to play decades ago?

"I don't think you ever shake it," says Mark Barrowcliffe, author of "The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange," a new memoir that chronicles his adolescent journey in playing D&D in his native England. Barrowcliffe details how the game hooked him and his friends because it offered a social outlet and a sort of live theater. Barrowcliffe, 44, said he wrote the book to examine why he and millions of fellow dungeon masters worldwide can't let go of the game. "It's a story that you tell at the same time that you listen to. It releases a sort of creative impulse."

For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons is a role playing game fueled by players' imaginations. It's part acting, storytelling, social interaction, war game, and dice-rolling. Players create characters who develop and grow with each adventure they embark on. One player is the dungeon master, who controls the monsters and enemies as well as narrates the action, referees the game, and maps out the adventures through tunnels and caves. The dungeon master and the other players take on the role of a character - such as a wizard, cleric, barbarian, knight, or archer - and follow them on journeys for hidden treasures.

Individual games can last several hours as players stay up late to toss the dice, fight make-believe goblins and giants, and cast spells. But for some gamers the adventures never end, because players can choose to recast themselves from a previous role.

"The game can run as long as the dungeon master wants," said Liu, the gamer from Somerville. "It can be like the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. The longest adventure I was in lasted about half a year or so."

Ethan Gilsdorf of Somerville spent his teen years in his native New Hampshire consumed by the game. Back then he played about 10 hours a week.

"We had fun playing it, and nobody understood it," said Gilsdorf, 42. He fondly reflects on those days and credits the game for stoking his imagination and improving his verbal and team-building skills.

"I was definitely a geeky, brainy kind of guy in high school. I was not a popular kid, and I didn't do any sports," Gilsdorf said. "I feel like it kind of got me through high school. I got my varsity letter in Dungeons & Dragons. I stopped playing when I got to college. It represented who I was and who I didn't want to be anymore."

Yet Gilsdorf, a freelancer who frequently writes for the Globe, can't stop talking - and writing - about the game. When Gary Gygax, co-inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, died last March, Gilsdorf and other fans honored their original dungeon master by writing tributes. Next fall, Gilsdorf will also publish "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks," a book that examines the escapist subculture of gamers like himself. In regards to adults who play Dungeons & Dragons as a sport, he believes "people are reassessing their lives and becoming adults and they are a little bit nostalgic. A lot of people have an attachment to that time in their life."

Tahsin Shamma, for one. Two Thursdays a month, he and four other men gather in his Holliston basement - a sign calls it the "Game Room" - to chart adventures armed with pen and paper, dice, guidebooks, maps, armies of figurines, and lively imaginations. They alter their voices to make their characters sound real.

"There is a feeling of control," said Tahsin, who is married with a 5-month-old son. "It's the enjoyment of being in that fantasy world. You're going to experience things that you never experience anywhere else."

Shamma was 15 when he began playing in his native Houston. The game stayed with him throughout college and afterward when he regularly played with a group of players who treated the gatherings as their version of poker night.

When he moved to Boston from Los Angeles three years ago, he began searching for other warriors as well as new friends. He created an online forum called the Boston Dungeons & Dragons Meetup Group, which now has almost 400 members. From there, he spun off his own private group to meet regularly at his house. There, they eat candy and drink soda as they play surrounded by tomes of books and a large statue of a fire-breathing dragon that watches from a shelf.

"The Internet is the way you find players, because you are not going to randomly meet guys or gals out there who play," said Tahsin, who enjoys playing the role of the dungeon master. He recalls not immediately telling his wife about his love for the game when they began dating. "It's still seen as a little bit embarrassing." He said his wife doesn't mention his hobby to her friends.

Shamma explains his passion for the game this way: "It was just the chance to express the creativity that you can't express anywhere else. For other people, it's the storytelling aspect. For other people, it's the role playing. It's playing a different personality. I don't have to be myself. I can be whomever I want."

That's also the draw for one of Shamma's play mates: James West of Newton. The software engineer has been playing Dungeons & Dragons since he was 10.

"It's an interactive storytelling medium. Instead of being a third-person observer, you get to be an actor in the story," said West, 36, whose characters have included a quirky absent-minded wizard he named Talibus modeled after the Christopher Lloyd character in the "Back to the Future" movies. "You get to really understand the characters and grow with them and see where they go. . . . Now that I am an adult, I don't feel like I have to hide who I am."

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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