The nearly-50-year-old fantasy game used to be the primary domain of nerdy white cis guys. But with collaborative storytelling as its core, it has become more accessible, imaginative, and inclusive, making it more popular than ever.
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Dungeons and Dragons has been around for a very long time, yet is more popular than ever and attracting much more diverse players than in the past. I’ve been playing since 1987, and I’ve been reflecting recently on its ability to endure. Although it’s not a conventional game, it does fill very basic human needs for play, connection, creativity, imagination, and shared storytelling in an age when these are increasingly hard to satisfy. A confluence of advances in technology, popular culture, changes to the game’s mechanics, and even COVID converged to make this burst possible.
For those who aren’t familiar with Dungeons and Dragons—or D&D, as it’s more often called—the game was created in 1974 by Gary Gygax and David Arneson as a fantasy adaptation of a medieval table-top war game called Chainmail. D&D might seem fundamentally ridiculous when summarized in the simplest possible terms: People pretending to be elves and wizards rolling dice to see what happens, in their imagination. But then again, everything sounds ridiculous when you oversimplify it: The Wizard of Oz is about a girl from Kansas who travels to a magical land and kills the first person she meets. Church is getting people to meet in large numbers to ask favors from a supernatural entity that may not exist.
“I think you can draw very relevant connections to other activities that are considered ‘“adult’” activities that could also be considered silly,” said Chris Honkala, who has played since 1983 and runs the prolific D&D-centric YouTube channel Treantmonk’s Temple. “Improv actors pretend to be all kinds of silly things. Adults play video games where they immerse themselves into the role of their character. Adults participate in all kinds of sporting fandom that can have great importance to them. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you don’t need to have fun, and for us playing Dungeons and Dragons, fun is pretending to be a Wizard casting magic spells to complete a heroic quest.”
Which is to say, it all makes sense when you get into the game. Almost all the mechanics of D&D have changed since 1974, except for three things: You have a sheet of paper with numbers on it that represents your character; you roll dice to determine whether your character’s action succeeds or fails; and a referee (a.k.a., a dungeon master) plays your opponents and rolls dice for them. There have been eight editions since 1974, with the next due out in 2024. Over time, the game has evolved toward greater simplicity and flexibility.
D&D was introduced to the wider public in the early 1980s, when the Christian Right created a “Satanic Panic,” because they were convinced (or were trying to convince others) that D&D was teaching children to summon demons and practice witchcraft. The crusade backfired by drawing attention to a niche hobby and introducing it to an entire generation of latchkey kids left at home alone to entertain themselves (with the added bonus of irritating their parents, who were freaking out over something the kids knew was just stupid).
For decades, the game remained largely the domain of socially maladroit white guys with a high learning curve and a culture that was frequently off-putting. But around 2015, sales began to soar, and suddenly celebrities and athletes like Tim Duncan, Felicia Day, Vin Diesel, Stephen Colbert, Joe Manganiello, Deborah Ann Woll, Dame Judi Dench, Anderson Cooper, and Ashley Johnson were all talking about their love of of D&D.
Honkala believes part of its recent surge in popularity has to do with the simplification of the rules that began with the Fifth Edition, and its exposure on streams and TV shows like Critical Role and Stranger Things, both of which have “created a much greater awareness of the game and what it’s like to play.”
Lowering barriers to entry is certainly a factor. The Fifth Edition was released in 2014, and it significantly simplified and streamlined the rules from previous editions. This simplification helped broaden the appeal. D&D YouTuber “Dingo” from Dingo Doodles, told me that when she started 12 years ago, “I started playing in high school because of my friends interest in it. I started with 3.5 [edition] so I wasn’t very fond of it right away.” The Fifth Edition “was also a great simplification of the system so it was less intimidating for just average joes to pick it up.”
At the same time, free apps that simplified character creation online, such as dndbeyond, allowed people make game-legal character sheets quickly, without the need for buying books, or even dice. With a good dungeon master, a new player can be up and running in 30 minutes using nothing more than their phone. Dingo explained that, “The internet has made D&D more accessible to the masses with tutorials and celebrities showing it off.”
Like movies, religion, and other activities, D&D can address some deeply rooted human emotional needs: outlets for creativity and imagination, play, and community. One theme that popped up repeatedly was D&D’s collaborative storytelling aspect, which is something as old as people sitting around a fire and describing how the hunt went.
“There is a common misconception that playing D&D involves experiencing a story that only one person at the table wrote,” according to Daniel Kwan, game designer, cultural consultant, and co-host of the Asians Represent Podcast. “While there is a ‘dungeon master,’ D&D is very much a game about collaborative storytelling, where your in-game decisions and story ideas are combined with everyone else’s to form a grand, shared narrative.” Dingo agreed. “D&D is a great game to help explore storytelling with your friends. To be honest, the most I laugh is when I’m playing. Your imagination is really your only limit here.”
And it’s that collaborative storytelling that has held such a wide appeal. “The core of D&D is storytelling: sitting around a table with friends, talking back and forth about imagined people and imagined situations, and using some form of structured adjudication,” said Connie Chang, a game master and tabletop roleplaying game designer who serves as the Creative Director for Transplanar RPG, an all-transgender, people of color-led D&D show streaming since June 2020. “You can find the core of D&D on any playground in any place in the world in any time period. D&D is play.”
