Punchbowl: Lauren Bilanko, 20 Sided Store

Welcome to the Punchbowl, an interview segment about playing Dungeons and Dragons in 2017 and beyond. We talk to people who are pushing the game forward - creatively, communally, socially, just doing good work. Today, we sit down with Lauren Bilanko, the co-owner of 20 Sided Store in Brooklyn, NY. We talk about the rebirth of Fifth Edition, community building for all players, and how to sell Dungeons & Dragons without scaring away the customer.

Find her at @bilanko on Twitter, and find 20 Sided Store at http://twentysidedstore.com/ or IRL at 362 Grand Street, Brooklyn, NY. And here are Lauren’s “Master, Dungeon Master” posts she talked about in the interview.

The party continues on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr @JointhePartyPod! On our Patreon page (patreon.com/jointhepartypod), you can unlock exclusive bonus content like cut scenes, bloopers, character backstories, player blog posts, Dungeons & Dragons game tips, and so much more. Have stories or questions for the next Afterparty? Email hello@jointhepartypod.com or visit http://jointhepartypod.com/contact.

This episode of Join the Party is produced and edited by Eric Silver. Mixed by Brandon Grugle.


Transcript

Eric: Hello! This is Eric, your DM, and welcome to the Punch Bowl, the third episode of our interview segment on Join the Party. Even on our off weeks, I'm thinking about D&D, like what class my Roman Mars character would be. I’m going with sorcerer with an audio-mancer origin. But I'm also thinking about what it's like to be a player in 2017 and beyond. So I figured I'd put that to good use and talk to those who are pushing the game forward: creatively, communally, socially, just doing good work. The game store is the heart of the gaming community. Yeah, you can buy your books off of Amazon or someone sends you a ripped pdf from the web. But a game store gives you more than a DM screen at a reasonable price. It is a homing beacon for gamers, a real life place that exists by the sheer power of D&D excitement. It is a center, a base, a home. No one takes this homecoming more seriously than Lauren Bilanko, the co-owner of 20 Sided Store in Brooklyn, New York. We talk about the rebirth of Fifth Edition, community building for all players, and how to sell Dungeons & Dragons without scaring away the customer. From gaming space in the back of 20 Sided Store, this is Lauren and I at the punch bowl.

 

Eric: Walk me through where you found D&D

Lauren: I never played in like grade school or high school or anything, I have all younger sisters. But you know I've always been a storyteller. I've always made movies, I've always like kind of written even you know playing things with my sisters like you know things like now I'm like we're definitely role playing we just didn't have like official rules for them. And I moved to New York and my first group of friends we used to all sit around a table at what we called Fort Awesome, it was a big loft apartment here in Williamsburg and my friend, is like you've never played D&D? You would be so amazing. You need to play D&D with us. You cannot read the Dungeon Master's Guide but you're going to take my AD&D Player's Handbook home with you and we're going to build a character and we're going to play. And I was like. All right. And I literally read the book cover to cover and then of course the game never happened.

Eric: (Laughter) Always that's always the thing.

Lauren: But the crazy part about it is that like I finished reading it and I was really excited about it and I came home that night like a couple of nights after I had like read the whole book and gave it back to him. And I was like OK I'm ready to play let's get this game going. And there was a D&D starter box thrown out in the garbage sitting on top, like on the lid on the garbage can right outside my apartment with the dice still in it so my first dice

Eric: No

Lauren: Which i still have, like it was just like it wasn't even the dice that came in the game they were just like a mismatched hodgepodge of somebodies dice.

Eric: That's amazing you had like the juju on it already.

Lauren: I'm like I'm ready to go. I read the Player's Handbook and what character I want to play. And then it didn't happen until like a couple of years later and my friend, you know was just like oh you want to play D&D and I was like, yeah let's do it. And then we had like a five year campaign

Eric: Five years just right off the bat?

Lauren: Yeah.

Eric: That's crazy. Who is, who is your character.

