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[Life in Korea] Dice and Comics Cafe: A home away from home for role-playing and board game enthusiasts

By Amber Anne Roos

Published : Jan. 13, 2024 - 16:01

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A 5-meter-tall, bloodthirsty, gelatinous cube is slowly edging nearer and attempting to engulf you whole -- what do you do?

Such a strange scenario might be familiar to those engaging in tabletop role-playing games, or TRPGs.

As the name suggests, TRPGs are usually played around a table in a small group. In contrast to other board games, role-playing games can be played with a set of peculiar dice or figurines similar to those one might encounter on a movie set for "The Lord of the Rings" -- and with a little dose of imagination.

While the most popular TRPG, Dungeons & Dragons, is estimated to have over 50 million players worldwide, role-playing enthusiasts might have a hard time finding like-minded companions in South Korea, as the TRPG player base is predominantly rooted in North America.

Dungeons & Dragons is a popular tabletop role-playing game with over 50 million players worldwide. (The Korea Herald) Dungeons & Dragons is a popular tabletop role-playing game with over 50 million players worldwide. (The Korea Herald)

'Sense of home'

Those who look a little closer, will find a small but flourishing community of TRPG fans based in Seoul at the Dice and Comics Cafe. This Americana-themed board game cafe located in Dongdaemun-gu in Seoul is run by Joey Croner and his wife, Cleo Ahn. Similar to other board game cafes, you can rent a space in the cafe at an hourly rate.

With its wide array of games, Dice and Comics is a perfect playground for those in need of some role-playing action. If board games are not your cup of tea, perhaps the cabinets brimming with comic books or one of Croner’s cheeseburgers might appeal to you.

Joey Croner, owner of Dice and Comics Cafe, pours a beer behind the counter. (The Korea Herald) Joey Croner, owner of Dice and Comics Cafe, pours a beer behind the counter. (The Korea Herald)
Joey Croner, owner of Dice and Comics Cafe, pours a beer behind the counter. (The Korea Herald) Joey Croner, owner of Dice and Comics Cafe, pours a beer behind the counter. (The Korea Herald)

For many Dice and Comics visitors, however, this cafe is more than just a setting in which to practice a beloved hobby. By organizing weekly events with diverse themes, Croner encourages visitors to make connections with other communities and broaden their interests. While the shop might offer comics and board games, the store owner mostly prides himself on the sense of "home" it provides.

“Mainly what I like about games is how they bring people together. When you come to an event in my store, you'll see a lot of people at the same table that otherwise would never have interacted with each other,” Croner told The Korea Herald in a "Life In Korea" interview.

“We're losing the places where people meet for these things. When there were record stores, you could go and talk to people and discover new things. There was a community around that, but it barely exists anymore. I think one thing that makes the cafe really special is there's a lot of people who call it a second home," he said.

A group of players enjoys a round of Dungeons & Dragons at Dice and Comics Cafe. One of the players is participating via a video call from Japan. (The Korea Herald) A group of players enjoys a round of Dungeons & Dragons at Dice and Comics Cafe. One of the players is participating via a video call from Japan. (The Korea Herald)

The cafe has a fixed weekly schedule. Wednesdays and Fridays are role-playing nights, where people can walk in and join a gaming table. On Thursdays, participants can socialize and draw with professional artists at the "Drink & Draw" event. The drawings later get sold and the proceeds get donated to a charity.

Sundays are reserved for special events, with the key goal of bringing different communities together. In December, Dice and Comics organized its first “Dungeons & Drag-ons” adventure. Seven groups of D&D’ers assembled for a collaborative game in the presence of both a Korean and English-speaking game organizer, and drag performers were tasked with the roles of non-player characters.

“I really like doing (these events) in the shop, especially if I have both players from the Korean community and the English-speaking community, because this is one of the only times those communities will cross over and they'll actually play something together and not just at separate tables,” Croner explained.

Drag artists perform at the Drag artists perform at the "Dungeons & Drag-ons" event at Dice and Comics cafe. (The Korea Herald)
Drag artists perform at the Drag artists perform at the "Dungeons & Drag-ons" event at Dice and Comics Cafe. (The Korea Herald)

Growing role-playing community

TRPGs gained traction among college students back in the 1970s. In recent years, Dungeons & Dragons in particular has seen a resurgence in popularity through appearances in popular media such as hit Netflix science fiction horror series "Stranger Things," video game Baldur's Gate 3 and a movie adaptation, "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves." Over the years, Croner noticed a growing awareness of role-playing games and the D&D domain in Korea as well.

"One thing I run into a lot is that people will tell me that they don't play RPGs in Korea, when actually a lot of people do. It's just not as open of a community as it is in the United States where you've got celebrities playing it, you've got YouTube series and TV shows," Croner said.

According to the store owner, Korean role-players have moved away from Dungeons & Dragons and toward other games, such as Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer and Pathfinder. Horror fiction game Call of Cthulhu, especially, has a large audience in South Korea, with the majority of players being women. Roll20 -- a website where players can virtually play TRPGs -- noted that 10 percent of all Call of Cthulhu players use Korean language settings.

A common misconception that Croner encounters is that the cafe is primarily frequented by people of foreign nationality. But in actuality, the crowd at the cafe is mixed.

“One of the battles I fight daily is making it really clear that Dice and Comics is not limited to just one group of people. Actually, probably about 80 percent of my customers are Korean players. If they weren't coming, I wouldn't be able to keep the shop open very long," he said.

A player interacts with a drag performer serving as the game master at the cafe's A player interacts with a drag performer serving as the game master at the cafe's "Dungeons & Drag-ons" event. Game masters help direct and organize the story and play in a tabletop role-playing game. (The Korea Herald)
A father and son browse at Dice and Comics Cafe. (The Korea Herald) A father and son browse at Dice and Comics Cafe. (The Korea Herald)

Games as therapy

Years ago, TRPG players were frequently victims of negative stereotypes. Croner, who played role-playing games from a very young age himself, remembers it as a hobby that many would hide from their peers, out of fear of being picked on. Nevertheless, the recent presence of TRPGs in popular media has brought a more diverse audience to the table.

While Croner expressed his joy for the diversification of the community, he also mentioned his worry that the old community could be slowly pushed out.

“I've also seen some things where the older community and the types of players that sometimes really need role-playing games -- because it provides a setting where some folks that might have difficulty interacting socially can have some type of structure and rules for interaction that help them make friends and meet people -- I feel like in some ways, I've seen some of those players feeling less welcome,” Croner said.

RPGs have been found effective as a therapy for mental health disorders, such as ADHD, social anxiety, depression and PTSD. The playful way in which players can practice their social skills, problem solving skills and cooperative abilities in a low-pressure environment can be especially useful for those on the autism spectrum as well.

“I try to make it so that every person that comes through the door can make a friend, find some people to play with and enjoy just being with other people. And that includes everybody,” Croner emphasized.

Guests holding up their drawings from a Guests holding up their drawings from a "Drink & Draw" event under the theme of "Life In Korea." The Drink & Draw event is hosted by Dice and Comics Cafe every Thursday. (The Korea Herald)
Croner holds up his drawing of the Hulk holding the cafe's signature cheeseburgers. The week's Croner holds up his drawing of the Hulk holding the cafe's signature cheeseburgers. The week's "Drink & Draw" event was held under the theme of participants' favorite superhero's life in Korea. (The Korea Herald)

To learn more about Dice and Comics Cafe and Croner's life in Korea, watch the "Life In Korea" episode on The Korea Herald YouTube channel.