The quest for Hazlan's Gauntlet: How a Savannah VFW has become a Dungeons & Dragons haven

·8 min read

The muscular dwarven champion Nogard Steelcrusher stood beside his companions at the center of the fabled arena "Hazlan’s Gauntlet," his halberd at the ready. He was skeptical of the ragtag group, comprised of himself, an elven holy woman named Keeley Summerheart, a half-elven bard called Bailey, a shadowy high-elf who’d introduced himself as Balinor Sky, and the strange robotic gnome wizard Zip. But as a magical portal opened in front of them to reveal their first opponent, Steelcrusher knew that he had little choice but to trust these new companions, for his very life depended upon it…

As I pulled into the parking lot of VFW Post 660 at 5115 Ogeechee Road in Savannah for their monthly Dungeons & Dragons event, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The parking lot had plenty of cars, but far more motorcycles, and the dozen or so people milling around outside, most of whom wore leather vests with patches indicating involvement in the armed forces or cultural groups that I had little personal experience with, didn’t seem, on the surface at least, to share a lot of the same views as I do. I’ll admit, I was nervous and intimidated.

Walking through the front doors, past the bar and down the few stairs that led to the meeting room where eager gamers were preparing to enter a world of imagination, I realized immediately that I’d been wrong to bring my stereotypes into the space.

D&D is for everyone.

Kat Quijada (aka Kat Valentine) is the Dungeon Master for this game of Hazlan's Gauntlet. Here she prepares the gamers for this round of Dungeon & Dragons.
Kat Quijada (aka Kat Valentine) is the Dungeon Master for this game of Hazlan's Gauntlet. Here she prepares the gamers for this round of Dungeon & Dragons.

“I'm hispanic,” said Ghost Table Guild founder and event co-organizer Kat Quijada (aka Kat Valentine). “I am white and I am black. I am pansexual. I am a veteran. I am on the spectrum. Everyone except ‘that guy’ are welcome. And honestly, I can work with ‘that guy’ most of the time.”

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Quijada founded Ghost Table Guild a few years back as a way to not only gather disparate gamers together to play Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop role-playing games, but as a way to give back to the community. Whether she or other guild members are streaming online via the popular gaming site Twitch or the more mainstream YouTube, or they’re playing in person like they were the day I visited them at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States), the charismatic gamer always partners with an organization that pays it forward in some way.

“There’s [sic] so many things we could do, that we’re not doing for the community,” she noted. “But when you show up to play D&D, you’re showing up for the community.”

The players of Hazlan's Gauntlet face a giant along their journey.
The players of Hazlan's Gauntlet face a giant along their journey.

From the portal sprung an abomination, a twisted perversion of all that nature intended. Called a "Fomorian Giant," the huge beast was twisted and deformed, the child of an ancient curse, and evil to the core. One of its eyes bulged three sizes larger than the other, and darted this way and that, as it decided which of the five of us would be it’s first victim…

At this particular event, there were three different games being run, all using the popular 5th Edition ruleset of Dungeons & Dragons, but all with their own twist on the medium. Kat was DMing (Dungeon Mastering to the uninitiated; or, more simply put, hosting) a beginners game that involved a wide variety of activities from combat to roleplaying to skill usage to help new players get acclimated to the game. At another table, Ronald Taylor II ran Dark Matter, a sci-fi game that uses the same rules as D&D, but with a gritty space opera feel, a sort of combination of Star Wars and The Expanse. And at the third table, James Carroll hosted "Hazlan’s Gauntlet," a straightforward (and fun) arena combat game for players with some experience. I elected to join the latter.

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I chose my character from the stack of pre-generated options Carroll had created for his game, a beefy dwarven fighter that I named Nogard Steelcrusher, and introduced myself to the other players.

To my right sat a good friend of mine, Howard Bury. Howard is a recently transitioned man who I’ve known and gamed with for several years, and who’d I’d personally invited to join the event. He was playing a species that was just recently introduced to the lore of Dungeons & Dragons, something called an "Auto Gnome," essentially a robot the size of a small child. Interestingly, "Zip" as he called the little guy, was a wizard, an interesting break from the sort of Tolkien bearded old man Gandalf-style spell casters I’d come to expect in fantasy.

Hazlan's Gauntlet continues at VFW Post 660.
Hazlan's Gauntlet continues at VFW Post 660.

Continuing counter-clockwise, next to Howard was Jason Arons, who I’d immediately recognized as a member of Odd Lot Improv, the comedy troupe that I’d been a frequent audience member for when they’d occupied the space above Savannah Coffee Roasters. He elected to go with a half-elven bard that he named Bailey. It was an inspired choice, as his skills as an improv actor would result in a number of hilarious moments throughout the game.

Next to him sat Alan, a Desert Storm combat veteran. Alan had first played D&D in the early 1980s before going into the service, cutting his teeth on what was then referred to as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but what is now called 1st edition (as compared to the 5th edition we were playing). He decided to play the elven rogue, a sneaky archer called “Balinor Sky.”

Players engage in Dungeons & Dragons at VFW Post 660. The crowd is a mix of veterans, SCAD students and other fans of D&D.
Players engage in Dungeons & Dragons at VFW Post 660. The crowd is a mix of veterans, SCAD students and other fans of D&D.

And finally, next to Alan was Liz, a Chatham County teacher. She played an elf as well, but a cleric named Keeley Summerheart, the kind of character in Dungeons and Dragons that can both heal wounds and lay the smack down when necessary. Liz brought with her an incredible set of miniature gold dice that she used for the game, dice that regularly drew my eyes from across the table.