Lauren: Well so it wasn't exactly Dungeons and Dragons it was GURPS. And so I read the AD&D handbook for nothing but that's OK you know. But yeah we played GURPS and we did a lot of like I sat with the Dungeon Master, my friend Troy and we built characters and then I never saw my character sheet again after that. Like he kept the character sheets and it was just like very like role playing based. I mean I guess he says all the time we rolled dice all the time. I don't I literally don't even remember rolling dice I just remember my friend Jaime would like bring his set of dice and it was a d6 system but he would always bring his full set just because he felt like he couldn't play D&D without the full set sitting there on the table. So yes it was great but we was set in the like 1920s in New York City because he decided well we're all kind of beginner players so set in a map where we're all familiar with and we all started off with two characters he thought it was going to be super deadly kind of Cthulhu-y. So I was like this high society woman who is a physicist sort of Tesla era. And like you know we kept getting into like total shenanigans and I was like we need a way to communicate. So I was like I wanna build a walkie talkie. And so literally it took almost our entire campaign for me to build this one way wave radio that like only worked five mile radius in one of the devices had to be stationed at my house. And the other one was portable. That literally took the whole campaign.

Eric: That is so cool though. That feels like such an artifact or like a Godly thing.

Lauren: And I kept thinking would be he was forgetting about it. So like every session I'd be like Okay where am I at with... How far am I working on this thing now you know. And really the payoff felt really good. I was like, “Alright, this is cool.” What I loved about when we were building the characters was you had this kind of like points system so the more awesome things you wanted you had to take all these like flaws. Every time you spent something on like some really cool ability you'd have to like have a smoking habit or like like some other thing like weird quirk.

Eric: I mean like same, in my life. It's like yeah I want to start a podcast but I also am never going to go to the gym ever again. That's my new flaw. So having something so flexible and I think even with 5e there's a lot of flexibility to put that stuff even into dungeons and dragons.

Lauren: Absolutely, yeah

Eric: I did some research.

Lauren: Yeah?

Eric: And you said one of my favorite ways that anyone has explained 5e. I just want to read it real quick. You call it the glue of all the editions no matter what edition you started on, no matter what edition you really love playing, fifth edition has a little bit of that in it and over the years Dungeons and Dragons is like a tree where everything piled on and on and on, edition, after edition, after edition. It added more stuff, it added more stuff, more stuff and more stuff and all of a sudden the top of the tree can't withstand the weight and it rip the roots right out. And then Wizards had to fix it. And I think that's so great. You think about a game system being like a tree and then eventually it falls over.

Lauren: I just couldn't withstand the weight of its own like what it had grown to become you know, so rebuild that core you know everything is based on the six ability stats and proficiency bonus. Now anytime you want to think about anything that you want to add to your game you're just like which ability set would that relate to, cool! Like now I can figure out, so if you want to homebrew or you want to do whatever you want to do. It makes super intuitive sense.

Eric: Yeah. When I read that I was like, yes 5e is like the canoe that you whittle out of this falling tree and you can like steer it wherever you want to.

Lauren: I literally say that every day. I think you know what it really is that people are afraid of change. And so you know the minute a new thing comes out you got to immediately just say all the things that you're unhappy about with it. Right. And so my whole thing is turning that around and talking about like well let's talk about all the positive things about it and all the things that it brings to it so sure, you don't like that it changed because you got used to playing the older edition and you felt comfortable with that but think about all things you can do now that it just makes so much more sense for all the people that you want to bring into the game and everything else that you want to do with it you know? So you can still play the way you used to play like that hasn't changed. But now you got more!

Eric: Exactly. And it's easier. Yeah. I'm such like a 5e person I learned on 5e. I can't imagine going back to a board at all. And I mean like I've even played 5e on a board and it's just like, that's cool and I'm glad that I got the chance to do it with that DM, but I can't imagine going backwards.

Lauren: And when 4 came out I was like oh 4 is so easy like for me. The rules seem like I understand how this works but I think there was this assumption that everybody who's going to play fourth edition has played D&D or knows what D&D is so they didn't like put a lot of the flavor into it. And then everybody's like, oh it's just like a video game or you know this or that. But I think the idea that like now fifth edition sort of entwines the flavor with the rules it's just, it's all there. And I think in fourth edition it was all there but you had to work a little bit harder to imagine it because you had to think about flavorfully what those numbers and what those mechanics mean. So even if like just figuring out just sort of the rules was easier. But now D&D's isn't just about the rules, right like rules are meant to be broken and it's about everything else that we're adding in this like shared storytelling experience and so at the end of the day if the rules don't support what he's trying to do those rules go out the window, you know?

