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Strange New Worlds

Gamers, from left, Sarah Butler, Andrew Domino, Tim Webster and Christine Webster engage in a Dungeons & Dragons battle.
From Magic to Heroes of Newerth, fantasy gaming is capturing people’s imaginations

You don’t have to leave Kalamazoo to visit the world of The Lord of the Rings or fly the starship Enterprise with the Star Trek crew. All you need to do is roll a die.

Welcome to fantasy gaming — where players assume the roles of characters and act out fantastical adventures. These video and board-based games tap players’ creativity and love of fictional worlds to develop their own adventures. Best of all, local game players say, all it takes to become a fantasy gamer is a computer or a handful of dice and cards – and a little imagination.

Many people’s first introduction to fantasy games was Dungeons & Dragons, a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) introduced in 1974. D&D (as it is commonly referred to now) and the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering (usually just called Magic), introduced in 1993, are arguably the most popular fantasy games, still going strong decades after their introductions. Both take place in fantasy worlds of wizards, knights and dragons and are produced by Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of toy manufacturer Hasbro Inc.

Just how popular are fantasy games? Well, D&D and Magic alone generated sales of more than $220 million for Hasbro in the first quarter of 2014. A version of Dungeons & Dragons called Pathfinder is No. 1 in U.S. sales of fantasy games, according to Internal Correspondence Hobby Games magazine, although exact figures have not been released by the game’s publisher. Magic’s revenue has grown at least 25 percent each year from 2008 to 2012.

D&D, Magic and Pathfinder are usually played on a tabletop, often with cards and dice, just like the more familiar games of Monopoly or Clue. Other fantasy games are played online, like World of Warcraft, which reported 100 million players in December 2013, and League of Legends, with 67 million players participating each month, according to its creator, Riot Games. Whether playing on a tabletop or computer screen, fantasy gamers take on the role of an imaginary adventurer, like a sorcerer or elf (or an elf sorcerer) and create a story with the other players.

“It’s kind of like being in a movie, but you get to pick which hero you want to be,” says Ryan McDaniel, director of content for S2 Games, a Kalamazoo-based computer-game company. S2’s Heroes of Newerth has more than 60 million players worldwide, and McDaniel is on the team that creates the game’s storyline and character information.

Playing a role

To understand how fantasy games operate, take a look at the first one, Dungeons & Dragons, now 40 years old (its latest version, the fifth edition, was published in August). Players have their own set of dice and a character sheet describing their characters’ skills and talents. Players decide everything about their fantasy heroes, from names to favorite magic spells. Hundreds of books, magazines and websites offer character options, listing abilities, weapons and other items that players can use, and describing how those choices affect the story.

One player won’t have a character, however; he or she is the Dungeon Master, who narrates the game and takes on the role of monsters the other players face. Players describe how their characters react to the Dungeon Master’s story and roll dice to see if they successfully hide from an enemy or fight.

It’s all done through conversation, often between bites of pizza. No one has to dress up in a strange costume or litter their speech with “thee” and “thou” unless they want to (in that case there are live action role play — LARP — versions of the games in which players wear armor and bop each other with foam swords.)

While D&D is about creating an original fantasy world, other RPG games allow players to take on more defined, familiar roles such as comic-book superheroes or police detectives or fly a spaceship alongside Luke Skywalker and the heroes of Star Wars.

“Ninety percent of it is getting together with friends and seeing what happens,” says player Mike Berkey, 39, of Kalamazoo, who plays in two RPGs weekly, one set in the universe of Spider-Man and Iron Man, the other in the Dresden Files fantasy novels. “If you’re watching a movie, you’re not creating anything. When you’re playing an RPG, you’re telling a story. It’s an activity that’s more social.”

Tim Earl, 40, of Portage, founded the Kalamazoo Area Board Gamers group in 2006 and still plays weekly. He uses online tools like game-review websites and YouTube “play-throughs” to get a feel for a new game. When it’s time to check out the game for himself, he prefers to sit down face-to-face with another player.

“It’s more satisfying to see your opponent in person and get that interaction,” Earl says.

It’s no less of a social event for those playing fantasy video games. While a video gamer may be alone in a room when playing, he or she is far from alone in the fantasy world. Online games, like Heroes of Newerth, allow players to form groups of heroes, traveling together and battling monsters online. Players may team up with friends or play with people they’ve never met in the
real world.

Fantasy games teach you a little bit more about yourself, says Paul Dziadzio, 26, of Kalamazoo. A programmer at S2 Games, Dziadzio says one appeal of playing fantasy games is the immersion in a different world where a player may discover how he would react if faced with the same situation as his character.

