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Dragonslayers walk among us: Gainesville players discuss the rise and benefits of Dungeons and Dragons

Watch Above: Every Tuesday night, a kids Dungeons and Dragons group meets at Coliseum of Comics to learn how to play. They have all seen the academic and social benefits of the game apply to their lives. (Aubrey Bocalan/WUFT News)

In the basement of Fine Arts Building C at the University of Florida, there is a man who slayed a dragon.

His office is cramped and cluttered. Books are piled high, creating towers like castles. Ceramic sculptures of masks and elaborately detailed figurines peek out precariously from behind the papers.

From the doorway, the senior teaching lab specialist in ceramics looks normal.

However, Derek Reeverts, 47, is anything but that. He has played Dungeons and Dragons for 41 years. If you did the math correctly, then you know he was 6 years old when he first started. He laughed as he remembered how he got the original books and boxes.

“I saved up my allowance, got the box set and those crappy light blue dice sets that chipped,” Reeverts said. “And eventually, just all of them kind of became these round nuggets that you couldn’t really see numbers on because the plastic was so soft.”

Dungeons and Dragons has come a long way since Reeverts first started. The first edition of D&D came out in 1974. At the time, players could only choose between three classes (fighter, magic-user, or healer) and four races (human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit).

Now, there are 12 official classes and nine races in the newest 5th edition.

Reeverts played an elven fighter named Raenu.

Growing up, he said he was always an imaginative kid. He liked comic books, mythology and fantasy stories.

His father would read to him. He also remembered visiting nursing homes with his father. The people would tell him about their own lives and adventures. These stories sparked Reeverts’ own passion for storytelling in the form of tabletop role-playing games, or TTRPGs.

As he started to play, it also helped him develop an advanced vocabulary and stronger math skills—something his father appreciated.

“He was an English teacher, and I was coming up with words that I was using in sentences that even he wasn't familiar with,” Reeverts said. “It helps basic math skills, problem solving, and it does all sorts of things that really helped situate you as an adult.”

D&D has grown in more ways than one. Besides diversifying the characters players can create, it has also grown more popular since 1974, according to the official D&D website and an infographic created by Wizards of the Coast, a publisher of D&D.

Local gaming stores have also seen a rise in sales. Coliseum of Comics, previously known as Gamesville Tabletop, noticed a specific trend.

Alex McDonald, 31, manages the Gainesville branch of Coliseum of Comics. The first big spike happened when the Netflix show “Stranger Things” became popular in 2016. Characters in the show play D&D, which brought fans into the game.

“Every time a new season of that show comes out, we have another boost in sales,” McDonald said. “But it’s definitely stayed this time. For a while it would lull up and down.”

Reeverts thinks it’s great that more people are expanding the hobby.

In fact, every Thursday at 7:23 p.m. in the Reitz Union food court, a community of students gather to slay dragons of their own.

The building is eerily empty at this time. The gates are down. The lights are off.

But in a mildly secluded corner across from Pollo Tropical, scattered among multiple tables, members of Pair-a-Dice Gaming meet.

Their laughter echoes through the cafeteria. It started as a TTRPG club in 2015. But over the years, the club has expanded. Members started to bring their own board games to play.

Marissa Manley, 21, is president of Pair-a-Dice Gaming. She also had no experience with D&D when she came to the University of Florida besides the stories her dad told her.

“He would tell me all these ridiculous stories of his experience playing these games,” she said. “And I always thought to myself ‘Okay, look, the moment I have the chance, I want to play one of these.’”

The opportunity came when she walked into the rowdy Reitz Union food court during her freshman year for her first club meeting. She said she was scared and timid to join, but the members were very welcoming.

She played her first TTRPG, Honey Heist. In the game, all the players are bears.

Their goal? Steal a bottle of honey.

It was a sweet way to begin her D&D journey, she said. Now, Manley is part of a long-form campaign, a series of games connected to one storyline, where she plays a dark elf named Dr. Paydark Liadon.

“I will always encourage people to try and play because I think it helps a person—and it’s gonna sound cheesy—but it helps a person grow in a very multi-faceted way,” she said. “There’s something to take away from a D&D experience, and usually it’s positive and incredible.”

Every Tuesday at 5 p.m. at Coliseum of Comics in Gainesville, a small group of dragonslayers-in-training led by Michael Adam Underwood are learning exactly what that means.

Underwood, 37, has been teaching people how to play different games for several years, but teaching kids brings something else to the table, he said.

“Kids get excited about Dungeons and Dragons,” Underwood said. “So it’s particularly fun to teach them to play.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Underwood started a kids D&D group to help his own kids socialize. Throughout all of this, he has seen many benefits. His 13-year-old daughter, Imogene, has social anxiety.

Since she started playing, she has opened up.

“D&D gives me the chance to play as a character and actually feel like I’m saying something that makes sense,” Imogene said.

Developing simple math, reading, writing and drawing skills is obvious. But the game can also help people socially.

“You tell them that they’re playing a 6-foot-tall 300 pound giant tiger person, and they’ll start roaring at things,” Underwood said.

Two other players, 14-year-old Delia Hartless and 15-year-old Ellie Morales, have both seen the game help their social skills, they said.

Watch Below: Derek Reeverts, 47, has been playing Dungeons and Dragons for 41 years. It has played a large role in his career in art. His son has already started showing an interest in the game, and Reeverts is excited for the positive impact it will bring. (Aubrey Bocalan/WUFT News)

Another witness to the influence of the game is Reeverts’ son, whom he affectionately calls “Wolfboy” because he was born with small tufts of hair on his ears.

Wolfboy is 6 years old, the age Reeverts was when he first started playing Dungeons and Dragons.

Reeverts’ wife has a degree in English literature and is well versed in storytelling. Like Reeverts’ father, she tells their son stories. Eventually, Wolfboy slowly started interacting with her, asking to change events or add new ones, and they began building an impromptu story together.

“They were both adding and telling and modifying it as they go, and that’s what gaming is. That’s D&D. It’s just with some dice and some numbers,” Reeverts said.

Dungeons and Dragons has grown since 1974. The books and boxes are getting bigger. The references in popular culture are increasing. The community has grown bigger while the players have grown up. However, if there is anything the community wants people to take away it’s this: You are never too young to slay a dragon, and you are never too old to start learning how.

Aubrey is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.