I’m standing in a Vancouver back alley with a crowd about three dozen strong.
It’s a cold October night, but the leftover adrenaline from the show and the rising anticipation of what’s to come is keeping the chill at bay. We’ve all got eyes on the backdoor of the Vogue Theatre. A black SUV is parked beside the door we’ve all been willing to open, praying that the four performers don’t head straight back to the hotel they’re staying at for this stop on the tour.
Playing such high-energy Dungeons and Dragons can sap one’s strength, after all.
Not Another D&D Podcast, or NADDPOD for short, is a popular D&D play podcast composed of Brian Murphy, Emily Axford, Caldwell Tanner, and Jake Hurwitz, who may be best recognized for their time on the popular YouTube channel CollegeHumor. The quartet started the show in 2018 and quickly amassed a dedicated following that would eventually rank NADDPOD in the top 10 earners on Patreon.
It would also allow them to add tours to their repertoire, resulting in the sold-out show in Vancouver for a crowd that includes myself and a few equally nerdy friends. I’ve never done the whole “waiting in the back alley after the show” thing before—not even for the rock concerts I’ve frequented since my older brother(‘s ID) turned 19—but those in the know from our group are assuring the rest that it’s well worth the wait.
And sure enough, out come the D&D players, smiles on their faces, greeting fans like old friends, shaking hands, posing for selfies, and signing shirts. They linger long enough for anyone bold enough to approach to get a quick hello in before calling for a group photo, which finds its way onto NADDPOD’s Instagram page days later. A few goodbyes and the awakened engine of the SUV later and they’re gone, off to the next city, the next show, and the next throng of dedicated fans.
It all left me amazed to realize that D&D players had somehow found a way to tour, and perform, like rockstars.
I'm walking into a windowless room in the basement of the Vancouver Central Library. You might even call it fittingly dungeonous, given that those who are timidly filing in are all arriving for a ‘Dungeons & Dragons & You’ event.
For the uninitiated, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop role playing game (TTRPG) that allows players, with the help of a game master (GM) to create a story together using the roll of a dice to determine the outcomes.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour session, the first hour taken up by a brief explanation of how to play, handing out character sheets, and a call for volunteers to be GM. I’m there as a reporter but also as a participant, and am no stranger to D&D I’ve had a consistent online campaign going since 2018.
So when I see the others at my table keep their hands planted firmly at their sides, I figure “Why not?” And raise my own to volunteer.
What follows is an hour-plus-change of half-baked voices, diabolically daft goblins, some deadly giant rats, and one particularly dangerous river as I try my best to give the table an enjoyable adventure. To the players’ credit, I’m having an absolute blast, as these D&D newbies are coming up with plans entirely out of left field. What’s most important, though, is that we’ve all bought in. We’re using silly voices, seriously inquiring about mystical runes that only exist in our collective imaginations, and loudly celebrating any time the 20-sided die (D20) lands on a 20 (resulting in a critical success), no matter who rolls it.
The library has been running these events for years now, ever since a D&D night for teens in 2018 resulted in a call for the program to be expanded to adults and kids alike.
“Ultimately, we decided to offer these sessions because they're actually really in line with VPL’s strategic priorities,” says William Dereume. He runs the adult side of the library’s D&D events.
“They offer things like an opportunity for shared experiences, a space for people to learn and get creative together. And they're also a space where people can pretty easily make some new friends and connect with each other socially.”
Dereume walks us all through the basics, eagerly inviting people into the room and giving the designated GMs the one-shot adventure they would be running. He’s been playing D&D for nearly a decade now.
Multiple people I’ve spoken with said they started playing at board game shops, but the library’s event seems like a fitting place to start, too. After the enemy had been vanquished—or, in my group’s case, successfully duped—and the official runtime of the event reached its end, I stick around to get some photos and chat with Will. Some of the players linger behind as well; excitedly recalling their heroics, chatting about real life, and, in a few instances, exchanging contact information to potentially get a group together for more D&D in the future.
“I love this program, and I love what it can do for people. I love to see people enjoy themselves in this game,” says Will. “[D&D] offers a means for people of all kinds, no matter what their identity is, or what their background is to find a place where they can belong.”
How’s that for No Fun City?
I’m sitting at Turk’s Coffee on Commercial Drive on a sunny Sunday. It’s March. Across from me is The GM Tim. He has somehow managed to turn being a table-top role playing game game master into a full-time gig.
Among folks I’ve spoken to for this feature, the guy is something of a legend—even if “legend” isn’t a title he’d ever own up to. He’s humbly flabbergasted to have found himself getting to play D&D for a living.
When I tell him this, he’s equal parts baffled and ecstatic.
“I dig that we're sharing each other because a lot of times in the community, in any community, you can get a lot of that… almost ego gatekeeping. And it doesn't seem to happen in the Vancouver community as much,” he says over his coffee.
Tim’s a treasure trove of knowledge about all things TTRPG, having been a professional GM for private groups, conventions, and castle retreats alike. We talk Star Trek (he has a Star Trek-themed live-play show called Lost Voyages you can find on YouTube), charging for his services in an equitable way (“I don't need toxic amounts of profit in order to do these things. I don't need toxic amounts of growth all the time”), and the Drag D&D show Fierce Adventures he used to run out of Café Deux Soleils, which stopped during the pandemic and has yet to find a new home.
When asked how he would describe Vancouver’s D&D community, Tim takes a moment to think.
