The founder of ‘Legend’s Lair’ in Co Down explains what really is the true power of the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons
After living in lockdown for a year and a half now, and possibly not stepping foot on a plane for even longer, the thought of transforming into a new magical identity and exploring a world of fantasy as a form of escape has never before been so appealing.
For a group of friends from Co Down, the game Dungeons & Dragons has offered just that, and more.
The game, better known as D&D, first rose to popularity in the 1970s and has built up a cult following over its almost 50-year history.
Players in the game take on the role of a character in a fantasy world and collaborate together to pursue quests, fight villains and collect treasure on a journey led by the ‘Dungeon Master’.
Just a short stroll from the bustling Newcastle promenade, overlooking the Irish sea, lies ‘Legends Lair’, a place full of magic and mystery offering friendship, adventure and an alternative way to see the world we live in through the medium of this popular roleplaying game.
Each week, local enthusiasts meet to play a range of tabletop and trading card games from Magic, The Gathering, Pokémon and Yu Gi Oh, to the epic ongoing campaign of Dungeons & Dragons, the game which started it all.
Legends Lair CIC (Community Interest Company), was created back in May earlier this year by Newcastle man John Murray who wanted to create a safe space for gamers to meet other like-minded people, gain new skills and enhance personal development through the creativity of gaming.
John says that the group began with just a few of his friends who wanted to get together and learn how to play the game, but it soon turned into something more when he discovered the benefits D&D could bring.
“My brother and I would play often and then some of our friends got interested and it’s kind of just grew from there,” says John.
“During lockdown we weren’t able to meet in person, some of us played online, but there is something special about meeting up with others and playing in person.
“We started meeting up initially to go for a walk and catch up with one another before we started playing and I think it did wonders for all of us in terms of our physical and mental health,” he adds.
“I thought that this would have wide-reaching benefits to so many other people who are struggling at the minute or feeling isolated, and that is when I pursued Legend’s Lair as a social enterprise.
“There really aren’t many spaces like this in Northern Ireland for people interested in D&D or board games to meet, so I thought starting something small like this might hopefully see the interest grow and evolve to other groups across the province.”
John tells the Belfast Telegraph that “D&D is probably the most versatile game in the world.”
“Players improvise on the spot, create worlds that others could never even have dreamed of and really all you need to start your own game is some dice, a pencil, paper and your imagination and you’re ready to go!” he says.
“Little equipment is needed and really the game can be whatever you want it to be, that is what makes it so special.”
The group meet each weekend at Connect and Chat on Central Promenade in Newcastle, a social enterprise which offers the space to meet, and is part-funded by the County Down Rural Community Network.
John says that he hopes to change people’s perspectives on gaming through the establishment of Legend’s Lair and to show how beneficial it can be for your mental health, especially during a pandemic.
“Many people hold this opinion that gaming is a waste of time,” he says.
“But it couldn’t be further from the truth, it can be educational, a vital source of socialisation with others and, through D&D in particular, it can offer an escape from everyday life.
“Men find it difficult to open up and talk about how they’re feeling, but when you’re playing the game, there may be things you would be able to speak openly about through your character that perhaps normally you wouldn’t if you weren’t roleplaying,” he adds.
“There are mostly men who attend Legend’s Lair at the minute, but we want to appeal for more women to get involved.”
He adds that the ‘three pillars’ that the game abides by can be extremely beneficial in helping to develop vital social and communication skills.
“The three pillars are combat, exploration and role-playing, and each of these aspects can teach some very important skills to benefit your mental health and teach you important life lessons subconsciously,” explains John.
“The role-playing aspect allows you to take on this new persona, whether it be a druid, a sorcerer or a rogue, in D&D you can be whoever you want to be and generally people like to create the very best version of themselves.
“If perhaps you are not a very confident person in real life, you can become a confident warrior or magical creature in D&D, the possibilities are endless.
“For the combat aspect you can teach alternative ways of handling a situation instead of always fighting, and for exploration you can have the opportunity to experience different cultures and lands, all within the imagination of the Dungeon Master and the players.”
The idea of starting a gaming group originally stemmed from a campaign John ran at the local Newcastle YMCA as Youth Leader with a group of teenagers just two years ago.
The 18-month long game, which he launched back in September 2019, allowed local teens to take on a brand-new magical persona and explore the fictional world of ‘Mithral’ which John created especially for them.
He explains that, through this campaign with the younger gamers, he was able to teach them a variety of skills.
“From the outset, some people just see me talking to these kids about wizards and magic spells, but in reality, D&D can educate children a whole lot more than say, kicking a football, especially if that’s not your thing,” he says.
“I was quite introverted when I was younger and I loved using games as a way to learn more about the world around me, and that’s what I wanted to show the kids in the YMCA, that they can embrace their differences and, in the game, they can be whoever they want to be.
“It can also be very educational and teaches young people a range of important skills, from working as a team, learning how to employ a strategy, seeing things from a different perspective and even conflict resolution in certain circumstances,” he adds.
“I have run mini-campaigns with the younger ones which passively teach topics such as racism, global warming as well as gender and identity.”
He added that D&D can even be directly linked to educational subjects such as English and Maths.
“The storytelling can improve creative writing and the strategy side of things, for example if you have to create a spell you maybe have to calculate the radius of where it needs to reach dependent on where each player is using knowledge of Maths,” he says.
“Even calculating the different sided dice, starting at four sides right up to 20; you need to be able to be quick with your sums!
“The educational aspects to D&D really can be limitless and it’s all about what you put into the game, that’s what you get out of it.”
It’s not just John who has seen the benefits of it either, as the Newcastle man was approached just last year by the Education Authority and the PSNI about designing a campaign aimed at combating anti-social behaviour around young people.
“They saw the potential D&D had to changing the perceptions of these young people, whether it be anti-social behaviour, cyber bullying or whatever the issue may be, there is so much you can incorporate into a campaign using these fantastical worlds and characters, it can be tailor-made to suit all,” he says.
“And, it also helps keep both younger people and adults off their phones.
“Technology and social media really has taken over, but with these tabletop board games, roleplaying games and trading card games, it brings it all back to basics and gets people interacting and speaking to one another, something which I think can be easily taken for granted these days,” he says.
“I suppose this is essentially a technology-free group allowing players a break not just from their everyday lives but the world around them, even just for a few hours a week I think now, more than ever, this is needed in wider society.”
Legends Lair is a welcoming space for all over the age of 18 who are interested in learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons and a range of tabletop and roleplaying games.
To find out more about the group you can follow Legends Lair CIC on Facebook