Eric: I'm smiling because as the DM I just kind of be like, you guys do cool shit please. So it's like you're affirming my own DMing

Lauren: My favorite thing is like I just sort of like look across the table and if somebody wants to do something super ridiculous if everybody else at the table is like big wide eyed, like ohmygod that would be so cool we have to see that happen, I'm like done you do it. And if everybody's like rolling their eyes like oh man this again, you know that I'm like OK maybe a couple of checks let's see what happens.

Eric: Exactly.

Eric: I love this store. Right now we're recording in 20 Sided Store. I live in Brooklyn this is the closest board game store to me and I picked up a bunch of stuff. I bought my first dice set here, right from the rack over there. What did you expect running a game store in Brooklyn? And then how is that different in reality?

Lauren: Yeah. Well OK so this is also a whole 'nother story.

Eric: Oh i'm ready, you have the microphone in front of you I'm here for it.

Lauren: I never thought that I was actually going to be part of this. Luis was running Magic events and started a space with his friend Alice. So I since like 1999 live next door where Emmie's Pizza is now. But that used to be my studio and my apartment. And one day I was like on my way to a photo shoot and a good friend of mine who was a realtor is like standing out front this space here, where 20 Sided is now wearing a suit at like 8 am, and this is like a friend of mine who A: I've never seen in a suit and B: like is not up at that time of day, like as far as I know he's not a morning person. And I'm like, what do you do in standing in front of my apartment with a suit? And he's like oh well you know didn't you know like we're trying to you know rent out this space next to you and I was like what? Luis has been looking for space for his store forever and he's like Oh. Um... OK. You know what I'm going to call you tonight. And I was like OK. And like literally like two weeks later we opened the store.

Eric: Oh my God.

Lauren: Like no joke. I think we just like it just happened. And I was like Luis don't worry about it. We got this, all the money I've been saving for this film I've been making like I'll just throw it into the store and I'll just work there because at the time we were primarily an event space Monday through Friday we were open I think from like 6:00pm to midnight or five to midnight or something. So I was like I'll just book my shoots in the morning I'll come in, I'll run the store until you get off of work and so like in our minds I was going to still you know be doing photography full time he was going to still be doing programming full time and like within like a week. This became our full time job.

Eric: That's crazy. That's. So your expectation was, I'm not going to work here. And what happened was you're now running a gaming store!

Lauren: Just full on, all about it. This is my life now but yeah, I mean just my family's in the food business, cafes, restaurants that sort of thing so I was like, in my mind I was like well games, cafes... they're not that different. So I like the whole model of starting this business was really the same as like what my experience was running cafes and you know I just kind of have a knack for selling things and talking to people about things and just kind of happens. You know

Eric: I can't believe you gave up the money for this movie to do this thing that was totally different.

Lauren: Yeah, It's all shot. It still needs to be edited. One day...

Eric: It's going to happen!

Lauren: One day it's going to happen. It's going to come out. Working title ST3, I don't know what the real title is going to be. But Science Team Three will one day become a real thing. Just keep your eye out for it.

Eric: Truly the foundation of this game store is artistic endeavors. But do you feel like your artistic ideas bleeds into like your gaming?

Lauren: I've always sort of like the narrative aspects of storytelling. And instead of making movies right now I'm just doing it in writing for the D&D adventures. So everything that I would have been putting in to sort of my creative storyboarding work for that just goes into storyboards for D&D adventures and making little zines that we sell here in the store and they're projects that are quicker, easier to produce, and reach way more people who are, I think directly interested in exactly that, just because it's like the whole outlet of everything is kind of all intertwined. So it's like there's already a built in audience where you know sometimes with my other work you make it first and then you figure out who your audience is. But in this case I'm like making work specifically for this audience which is really challenging for me as an artist and as a writer and to me it doesn't really feel different I feel like I'm just doing all the same stuff. I'm just the outcome of the way that it actually gets out into the world is just filtered a little bit differently

Eric: In the Vice article you talked a little bit about the gender makeup of people here. You said that the gender makeup was about 60 percent male and 40 percent female. Is that like the most noticeable thing about the people who play games here or is there something else that stands out about the players who play at 20 sided store?

