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'A complete escape': For these Dungeons and Dragons players, games allow them to accomplish swashbuckling feats

The aroma of coffee grounds and baked goods looms in the air of Brick Road Coffee as music plays over the din of customers’ conversations. Against the walls are numerous pride flags and a towering bookshelf, next to which a new group had started to unpack their belongings: sheets of paper, bags of dice and a few statuettes of monsters.

Every Saturday evening at the coffee shop, Lawrence Yao leads a handful of attendees through a session of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a tabletop role-playing game, as the “Game Master.” His current campaign, or series of adventures, takes place on the fantastical high seas, where his players are all pirates on a ship. Later, the players groan and cheer as they make their way through swashbuckling battles at sea.

The Tempe-based coffee shop hosts many such events, including craft nights, writer’s circles and queer-centric social support groups, and events are open to all.

Yao was drawn to the coffee shop a year ago when volunteering to run the D&D games after the owners began looking for candidates. 

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to run a face-to-face game, because coming out of COVID, I hadn’t seen people’s faces for a long time,” he said. 

The event Yao leads is open-table and beginner-friendly, so people can come and go as they please. 

Sabrina Bailey is a barista at Brick Road Coffee. She noted the shop’s strong retention of regular customers, both among casual visitors and those who go to the events.

“I’ve worked at different coffee shops, and definitely here I’ve seen the most regulars,” she said. “The majority is college students, but we do actually have a surprising [number] of older people.”

Bailey said the queer-owned business works to provide a safe environment for all their customers.

“[The local community] is surrounded by this safe space where not just LGBTQ people but people who are neurodivergent, or any kind of minority-based group… have a safe space here,” she said. “We make sure it is always a safe environment for people who are looking for a place to relax.”

According to Bailey, this ideal is reflected in the store’s zero-tolerance policy, and in their flexibility to accommodate customers. She also said these goals were built around being an LGBTQ-owned business.

For Yao, this community is a critical factor, particularly in a post-pandemic environment. The coffee shop offers him the space to build his connections through collaborative storytelling.

“It’s that same type of plot camaraderie that you might have in improv or theater, where we’re having a shared experience,” he said.

Yao said the game allows participants to “basically try and do things that (they) would not normally get to do in real life.”

Mike Condame is one of the regular players at Yao’s table, but on Saturday evenings, he is Bart Roberts, the warlock pirate captain of the ship. Condame heard about the event online and has been coming nearly every Saturday for the last year.

“For me, [the game] is a complete escape once a week,” he said. “Everybody’s really nice and welcoming.”

“Sometimes I think maybe we’re a little loud,” Condame joked. “But besides that, it’s a good community.”

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