The last twenty years have seen a profound shift in the treatment of ‘nerdy’ interests and hobbies. Where society once perceived comic books, video games, and genre fiction as the niche interests of an isolated few, today they dominate the mainstream as multi-billion dollar industries.
Twenty years ago, a love of Iron Man or Star Trek was something you kept to yourself or your close friends - not something you’d chat casually about with your boss at work for fear of social isolation. But times have changed, and openly owning your fandoms has not only become common, but socially acceptable.
One such hobby that has stepped-out of the shadows has been the role-playing game (RPG).For the uninitiated, a role-playing game is much what it sounds like. One player takes on the role of storyteller, crafting a world, its people, and creatures, while other player take the roles of characters within that world, usually heroes or adventurers.
The ‘game’ part is created by the various rule-systems, of which there are a multitude in every genre you can image. Fantasy heroes, space adventurers, horror investigators, cartoon characters - there’s even a Jane Austen RPG in the works, for those who’ve always wished to vanish into Regency England and seek out an advantageous marriage.
For those of you who visit the Downtown and are interested in seeking-out an RPG to try, you should know that the businesses that cater to these gaming interests come in two flavours - hobby shops and eateries.
The former are traditional retail outlets: they sell all sort of items that cater to the tastes of nerdom and geekery, from board-games to comic books to models and toys. Downtown Guelph’s hobby shop is The Dragon, located in Old Quebec Street (55 Wyndham St N T-19B), an ever-growing business now spread across what was once three separate retail locations in the Old Quebec Street mall alone.
For eateries, the Downtown has two - The Boardroom (99 Wyndham St N.) and The Round Table (32 Essex St.). The Boardroom leans-in to the traditional board-game ‘café’ theming, with a light bistro-esque menu and minimalist aesthetic, while The Round Table is designed like a fantasy castle/tavern, with faux stonework, decorative swords, and a prominent bar. Both establishments serve alcohol, and both cater to adult and youth clientele.
But why even go there? What is it about RPGs that make them appealing – and what even are they?
By far the best-know RPG is Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, the original fantasy-hero game set in a Tolkien and Conan-inspired world. D&D was the face of RPGs during their first heyday in the 80s (you may remember the panic of the mid-80s that said heavy metal, D&D, and ‘evil daycares’ were birthing satanic cults). RPGs popularity waned in the 90s, becoming the sort of thing ‘nerds’ wouldn’t admit to liking even to fellow ‘nerds’, but sometime in the last ten RPGs not only made a comeback, they became cool.
New versions emerged that were not only more accessible than the older versions, but also
reflected the diversity of the world around them, recognizing the presence of women, minorities, and LGBT+ members in the player bases. Celebrities admitted being fans (like Vin Diesel), and zeitgeist shows like Stranger Things not only show the influence of RPGs, but displayed them as beloved hobby, and a force for good.
What makes the RPG hobby unique is more than just spells or starships. Something special happens when you play an RPG. The character you play becomes more than just a list of items and skills: they become a person you inhabit, someone whose hopes and goals and dreams matter to you. It’s just like any beloved fictional character, except the choices they make, and the story they live, are not created by the dictates of a distant author, but by you.
Your fellow players and the game master who makes the world all work together to create an even larger story, all shaped your tastes, your triumphs, and your tragedies. The stories can be huge, high adventure, slaying dragons and saving the day, but they can be smaller and sillier, too: four heroes try to run a tavern for goblins who never pay, or roguish charmers try to swindle a lord with a fraudulent insurance scheme. I have run games where a party of adventurers spent three hours trapped in a dining room, a comedy of errors where every attempt to leave it left them more trapped them before – and veryone was laughing and having a good time.
RPGs can bring close friends closer together, and forge new friendships out of groups of total strangers, as everyone is bonded together not by the luck of shared interests, but by brave deeds, crushing defeats, and the sweet taste of victory - or just by laughter and ‘You Won’t Believe What Happened!’ stories. RPGs are for everyone - games can cater to adults, children, or mixed, all-ages groups - and they’re easier to get into than ever before.
All three of the Downtown’s establishments can be used to host role playing games, and all of them run events around them (see below for schedules).The events aren’t limited to fantasy D&D: last summer The Dragon ran a multi-week session Star Wars RPG - where players became heroes of the Rebellion, fighting the legions of the Empire and restoring peace to the galaxy – while The Round Table has RPG Sundays, where anyone can run any RPG they like.
In all cases, newcomers who are nervous about being first-time players need not worry: they will find not only others like themselves, but a welcoming community of veterans eager to teach and show them the ropes. Those who wish to run games themselves and either lack the space at home or prefer the ambiance or food services of outside locations, can rent table space at either The Round Table(The $5 table fee waived with food and drink) or The Boardroom ($5 cover fee). For families who think they’d take advantage of The Boardroom often, they also sell yearly passes that wave he cover charge for up to four children under 18 whenever they attend with the pass holder.
Regardless of where you choose to experiment with RPGs, you’re sure to experience something you’ve never experienced before. It can be intimidating at first - many RPGs like torelease phonebook-thick tomes dauntingly labelled player ‘guides’ - but all the quirks of the system, the dice, the numbers, the jargon - are no different than that of any other hobby. By the end of your first session you’ll have already found your feet. By the end of your second, you’ll be tossing dice and declaiming truths about your character like you’ve been doing it for years. Ifyou want something communal and exciting, if you want to be transported to different lands and wild adventures, head Downtown and check-out an RPG today.
The Dragon(55 Wyndham St N T-19B)
Wednesday, 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM Dungeons & Dragons (8 week commitment, $20)
Saturday, 3:00 PM – 6:00 PM: Dungeons & Dragons (Drop-in, $2 a session)
Sunday 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM: Pathfinder (Drop-, $2 a session)
The Boardroom (99 Wyndham St N.)
Tuesday: Dungeons & Dragons (Registered commitment, $5+, ask for details)
Wednesday, 8:00 PM – 12:00AM: Dungeons & Dragons Adventure League (Drop-in, $5 a session)
Saturday: Lords of Water deep (Registered commitment, $5+, ask for details)
Sunday: Dungeons & Dragons (Registered commitment, $5+, ask for details)
The Round Table (32 Essex St.)
Sunday, 1:00PM – 6:00PM: Dungeons & Dragons (Drop-in, $5 a session waved with purchase of food and drink)
Sunday (Alternating), 1:00PM – 6:00PM: RPG Sundays – Ask for details. (Drop-in, $5 a session waved with purchase of food and drink)
James Campbell-Prager was commissioned by the Downtown Guelph Business Association to write this article.
Downtown Guelph Business Association
42 Wyndham Street North
Guelph, ON N1H 4E6