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Though you might think tabletop fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons went the way of the Dodo bird around the same time as leaded gasoline, the genre is still alive, kicking and winning new fans. Part of the reason it has survived into the digital age is undoubtedly due to the efforts of small publishers like Little Rock's Troll Lord Games, a company that has kept the flame alive for over 15 years now.
Troll Lord started out publishing "adventure modules" for D&D, but now fields its own tabletop gaming universe called "Castles and Crusades," and has recently branched out into publishing fiction. The company has seen some ups and downs thanks to the online revolution, but co-founder and CEO Stephen Chenault said Troll Lord has weathered the rise of digital video gaming by adapting and embracing the Internet rather than trying to fight against it.
Chenault has been playing Dungeons and Dragons — the classic, turn-based role-playing game developed in 1974 by Gary Gygax* and Dave Arneson — since 1976. For those not familiar with games like D&D, Chenault gives the following nutshell description: "It's four or five people get together. They sit at a table, and one of them is going to be the game master. He's going to be the one who runs the game, telling people what happens. Everyone else will make characters in his scenario, which is called an adventure module, and he'll kind of guide them through. They'll say what they do or what they don't do if they go through a door or attack a monster, what have you. Then he tells them what happens afterwards. Dice [rolls] govern whether you're successful or not successful at certain actions."
Chenault eventually became interested enough in the storytelling aspect of Dungeons and Dragons that he started writing his own adventure modules while in college, shopping them around to publishers. In 1999, he and his brother Davis Chenault and their friend Mac Golden decided to start their own adventure module publishing company under the banner of Troll Lord Games, writing and printing books to provide players with thrilling scenarios around which to build their games. Chenault said the creativity of writing the stories that drive the game modules appeals to him, while his partners are more driven by game mechanics. "They like to create rules and rule systems," he said. "So, it was a match that worked really, really well. For me, it was a nice creative outlet. I could create stories."
After writing and printing their first game module books, Troll Lord lurched north to Milwaukee to attend its first GenCon, a convention that draws tens of thousands of gamers. There, two big things happened for Chenault and Co.: They picked up their first distributors, and they met Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons. Troll Lord eventually became Gygax's publisher from 2001 until he passed away in 2008.
"It was just one of those [moments where] you're luckily standing in one spot," Chenault said. "When we first published our adventures, Mac Golden took them over to Gary's booth at GenCon and just left them at the booth and said thank you for the game, and all that. Then, about two or three months later, when we got distributor orders and we got catalogues in to see what was going on and kind of learn the industry we had sort of stumbled into, we noticed that [Gygax] had a very small publisher he was working with. So Mac suggested I email him. We did, and a conversation quickly cropped up after that. I think he found that he liked working with us. We're from Arkansas, so we're pretty honest and straightforward when we do business. He liked that."
Though Chenault said the tabletop fantasy gaming industry suffered as online video game universes like World of Warcraft were established, the market has rebounded in recent years. Chenault believes a large part of that rebound is due to the Internet. Troll Lord's full catalogue of adventure modules was picked up in recent years by steam.com, an online marketplace that's known for selling computer games. Online orders now make up over 90 percent of the company's sales, he said.
"Well, you can now download my game, Castles and Crusades, on the computer, and play it remotely with other people," he said. "As soon as it hit Steam, our sales started to climb markedly because people can see it very, very easily. So I think we're seeing tabletop kind of join that online community. ... You can get on Skype now, and you can do video calls so it really is like four or five people sitting at a table, but you're not. You're sitting in your office or wherever you are. They've got online dice rollers and the whole thing."
Another big factor in Troll Lord's continuing success has been access to crowdfunding. As computer games came online, distributors saw the shrinking market for tabletop games and stopped carrying games and update packs, shrinking the market even further and making publishers reluctant to invest in the format, Chenault said. The company has since crowdfunded almost a dozen projects.
"When Kickstarter launched, some of us got into it kind of early, at least for the [role playing game] industry," Chenault said. "The fans found that, 'Oh, I don't have to wait for something to trickle its way down through distribution and retailers to get to a shop, if that ever happens. I can get it here on Kickstarter. Very quickly, the fans joined Kickstarter. Some of these guys have backed 400 projects. So it's a community of gamers who we stepped into. We've funded lots of our projects. It's fantastic."
The company is running Kickstarter campaigns for several projects, including a Steampunk-themed game called "Victorius: The Role Playing Game." At this writing, the project has raised $19,716 from 314 backers.
In recent years, Chenault said, the company has started branching out, publishing five fantasy fiction titles in the past year. At last weekend's GenCon in Indianapolis, Troll Lord released its first short film, a piece called "To the End." Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the film serves as a sort of commercial for Troll Lord's "Castles and Crusades" series, and is available to view at trolllord.com. Chenault said that in the past two years, Troll Lord has seen "a nice, steady growth" in sales. He attributes it to the rebounding economy and advances in technology. There are more female players now — about 20 percent of the demographic, Chenault said, and they're still minting younger tabletop gamers, even among those who cut their teeth on video games.
"I've run a lot of games for children who are used to video games," Chenault said, "and it's interesting how very quickly they adapt and love playing these tabletop games. It gives their normal imagination a huge outlet."
Locally, Troll Lord's titles are available at Little Rock's Game Goblins at 1121 S. Bowman Road and Sherwood's Warp Drive Comics and Cards ,525 E. Kiehl Ave. Chenault said both stores have regular role playing game nights, allowing those who've never played before to quickly get up to speed.*The original version of this article misspelled Gary Gygax's name.