Intriguing and quirky characters flock to the tech industry. But how many of them would happily classify themselves as a barbarian or a sorcerer, a druid or cleric?
Turns out, in Seattle, a group of longtime and well-known tech executives and some of their family members are part of an increasingly vocal group that is gathering to play the wonderfully dorky game of Dungeons & Dragons. And they’re doing it without the embarrassment or fear of being labeled “nerds.”
They’re certainly not alone. The 44-year-old tabletop role-playing game is played today by more than 10 million people worldwide, according to its maker, Renton, Wash.-based Wizards of the Coast.
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Dan Shapiro, co-founder and CEO of 3D laser printer maker Glowforge, was in a pumpkin patch a year ago when he ran into Glenn Kelman, CEO of the real estate company Redfin. Shapiro’s kids were evangelizing to Kelman’s kids about Magic: The Gathering — another Wizards’ juggernaut — when Kelman’s kids started talking about how much they loved Dungeons & Dragons.
The two dads decided they should get everybody together for a game.
“So there we are at a table with snacks and the CEO of a publicly traded company describing a raid on the Storm King’s castle to four children ages 6 to 10,” said Shapiro, who called it “magnificent and delightful.” He started playing regularly with his family on weekends, and they’d spend two to four hours talking to each other around the dining room table.
“Because at the end of the day that’s all the game is, is sitting and talking to each other and telling stories together,” he said.
Sales are soaring
In an era where video games rule and parents worry about excessive screen time on a range of devices, D&D is a throwback to a nerdier, analog era, when geeks weren’t celebrated as mainstream heroes.
For the uninitiated, the game was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Players adopt fantastical character personas and they’re guided on adventures by a dungeon master. Treasure hunts, battles with monsters, spell casting and more play out with the rolling of a 20-sided die.
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Nostalgia for the game and mainstream acceptance is fueling some of the recent success. In a story in The New Yorker last year titled “The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons,” reporter Neima Jahromi wrote that “game engineers have begun to describe D&D as though it were crafted as a pastime for Bronze Age poets.” The Hollywood Reporter even noted that A-list celebs such as Drew Barrymore, Stephen Colbert and Dwayne Johnson play the game.
Simon Irving, a sales specialist at Mox Boarding House, a popular gaming hangout with a location in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, said sales of the game are soaring — a contention backed up by news reports that called 2017 the biggest sales year ever for D&D. Getting the action out of basement rec rooms and onto the internet has certainly helped, with podcasts, live streaming through Twitch and YouTube, multiple Reddit communities and more.
“In 2017 alone, we had more than 7,500 unique broadcasters streaming live play D&D for more than 475 million minutes watched over the course of the entire year,” Greg Tito, senior communications manager for D&D, told SYFY Wire. “It’s been super popular on streaming and I think that is a big contributor to the surge in success of D&D and why it’s so present in the public sphere.”
Earlier this summer, Wizards of the Coast hosted what it called its most ambitious live-streaming event ever, “Stream of Many Eyes,” where celebrities, streamers, creators and cosplayers gathered for three days of game playing and performances from a Los Angeles soundstage.
The Dungeons & Dragons website links to a full archive of live-streamed games on Twitch, and SYFY Wire reported that 9 million people have watched others play the game on the Amazon subsidiary.
Irving mentioned two broadcasts in particular that he’s attracted to: “The Adventure Zone,” by the McElroy brothers, who do the “My Brother, My Brother and Me” podcast; and “Critical Role” on YouTube, which has a bunch of quasi-famous L.A. voice actors who have been letting people see for years what it actually looks like to play D&D.
“Acquisitions Incorporated” is another highly recommended series, and features Chris Perkins, who has been at Wizards since 1997 and today is a senior producer for “Dungeons & Dragons.”
Irving is not surprised when he hears that some tech CEOs around Seattle are gathering to play the game.
“We can barely keep these in stock,” he said, pointing at the Player’s Handbook, which spells out the loose rules of the game. A D&D player for nearly 20 years, Irving noted that the game is “very fashionable all of a sudden.” The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, released in 2014, has struck a chord. Players credit D&D with getting away from the rules-oriented nature of fourth edition and back to the core allure of storytelling.
“A lot of those stigmas around what it means to be a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’ or ‘gamer’ have really started to erode away,” said Irving. “It’s just become much more culturally normative to have that be a thing you do … and people have realized that it’s really fun.”
A secret obsession
He was on Twitter last December when he got up the nerve to tweet at Ian Lurie, another SEO marketing guru who is CEO of Portent. Lurie is an unabashed D&D original, a dungeon master who has been playing for more than 30 years. Fishkin is the guy who longed to play, feared the mockery as a child and kept his obsession private until only recently.
“I’m still a little apprehensive to talk about the game, honestly,” Fishkin said. But he did write about it in a very personal way in a blog post on SparkToro’s website back in May.
“D&D was, I’d learned from schoolmates who mocked it, for only the dorkiest, nerdiest, most lonely, pathetic kids. I kept my obsession secret,” Fishkin wrote in the post, which sought to connect his own fear of failing as a startup founder with his fear — at the age of 13 — of being rejected for wanting to play a game.
“I’ve relied a little bit on the blog post I wrote to let folks talk to me about [D&D] if they’re interested, rather than trying to bring it up,” Fishkin said.
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Fishkin’s own actions seem to counter his assertion that he has an ongoing discomfort with being associated with the game.
He and his wife, author Geraldine DeRuiter, have been playing host to a weekly dinner gathering and game at their home for months, in which Fishkin directs the action as dungeon master. Shapiro attends, and he called Fishkin “a maestro next to none, who weaves incredible stories.” Adam Doppelt, a co-founder of the restaurant site Urbanspoon, and Scott Haug, a VP of software engineering at Glowforge, also play.
