One of Timm Woods’ most precious possessions looks like something you’d find in the basement of a derelict castle, or maybe at a back-of-the-mall magic shop: It’s a notebook bound in leatherlike skin, covered with an upside-down, faux-gold keyhole and filled with handwritten, eraser-dusted passages featuring titles like “Ravenloft” and “Attack on Myth Drannor.”
Before he goes to work, Woods might spend an hour or more consulting the book, poring over its various charts and calculations, readying himself for another night as one of New York City’s leading for-hire Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master, or DM. “The book is how I psych myself up,” he says. “I tried to make it look like what you’d imagine is going on inside a DM’s head. And if somebody finds it, it’ll be very clear that it’s something I care a great deal about.”
Tonight, a cool Friday in August, the book rests on a cluttered table in Woods’ Brooklyn apartment, not far from an assortment of gaming figurines and a half-demolished bag of Oreo Mega Stuf cookies. The five players gathered around Woods—including a teacher, a fashion-company copywriter, a corporate car-service dispatcher, and a publishing-house editorial assistant—have spent the evening progressing through a D&D campaign mega-stuffed with skirmishes and creatures, including Valkyries and a plant monster known as a Tree Blight. As the three-hour session nears its climax, the team members find themselves facing down a tower on wheels that’s rolling their way, filled with skeletal beasties called Gnolls.
Clearly, it’s time to send in the giant dinosaurs.
“All you need to roll for the ankylosaurus to hit the wheels is a measly 12,” Woods says. There’s a scattered chop-clunk as the die hit the table; soon a 12 comes up, and the dinosaurs are attacking with their whiplike tails. “Wha-chee!” Woods riffs in a playful falsetto. “You’re going to hamstring these towers.”
Woods, a 30-year-old with neatly floppy hair, is dressed tonight in a black button-down shirt and jeans. His DM performances—and being a dungeon master is a kind of performance—are often marked by excitable narration and winkingly melodramatic theatrics; at one point during tonight’s game, he gleefully pounds a hand into a fist, mimicking an arrow’s impact on an opponent.
He’s spent nearly three months preparing for this showdown, even hand-building a few model towers out of scrap wood and dowels. It’s one of the most elaborate adventures he’s crafted in his four-year career as a professional DM at schools and homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sometimes, like tonight, the games are run in his apartment, where the bookshelves reach high with graphic novels and board games, and where the walls are decorated with full-color maps from D&D classics like Greyhawk and Isle of Dread.
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