Have Dice, Will Travel: Sofia


There are many stereotypes attributed to role players, but the truth is that we come from all walks of life. We’re students and soldiers, programmers and prison guards, teachers and porn stars. I’ve resolved to travel across the world and play with as many different groups as I can – to find out what draws people to gaming, to see what we have in common and what’s different. I stay for three days wherever I go. One day I run a game for my hosts. Another day I ask them to entertain me, showing me the things they love or find inspiring. The third day is open. If you’re interested in being a part of it, contact me at [email protected].

Pardon me, sir – have you read the Good Rules?

I’m in Sofia, Bulgaria. My guide Stefan has brought me to a park locals call The Patriarch – a place that served as a central focus for Sofia’s roleplaying community in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Stefan told me how he and friends would stop strangers on the street. “Have you heard of roleplaying games? Would you like to learn?” My mind races with all the possibilities for RPG evangelists… a team of 7th-level Adventists going door to door.

Do you have a moment to talk about Fourth Edition?

At the least it would let us take our edition wars to new levels. I’m afraid you can’t come in… we’re Pathfinders.

As we walked around the park, we talked more about the history of roleplaying in Bulgaria. Stefan told me about the pioneers and heroes who’d helped bring gaming to the desert. For Stefan, the greatest apostle of roleplaying was a man named Damyann. In the early nineties, D&D was unknown in Bulgaria. As a young man, Damyann loved Tolkien and other fantasy tales, and he was always searching for something new to scratch that itch. Solo adventure gamebooks were a start. These books blend game and story. The player/reader makes choices that guide him through the book… but beyond that, he creates a character with statistics and equipment, and uses six-sided dice to resolve the effect of combat, traps, and other random factors. These books gave Damyann the chance to create his own story, but it was a story limited by the imagination of the author. He wanted something more.

He wasn’t alone. In 1999, Stefan was attending the University of Sofia, and he found a group of Tolkien fans. He met a woman who had translated The Chronicles of Narnia for a Bulgarian publisher, and the two became close friends. One day she presented him with a wondrous treasure she’d acquired while traveling in the west… Dungeons & Dragons. It was the Red Box, the basic edition produced in 1983, and it came with everything he needed to play: rulebooks, an adventure, a DM’s screen, and dice. He pored over the books and taught himself to play. Later that same year he found a website put up by a man named Vladimir, a Bulgarian who had acquired AD&D books while traveling in South Africa and was searching for players in Sofia. Damyann met with him and finally played his first game. Soon they’d gathered a dozen people. Meeting in places like The Patriarch, they strove to pull in more players… driving the efforts of the gaming evangelists approaching strangers on the street. At their height, they had forty people coming to the park on Sundays to play and trade dice.

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“Trade dice?” I said. At this point, Stefan and I had left the Patriarch and were heading towards the next stop on his gaming tour of Sofia. Around us, doors and bus stops were plastered with death notices – a combination of memorial and obituary, posted to commemorate fallen loved ones. There’s something slightly eerie about seeing obituaries taped up in the same sort of places I expect to find posters for college bands and lost pets.

Strange as the death notices are, the story of the dice is far stranger. Sofia’s gaming community was building steam at the start of the twenty-first century. These gamers are sharp, tech-savvy people; today, many of the people I talked to are software engineers or employed in other technical industries, and even while in University a number of them maintained game-oriented websites. Nonetheless, it was difficult for them to acquire goods outside of Bulgaria. International mail was expensive and unreliable, and credit cards were still relatively rare. The story reminded me of my earlier experience in Slovakia. Players relied on photocopies of the rules, or even copies of the copies; my host Boian told me that he regarded the original books as holy relics. But D&D takes more than rules. Damyann could duplicate the rulebooks… but he couldn’t copy his dice. The caltrop-like d4, the workhorse d20, the lonely d12 – these are vital tools of D&D. Most gamers I know have bags of dice – specific sets for different characters, specialized dice designed for particular systems, dice that glow in the dark, dice of metal or stone. For the players gathered at the Patriarch, any die was rare and precious; most groups had a single set of dice between them. My guide Stefan obtained his first dice when Damyaan had to sell a few to cover his rent. Dice slowly trickled into the country, in the pockets of friends and relatives returning from trips to countries with game stores. Nonetheless, there was a time when people would gather around the Patriarch to trade dice. I can imagine the wizard bartering with the barbarian, offering to trade a fresh d12 (“Only rolled on Sundays!”) for the battered d4 he needs for his latest spell.