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Nogard and Keeley rushed at the giant, hoping to use their martial prowess to lay the beast low, while their companions attacked the creature from a distance. What they hadn’t anticipated, however, was that the Fomorian’s twisted curse gave it the ability to wrack the minds of those who met the gaze of its monstrous, oversized eye. Soon, several of the rear guard of the party were clutching their heads in agony. There was nothing to do for them, however, so the two newly met allies had no choice but to engage the creature the best that they could in the hopes that it’s defeat would end their companions’ pain…

Waiting for the game to officially begin, I headed to the surprisingly awesome-looking bar (it was apparently heavily upgraded to appear in the most recent Halloween film) to grab food and chat with Kris Grand, the VFW volunteer who’d first brought up the idea of bringing Dungeons & Dragons into the space. Once she’d gotten the go ahead from the higher ups, including fellow D&D fan Ricky Morgan (who was, himself, on hand at the event to show off his collection of classic Dungeons & Dragons products from the 1970s), she met with Kat to see if Ghost Table Guild would be willing to take the lead. She was also responsible for mixing “Second Chance Juice” and “Night Shade Remedy,” themed cocktails that were being offered in conjunction with the event.

Kris Grand is a volunteer at the VFW post that came up with the idea for Dungeons & Dragons nights. A portion of the proceeds from the night goes to helping homeless veterans.
Kris Grand is a volunteer at the VFW post that came up with the idea for Dungeons & Dragons nights. A portion of the proceeds from the night goes to helping homeless veterans.

After ordering a Diablo Burger, fries, and a diet coke (all of which was cheap and delicious), I asked Kris, who is an avid gamer herself, why she thought D&D would be a good fit for the space.

“A lot of veterans play D&D,” she laughed. “A lot.

“It’s nice because a lot of the people you meet in here…You hear a lot of wild stories, basically, a lot of homeless people come in here, and they need help. We have a lot of veterans that come in here, and it’s a good spot for them to be because they have other people here that they can talk to.”

Kris went on to note that a portion of every sale for the event, like the burger I bought, went to help those very homeless veterans that so frequently come into VFW Post 660. They have a storage closet, she said, that is filled with blankets, clothes, shoes, basic necessities, and even tents that those in need can access anytime, and the money they make from events like these helps keep that closet full.

A player's handbook and various tools for a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
A player's handbook and various tools for a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Back at the game tables I asked some of the players how they felt about gaming with a purpose.

“It’s definitely an added bonus [that the event benefits the VFW],” said ‘newbie’ player Katie Thompson. “And it’s nice to think that your hobby doesn’t have to be going to a food shelter to be able to help people; you can add that aspect into what you already enjoy.”

The tide was turning against the warrior and the cleric as they bravely took blow after blow from the abomination. Just when it felt as though all was lost, arrows began streaking though the air, one after the other, from Balinor’s bow, piercing the creature’s tough hide and staggering it. Then, just as the robotic gnome finished belting out a series of beeps and whirls, giant bells appeared from nowhere around the giant’s head, their thunderous ringing causing the beast to shriek in pain. Nogard smiled and looked over at Keeley, the two of them redoubling their efforts to fell the foul creature…

The players of Hazlan's Gauntlet face a giant along their journey.
The players of Hazlan's Gauntlet face a giant along their journey.

For the next four hours or so, all three tables of new friends adventured together in worlds created in published materials and in the minds of the Dungeon Masters. At Ronald’s table, the group unravelled a noir-style mystery, one step at a time. Kat stood at the head of her table, taking on the voices of the NPCs (non-player characters), waving her hands around to mime their actions, and lowering and raising her voice to create suspense. And in the circle of Hazlan’s Gauntlet, a transgender librarian, an improv actor, a Desert Storm veteran, a teacher, and a newspaper writer shed their real life skins for a while to become an elite fighting force, taking down monster after monster that came before them.

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“That was the nice thing about what we were trying to do,” Grand said of the diversity present in the gaming hall. “We knew we have veterans who would come in and play, but we also have a younger generation of SCAD students and young adults who would come and play. So this is a perfect space because we have a lot of room.”

As the games wound down and I walked back to the parking lot, Howard and I continued to chat, recounting the most exciting scenes in the game we’d just played, including the moment his character turned mine into a vicious tyrannosaurus rex. As the conversation lulled, I looked around once more at the space I’d just spent a long afternoon in, surrounded mostly by people I didn’t know, and smiled. The motorcycles and leather vests no longer intimidated me. In fact, they reminded me not to judge those I don’t know based on appearance alone.

At the gaming table, everyone is an ally.

Hazlan's Gauntlet continues at VFW Post 660.
Hazlan's Gauntlet continues at VFW Post 660.

Nogard Steelcrusher swung his halberd in a whirlwind, using his own body weight to add an extra level of speed to his blow, and severing the Fomorian Giant’s achilles. The creature dropped to his knees, howling in agony. The dwarf smiled: It would soon be over for the foul menace, he thought, as he leapt with all his might, his blade tracing an arc in the air, before coming down on the neck of the abomination, severing it’s misshapen head from it’s shoulders. The creature was dead, the victory theirs. The gathered crowd cheered, and the former strangers had become friends through battle, embracing and acknowledging each others great deeds.

It was the first of many fights they’d face that night, but each would end in victory, and their tales remembered in the songs that would be sung in the tavern that night, by a very jolly (and very drunk) half-elf named Bailey…

Characters on the board of this game of Hazlan's Gauntlet at VFW Post 660.
Characters on the board of this game of Hazlan's Gauntlet at VFW Post 660.

The Song of Hazlan’s Gauntlet

By Bailey (aka Jason Arons)

Our fighter was a T Rex

The Wizard said, ‘It’s so!’

The scout and priest were there as well

As I fired with my bow

The arrows flew

And angels called

The scout let loose

And cleric thwacked

’til all undead had falled

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah VFW post hosts monthly Dungeons & Dragons game for veterans