Dungeons, Dragons and Stragglers

By Noah Cullen/El Inde

Here’s a scene: A straggler walks in. It’s obvious he’s a traveler from the stiffness in his legs, the mud on his boots and the weariness in his step. The bard plucks the wrong string and mutes the harp. He shakes his head. The straggler walks right to the bar and from his hooded face comes the demand for mead. 

He sits down, adjusting his belt and sheath, and crosses his forearms. His body is covered with light, studded leather. The bard starts again.

Sound familiar?

The straggler could’ve hailed from Middle-Earth as seen in Lord of the Rings, or perhaps it was Westeros from Game of Thrones. Or maybe he was escaping the dragon-riddled sky of the video game world, Skyrim. Maybe he came from any number of the worlds within Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). The point is, any of it could be straight out of a book or game scene. 

These are the imaginations of the fantasy-themed bar called The Short Rest Tavern. The bar sits in the back of the game store, Tucson Games and Gadgets, located in the Tucson Mall. The game store has been there for five years, and the bar opened its doors two years ago. In a short time, it has become a haven for a local sect of the nerd community or other regular, curious mall shoppers.

Dimly lit, the bar offers a variety of beer including ales, pilsners, sours or stouts. And it sells mead as well, a type of alcohol that comes from the fermentation of honey, and many different bottles of it. Classic drinks are also offered, with names like the “Witches Blood” for a Bloody Mary or “Sauron’s Tower” for a Whiskey Sour.

Drinking at the bar is secondary to the board game playing that takes place inside the game store on Fridays and the Dungeons & Dragons nights on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The hallway entrance to the bar is stocked with games that can be played at the tables set up beyond the bar. A catacomb of D&D character cards all with the word “DEAD” written in red pen all over them, also adorn the hallway. Among many other characters, the wall includes a memorial for the Dragonborn Barbarian named Vetle.

Tom Garretson, 36, manages the bar. He likes to wear his hat backward and sports a bushy brown beard. The game store has been here for about five years and the bar opened two years ago. Initially, the idea was for the bar to be in Phoenix, around the Arizona State University campus, but it ended up not being feasible because the owner, Mark Kadow, didn’t think the profit could keep up with the rent. There was also doubt about the success of such a bar within such a student-centered area. Then Kadow thought about opening it in Tucson because he already had the game store inside the mall and some extra space. He was able to raise the funds with a crowdfunding campaign, raising $13,714, according to the Short Rest Tavern Kickstarter page. Garretson has worked at the bar now for one of those years. 

Originally from Minnesota, Garretson moved to Tucson for a couple different reasons: He wanted a change of scenery and his dad was already living here. He’s also more than glad that the only snow he sees is blanketed up on the mountains. 

Growing up, Garretson and his friends would play their own made-up version of D&D. He played classic ‘80s and ‘90s video games like Zelda, Metroid and Mortal Kombat. He remembers frequenting a local comic book store. 

“It was literally a hole in the wall,” he said. “That was the only dedicated comic book store there in town. There were other stores that did comic books and games and kind of everything in the tabletop genre.”

I sat at the bar and asked Garretson about his life and his nerd history (on a one-to-10 nerd scale, Garretson ranked himself as a “solid seven.”) I figured I needed to order some mead, (was there a better place to try it?) so I asked him during one of my visits which kind he recommended. While gesturing to the fridge to the side of the bar, he described a brand of mead called Chaucer’s as the “Budweiser of mead,” and then, pivoted to recommending me a triple berry flavor. I enjoyed it, though I doubted a straggler within any fantasy world would be lucky enough to have been given such a sweet, delicate type of mead.

While Garretson recounted his past trips to comic book stores and playing games, it reminded me of my dad. I’ve always played games like these growing up because of him. I still do. I played fantasy games with my friends throughout high school and I’m currently playing a game called Gloomhaven with my dad, uncle and brothers. Every Sunday, all of us meet at my parents’ house for dinner and a game—it’s a ritual my mom loves to make fun of us for. 

Garretson has many years of experience in the service industry. He worked at Coffee Times, a drive-thru coffee shop on Speedway, for seven years; he also delivered pizza just prior to working at the Short Rest Tavern. He enjoys the atmosphere and said  it’s the only bar job he would have because it’s typically more relaxed than bars on Fourth Avenue and people come for something more than just alcohol.

During my first visit to the bar, some customers could be seen playing games with boards that span the entire table and with hundreds of pieces. I also saw a pair of people playing Uno in the corner. 