Lauren: So I put out a questionnaire to anybody who's on our email list you know sort of across the board of like why do you play in a public place like why not just play home?

Eric: Right.

Lauren: The most common answer that I got was to meet people. And so I think what I'm coming to realize is that what we're doing here and why we're able to get the perspective of having more females engaging in a public space to play rather than just playing in their homes is that we created an environment that's super welcoming. I randomize the seeding every week so there's no cliques that are happening. I really try to encourage people meeting new people and socializing with other people and also that we don't get stuck with somebody that maybe you don't like for six or eight weeks too. You know that like, OK I'm going to this public place and I'm risking my comfort zone to be in a room of strangers where maybe I don't feel that comfortable I'd much rather just be at home and play with my good friends and drink some beers and just know that like it's just cool and there's no pressure and there's no anxiety involved. I think this stems for males and females or just anybody. Right like we all have these sort of insecurities when you're sort of going into a public place and feeling like you're kind of on the spot. And so we try to just make that as casual and as like beginner friendly as possible especially for the roleplaying games and the board games. Tournaments, you know obviously like you need to know a little bit about it, it's in a competitive atmosphere and those are just like literally marketed differently. And so I'm trying to sort of brand our events so we have like the socials and the spotlights and the socials whether it's a magic social or a D&D social or a board game social is going to all be about learning how to play, meeting new people and just sort of feeling comfortable in the space. And I think that that's the start. You know I don't know what the final solution is. I think that it still is tough. Right now or back space is sort of closed off and I do that for multiple reasons. But in the beginning you'd come into the retail store and you could just see right into the game play space. And I think that was also kind of intimidating for people. As a player you don't want people watching especially if you want to get into doing the voices and you want to get into doing those kinds of things like, you don't need somebody who's shopping up front peeking in and listening in. What it does is it sort of creates this feeling of like OK like I mean like this space for everybody who's back here is doing the same thing. We're all in it together. There would be these times where we would have these tournaments that would be for whatever reason no females would have signed up for it. And so you just see this like sea of men and then Luis is working the front counter and he'd call me down from wherever I am just be like could you just come and just be in the store because you know just anybody comes into the retail and then we don't sell games because you know a woman comes in to just buy a board game and is just like oh my gosh maybe I'm not in the right store.

Eric: I want to know about the X Card. That was something that I also read in the article. I thought it was really interesting. So tell me about the X Card?

Lauren: Yeah absolutely and it's not something I invented in any way shape or form but realized it was super crucial. So what the X Card is and what it represents whether it's physically on the table or not is just the idea that at any moment at any time if you want to change the subject for whatever reason you can just tap the X card. And so that's also just kind of going back into the comfort zone thing. So roleplaying games can you know, you're slaughtering people and you're cutting their heads off and you're describing your killer, blood is gushing all over a wall, you know and depending upon the context and where you are and what's happening I mean maybe that triggers some memory of something that happened in your life and all of a sudden you're like oooh, X Card. And that's an extreme situation, maybe it's just as simple as like OK this banter is going on for too long and this is making me uncomfortable. Let's move on. You know so the person who introduced me to me was also saying like the DM usually uses it more than the players use it. But I think even if it never gets used at all just the fact that it's there and that it was mentioned at the start of the game also just kind of makes everybody feel a little bit more relaxed.

Eric: I just didn't even know the mechanics of how it worked.

Lauren: Yeah.

Eric: Like I didn't know it was like a card you take off the boards to like inform the staff or if it was like a game play mechanic. But it sounds like it's like a lot more...

Lauren: It's like a social contract.

Eric: Yeah

Lauren: Yeah. I mean I don't even think like, I have it in our bin of DM tools and it's literally never been put on the table since like probably the first year we were open. And I first introduced it, I think now it's just kind of like the DM just sort of says hi I'm your DM we have this thing the X Card kind of thing, it's just like the idea of it.

