Chucking dice and fighting monsters are all part of an average day’s work for staff at Cubicle 7 Entertainment. A visitor to the company’s nondescript headquarters in a business park on the outskirts of Balbriggan, in north Co Dublin, might, on any given morning, find employees around a table enthusiastically wielding pen and paper while nattering about goblins and Time Lords. It would be just another stretch at the office for these creatives, who work in the booming tabletop-gaming industry.
“It’s good fun,” says Dominic McDowall, Cubicle 7′s chief executive. “A lot of it is running a business like any other. But I love coming into work.”
Tabletop gaming has been around since the early 1970s, when two Wisconsin nerds created a new way of passing the time and christened it Dungeons & Dragons. It was the world’s first role-playing game, or RPG, where players take on fantastic alter egos, slay monsters and cast spells – all of which typically involve rolling 20-sided dice and choosing your character’s path of advancement.
[ Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves – Unpromising material, great film ]
The hobby bumped along for decades. Today it has entered its imperial phase. Dungeon & Dragons has featured on Netflix’s Stranger Things: Vecna, the baddy from season four, is named after an undead D&D wizard. Just as influential has been the rise of “actual play” videos, where streamers such as Critical Role broadcast their RPG sessions in real time. And now comes the inevitable next step: an official Dungeons & Dragons movie starring Chris Pine and Hugh Grant, unfolding in the beloved D&D setting of the Forgotten Realms.
Hand in hand with the mainstreaming of the hobby has been the growth of the tabletop gaming industry in Ireland. Cubicle 7 is one prominent example. Having relocated to Balbriggan from London (via Meath), it employs about 30 people directly at its headquarters, where it publishes games based on the popular Warhammer and Doctor Who universes, as well as recently launching its own Broken Weave postapocalyptic setting.
“My wife’s from Galway. We spent a fair amount of time in Ireland. It was always about choosing the time we moved back,” McDowall says. “We moved over in 2018 and kind of refounded the company here. Moving here gave me the chance to start to build it properly and put together an on-site team.”
Cubicle 7 isn’t alone. Pelgrane Press, which publishes the popular HP Lovecraft horror game Trail of Cthulhu, among other titles, is partly run from Bantry, Co Cork, by the game designer Cathriona Tobin. Up the road in Cork City, Gareth Hanrahan is one of the industry’s most esteemed game writers.
“The internet’s made it possible for me to be based in Ireland. Only a few years before I started you really had to be meeting publishers in person to get work, which meant going to conventions in the UK and, especially, the US,” says Hanrahan, who has written for games such Traveller, Runequest, Conan: The Roleplaying Game and The One Ring, a system set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
“There were a few small-press companies in Ireland, but they were very much at the hobbyist level. I always thought that a lot of the energy that might have gone into publishing in Ireland went into conventions instead. We used to have an incredibly strong convention culture for the size of our population. That’s rebalanced in the last few years – and Covid means there’s a whole generation of gamers who’ve missed out on conventions. Ireland’s too small, and too much a part of the Anglosphere, to have a domestic tabletop industry. We have more publishers based here than ever before, but all feeding into the US market.”
At the height of Ireland’s renowned convention circuit, leading designers from around the world made a point of visiting “cons” such as Warpcon, at University College Cork, Leprecon, at Trinity College Dublin, or the Irish Gaming Association’s Gaelcon event each October bank holiday weekend. He agrees that Irish people – never lacking for something to say – are a good fit for role-playing, which demands a vivid imagination and verbal dexterity.
“Lengthy, overly verbose and somewhat rambling anecdotes are indeed part of tabletop games – and, certainly, there are some storytelling games that were especially popular at Irish conventions,” Hanrahan says. “It’s oddly tricky to compare gaming across different cultures. It’s only recently that the idea of watching a tabletop role-playing game became possible. I wouldn’t overstate the correlation. I wouldn’t dismiss it either.”
Tabletop gaming is dominated by Dungeon & Dragons. This has led to resentment in some quarters: an angry segment of RPG Twitter witheringly refers to it as the “dragon game” and advocates for more obscure alternatives. In Irish gaming, the feeling is that there is space both for D&D and for smaller systems, such as Cubicle 7′s Doctor Who and Warhammer RPGs – and for Broken Weave, for which it recently raised €180,000 on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.
“There’s room for everything,” McDowall says. “It’s one of the wonderful things about the hobby. There is such an incredibly broad range of games out there, either to use and enjoy or as the basis for writing your own material. And of course writing our own stuff is what a lot of us have been doing in role-playing since we got into it.”
“This is somewhat like asking a small fish how it feels about the ocean. D&D doesn’t so much squish smaller games as smaller games exist in the folds and crevasses of D&D’s hide,” adds Hanrahan, who, in addition to his role-playing writing, is about to publish his latest fantasy novel, The Sword Defiant, “about what happens after the dark lord’s been defeated and the heroes have occupied his city of evil”.
“Tabletop role-playing outside D&D is not quite a rounding error, but it’s close. I think there are lots of other wonderful games that people should play that offer very different experiences to D&D, and I’d encourage D&D players to try other games. But it’s utterly central to the hobby.”
They also agree that Stranger Things and channels such as Critical Role have contributed to the RPG boom. As an ancient gamer who recalls the days when nerds were shunned rather than celebrated, I remark that it has been striking to see my kids get into the hobby – not via their embarrassing parents but through friends at school who discovered D&D on YouTube. It’s an entirely different paradigm.
“For a very, very long time, the hardest thing about gaming was explaining how it actually worked. The vast majority of games were made by other gamers – it was almost an oral culture,” Hanrahan says. “The rule books could describe how the game worked, but it’s so much easier to show someone. The rise of streamed games is very strange for gamers of my generation, though. The whole point of tabletop games is that you are the hero; you’re the one making decisions and shaping events. We never imagined that there’d be such an audience for watching other people play.”
Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is in cinemas now. Gareth Hanrahan’s The Sword Defiant is published by Orbit on May 4th. He will be signing copies at Waterstones in Cork on Saturday May 13th