From “Guardians of the Galaxy” to “Game of Thrones,” recent trends in TV and film popularity show that the nerds have won. Here in Lebanon, however, the victory is far from complete. One of the most infamous of nerd pastimes, tabletop role-playing games, remains conspicuously absent – a void in local gaming culture a few Lebanese are trying to fill.
Take perhaps the most well-known epic role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). Players take on the role of a character of their choice and navigate a world imagined and described to them by the game referee – the dungeon master.
In a game of D&D, anything is possible. Players can fight, talk, sneak, betray and even dance their way through scenarios ranging from clearing out a castle full of orcs, to negotiating peace treaties between two warring nations all with the roll of a dice.
The rare Lebanese D&D player has been around since the 1980s; the game itself turned 40 this year. But these days, exposure to fantasy – the kind that fuels interest in playing an elf that slays giants and rescues kingdoms – is as ubiquitous in popular culture as romantic comedy.
Only a week ago, TIME published an essay by fantasy writer Lev Grossman about the rise of the genre. “In the 1980s, fantasy was not entirely OK. It had, let us say, some unpleasant associations. It was fringey and subcultural and uncool,” Grossman wrote. Then somewhere around 2000, “Fantasy wasn’t a fringe phenomenon anymore. It had become one of the great pillars of popular culture.”
Three years ago, E.D. Kain, writing for The Atlantic, made similar observations about the rise of fantasy: “It’s almost disconcerting. After all, fantasy used to be for dorks. You didn’t take a girl out to see a fantasy flick, and your grandmother didn’t read Dragonlance. Books like ‘A Game of Thrones’ and ‘Harry Potter’ have changed all of that.”
While the time is ripe, gamers are trying to attract new players to role-playing games. One such person trying to ignite the country’s latent D&D scene is Elie Kesrouwany, who actively recruits players wherever he can find them.
“The problem in Lebanon is when you tell people we are going to play a tabletop game they immediately think of Monopoly and Risk,” he says. “The problem is getting them to sit once on that table.”
It’s a task raking in players, but once seated, Kesrouwany says, “I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t like Dungeons and Dragons, they all wish to keep playing it.”
Other groups, like the Pathfinder games, an offshoot of D&D, let word of mouth do the recruiting, helped by fans such as Jimmy Asroui. “Luckily, as far as getting players [is concerned], after I got my friends into the game, they in turn recruited their own friends,” he says.
Even non-fantasy board games have a more limited following in the country. Increasing the culture for mainstream board games might hold the key to growing the popularity of role-playing games, Asroui says.
“D&D [or] Pathfinder might be too niche for some people, but with the abundance of different game systems out there from Call of Cthulhu to Game of Thrones to Zombie Survival, there should be a way of making it more mainstream,” Asroui says.
Unfortunately, many people remain unaware of the presence of role-playing games in Lebanon.
“I haven’t heard of a scene here, nor do I know anyone playing here,” says Patrick Haddad, a student at the American University of Beirut. Others know of other types of games, but remain unaware of fantasy role-playing games like D&D.
“Tabletop games are games played with a board on a tabletop right?” says Sarah Baalbaki, another university student. “I’ve played chess, checkers, Monopoly, Scrabble, and I used to play a battleship game with my brother.”
Baalbaki also says she believes the reason for the lack of a tabletop “scene” here is because people prefer to play videogames.
While many gamers argue lack of awareness is a major block to creating a tabletop gaming culture, others believe gamers need consistent venues to play in order to attract new players.
Most games are currently being held at people’s houses, or cafés like Gloria Jeans on Makdessi Street in Hamra. So, while all are welcome, the lack of a consistent venue makes it difficult for newcomers, who need to know someone who’s already participating to be able to join. Some steps are being taken to change this, like the Facebook group “Beirut on Board” where interested parties can find out about board game sessions happening across the country.
If getting new players is hard, it’s even harder to find dungeon masters capable of leading games and teaching newbies. The requirements for being a dungeon master are extensive, as the rules and guidelines cover two full books and require a third one for continuous reference when playing.
“The hardest part is initiating good dungeon masters,” Kesrouwany says. “You can get many good players with ease but a good dungeon master, it takes time and requires a lot of reading.”
Neither Asroui, nor Kesrouwany believe that there are any issues with a demographic or a language barrier.
“In my years of playing, I have seen tabletop span all demographics and age groups,” Asroui says. “It is my belief that there is a game out there for everyone.”
While in Kesrouwany’s experience, “Many players are not English speakers, we play the game in English/Arabic. This game is not limited by the language although there are basic key words needed in English.”
Rather, Kesrouwany says, “You should see them imitating their characters rolling while doing the action! This is what D&D is about! It’s about storytelling and having fun with a bunch of friends.”