“What is the coolest character you can think of?” Dziadzio asks. “You can be that.”

Gamer Aaron Smith, 43, of Kalamazoo, says his favorite type of game is the co-op game, where players form a team to accomplish a goal. In the science-fiction board game Battlestar Galactica, for example, players are a spaceship crew trying to reach Earth, but one or more players may be a villainous Cylon robot trying to destroy them.

“The social interactions of such games can be an absolute riot, as everyone accuses everyone else of being the traitor,” Smith says.

Getting over ‘Geek

In D&D’s early days, the game was favored by teenagers and caused a lot of consternation among parents and adults. There were accusations that the game was tied to Satanism and generally bad for teens, as highlighted in the made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters, where a young Tom Hanks plays the role of Robbie, a D&D player who has a psychotic break from reality because of the game. These fears have dissipated — perhaps because the first generation of D&D players are now parents themselves — and the game is seen as less fearsome and countercultural.

Josh Hall, games manager at Fanfare Sports & Entertainment, 4415 S. Westnedge Ave., which sells sci-fi and fantasy games, says in 23 years he’s only had one parent ask about the rumors of dangerous activity related to gaming.

“She said, ‘What do I need to do?’” Hall recalls. “I said, ‘You asking is what you need to do — being aware of what your child is doing.’”

A bigger hurdle for fantasy gaming has been its “geeky” reputation — that popularly held perception that fantasy gamers are teenage males who never have dates or passing grades in gym class. That attitude is a thing of the past too, Hall says. Fantasy gaming is often featured on the popular TV show The Big Bang Theory, and fantasy games are now found in mainstream stores such as Barnes & Noble, which sells D&D, and Meijer, which carries Magic cards.

The rise of role-playing video games among people of all ages has reduced the games’ “geek” stereotype, Smith says. Many players are in their teens, 20s or 30s. Parents who played the games in their youth often return to them when their children are old enough to play. Smith’s own daughters, ages 7 and 10, have become gamers, he says, mostly just by looking over his shoulder.

“They would see me playing ‘big people’ games with friends, and they were naturally curious,” he says. “I’m constantly surprised at how quickly they’ll pick up on the mechanics and strategy of a game.”

While tabletop fantasy gamers tend to play at players’ homes or in classrooms, some will meet up with other gamers at stores such as Fanfare or Odyssey Games. Odyssey Games, 1504 W. Michigan Ave., is just steps from Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College and has weekly Magic tournaments. Fanfare hosts game nights for Magic, D&D, and HeroClix (a superhero game).

These meet-ups are also helpful to players who want to stay up-to-date on the games. For instance, Magic cards are sold in sets of 150, and a new set is published every three months. Odyssey’s owner, Johnny Blaze, 23, says every new set of Magic cards sells better than the previous one.

“Some people come in what seems like every other day,” looking for the perfect card to give them the winning edge, Blaze says. “There are regulars, like it’s your favorite hometown bar.”

But new cards aren’t required to play. Geoffrey Laird, 23, of Kalamazoo, says players who put together Magic decks 20 years ago will resurrect those decks when their children show interest in learning the game.

For serious gamers, there are even tournaments with cash prizes. Magic competitions have been shown on ESPN, and Elliot Parkhurst, 24, manager at Odyssey Games, says players tune in to Twitch TV, a YouTube-like website where entire games are shown, complete with color commentary. S2’s McDaniel was recently in Thailand at a Heroes of Newerth tournament where he saw players as young as 6 taking part.

Creating their own games

Berkey, who’s been a gamer since high school, has even written his own game material. He’s best known for his 2009 tabletop RPG Where No Man Has Gone Before. The game casts players in the roles of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock from the original Star Trek TV series, with such qualities as “Argumentative” or “Ripped Shirt.”

“I made the game to amuse myself,” Berkey says. “I did the first draft in a weekend and just put it on the Internet.”

He still gets feedback from gamers who stumble across his website, including a Canadian artist who created playing pieces based on the game, and a group of gamers in Germany who emailed Berkey to say they’d played Where No Man at a bar. Berkey is now working on a new science-fiction game.

“There’s so much fun stuff out there, I don’t get to play my own game that often,” he says.

Earl hasn’t created his own games but did get one of the 1,000 exclusive copies of Risk: Black Ops in 2008 when Hasbro tested an update to the classic world-conquest game. He played it, but it didn’t find a permanent home on his shelf of more than 100 board games.

“It’s a collector’s item, but I sold it to get more games,” Earl says.

Andrew Domino

Andrew is freelance writer who has written for various publications and as a copy writer. He’s covered stories for Encore on everyrhing from arts and business to fun and games. You can see more of his writing at

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