The skeleton shambles forward, red eyes burning like rubies in the dungeon's twilight contours. It must be defeated before the hunt for the jade katana can continue. The dwarf has failed to decapitate the fleshless specter. Now it's up to the gunslinger.
Gamemaster James Becker quickly scans his laptop. "Roll to hit.”
The player tosses a 20-sided die onto the table: 18. It passes the threshold for a hit. It would be customary for the player to roll again, the number on the second roll determining the amount of damage the phantom will take. But the hit roll is so high the damage roll is unnecessary.
"It's dead," says Becker. "Deader than dead. It's dead four-times over." It's a normal scene in The Wyvern's Tale, though the day of my visit, a Pathfinder Saturday, the gaming store/venue/cultural center is especially packed. Tables encircled by four to eight players consume the floor’s three rooms, surfaces buried beneath maps, laptops, guidebooks and dice.
"I'd say we get two to three dozen every time," says Becker. "Except for the food run at 5, everyone's going to be here till 10 o'clock."
It was only recently that Asheville had a property for performing such feats of derring-do. The Wyvern's Tale opened in June 2012, in a converted house on Merrimon Avenue. It was an instant niche. "It was something I had an inkling to do since college," says owner Simeon Cogswell. Fellow owner Deklan Green adds: "It really was a combination of timing and the right people."
Both Cogswell and Green have been fans of tabletop gaming since early childhood: Cogswell still owns the first guidebook his grandfather gave him. They met each other at the now-closed Blitzkrieg Games in downtown Asheville. When word came down that the owner was going to close the store, Cogswell decided to pursue an old college ambition. ”I had been talking to the owner for a while, and when he decided to move, I bought all their inventory,” he says.
The two-story location is split into the gaming area up top, where players can come on any night, and the first-floor retail section replete with games and other ancillary products. Card games hang on the front wall of the register. There’s even a cabinet of paints for miniatures. It's quite a selection, but both owners agree the retail itself is almost secondary. "Not everyone has the space to place these games,” says Green. “The most important thing to us was giving people that space."
A place to play
Tabletop gaming, more than other, more mainstream tentpoles such as comic books and video games, remain rooted in the realm of geekdom. The various intricacies, math-based structure and progression and fantastical settings tend the practice toward a natural niche. Yet there is a community.
According to Cogswell, it's a community that, locally, remains untapped. "There's a large market of geeks and nerds in Asheville that were not necessarily being catered to," he says. "You know geek culture is huge in Asheville. You have a bunch of Magic [the Gathering] stores, two comic book stores. You know the market is there. Asheville averages more [Pathfinder] tables than most major markets." But while there might be outlets for Magic the Gathering, there never was a great place to play tabletop games, even at Cogswell and Green's old haunt. "Blitzkrieg was great," says Green. "But it focused more on retail than space to actually play."
The two bet that a store focused more on giving players a good, friendly haven would bring in the clientele, and it paid off. "I've been coming since it opened," says Alyssa Smith, a player at Becker's table. "I was actively looking for a gaming place." Smith, the aforementioned wizard, plays the game with a calm sanguinity that only a seasoned vet exhibits. "I was lured in," she says, smiling. "And have been trapped ever since."
Though from the way it looks, it's a trap many don't mind falling into. The Wyvern's Tale has gamers playing every night. Many times — like Pathfinder Saturdays — vehicles overflow the meager parking lot. "People want to shop here because they have the space, and a place to play," says Green. "Their friends are here."
The friendship aspect is especially salient. The geek life can be a lonely one, in its stereotypical image, and both owners agree that the best part of tabletop gaming is not the fantastical, constantly changing stories, the intricacies of the dice-roll based advancement and action system, or the joy of building and maintaining your own character: it's in the interaction with other people. "You can only sit in a basement staring at a computer screen for so long," says Cogswell. "A lot of geeks are socially awkward. We've seen people come in here like that, but a few weeks later, they've grown comfortable around people."
There is a strong rapport among the players at Becker's table. "That's the best part of the whole thing for me," says Green. "The interaction with friends. I do, you know, play to win, but the point is being around friends." Youngest to oldest, male or female, all interact like an old team, supremely comfortable with one another, enabling them to clear the dungeon and complete their quests.