These gaming pioneers were inventive and intelligent, and they came up with many ways to address this shortage of dice. People folded dice from paper. They came up with ways to emulate missing dice using the ones they had. At least one set of dice was produced out of dental enamel! Others went a step farther, creating entirely new systems that weren’t so dependent on these dice. Axiom 16 uses six-sided dice, which have always been easily available. Endyval is another prominent Bulgarian RPG. Stefan has brought me to one of the holy sites of Endyval – a gazebo in a park, where Endyval players would gather each day to continue the story. Stefan is trying to be diligent and to show me all the historical locations he knows about, but I soon realize that he has no great love of Endyval. According to Stefan, Endyval is a freeform game, in which dice of any sort play a minimal role. In the US, I know many people who enjoy such diceless systems, but Stefan is not among them. Along with various criticisms of the system, Stefan observes that the dice give him a curious sense of justice. He can figure the odds, and his fate isn’t solely in the hands of the possibly capricious gamemaster. When something goes wrong it’s because luck isn’t with him, not due to stupidity on his part or a vendetta on the part of the GM. He says “I have to be pretty detached from my character not to mind when he fails.” The random element of dice provides that distance – a sense that even if things go wrong, he did the best that he could.


A few of my other hosts were involved in the creation of Axiom 16, and there is little love for Endyval. Some consider it an inferior system, but for others it’s about the players themselves; there’s a definite stereotype of the Endyval player as being both annoying and somewhat pretentious. At the same time, there is a friendly undertone to this banter, and my hosts even give me a copy of Endyval at the end of my journey. It may not be their system of choice, but the Bulgarian edition wars aren’t quite as vicious as what I’m used to from the states.

Today the Endyval gazebo is empty, and there are no evangelists or die-traders at the Patriarch. Roleplaying remains a niche activity, and I’m told that most Bulgarians would rather deal with UFOs than with RPGs; they haven’t seen either of them, but at least they’ve heard of UFOs before. Nonetheless, there are a handful of gaming stores, anchored by Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer but carrying all manner of roleplaying games. Damyann tells me things are quite different in the smaller towns, where it’s still very difficult for new gamers to find people to play with. But in Sofia, roleplaying has a home… however small that home may be.

As the day draws to a close, I spy a strange sculpture in the distance. Possibilities race through my mind… A giant d20 that can be used by all groups playing in the park! A memorial to those gamers who suffered without dice for so many years! The sad truth is that it is just a piece of corporate art, the symbol of a local bank. But in my mind it remains the Largest d20 in Eastern Europe.

My lesson in the history of Bulgarian roleplaying is just one day of my journey, and my hosts have other things planned. Traveling to a smaller village, I learn about Bulgaria’s bitter struggle with Turkey and see a style of building I’ve never seen before. I learn that there was once a custom of laying the cornerstone of important buildings across the shadow of a virgin girl, symbolically linking the two together. As someone who creates worlds for a living, these details of folklore and history are fascinating – by the end of the day, a dozen story ideas are spinning through my head.

All good things come to an end, and my three days pass all too quickly. My hosts shower me with gifts, ranging from a copy of Endyval to a journal a local artist decorated with Eberron’s Dragonmark of Scribing. Seeing me off, Stefan provides me with one more gift: a worn d20. It’s transparent grey, not much to look at… but it is one of the first two dice Stefan owned, obtained when Damyann had to sell his dice to raise rent money. I’ve carried it with me ever since. I have bags of dice at home, most more exotic or attractive than this one. But there was a time when this humble d20 was one of the only dice in the country. More than any magic ring or enchanted sword, it’s an artifact that shaped the fate of heroes.

Keith Baker is best known for creating the Eberron Campaign Setting for Dungeons & Dragons and the card game Gloom, but he’s also worked on at least five games that you’ve never heard of. If you want to know more, check out http://www.bossythecow.com/hdwt/.

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