Arlington Dungeons & Dragons group ‘just feels good, kind of freeing’

Thick frost clings to every surface of a seemingly secluded, 100-foot-tall great hall made by giants.

A promise to help a friendly giant led six adventurers — a wizard, a paladin, a monk, a druid, a cleric and a warlock — to this temple on the highest peak on the Spine of the World.

In the temple, the wizard spots a yellow-bellied blue creature that looks like the offspring of a cobra and a centipede. The creature uncoils, lets out a frightening roar and lunges toward him.

“Sim sim salabim,” says UT Arlington alumnus Randall Shepard. He is sitting at a table with six other people and they are playing the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D, at Wild West Comics and Games near the University of Texas at Arlington.

D&D, which came out in 1974 and was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in November, is a fantasy role-playing game whose players make a story together. It may include exploring an unknown land, battling enemies and searching for bountiful treasure, according to the game’s official website.

Millions of people have played D&D since it was released more than 40 years ago, but the game climbed in popularity in 2014 when the fifth edition topped the Amazon bestseller list for several days, The Washington Post reported.

The story the group is playing is the Storm King’s Thunder, in which giants have emerged from their strongholds and are threatening civilization, according to the website.

Gathering a party

The comic book shop hosts a D&D night every Thursday for the role-playing community and welcomes curious visitors, store manager Wesley Farnsworth said. About 20 players attend weekly, except for the summer and winter holidays, when the number drops to about 12, Farnsworth said.

The groups play by Adventure League rules, allowing the players to travel to different groups if needed, said Andrew Epps, the group’s dungeon master, the person in control of most parts of the story. He has been a dungeon master for a year and with this group for six months.

When Epps places a creature’s figure on the map, it doesn’t garner the same reaction from the party as the demogorgon did for the boys in the Netflix show Stranger Things. But it’s still a fearsome creature and will try to kill the group’s characters and the friendly giant in the great hall.

As the creature barrels toward Shepard’s wizard, Shepard casts an imaginary fireball spell as his wizard would — pantomiming the arm and hand movements — and then rolls a 20-sided die onto the table, where several sets of multicolored dice and each person’s character sheet lie.

Around the table, Epps and the six players, or “adventurers,” watch and await the outcome of the die roll. The number on the die will signal whether the fireball succeeded or failed to hit the creature.

A new player joins

Shepard and the other players have faced odds like this before when they meet each week, but not newcomer Elizabeth Laster, a UT Arlington marketing and management senior.

She watched this band of heroes fight barbarians last week, but this week she will plunge into this story with a level-one druid named Eeva.

Although her husband is a virtual dungeon master, it was Critical Role, an online-streaming show where voice actors and other guest celebrities such as Vin Diesel play D&D, that heavily inspired Laster to play, she said.

Before the start of this session, the experienced players in the group helped her with creating her character and filling out her character sheet.

“Normally, I feel so out of place with people in general and then I come here and it just feels good, kind of freeing,” Laster said.

After joining, Laster will begin to help her party find out why many of the giants are acting more evil than normal, Epps says. But at this moment, she has to help with the creature charging into the room.

The creature hits but isn’t fazed and continues to charge the door, Epps tells the group.

Shepard looks down at the table where Epps has drawn a map of the giants’ great hall, where each player is represented with a miniature figure of his or her character.

The creature is closest to Shepard’s wizard on the map. He mouths an expletive.

There is a chance his wizard may suffer a fatal blow, and if that happens, he will have to make, or roll, another character for this story.

The battle begins

“Is it time to get serious?” says Zadok Little, a UT Arlington computer science freshman playing as the warlock.

“I hope you guys are always serious,” Epps says.

Once the creature is in the room, it sinks its teeth into the nearest threat, the friendly giant, and the battle ensues.

Little’s warlock unleashes an eldritch blast, a beam of crackling energy, hitting the creature. Laster’s druid brandishes a whip made of thorns, strikes the creature and then heals the dying giant. Shepard changes tactics after the fireball spell fails to hurt the creature and his wizard casts a witch bolt, a sustained-lightning spell, which damages the creature each round.

After a few rounds of each player rolling the die to attack and damage the creature, the players defeat it triumphantly with each player’s character surviving the battle.

At the end of this session, Epps awards the players with experience points, which are used to level up their characters for killing the giant creature.

Each player then packs up his or her dice, character sheet, miniature, says goodbyes and waits to continue this story next Thursday.

Rafael Sears: 817-390-7657, @searsrafael