Fishkin and DeRuiter, who have been a couple for 17 years and married for 10, have also played in a game hosted by Lurie. DeRuiter had a passing knowledge of D&D when she was younger but had never played. She was well aware of her husband’s relationship with the game.
“When he was shy about it, I was like, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t anything,” DeRuiter recalled. “This isn’t even embarrassing. Get a truly embarrassing passion and then we’ll talk. Just lean into it, because you know your friends are going to be supportive.'”
‘I broke ground for you’
Being a kid — or a kid at heart — can obviously be tough. And being a nerdy kid can be even tougher — especially 30 or 40 years ago, long before nerd culture morphed into semi-popular culture. Fishkin and Shapiro and Lurie didn’t grow up with mainstream hits like “Lord of the Rings” movies or “Stranger Things” on Netflix, or “Big Bang Theory” or internet streaming and podcasts to justify their geeky pursuits.
Lurie, who was introduced to the game in the late ’70s, said that at the time people were sure that it was demon worship, that the game was going to corrupt people.
“My aunt bought me my first copy of the game and my mom didn’t speak to her for three weeks,” said Lurie, adding a bit of hyperbole to the statement. “…There was tremendous stigma around the game. When I started playing it, it wasn’t that D&D made you weird. It was that if you were weird you were playing D&D. The stigma never stopped me. I’ve been playing the game steadily for 38 years.”
One group Lurie has been playing with for 20 years includes a couple players who are in tech, a stay-at-home dad and, yes, … a professional sword fighter. Lurie got his son into the game, who turned the D&D club into the single largest club at his high school. He’s now in college where he plays in a couple games.
In 2011, Lurie wrote a lengthy blog post in which he said that everything he learned about marketing he learned from Dungeons & Dragons. When he wrote the piece, no one else was talking about D&D in the executive world, and he was terrified that he was going to lose all of his clients. That didn’t happen.
But Lurie laughed in relaying a message to tech execs today who are writing about D&D and how much they love it.
“You have no idea. I broke ground for you. I got smacked around on the playground for you,” he said.
Before running into Kelman, Shapiro said he probably hadn’t considered playing game since he was about 12 years old. He read the books fiendishly and wanted to play when he was a kid, but it was hard for him to find others who wanted to. He abandoned it all after junior high and only really thought about it for nostalgia’s sake.
“Now it’s coming back in a really different, more thoughtful, more accessible and more mature way, as a way that people get together and tell stories and play games, and it’s part of the resurgence of board games and part of the excitement about face-to face-interaction versus interaction with a machine,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro exudes a confidence about his geekiness that fits well with the notion these days that so-called nerds are to be celebrated, not mocked. So over the course of 30 years or so, one would assume he must have shaken any stigma he once attached to D&D.
“No,” he laughed. “I’m terribly embarrassed to be talking to you right now. It’s still there and it’s OK. Right? One of the things as a startup CEO is you get respect for a lot of things and you get laughed at for a lot of things. So I figured, ‘Might as well add one more thing into the laughed-at list.”
Lurie agreed that occasional eye rolls come with the territory.
But he’s long past worrying about people’s assumptions related to the game — and he gets more negative reactions when he tells people he’s in search engine optimization than when he tells them he plays D&D.
“There’s lots of things where people’s perceptions of what I do bother me, but Dungeons & Dragons is not one of them,” Lurie said. “I’ve been doing it for such a part of my life that it’s more likely to bug me if you look at me weird when I eat than look at me weird because I play Dungeons & Dragons.”
Love and D&D
DeRuiter, who is currently working on an outline for another book, in which she looks at online harassment as it pertains to women and how they survive it, said that the group she plays with is made up of fun people who have a lot of pressures in their lives who just want to enjoy time around a game.
“It is just this kind of joyous moment of playing, that you don’t get to do as an adult a lot of the time,” she said.
Fishkin gets a kick out of working together with other players to solve a problem that might bring with it high tension or high stakes. As a dungeon master, he thinks he’s becoming a better storyteller, and he’s more comfortable with the rules and processes of the game, although he admits to still having a lot to learn when it comes to engaging new players.
His wife laughed about her own frustration and the questions she has as one of those new players.
“I haven’t gotten the impression that anyone is frustrated with me, but I worry that they are because my questions half of the time are, ‘Wait, what am I doing? Wait, what are my powers? Wait, do I have the capacity to do that? Hold on. What? What can I do here? Like, what are my options? How do I attack this guy? What happens?'” DeRuiter said. “I just had this litany of questions and it’s great if you’re playing with someone like Ian or Dan or Scott who have played before and they’re like, ‘Yes, you can do that. No, here, roll this die, no do this’ … and not in a bossy way, but just in a this-is-the-mechanics-of-the-game way that I just do not understand.”
Fishkin said it’s awesome to share stories about the game with his wife, for a week or two after they play.
“She also particularly enjoys flirting with characters I’m controlling, which can get awkward in front of other people,” Fishkin said. “But she gets a kick out of seeing me blush after 17 years together.”
And because Dungeons & Dragons is all about storytelling, DeRuiter had her own take on that dynamic, particularly when it comes to a game run by Lurie, where DeRuiter said Fishkin’s character is a halfling rogue.
“I play a goliath barbarian,” DeRuiter said. “So I’m huge and I have two weapons and I’m basically kind of a war horse — I think I’m something like 7 or 8 feet tall — and Rand is this tiny little halfling, which is essentially a hobbit that lives in my backpack who pops out and stabs people when he needs to. That’s kind of delightful for me and he’s decided that his character is deeply in love with mine and I was telling him, ‘No, you’re supposed to play something different than you are in the real world.'”
“But he was hell bent on that,” she said. “It’s quite cute.”
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