House Rules: Dungeons & Dragons & Drinking

For ages the drinking game has united humans in riotous, often misguided consumption. In our monthly column "House Rules," Drew Lazor explores the history and pleasures of drinking games throughout time and around the world. This month: the role of drinking in Dungeons & Dragons, both in-game and out.

Any bad situation can be improved with a little whiskey. Even when a stinking, grunting ogre smashes your carcass into the mud with a club as fat as a mature sequoia.

It happened to me recently. My friends and I—a grandiloquent wizard, a moody woodsman, a kleptomaniac dwarf, a bombshell priestess and a tiny old lady dragging an ax twice her size—were doing our typical thing, trudging toward a creepy tower a few days’ journey from town.

Upon arrival, we were greeted, not by hot towels and trays of warm cookies, but by a committee of bloodthirsty troglodytes craving a fight. We scattered. They gave chase. I lodged a couple arrows into an ogre’s chest, which I could tell he did not appreciate. I tried my best to slink away and hide, but my best wasn’t good enough. With a single home run swing, he turned my ass into AstroTurf.

This was the precise moment I grabbed a shot glass, filled it with a healthy slug of Heaven Hill, dropped a funky-looking die in like a lump of sugar and slammed the lot down, praying to the appropriate gods that I swallow nothing but liquor. I spat the die back out, into a loaf pan that was likely intended for banana bread. The face-up number on the twenty-sided die was high enough to reverse time. I’d live to fight another day—and I’d gotten pretty buzzed in the process.

The fake me, the one who comes out to play every other Tuesday night, is a half-elf ne’er-do-well named Jack, a self-reliant rogue with nimble fingers, better-than-average acrobatic skills and mild abandonment issues. The real me, the one who decided it was a good idea to drink rail bourbon with a germy die floating in it, is a devotee of Dungeons & Dragons.

“Red wine is what we drink for combat—a pretty obvious correlation there,” says Tristan Migliore, a Dungeon Master who’s been leading his players on the same campaign for close to a year. At the conclusion of each session, he prepares the group a cocktail of red wine, whiskey and port he calls “Death at Night.”

In my gaming group, which includes several bartenders, the act of downing a treacherous shot to rectify a terrible situation is known as a “Quaff.” Eric Rillstone, who’s our Dungeon Master (DM)— D&D’s combo narrator, maestro and omnipotent referee—picked it up from Mike McNeeley, a gaming friend who lives in Northern California. For him and now us, drinking has become a fate-altering mechanic, influencing the outcomes of a pursuit that’s already endlessly complex when you’re sober. I’ve since discovered that we’re not the only ones. Whether it’s inspiring hazardous home-brewed rules or simply oiling the gears of a thirsty geekdom’s collective imagination, alcohol has a place in every adventurer’s inventory.

Like eating shrooms or driving stick, it’s difficult to explain how one goes about Dungeons & Dragons, mostly because there’s nothing universally understood to compare to it. Here’s my best shot: It’s a method of creative expression, capable of crafting a universe more vivid than any movie, television show or video game, entirely inside your head.

D&D, which has been celebrating its 40th anniversary for the past year with loads of positive press, begins with character creation. Each participant builds an alter ego from scratch, from race (think Tolkien-esque walks of life—elf, dwarf, human, halfling) and class (fighter, wizard, cleric) to looks and alignment (“lawful good” if you’re square; “chaotic evil” if you’re horrible). Once you’re ready, the DM throws the players into a world of his or her own creation—fantastical lands filled with magic and monsters and treachery and treasure, but also more rudimentary stuff, like towns with grumpy locals and streetside apple vendors. Quests are extremely fluid and adaptable, meaning players can technically carry on the same game for weeks, months or even years.

Embodying your character—zany voices are encouraged—you can basically do whatever the hell you want, and it’s up to DMs, who can be benevolent, tyrannical or both, to react to their players’ decisions and lead the action. This makes it unlike any other game out there. “If Clue was played like D&D,” writes David Ewalt in his book Of Dice and Men, “you could grab the lead pipe, beat a confession out of Colonel Mustard, and have sex with Miss Scarlet on the desk in the conservatory.” 

Every D&D group is different, but there are some situations that tend to crop up in every campaign. The greatest of the greatest hits—so common that it’s referred to as “The Cliché” in roleplaying circles—is all the characters encountering one another for the first time in an establishment that serves alcohol. This makes perfect sense from a logistical standpoint. “Bars are a dramatically convenient place to bring together a cast of characters,” writes Ewalt. “Where better for strangers to meet and decide to do something dangerous?”

But this tendency toward tavern-hopping also speaks to the parallels that exist between social gatherings in-game and social gatherings in real life—which is exactly what D&D is. And in-game or out, sharing refreshments tends to enhance the experience. “It’s a combination of togetherness and creativity and fellowship that is hard to replicate,” says Dalton Pownell, a Philadelphia-based gamer who’s been playing D&D since its invention in the ‘70s. He and his friends kick off every session with shots of Irish whiskey.

Other players, meanwhile, find value in massaging alcohol into gameplay, mainly as a lubricant that helps everyone slide into character. “If people have a problem talking in a weird voice when they’re sober, this will help them get right into it,” says Donn Stroud, a gamer from Michigan who hosts a podcast that touches on both craft beer and tabletop games. A couple pints, in his eyes, can do wonders stimulating the parts of the brain responsible for improvisational thinking—the essence of good roleplaying.

Nika Howard, one of the principals of the podcast Drunks and Dragons (exactly what it sounds like), plays with some other gamers who look down on boozing at the table, for fear it will compromise the outcome. “[Drunks and Dragons] is actually the first group I have played with where drinking while playing is OK,” says Howard, who tends toward cabernet or vodka during sessions.

Though the Drunks and Dragons crew doesn’t integrate drink into their game in any functional sense, à la the Quaff, they have encountered some prime examples of the practice in the past—a friend who insisted on shotgunning a beer anytime anyone rolled a 20, for example. Patrick Hogan, a journalist based in New York, followed a tongue-in-cheek rule during his time living in New Mexico: If players were stricken by a streak of crappy rolls, they’d shoot tequila as an offering to the malevolent dice demons.

Tristan Migliore, who also lives in New York, has two jobs—he works for Whitecliff, his family’s Hudson Valley winery, and he serves as the DM for a D&D campaign that convenes in his Manhattan apartment every Thursday. Naturally, the vocations intermingle. “Red wine is what we drink for combat—a pretty obvious correlation there,” says Migliore, who’s been leading his players on the same campaign for close to a year. At the conclusion of each session, he prepares the group a cocktail of red wine, whiskey and port he calls “Death at Night.” And in the unfortunate occasion that a character actually perishes? “I’ll open an expensive bottle of wine,” he says. 

The concept of mourning in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, however, is not reserved for heroes who’ve been hacked to bits by orcs or impaled in a pit of poisoned spikes. For players whose lives have led them away from the table, reflecting on good times spent gaming evokes a particularly wistful brand of remembrance, one familiar to anyone who’s lent an ear to a nostalgic neighbor in the next barstool.

Tyler Black, a chef in Florida, doesn’t revisit the imagined world he spent so much time in as a teen much anymore, but he looks back on his booze-heavy history with D&D—bribing the DM with beers, coaxing his party into shots timed to the half-hour—with fondness. “It’s a strange culture—it’s very fleeting, like a first love,” he says. Once in a while, he and his old gaming buddies will dust off their dice and try to recapture the spirit of those old sessions, but it’s never the same. “Now we just sit in taverns. How poetic.”