The World Of Dungeons & Dragons

 Six plastic miniature creatures — dwarves, elves, dragons, the gamut — ride aboard a small, two-dimensional boat, drawn in dry-erase marker on a brown checkered board.

Five men and a young girl surround the board, each with about two dozen dice of different shapes in front of them. They stare at the center of the table. Each creature correlates with one of the humans at the table, but there’s an extra beside one of the plastic figures … an origami crane?

“It’s a giant chicken,” Brian McCorkle explains. His fellow players laugh gleefully at the inside joke.

The group is in the middle of a Dungeons & Dragons expedition, a fantasy role-playing game that takes place mostly inside the player’s mind. The miniatures (and chicken) are mere props — nonessential but good for giggles.

Inspired by miniature war games, Dungeons & Dragons debuted in 1974.  Players choose a character to partake in the adventure, and the group encounters adversaries and conflicts. Together they enter battle, search for treasure and solve problems that arise in the story, led by the game’s dungeon master.

The dungeon master reads from a packet that guides the story, although the plot is a kind of choose-your-own-adventure, and most of it comes from the players themselves.

“Dungeons and Dragons is like improv,” says Brandon Easter, sitting at the end of the table in a “Firefly” T-shirt. “You’re given a character and a situation, and you have to work together to carry the scene forward.”

“Expeditions” are long-winded adventures. They usually last six or more hours. Valhalla’s Gate, a game and hobby store near Columbia Mall, hosts expeditions once a month. “Encounters” are shorter, usually two to four hours, and take place at the shop every Wednesday at 6 p.m. The scheduled meetings at Valhalla’s Gate are open to all gamers, individuals and groups — newbies and veterans alike. Many players also have their own “campaign” that they play at home with friends.

D&D is a stronghold in popular culture as the epitome of “geekdom,” portrayed in TV shows such as “Freaks and Geeks, “Community” and “The Big Bang Theory” as the official pastime of single, nerdy guys who lurk in comic book stores, revel in the realms of superheroes and can quote “Star Wars” forward and backward. Some famous fans of the game include Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel and the late Robin Williams.

“I embrace [the stereotype],” says Paul Harden, a 29-year-old graduate student in the University of Missouri’s nuclear engineering program. “That I’m a nerd? Oh yeah.” He’s aptly outfitted in a cartoon“Avengers” T-shirt.

Most D&D aficionados have plenty of interests outside the roleplaying game, says Matt Boley, a public assistance coordinator at the State Emergency Management Agency. Take sports, for example.

“Fantasy football is just D&D for jocks,” Boley says. The other men debate this for a spell, ultimately agreeing to the comparison.

Yet, like many stereotypes, this description suits only a smattering of the D&D community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the people rolling dice and claiming identities as “orcs” or “tieflings” are primarily white males in their 30s, but they reflect diverse traits in education level, occupation and marital status.

There are a few commonalities. For one, everyone is comfortable in their geekdom. They usually wear it on their chest proudly, like Superman’s big red “S.” T-shirts flaunt logos for “Star Wars,” Batman and Rift, an online roleplaying game. McCorkle has an Ironman dog tag and Boley sports a Flash keychain.

It takes a while for the game to get started. Most of the people at the table know each other, and make easy conversation as they get their characters situated and snacks in order. McCorkle and Allison Easter sketch dragons and elves as they wait for the Dungeon Master to begin.

Saturday’s expedition dungeon master is 39-year-old Jarrett Crader. Wearing wayfarer spectacles the color of split-pea soup, Crader reads from a jumble of orange-highlighted papers that detail this D&D adventure, titled Tales Trees Tell. He uses different voices to act out the characters, speaking gibberish at times, and performs dramatic death scenes when the moment calls for it.

Most of the people at the table have played the role-playing game since adolescence, and many are teaching the game to their children. Allison Easter wears a “Ghostbusters” T-shirt and a green hat resembling dragon skin, complete with sides long enough to have dragon-claw pockets for her hands. She sits next to her father, Brandon, a child support enforcer at the Missouri Department of Social Services, at the game table. Although there is a D&D table for children ages 8 to 14 on the other side of the room, 11-year-old Allison has proven she can hold her own with her father’s peers, despite picking up the game only three months ago. The son and daughter of another man at the table approach their dad when their expedition is over and stare longingly at the grownup game.

But the game is more than a family affair. Crader and his 24-year-old girlfriend, Kaley Gann, have been playing the game together for about seven months. They host two separate campaigns every Saturday and Sunday night. One campaign is composed entirely of couples.

Naturally, when you get this many people around a table and give them creative liberties, things go awry. At one point, Allison Easter’s character is inquiring about “rideable giant toads” while another is kicked off the aforementioned boat for complaining about the ride taking too long. McCorkle and Harden take turns singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from the Disney movie “Frozen.

The climax of the adventure occurs when a group of undead skeleton people emerges from the surf of the incestuous island the characters have embarked upon. Boley uses “Star Wars” storm trooper figurines on the board to depict the undead.

“I’d like to pop my Divine Sense to see if any ghosts are hiding around,” says Harden to Dungeon Master Boley. The enemy is too far away, and the Divine Sense only works in a 60-foot range, Boley reminds him.

“You have dark vision, don’t you? You can make a Perception Check,” Boley adds.

Harden rolls a nine. It’s not enough. Allison Easter, who also has the gift of dark vision, gets a 12. “You see a glowing spectral,” Boley says to her. Each person then rolls a 20-sided die to determine initiative, or the order of players to take action against the deadly adversary.

The discussions on how to move forward in the game sound like complete nonsense to the uninformed onlooker.

“Do you have a short bow?” Harden asks Allison, who plays a rogue.

“Yeah,” she confirms.

“Are you stealth right now?”

“Yeah, I’m on your back.”

“You can make an attack. You have a disadvantage on your attack with your short bow, but since you’re stealth, you have advantage, so it’s a straight roll. If you want to do that, use your bow and hide again.”

“So the Halfling launches an arrow out into the night,” Boley narrates. “And it goes aaaaarrrghhhh, and falls down.”

“Yay!” Allison cheers.

And that’s what makes a great dungeon master, the players agree: one who allows almost anything to happen and is prepared for a million different situations. Crader says he spends about eight hours each weekend preparing for his home campaigns.

While most players who come to the expeditions and encounters at Valhalla’s Gate are well-versed in the complex world of monsters and character races and spells and cantrips, beginners are welcomed with open arms. Their enthusiasm for the game knows no bounds, and players are more than happy to show D&D hatchlings the ropes.

Harden takes a newcomer under his wing during the second expedition and helps her create a character. He rifles through the latest edition of the D&D players’ manual and fills out a paper detailing her character’s abilities and weapons. Brandon Easter lends her some dice.

At the end of the game, the newcomer tries to give the dice back, but Easter refuses to accept them. “Consider it a welcome gift to the Dungeons & Dragons community,” he says.