ATLANTA – Dungeons & Dragons players gathered in game stores around the country Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the grandfather of fantasy role-playing games – a pop culture phenomenon that has influenced myriad video games, books and movies.

An estimated 25,000 fans in 1,200 stores celebrated the anniversary Saturday, said Charles Ryan, brand manager for role-playing games at Wizards of the Coast, a Renton, Wash., company that owns Dungeons & Dragons.

At Zimmies on the corner of Main and Park streets in Lewiston, a group of about 20 gamers gathered to play Dungeons and Dragons at noon Saturday.

The industry has changed a lot since Dungeons and Dragons was literally the only game in town, and Zimmies volunteer clerk Daniel Bailey said the store usually devotes Saturday to playing one of the more recent RPGs, such as Yu-Gi-Oh.

“But we decided that since this was the 30th anniversary, it’d be fun to devote the time to Dungeons and Dragons,” Bailey said.

The gamers began playing two campaigns at noon, and by 6:30 p.m. the number of players had dwindled to roughly a dozen.

Gamer Robert Shaver said some players on his team had to leave at 5 p.m.

“It didn’t really matter, though, because they were already dead,” Shaver said.

Bailey said he expected the games to wrap up about 10 p.m. Saturday.

In Atlanta, Shaunnon Drake was at Batty’s Best Comics & Games, where gamers ranging in age from their early teens to mid-30s munched pizza and played D&D through the afternoon. Some said they spend three nights a week or more playing.

“The game allows you to live through your character your favorite fantasy books,” said Drake, sporting an airbrushed T-shirt of himself as a “Game Master” surrounded by flying dragons and other beasts.

In 1974, 1,000 brown-and-white boxes filled with pamphlets for “Fantastic Medieval Wargames” were distributed by a couple of guys who liked war role-playing and decided to set a game in the Middle Ages but with monsters and fantastic heroes.

Dungeons & Dragons went on to become one of the best-selling games of all time, inspiring fan devotion so great that some travel thousands of miles to play in tournaments.

There have been Dungeons & Dragons books, movies, puzzles, even a Saturday-morning cartoon show.

The game peaked in the 1980s, but there are plenty of fans left. Some 4 million people play D&D regularly. Many of them laugh at a common suggestion that fantasy gamers are geeks: Of course they are, they say.

“I think a lot of people who get drawn to this game are loners, but here’s a real opportunity to come out of that shell and feel safe about it,” said fan Mitch Hamburger, 32.

The game’s influence on later computer game designers is impossible to miss, said Dave Arneson, who created Dungeons & Dragons with Gary Gygax and now teaches computer game design.

“It influences all the video game designers,” Arneson said. “They were geeks just like we were geeks.”

The popularity of the Harry Potter books and the “Lord of the Rings” movies is bringing young new fans to the game, said Ryan. Dungeons & Dragons makers released a new starter set game this summer as a result.

Game designers had worried that the intense devotion of longtime D&D fans – and the accompanying lingo and even costumes – would turn off new players who felt the game was too confusing to learn.

But the young fans, and the continuing popularity of fantasy books and movies, will keep Dungeons & Dragons alive, Drake said.

“It’s definitely a family game now, where you have people teaching their kids the game and keeping it going,” he said. “It’s just going to get bigger and bigger. It’s basically the new cowboys-and-Indians game. With wolves.”

Staff writer Scott Taylor and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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