Dusk settles onto the city and the light starts to fade. Several baristas slip one by one past a “Closed” sign and into Commissary Barber and Barista, arranging themselves at a corner table. Soon the surface of the table is littered with books, pens, paper, coffee cups, and dice.
“Let’s do it.”
“We let off on the deck of the Whistlepig, having just booked passage to begin the quest to find Mr. Thistlebelle's lost wife, can I get a constitution check?”
The baristas reach for their dice and each roll one D20.
“I got a five+seven.”
Indianapolis, Indiana is a coffee community with many events. But there is nothing quite like the monthly meeting of baristas who play Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a fantasy tabletop role-playing game that has been around since the ‘70s and is experiencing a recent upsurge in popularity around the country.
This group meets the third Monday of the month, either at coffee shops, or members’ houses. Known as Barista Bards, the group features a cast of four main characters and a rotating cast of guests.
The Dungeon Master takes a sip of her cappuccino and clears her throat:
“Alright, after dinner and a short rest, Taltos, you find yourself suddenly awake in the middle of the night.” She slowly looks around, pointing at one of the players.
“All around you is eerie quiet, none of the usual sounds of busy ship’s crew, and as you look out the window you notice a thick, viscous fog surrounding the boat.”
“What do you want to do?”
Taltos, a rogue wood elf with red hair and copper skin springs out of bed and nudges his companion, Thurk (pronounced hurk, silent T) a dwarf barbarian.
Thurk rolls over—a difficulty, since he is as thick as he is tall—grunts, and goes back to sleep. Taltos gives up on the idea of getting Thurk out of bed and stealthily sneaks up onto deck, looking around apprehensively.
“All you see is the fog surrounding the ship, all you hear are waves lapping against the sides of the ship, UNTIL you see a crumpled shape near the wheel, do you want to go closer?”
Taltos tiptoes up to the figure, coming closer, he realizes that the skin is disfigured, the entire left side scalded beyond recognition. Taltos turns and runs to his employer’s cabin:
“I need you!”
A rotund gnome wearing a nightdress and slippers clears his throat.
“Ahem” blinks slowly and says condescendingly.
“The name is THISTLEBELLE.”
Everyone around the table laughs, startling the barista at the counter counting money. The game breaks so the manager can check her close; this was, until only a few moments ago, a working specialty coffee bar. He gives her a thumbs up and heads back to the table.
“Thistlebelle snaps his fingers and his familiar, an orange fox, jumps on Thurk, sniffing, pawing, and poking his wet nose everywhere until Thurk wakes with a start ‘Garrrumph.'”
“No time for any of that,” Thistlebelle barks. “Let’s go!”
Much has been written about the cafe's capacity for community building; it is a concept as old as the cafe itself. But the social component of a life spent in cafes burns no less brightly for those who make it their chosen career path. In Indianapolis, the strength of the coffee industry's community has long been in League of Lattes, a monthly latte art throwdown series. But as the specialty coffee culture here has evolved, so have the ways in which coffee professionals connect to each other. The Indianapolis barista D&D group began last year with two baristas at Bee Coffee Roasters discussing past campaigns on a morning bar shift. As word spread, baristas from several shops expressed interest. There are now three separate campaigns combining baristas from smaller shops such as Bee Coffee and Commissary, alongside powerhouse shops like The Well and Provider (nominated for a Best New Cafe Sprudgie Award in 2018)
There are reasons so many coffee professionals are interested in D&D. Coffee culture often parallels nerd culture, with both communities built around unironic enthusiasm and pursuit of passion in niche interests. Specialty coffee as an industry is, in part, an exploration of the impact we can make through coffee in our world, reached through an emphasis on methodology and social interaction. While D&D is an exploration of fantasy worlds, players find success the same way, via social interaction and tactical methodology.
Both cultures reward geekery. Both cultures are increasingly inclusive. A female-identifying Dungeon Master—like a female-identifying roaster, cafe owner, or barista champion—used to be something unusual. Now it's just part of the fun.
After grabbing a round of beers, the baristas turn back to the business at hand.
“Alright, you’ve woken up Thurk and Mr. Thistlebelle and the three of you are standing on the deck when you realize there is a disturbance in the air around you, a green glow illuminates the outlines of a vague shape.” The DM pulls out several miniatures and arranges them on the deck of a ship drawn on tracing paper.
“Roll initiative.” (Initiative determines the order of turns during combat.)
Several dice clack their way across the table top.
“Thistlebelle, you’re up first.”
“You see an arm-like shape detach itself from the smoke monster in front of you, as it swipes the air, you duck, but it catches the edge of your shoulder, tearing the fabric of your coat and raising welts.”
“I want to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter.”
Thistlebelle turns to the creature with a wry smile on his face “How do you punish coffee?” He pauses. “You ground it!”
The entire table breaks into laughter and groans.
“Well, I am a coffee merchant.”
The DM rolls a wisdom save for the creature. “It’s a seven, they fall prone on the deck of the ship.”
Thurk: “Well at least that joke was good for something.”
Taltos and Thurk take their turns and one by one the rest of the miniatures disappear off the ship as they handily kill them off.
“Congratulations guys, you’ve won your first battle of the adventure.”
The baristas stretch, looking around the empty shop. Books, pens, and maps disappear into backpacks. Coffee cups clatter as the table is cleared.
“Same time next month?”
One by one the baristas put their coats on and slip out the door into the night, leaving the shop silent and dark.
Joanna Thompson is a coffee professional based in Indianapolis. This is Joanna Thompson's first feature for Sprudge.
Top image by Lara Antal.