Eric: Right. We've hit on us a little bit but I think you've thought critically about making a safe space for everyone to participate. Why is it a priority for you to create a safe space for all gamers?

Lauren: This is another story I'll tell about when I was in high school and I was really in to, I'm going to date myself here, I was really really into underground punk rock music before you know before the Internet. Before I could just Google bands and you know look up things, so the only way to do was to go into a record shop and flip through the bins and at the time it was just rock everything was rock. There was no metal there was no punk there was no hip hop or you know none of the genres were defined. So you know you flip through and you find the album that you think is the one and you're way too nervous and embarrassed to ask the really cool person behind the counter if this was actually something I was going to go home with. And it was like my only 20 bucks that I was blowing on like these three albums or whatever. And then I get them home and it's like not at all what I thought it was. You know I was just like judging it based on the art or kind of an idea. And then you know so many times I was like, only if I were to just ask. But like, I just didn't feel comfortable to ask.

I never want anybody to come into my store and feel uncomfortable. Most of the people that come in here don't know all these titles. Literally haven't played a game since like Monopoly on our sign up sheet it says RPG and people are like, what is RPG? It's not a household concept you know. I mean hopefully we'll get it to there. But you know we used to joke, it's like OK well if you ask somebody if they've ever played a board game they're like oh yeah sure you know Scrabble, Monopoly, whatever. What about Dungeons and Dragons? It's like well you know I've heard of it but I never played you know like my older brother played or you know some friends play but like you know they never let me like in their group or whatever. So I was always kind of thing I was like never allowed to do.

Do you know Magic the Gathering? It is the other thing that we kind of focus on here. Nobody's heard of it, but at the time too that was our whole, you know Luis was running Magic events and Magic tournaments and our whole business sort of was modeled around Magic the Gathering, the board games and the role playing stuff kind of came after the fact. And so it is just crazy to think that you can build an entire business about a game that nobody's ever even heard of. I mean now you know, now that we've been in business for six years and you know Wizards of the Coast have been working really hard to you know make with video games and other things making them a little bit more mainstream but six years ago it was still sort of like What?

When you're in this world and or when you're in just anything, when you're when you're serious about something and you do something all the time you forget what it's like to come at it never having done it before. You forget that these terminologies and these words that you're just throwing out there mean nothing to somebody who's not immersed in it. There's this idea that anybody who comes in the store I immediately want to be like, ask me any questions. I'm assuming that when you come in here you don't know any of this stuff and if you do. Awesome. But if you don't I'm here to help!

Eric: And as someone who has talked to you for about 15 minutes just about Sentinel's on the Multiverse I can safely say so, you can talk about anything. So. I mean I'm sure you have these conversations with anybody.

Lauren: I mean people are like, do you have any two player games? And you're like, do we?! You know like, really I just didn't even think that that was even a thing that, that even existed. You know like let me show you 20 and they're like OK now I'm overwhelmed. And then I'll back off.

Eric: Just, here's Hive, just buy Hive. I saw the story that you told about, there was a kid running around a coffee shop and you were working on a campaign. His mom was like trying to pay or just like keep track of him. And you showed him the Monster Manual.

Lauren: It was amazing.

Eric: Tell me, please tell me more about that.

Lauren: So I always go to the Lodge up on the corner and it was actually the owner's wife and she's got like so many kids and it was like it was like last day of school so not only were her her kids was like all these other kids and they are running around and she's trying to like gather everyone and I was just working on the thing and so I just was like hey guys why don't you come sit over here and take this book you know. So her son takes it and he just was like flipping through the pages and he's just screaming he can't even read and he's like AHH!. You know like, like it was the most amazing thing, and every page he is just getting super excited and getting louder and he's like immersed in it for like literally he flipped every single page and you know was sitting still for 10-15 minutes and she was like, he doesn't sit still for anything, ever, like ever. And actually that sort of spawned me asking people like how did you first get into D&D. The majority of people that I asked said the Monster Manual.

Eric: Thinking about that, have you had any other experiences with D&D or anything that has happened with 20 Sided Store that has just like affected you, like how you might have started this kids love of D&D.

