Geeks unite at Prairie Lights

Originally published in The Daily Iowan 10/16/2009

Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, the Choose Your Own Adventure series, or simply sword fights in the backyard, role-playing games have been steadily changing since the ’70s.


Author and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast Ethan Gilsdorf explores this evolution of role playing in his first book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, from which he will read today at 7 p.m., at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

As with many of his fantasy-loving counterparts, Gilsdorf said he originally picked up the polyhedral dice (the Dungeons & Dragons weapon of choice ) to escape into a world without the problems of reality during his childhood.

“What makes the fantasy realm so compelling is that it’s backward looking and much more romantic,” he said. “You just had your sword, the village you lived in, and the creatures that endangered your little corner of the shire.”

The weekends he spent scouring dungeons for gold, fighting orcs, and rescuing princesses — all in the comfort of a friend’s basement — eventually gave way to new adventures. He said he felt he couldn’t pursue his desires to develop new friendships under the social stigma associated with the game.

“I forcefully had to say this was something I didn’t want to be a part of,” Gilsdorf said. “I wanted to get the girlfriend, go to parties, and drink beer.”

Many years and a marriage later, he said the success of The Lord of The Rings movies rekindled his interest in fantasy role playing even while he lived in Paris. “When those movies came out, it was very hard not to think of that time in my life,” the writer said.

After digging up his old Dungeons & Dragons gear, Gilsdorf embarked on a quest to discover the new forms gaming and fantasy life had taken on. A lot had become part of the mainstream.

Robin Johnson, a UI graduate student in media studies, said mainstream acceptance of role-playing societies could leave it in danger of losing its appeal among its ardent fans.

“When any kind of subcultural practice becomes mainstream, it becomes less intimate,” Johnson said. “The hard-core [fantasy players] will find their culture has been robbed because they have no control of what mainstream does with it.”

Gilsdorf said another big reason for fantasy’s mainstream success is the popularity of massive multiplayer online role playing games, such as World of Warcraft.

“Online gaming can be absorbing because it’s acceptable to spend so much time in front of your computer,” he said. “[But] I think it is largely good as long as it brings people together. It’s as healthy as playing cards on a Friday night or other social activities.”

Whatever the next step, Gilsdorf said role playing and cyberspace will continue to interweave, but neither are a replacement for the real thing.
“One of the reasons there is resurgence in live action [role playing games] is because of the more time people are in front of screen,” he said.

“There’s a tactile face-to-face element that is impossible to re-create.”


Capture any stray light

Originally published in The Daily Iowan 10/09/2009

The steep climb to the Picador’s second floor is no longer as precarious as it was when the venue was known as Gabe’s.

That news will make Straylight Run drummer Will Noon very happy. The musician said he remembers hauling gear up Gabe’s metal mass of stairs when his former band, the now defunct Breaking Pangaea, played at the venue years ago.

Noon will return to Iowa City to ascend those remodeled stairs tonight and will bring new company this time around — John Nolan and Shaun Cooper, formerly of Taking Back Sunday. Together, the three musicians make up Straylight Run. At 6 p.m. today, the alt-rock threesome will overtake the Picador, 330 E. Washington St. Admission is $12.

Because of a contract with Nolan’s and Cooper’s former group, Chicago-based label Victory Records released Straylight Run’s self-titled first album. After the band recorded a second full-length album (The Needles The Space) and an EP, the band joined Universal Republic Records. Noon said the label led the band to believe it knew how to support the album, which he called its “least radio-friendly record.”

“They pushed one song on the radio, and they said they didn’t know what to do,” he said.

With such little support for its album, he said, Straylight Run left Universal Republic Records. Cooper now splits time between Straylight Run and Nolan’s sister Michelle DaRossa’s band Destry.

Since its fallout with Universal Republic, Straylight Run runs independent of any big labels. Noon said the three are responsible for organizing tours, new music releases, and music videos, and he prefers the extra work.

“It’s nice to have a bunch of people working for you,” Noon said. “But there are times when they are distracted on other things. I’d rather have three of us working really hard than 300 not working hard.”

The band is on tour promoting its new EP, About Time. As was the band’s last release, the new tracks are only available through download.“EPs aren’t a huge commitment,” Noon said. “If we put something out and we can’t tour, we can get right back in the studio and record new songs.”

The new sound the band explores is less melodic and more folk-oriented, therefore setting it apart from Nolan’s and Cooper’s previous bands and records.

“It’s hard to step out of that,” Noon said. “We’ve always been the odd man out.”