The bartender at the Black Cat Tavern on 12th was momentarily flustered. "It's just, I've never seen girls go up there," he said.
Still, he pointed me toward a staircase, and I followed it from this low-key corner bar in South Philadelphia into a mythical realm of warlocks, goblins, and druids. That is, Drinks & Dragons, a traveling Dungeons & Dragons game night that takes over the upstairs room at the Black Cat on the first Thursday evening of each month, then travels to the American Sardine Bar on the third Wednesday. I arrived to find a crowd of about 20 gamers (indeed mostly, but not exclusively, male) gathered around tables scattered with beers, books such as Volo's Guide to Monsters, maps drawn in Sharpie on sheets of oversize graph paper, and piles of assorted dice.
A newcomer to both the Black Cat and D&D, I stopped at the table nearest the door and tried to get my bearings. I asked Zub Zub — aka Ross Wright, 28, of Bustleton — what was happening in his game. "We just killed a mulch monster and now my goblin is making a snow angel in its desecrated corpse," he replied. You know, normal Thursday night stuff.
Don Caraco, 43, a stay-at-home dad and half-orc barbarian from Point Breeze, organizes the Drinks & Dragons series, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary at Sardine Bar on Nov. 15 with a party, tournament, and themed drink specials.
D&D, he says, is classed as a role-playing game but is really best described as a collaborative storytelling experience. The rules vary; he leaves the assorted dungeon masters to run their games as they see fit. A unifying backdrop is that all games are set on the same world map — an upside-down outline of New Zealand, called Dnalaezwen (that's New Zealand backward). "No one has figured out yet how to pronounce it," Caraco said.
This is, he tells me, a low-stakes game. Newcomers are welcome and can drop into or out of games as needed. People bring their own dice and characters, or get a prefab persona to assume. People tend to show up at their leisure, though Caraco granted his players "50 enhancement points for being here more or less on time." Some tables add house rules. Caraco's includes the "Table Quaff," a shot of Heaven Hill whiskey a player may drink as a penalty for taking a mulligan after a particularly unfortunate roll of the dice.
I left Dnalaezwen and wandered back to Philadelphia to meet Marlise Tkaczuk, an illustrator and arts administrator who owns the Black Cat, a dimly lit neighborhood place managed by Tkaczuk's husband, Tom Ball. Tkaczuk purchased what had been Cheech's Beef & Ale about two years ago and renamed the place after her 19-year-old black cat, Sammy.
"I hate going to bro bars, so I wanted a comfortable place that was male and female friendly, artist friendly, where no one feels like the weird kid at the party," she said. She curates themed art shows each month and designed a menu that's a cross between comfort food (grilled Fluffernutter sandwiches served with a side of goldfish crackers) and the Polish food she grew up with, like housemade pierogi and sauerkraut and kielbasa sourced from Port Richmond institutions Czerw's and Swiacki's.
Downstairs, beneath orange and white globe pendant lamps, couples on dates seated along the granite-topped bar sipped craft beer and cocktails, and chatted about the ordinary things.
Upstairs, the small talk was a little different. A player embodying a druid hippie took a break from his game and wandered over to another table. "Did you die at all?" he asked a friend. "I died twice the last time we played."
The Black Cat Tavern on 12th
2654 S. 12th St., 267-519-3574, blackcattavernphilly.com
When to go: Drinks & Dragons is the first Thursday of the month, starting around 6:30 or 7 p.m. The Black Cat is open 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily. (The kitchen closes at 10 p.m.; 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)
Bring: Anyone who's not afraid to embrace his or her nerdy side. Your most dramatic friends. Your 20-sided die.
Order: House specialty cocktails include the Earl Gray Gin ($6) — gin infused with Earl Grey tea, mixed with agave and lemon, for a result like a boozy Arnold Palmer — and hot apple cider from Tom Ball's family's orchard spiked with Jim Beam or Sailor Jerry rum.
Bathroom situation: Clean, newly remodeled single-stall units with outstanding cartoon-cat wallpaper.
Sounds like: Downstairs, 93 decibels of just-audible rock music and intimate conversations. Upstairs, comments such as: "OK, I'm going to turn into a giant lizard," or, "I am the beer pong champion of my village."