Roll Play: Knoxville's Adult Board Gamers

They still shoot dice in the Old City. But these have 20 sides.

No. 131 South Central Street was once in the heart of the Bowery, that district of saloons and pool halls and gambling dens where lonely men risked their lives cheating at poker or craps. Organized Play, the most recent of several dozen businesses that have occupied this building, is a shop that deals mainly in board games. They sell adventure comic books and cards on the side, as well as the snacks these games require: powdered donuts, Oreos, Snickers, and in a refrigerated case, a spectrum of soda pops. For those so out of touch we didn't know that there are about a dozen stylistically different versions of Batman, the store itself is pretty fascinating. There are board games you've never heard of, some of which delve into ancient Roman history or World War II strategy, and are plausibly educational. One of the biggest sellers is Hero Clix, miniatures of outrageous post-Darwinian mutants arranged almost as if in a jewelry case near the cash register. They're used to recruit combative armies in a game.

One recent Saturday drew about 25 people to the store. None of them are actually shopping. In the front window is a table at which six men are seated around a portly and languorous black-and-white cat who seems oblivious to the proceedings. You hate to eavesdrop, but as you pore over comic books, you can't help overhearing dialogue in stilted, almost Elizabethan tones: "Give me your word that you will stop the demon," says one. Then, "She wishes to go with you. Avenge her, if you will."

Ask politely, and you may be relieved to discover they're playing a role-playing game called Witch Hunter, set in an alternative-universe 17th century. Several of these gentlemen seated around the table look like the sorts who might have been perfectly at home on the Bowery in 1890. They seem to defer to a tall, thin fellow in a black fedora. He's a Witch Hunter celebrity. Jeffrey Witthauer has some national cred in this esoteric world; he's one of the writers of the ever-evolving game.

Organized Play has become a small mecca for gamers, some of whom come from out of state just to play here. About the only one here who's not playing today is Morgan Hardy. He first opened the store a couple of years ago on Cumberland Avenue, near Gay, but outgrew the space, and several months ago moved into the Old City, where a hungry gamer can still find a full meal at 3 a.m. Hardy makes some money, he says, even though players don't pay to participate, and on certain occasions, like Free RPG Day, he actually gives away merchandise. Hardy makes his money back in snacks. "I can sell $150-$200 just in sodas," he says. He has applied for a beer license.

He offers a variety of choices of games like Arkham Horror and Call of Cthulu, but the most popular game, almost 40 years after its creation, is Dungeons & Dragons.

The main showroom is busy with a couple of colorful yet mostly quiet games, conducted with enthusiasm but decorum. But open the unmarked door into the back room to a burst of sound, dominated by the tumble of dice and hearty male voices, and you might think you've stumbled into a forgotten speakeasy, some old "athletic club" from the days when gentlemen ran the numbers and hoped the cops had been paid off in time.

At each of two dining-sized tables, six people pore over laptops, spiral notebooks, and cards. In the middle of the table, on a marked grid, is a cluster of tiny plastic figurines of monsters, oafs, goons, raptors, mythical warriors. Each of the contenders watches intently as one rolls unusual dice—the most complex one has 20 facets.

"You're dazed!" one shouts.

"Dazed and immobilized!" remarks another.

"Stunned! Stunned!"

"126 points damage! That's robust!"

This is craps, taken up a few notches. Craps for geniuses with an interest in cryptomythology. These old Bowery walls have heard almost everything, but occasionally you hear a sentence that may be new to them: "This poor orc and this poor elf are gonna be bloody sometime in the future."

"What do you do with great obelisks covered with runes?"

"When I can't teleport, the world's a little grayer." There is melancholy even in this dimension.

Often more than one conversation is going on, but they're all about the game. There's a philosophical discussion:

"He can't be granted combat advantage."

"Yes! He can because he's dazed!"

The Dungeonmaster smiles with the cool patience that comes with wisdom. "That's actually not how that works," he says, smiling, and the others accept his judgment with good humor. A quiet younger player's rule book lies neglected, unopened.

Say what you will about role-playing fantasy games. These guys, whatever their age or occupation or marital status or body-mass index, are having fun. Somewhere a few blocks away, maybe thousands of people are enjoying a street festival or some sort. Down the block is a bar with new live music, or a sidewalk café with playfully exotic cuisine. These guys don't mind whether all that other stuff's going on or not. They're enjoying themselves. A skeptical neophyte witnessing Dungeons & Dragons for the first time might conclude that there are worse ways to spend a springtime afternoon. It can seem robust, indeed.

And in this back room, which opens onto a patio—just before we got here, we're assured, there were games afoot on the outside tables, too—the windows let in the afternoon sunshine, which hits the old brick just as it does in a Charleston tearoom.

In fact, it goes on all day; it started around 8 a.m. It continues until midnight. Even gamers must sleep. But another phenomenon, Magic: The Gathering, meets here, too, and sometimes goes until 3 a.m.

Among the contenders at this most recent "Opiecon" are a couple of fresh-faced teenagers and a few grizzled characters on the gray side of 40. There's a guy in an Army uniform shirt with epaulets, a guy in a narrow-brimmed hipster lid, a guy in a backwards Superman cap, and, most surprising of all, one woman. Most of them sport facial hair; many of the players could moonlight as Civil War re-enactors.

The mere presence of an African-American might upset some stereotypes, but in fact Jay Anderson enjoys a special status in this room, as a sort of Master Dungeonmaster to whom the other Dungeonmasters defer for counsel. "This is happening all over the nation," Anderson says. "In fact, this is just a small part of what's happening in this city today."

D&D has been online for years, but Anderson, a software designer himself, is happiest playing this non-computer version of the game. He says even the best computer versions are "soulless," and "limited" in options compared to table-top play, which "allows anything your brain thinks or desires."

Surprise him with a question about why he's here, and he does not blink. He has multiple reasons why Dungeons & Dragons is a logical pastime, and he presents them in logical fashion, almost as if he's reading off a power-point presentation.

Anderson calls Dungeons & Dragons "one stage higher than watching a movie or a television show. It's one of the most pure forms of storytelling you can come up with." It's a relaxing diversion. It's good mental exercise. "I was a math major in college. I'm very fast at math," he laughs, just a little wickedly.

It provides practice in personal interactions. "It helps you learn to deal with people, being diplomatic, speaking in public." He adds, "Before Dungeons & Dragons, I would never have talked to a reporter. I'd be saying, ‘Please don't talk to me!'"

Some gamers are frank about the stereotypes, some of which may be accurate. "For a lot of socially awkward teenagers like myself, D&D was a formative experience," says proprietor Hardy. "It's a structured social activity. If you go to a bar, there's no rules, no guidelines. That's awkward for some people. This is a structured way to socialize with people in a non-confrontational setting." Hardy calls it "cooperative storytelling."

Even with no cigars or obvious guns, ghosts of the old Bowery might recognize the camaraderie.