At the far end of Grand Street, nestled next to the BQE, lies Twenty Sided Store – a retail space dedicated to board games, RPGs and Magic: The Gathering. I had often walked by the store with a sense of nagging curiosity. As a filmmaker, I’m fascinated with communal storytelling games, particularly Dungeons and Dragons, which I know little about except it’s a Role Playing Game – an RPG — and involves some complicated looking multi-sided dice.
So, I met up with Lauren Bilanko, who started Twenty Sided Store with her boyfriend in 2011. I walked in the door at 10am on a Friday, an hour before opening. Twenty Sided was packed, albeit neatly, with stacks of obscure board games, decks of magic cards and rows of figurines. Half the store is dedicated to group gaming tables lined up like desks in the middle of the room, which sat alongside wicker baskets brimming with snacks, ready to host the day’s games. I had my eyes on the Cliff Bars. The space definitely gives off afterschool-program-in-a-Church-basement vibes, but in a good way.
Lauren and I launched right into D&D 101. As it turned out, Lauren also came from a film background, and many of her clients are actors and writers. “Dungeon Mastering is really no different than putting together a performance or writing a script,” she explained. And, like improv, part of the fun is in the not knowing, the creativity. “Nobody knows the ending, nobody knows where it’s gonna go,” she continued, “even the Dungeon Master — it’s truly shared storytelling.”
Each Dungeon and Dragons story is deeply rooted in the actors and their individual choices. Over the course of the game, players develop extremely detailed characters, embodying not only the caste, age, gender and, physical features associated with their persona, but also exploring their particular motivations. A character’s religion, their skills and their passions all determine crucial movements as the game advances. And when it’s time to roll the dice, the ultimate outcome is determined by the character’s personality. For instance, a higher level of “Charisma” can help a player elicit information more effectively from a townsperson, thus allowing them to move ahead.
“In the world of D&D, you can do anything and you can be anything. That’s the reason there are rules,” Lauren explained. “In real life, we have laws, and Dungeons and Dragons is kind of like that. You can break [those rules] as long as everyone knows what they are, but it’s like a vocabulary — if anyone gets out of line, you can always fall back on the law.”
There was a universal truth to Lauren’s take, particularly in terms of writing and certainly script writing. Structure is vital to good storytelling. In D&D, the Dungeon Master is responsible for enforcing those rules. Like the director of a film, they interpret the script through their own lens. And like a good director, a good Dungeon Master brings a personal touch to the game.
And Lauren’s personal touch is all over the Twenty Sided Store. People come to the store from all over the world, not just to buy the newest fantasy playing card or gaming kit, but for the community the store offers — a community built on imagination and cooperative storytelling, what could be better? Plus, it’s a different way to make friends. “You can meet someone on an intellectual level rather than in a drunken stoop,” added Lauren with a smile.
As our interview ended, Lauren invited me to come back later that night for a game of D&D. “Absolutely,” I told her, more curious now than ever before. “Can I have a Cliff Bar too?”