Casa Grande, AZ

As D&D has national resurgence, Casa Grande players prepare to go live

Jeff Kronenfeld
An image of Dungeons and Dragons characters battling a dragon.(Wizards of the Coast)

Jeff Kronenfeld / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Casa Grande, AZ) The druid, rogue elf, bulky barbarian, even bulkier eight-foot-tall cleric, and other adventurers have been battling undead monsters for nearly a half-hour. Then, finally, the druid Alesa’s eyes glow red, and the remaining vampire spawn flee, only to be incinerated as a wall of flames explodes from the earth.

With the battle at last over, Dungeon Master Jace Tanner eases up on the party of nearly a dozen Dungeons and Dragons players by calling for a short break.

It’s around 7:30 on a Tuesday evening. For at least 2-1/2 hours, the players have gathered in a studio in the Casa Grande house of Ross Wade. Foam insulation for sound pads the walls, while books, dice, and other D&D accouterments cover the Star Destroyer, a custom-built table shaped liked a spaceship from Star Wars.

In the next few weeks, Tanner, Wade, and the other players will journey into three new worlds: two fictional and one virtual. They will begin a pair of new games, which will stream on Twitch, YouTube, and potentially other platforms.

Since 2017 on Twitch alone, more than 7,500 unique D&D streamers have swung fictional swords, cast spells, and traded jokes. So whatever adventures lay ahead, Tanner's groups won’t face them alone.
Dungeon Master Jace Tanner shows of his smallest pair of dice.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

A winning roll

The fantasy role-playing game has come a long way from when the first D&D material published in 1974. However, neither the rise of video games, nor binge-watching, nor a global pandemic has stopped the growth of D&D’s popularity.

Now owned by Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the West Coast, the D&D brand has seen sales increase for eight years straight, according to a company press release in 2021. This winning streak seems likely to continue based on recently-released sales data from the second quarter of 2022.

While they hope to recoup startup costs and reinvest initial profits into upgrading the already impressive studio, that isn’t why Tanner chooses to be a dungeon master, a term for the person who directs the game but usually doesn't participate as a player.

“It really allowed me to be creative. I honestly didn't realize that I had this capability of writing,” Tanner said. “It's really boosted my confidence, and it’s a lot of fun for me.”

Many other creatives have also played and learned from the game over the years. For example, the Duffer brothers drew heavily from the game to create the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” as have director Kyle Balda, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and actor Deborah Ann Woll, according to a company factsheet.
Players gather for the start of a Dungeon and Dragons game at a studio in Ross Wade’s home in Casa Grande.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

From too-cool skeptic to creative fanatic

Tanner spends lots of time gleefully researching and developing campaigns, but this wasn’t always the case. When his friends first suggested playing D&D seven or eight years ago, he vehemently rejected the idea.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative connotations to it,” Tanner explained. “There's a lot of, ‘It’s just a bunch of nerds that play it who don't have any lives,’ and that's not true. I was one of those people.”

Tanner’s current game began around three years ago. He and Wade had recently become roommates. After frequent discussions of D&D, they and some friends decided to play together.
An image of Dungeons and Dragons characters in a battle.(Wizards of the Coast)

Wade created his first character, a dwarven ranger with a red beard. When the dwarf died, Wade created Teleal Sindarin, an eight-foot-tall cleric who could take a beating and still heal his compatriots. In the process, Wade fell in love with the game, especially the miniatures used to represent characters and objects on the tabletop maps.

“For me, it's kind of like a drug in the sense that I like to imagine what it would be like in that scenario,” Wade explained. “How would I react if I was in a fantasy world where magic is possible? It’s a fantasy. It's about living out what you've always dreamed.”

More people asked to join, and the group grew in size and sophistication. Then, COVID-19 interrupted the regular meetups. Instead of folding, Tanner and the rest of the team doubled down, preparing for their game's return.

Now the players have an extensive collection of miniatures representing many types of characters, monsters, and terrain features, plus plenty of dice. Wade, a welder, built the metal frame for their huge spaceship-shaped table.
Michael Florez shows off an image of his character, a barbarian warrior.(Jeff Kronenfeld)

Tanner has an elaborate screen, a barrier hiding the Dungeon Master’s machinations from the players. In addition, the screen features information about the specific game and its intricate fictional world, complete with exchange rates, trade routes, and diverse fantastic cultures.

A framed painting of a fictional continent rests behind Tanner, who also employs music, adjustable lighting, and his dramatic talents honed as an actor to bring the game to life. However, he stresses that you don't need all this to start.

Many guides, books, and online materials can help new players and dungeon masters. Or, you can wait a few weeks and watch Tanner and his friends play on Twitch and other platforms, part of a growing movement of fantasy enthusiasts.

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Jeff is an award-winning freelance journalist covering news, business, science and the arts. His work has been published in Discover Magazine, Vice, the Phoenix New Times and other outlets.

Tempe, AZ

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