Lauren: Yeah, there are people that were afraid to tell their friends that they played Dungeons and Dragons or kind of kept it in the basement so to speak. Right. And so like now we've made playing these kind of games cool and not just 20 Sided Store, I think you know, it's happening everywhere which is also exciting but that's the idea is that like, wear it. Show it off. Be proud that you're into these things and be proud that you're excited about these things. I never really think about it until like a customer comes back to me and is like tells me these stories about their lives you know so really being able to like I'm not always like aware of how I'm affecting people or touching their lives or influencing their things. I mean for me I do it because I'm passionate about it and I love it and I want other people to love it. But when people come back to me and tell me their experiences I feel like you just need to interview all my customers and ask them that question.

Eric: I'll come through and hit them up.

Lauren: Running the events, is it's not like it's the most profitable. It's not profitable but it's generating the community and the environment and everything that kind of goes along with it is where then it makes it worth it to do it financially. But it's so rewarding to do it just on a personal level. And so I've been writing. I mean I haven't written an article in a while, I actually have one in the queue that I want to write for Wizards of the Coast called Master Dungeon Master. And it's not about me being the master dungeon master it's master comma dungeon master like I'm talking to you, Master, dungeon master, I have a question for you. But the idea is that what we do in a story is different than what you do at home and what you do in a convention and it's about people coming together and being able to meet people and you know all the things we talked about already. But that other stores can do this too.

So what I really enjoy is saying OK I figured out these things and we didn't know anything when we started and there aren't really any tools out there for stores. There's a ton of information for doing something for home play or doing something for conventions but there's nothing out there for other stores like me who are trying to get this organized and trying to do things like this and it's a lot of work and it can be really grueling and really grinding and you know at the end of the day sometimes you're like oh this is the greatest thing I did ever and then other times you're like why, why am I doing this. You know and you know it's just like anything in life you have bad days you have good days you know. And so from an organizational standpoint I think there are a lot of things that we've figured out and I want to be able to share with other store owners or other organizers who are trying to do organized play and trying to establish communities like this and grow their communities from one table to four tables to seven tables or whatever they can fit in their stores you know.

Eric: Yeah. You're so good at describing games explaining why they're fun and then selling them to people and making sure they leave with this thing. So I just really I have one challenge for you.

Lauren: OK.

Eric: If someone walked in and saw the starter pack and said like oh what's this could you think you could sell it to me?

Lauren: The D&D starter box?

E: The D&D starter box.

Lauren: That's so easy

Eric: Then do it! Please hit me with it.

Lauren: Alright. So have you ever played D&D before?

Eric: I've mean I've heard about it. I watched stranger things.

Lauren: Oh yeah absolutely totally. Then you definitely want to go with the starter box. Because in it not only is there a module that kind of walks you through how to run the game as you're running in it. But there's also another booklet that you can share with the players that has all of the rules and everything kind of easy to reference. And there's all kinds of materials and support online to take you further if you want to go there, it comes with a set of dice. Pretty much everything that you need to get started.

Eric: I mean that sounds really hard, do you think I could be a dungeon master. I've never done anything like that before.

Lauren: Well it's a collaborative storytelling experience and so you're a player at the table too and you want to just make sure that you're sort of thinking about Point A to B what is the story you want to tell. And then from there don't worry about all the little details don't get super like engrossed in all the things just sort of let the story kind of happen naturally and sort of give the other players an opportunity to sort of add to the story and add to the world as you go. If you have any questions you can email me. I'm happy to answer any questions and we do learn to play classes all the time and learn to DMing classes all the time so you can just pick my brain. But the book itself and everything in here is very self-explanatory for first time Dungeon Masters

Eric: I'm sold! I'm going to buy it. Give me everything else

Lauren: Give it to me!

Eric: All of those board games I want them. All right. I guess that's everything I have. Is there anything you want to plug or anything you want to shout out the store?

Lauren: This is a 20 Sided Store. You can find us on social media @20sidedstore or 20sidedstore.com.

Eric: All right. Thank you Lauren. This was great.

Lauren: Awesome thank you!