Playing With Dragons and Half-Elves on Sundays

For MTPlayers poring over "Dungeons & Dragons" manuals Sunday in preparation for a new campaign that is to begin next week.
Move over Harry Potter.

Moscow's world of wizards, witches and warlocks may be dominated by J.K. Rowling's boy wonder, but it is certainly not limited to him.

At Labyrinth, one of three clubs in the city devoted to role-playing and adventure card games, a small band of "Dungeons & Dragons" devotees organized a trip into their own fantasy world Sunday afternoons.

The Moscow Dungeons & Dragons Club meets in places as varied as members' apartments, empty offices and casinos, but its players will not be coming back to Labyrinth for next Sunday's six-hour meeting -- not because of the Gothic interior, but because of the noise.

"It's a game where you need quiet. You're telling a story, and you need to imagine it," said Mark Sleboda, a club member and Sunday's appointed dungeon master, or referee.

The English-language club has been around for about a year, and its company of players -- like its weekly meeting space -- is fluid. The group's two most experienced players, club organizer Keoki Young and Sleboda, take turns as dungeon master but assure newcomers that no real knowledge of the game is required to participate.

"Don't worry if you don't know everything yet," Sleboda told the group's two newcomers, Scott Cameron-Cowburn and Mark Giles. "If you have an idea for a character from the real world, anything historical or fantastic, we'll find it right here and work it in."

"Dungeons & Dragons," a game created in 1973 and since finely tuned, has a cult-like following worldwide composed mainly of J.R.R. Tolkien fans, medieval history buffs and fledgling actors.

"It's for everyone who likes a sword and sorcery genre," Young said. "It's basically all based on Tolkien, which is why it's experiencing an upswing at the moment, because of the films. And it's also for actors who like to play a role."

Players start by constructing characters based on the "Dungeons & Dragons" rule book, picking from races, including elves, half-elves, halflings and humans, and classes, such as bards, clerics, sorceresses, bards, rogues and rangers.

The dungeon master creates an adventure for the band of characters, and when the team starts playing, the master concocts monsters and other pitfalls for the group to encounter.

The game has no winners or losers -- the characters, who ideally number between four and eight -- play together as a team.

On Sunday, flush with two new members, the club decided to create a new set of characters for a new campaign, or a series of interconnected adventures.

Campaigns can last for months, but timing is flexible.

"I've played all-nighters, and I've played for an hour. It's more or less ongoing, so when you want to stop you can," Young said.

Young said he hopes to attract a few new members so that two different games can be played simultaneously.

"I'm already familiar generally with 'Dungeons & Dragons' because of the computer game," said newcomer Cameron-Cowburn. "But I don't know what's involved in actually playing the game here. It's just something like a social event for me, a nice place to meet people rather than sitting around and talking or having a beer."

On Sunday, the club's players were a mixed bag of English-speaking Russians and expatriates in their late 20s to early 40s.

"A lot of us played in school and then stopped," Young said. "And now we're just starting up again."

The computer version of "Dungeons & Dragons" is already popular in Russia, but the complete version of the game is not widely played because it has not been translated into Russian, and the lengthy rule books make for difficult reading.

"Right now in this club we have about 200 people who play 'Dungeons and Dragons,'" said Ilya Karpinsky, the general director of Hobby Games, which owns the Labyrinth club.

Karpinsky said most club-goers are there to play the adventure card games "Magic the Gathering" and "Lord of the Rings."

Sleboda's wife, Lena, said the live-action version of "Dungeons & Dragons" -- where the role-playing goes a step further and players dress like their characters and act out their fantasies, usually in the woods -- is also popular in Russia.

"The people who play it are called Tolkienists," she said. "Anywhere there are woods, they might be there, playing with wooden swords."

At Labyrinth, however, the six players decided to postpone that adventure until next Sunday due to the noise in the club. The Slebodas invited the adventurers back to their apartment for pizza and beer.

For information on the Moscow Dungeons & Dragons Club, contact Keoki Young at moscowdnd@mail.ru or visit the web site at http://moscowdnd.tripod.com. Club membership is free, and the group meets each Sunday from about 2 p.m. until 8 p.m.