“It’s quietly vibrant,” he says. “I think that the cost of venues, and the price of going to places in Vancouver, hinders us being bigger than we are. I think the gaming community in Vancouver could rival Seattle. Vancouver's kind of like this forgotten gem.”
For Tim, TTRPGs have become more than a hobby; they’ve become his livelihood, his social scene, his way to travel the world, and, even, his identity. ‘The GM Tim’ isn’t just his brand, he says. It’s who he is.
I’ve never interviewed anyone more genuinely enthusiastic about their job.
I’m sitting around the table with a group of people I just met. That’s not entirely true. I did have a phone call with Sarah Fox and Matt Klassen, Producer and DM of the D&D podcast ADVENTURE.EXE respectively, a few weeks ago.
We’re here with Stacey Sellars and Markus Ristich, the other half of the core D&D group. I’m here because they invited me to do a guest spot on the podcast. While Fox and Klassen are incredibly kind hosts (and make a mean butter chicken) I’m still a little terrified. In that phone call, I asked them how different it is to play D&D when you know that every word would be recorded, posted, and live on in perpetuity on the internet.
“It's a lot more fun and energetic playing on a podcast,” says Fox. “I'm not trying to be a lead character when I'm just sitting around with some friends. So I'd say the recording experience is a little more intense. It's definitely different.”
And I think, over the course of the evening, I’m getting used to it. Either that or the beers I brought are making it easier to speak into the microphone.
Apart from those anxieties, podcast D&D is fun. The game develops at a faster pace, the players know to keep things moving, the spotlight is shared, the jokes are abundant. Of course, the leniency of a GM when it comes to shenanigans is a major factor in keeping that energy up.
“As the Dungeon Master, I am a little more open to improv rules for playing on the podcast,” says Klassen, AKA the Dungeon Mattster.
“I'm more willing to say yes to certain things and let players do crazy things, just to see where they end up going, and then agree to the crazy directions … because it'll be entertaining for our audience.”
ADVENTURE.EXE began in 2016 when Fox was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that kept them stuck at home, and D&D just so happened to be the kind of thing you could do with friends around a kitchen table in pajamas. The podcast is now on its third season, with over 170 hour-ish-long episodes under its belt and more than 200,000 downloads. It has played host to a variety of guests, including yours truly, The GM Tim, and Eric Fell—GM for the Critical Hit Show.
It makes sense that players and GMs in the city are so interconnected, given the D&D community is built around collective storytelling.
“I've gone to a few local conventions and played TTRPGs with people and I've had so many good experiences. It's really encouraging,” says Klassen.
We played for three hours, which, under Fox’s keen cutting, will break up into three episodes. It’s getting late but it still feels bittersweet to call an end to the session. When we say our fond farewells (and never-ending ‘thank you’s from both sides for coming out to guest/being invited to join), I leave with a warm sense of accomplishment; we did SPOILER ALERT: foil the “bad” guys’ plan, after all.
“Everyone who's into D&D has the same sort of cooperative [spirit]; they want to work together. It's very fun. It's not competitive. You're all making something together,” Fox says. “I feel like [D&D] really attracts the best of the best kind of people. Not saying that's who we are.”
I'm contemplating exactly what it is that makes D&D, or TTRPGs in general, so special to those who have made it such a vibrant part of their lives.
For Fox, playing D&D has helped them with navigating social cues.
“In the last year, actually, I found out I was autistic, and it makes so much sense why I lean towards D&D because I get to express myself and experiment with different types of characters and different types of attributes and traits. It’s like practicing for real life, but it’s fun, and that’s what I love,” she says. “I feel like it's literally improved my life, socially, and my confidence.”
Klassen was equally moved by getting into D&D.
“Starting to play D&D was just a huge moment in my life where, and I’m not exaggerating to say, it really altered the trajectory of what I was doing,” he says. “It really nurtured a lot of interests of mine that I hadn’t explored in a long time, and career changes that I made. I'm a video game developer now, so I do world-building and narrative design games, which is basically related to a lot of D&D work that I've done.”
Dereume notes that he has been proud to be a part of a City program that brings people together in such a unique way.
“Connection is something that we all want,” he says. The library wants to foster spaces “for belonging and connection. And so I think that D&D and other tabletop role playing games accomplish this quite successfully.”
For Tim, even before it became his livelihood, it was a place where he felt safe to be him.
“You can dive into things with the right people in the right sort of safe settings and explore that,” he says. “One of the biggest ways that people come out is by playing games like D&D. I did. You can explore things and you don't have to worry about it because [you can say] ‘oh, that’s just my character.’”
As a GM, Tim makes sure to provide that safe, open setting for those he runs games for—at conventions or otherwise.
“I really believe that diversity is our key to the game,” he says. ”Having been a queer, in-the-closet gamer, having to deal with the ridiculousness of male toxicity in the ‘90s. [It was] fucking gross. And seeing it in the nerd culture to this day infuriates me to no end…
“If I'm known for nothing else than the fact that I pushed those limits in gaming at conventions, it would make me a happy human.”
So just what, exactly, was the point of me galavanting through Vancouver’s D&D community over the past month? Well, as a chronic Vancouverite, I’ve always been bombarded by the sentiment that “it’s so hard to make friends in Vancouver,” or that “This is a No Fun City,” which I believe to be demonstrably false.
And I don’t think that’s more aptly proven than in the open-armed acceptance, collaboration, and camaraderie of Vancouver’s D&D community.