“I’d say it’s definitely open to everyone, especially being right here in the mall,” Garretson said. “But I mean the people who identify with it, I don’t have any problem with them seeing it as a haven and a safe space for them because it is, there’s really not a lot of places like this where they can go.”

In recent decades, traditional facets of nerd culture seem to have been pushed more to the mainstream. Instead of sitting on shelves in comic book stores, the Marvel Universe is now something that has amassed such a wide fan base and dominates the movie industry. According to Box Office Mojo, a website owned by IMDb that tracks box office revenues, the highest-grossing movies were made by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in six out of the past 10 years. According to Rotten Tomatoes, “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) is the second highest-grossing movie of all time.

The extent of this shift doesn’t end at Marvel.

“I saw that start to turn around when Lord of the Rings came out, when they had the live action movies first come out,” Garretson said. “Critical Role happened, Stranger Things happened, and it snowballed. I feel like it was a perfect storm like you had Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and the whole Marvel series take off and then you had video games,” he said. “You just can’t ignore that nerd, niche genre coming out or just that group of people.”

An example of this could be a game called Settlers of Catan, a lightly fantasy-themed game of settlement building and trade. The board is created by connecting hexes of different resources, wheat, brick, rock, sheep and wood which are obtained by players placing their settlements on the intersections of the hexes. These resources are then used to expand, build roads, more settlements, cities or knights. My dad used to only be able to find the game in game stores, now it can be found in Target or Walmart. It was released in 1995 and has since sold over 40 million copies, including its variants, according to the game’s website. Surprisingly, Garretson admitted to never having played it. 

“The board game industry, I think, is having a resurgence now because of Covid and everybody being a little more focused on being home now,” he said. “I think it’s helped refocus people’s attention on board games.” Garretson also said the pandemic may have pushed some D&D players to move to online formats. Some players were already accustomed to playing over formats like Zoom calls or Discord. Though I’ve never played D&D and have never transitioned to these formats, I can understand how the pandemic has created a landscape where board games can be easier to access. 

Garretson plays D&D every other Monday with a group of seven, including the Dungeon Master, the player who creates the game and the scenarios for the others. In D&D, players create and customize their characters in any way they see fit, then these characters together face the obstacles and scenarios created by the Dungeon Master. They meet at the Dungeon Master’s house and set up seats around a folding plastic table. Everyone gathers and some bring drinks and food. Sometimes a bong is passed around. 

“We’re there for three to four hours and maybe an hour of that is just bullshitting and catching up because we don’t see each other that often,” he said. 

Two of the other players also work at the game store. Garretson’s D&D character’s class is a witch and his race is a Kitsune. He described the Kitsune as a “shapeshifting fox person.” His character’s role in the game is to make it harder for the enemy monsters to act.

“It’ll make it harder for them to hit or harder to save against any spells I cast on them,” he explained.

Even a game like D&D, Garretson thinks, is leaning more to the mainstream. A group of more hardcore nerds will continue to exist outside the mainstream but it’s hard to predict when the perception of something like D&D seems to be softening. 

“That whole nerd mentality of being a D&D nerd is still very much a thing,” he said. “It’s probably going to become a new-age hipster thing like ‘I was playing D&D before it got cool again’. And yeah sure, it may not become as household a game as Monopoly, but I think it’ll be a lot more frequent in households 10 years from now than it was when I was a kid.”

The current nerd community seems to be in a state that’s an amalgamation of varying degrees of nerdiness. But that doesn’t have to be unwelcoming. Breaking into the communities of the more niche, hardcore, complicated games can be a daunting task. Quite as daunting as breaking into a literal new world—but it should also be a fun and freeing experience. 

“Everybody that comes here is very open to accepting somebody new and showing them the ropes and letting them know what it’s all about,” Garretson said.

The Short Rest Tavern does seem to be placed right in the middle: It’s a place that caters to the most devout of nerds who crave an immersive experience. But it’s also a welcoming place for any curious straggler who may wander in.

Perhaps like the one I see at the bar, still. Two tankards sit in front of him, small pools of residual golden liquid begin to solidify on the bottom. His hood is down now and his black hair is allowed to hang. The bard has begun to pluck slower as the night wanes. Still perched over the wood of the bar, his head turns. But what does he look like? Where does he come from? Where might he be going? What are his intentions? His motives? These questions are for you to decide.

The Short Rest Tavern. Photo courtesy of Tom Garretson.

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