Part of that good collaborative storytelling is trust and connection among players to be themselves, whether acting out serious or comedic moments. “There’s an element of vulnerability that you experience when playing D&D that you don’t experience when playing, say, a video game,” D&D content creator and YouTuber Ginny Di told me. “You’re putting some of yourself into this character, and you can’t control what happens to them. That’s why trust is so instrumental at the D&D table.”
This openness can create community. It also pushes players to make time to interact with others. One of the biggest issues for people during the pandemic was isolation, and virtual D&D sessions were an outlet. Ginny Di noted that her favorite part of the D&D experience is a chance to “spend time with my friends creating, playing, and exploring together. It’s all the best parts of the freedom of play, the escapism of reading or movies, and the creativity of writing, but all done as a shared experience with the people I love. It is an activity over which I can make regularly scheduled time to connect with my friends.”
Good DMs can gloss over the rules by simply asking players “What do you want to do?” and telling them which dice to roll, and then players can quickly figure out the pattern. And people can play remotely, without the need for everyone to meet in one place: People can video-conference for free on services like Discord. Virtual Table Tops (VTTs) like Roll20, Talespire, and Fantasy Grounds allow players and DMs to all look at a common game board remotely. Other apps allow you to connect your VTT, your character sheet, and your dice rolling on your phone, tablet, or laptop. For the tech savvy, entry into D&D can be effectively free so long as you already have a phone. It also makes finding a group far easier than in the past, no matter where you live.
However, simplicity and ease of entry were not enough by themselves. There are plenty of role-playing games that are simpler to play. What made D&D successful was its concerted effort to correct its past mistakes, removing some of the sexist imagery from past editions: No more chainmail bikinis in the illustrations or rules that punish you if you want to play a female barbarian. And that has deliberately changed the culture of the D&D playing community for the better. Its success also stems from the versatility of the D&D system to handle adventures that rely more on role-played social interactions, or settings that appeal to a wider group of people.
As Ginny Di told me, “It can’t be ignored that the original D&D had misogyny baked into it, from female characters having a lower strength score cap to Gygax himself saying that “gaming is a male thing” and that women simply don’t enjoy games like D&D.”
But the game has benefited tremendously from changes in its demographics and culture, both in age and gender. Consider that 40 percent of D&D players are now women, and while many players skew between the ages of 20 to 24, significant market shares show that there are increasingly more players over 40 and under 20. This has almost certainly contributed to the growth of the player base to over 50 million worldwide users.
Connie noted that before they got into the game, “I’d assumed that D&D was a board game-adjacent hobby for white cis dudes who liked math and grids—not a hobby for me, a queer and trans Chinese-American theater nerd and screenwriter.” The flexibility of the system allowed Connie to create stories and adventures they wanted to share with their friends, namely ones centered on “an all-transgender, people of color-led dark fantasy TTRPG show set in an original non-colonial, anti-orientalist world.”
One of the biggest changes I have observed in D&D culture over the past 30 years is the concept of the “Session Zero,” where the players and the DM all meet together to discuss their expectations for the campaign, and the rules by which everyone agrees to abide. This allows both players and DMs to set boundaries—no sexism, homophobia, hitting on other players, depiction of rape or torture, X-rated humor, etc.
When you combine the ability to find other players online in friendly spaces with the ability to set rules and boundaries from the start, you create spaces for people who would otherwise be reluctant to interact with strangers, and allow them to really be themselves at the table. “It’s at best unwelcoming and at worst dangerous for ONE marginalized person to join a D&D game, but much safer and easier to join a group where you can feel confident that your identity won’t cause the other players to treat you differently,” said Ginny.
Another key factor is the Open Gaming License (OGL) that allows content creators and small companies to produce an astounding amount of D&D-compatible content. Daniel noted that these open platforms have “provided marginalized communities with more product choices and creator visibility than ever before. Furthermore, the growing investment from larger companies in actual play production has increased the visibility of marginalized creators from around the world.” This proliferation of readily available content created by a wide variety of people produces material that, unsurprisingly, appeals to a wide variety of audiences.
The LGBTQ community has long been known for its connection to the arts. Connie observed that D&D’s popularity is related to “queer communities’ deep-rooted, interwoven relationship with art, performance, and storytelling. Gender is performance; performance is gender. With D&D, you can inhabit a body, a backstory, a history, a story, a struggle, a desire, a pain, a lust, and a character that is not you and also is you simultaneously. What better exemplifies that than pretending to be a muscular, agender, emotionally unavailable butch lesbian half-orc for four hours a week with your best friends?”
Chris seconded this idea. “D&D is a vehicle for regular social interaction with other people. Some people meet friends through church, work, clubs, pubs or travel. I have met most of my closest friends in life through playing Dungeons and Dragons.”
In a strange way, D&D has changed radically yet not at all since I first opened my older step-brother’s Monster Manual in 1982. Yes, it’s still a game involving players, a dungeon master, maps on graphs, dice, and pretending to be characters in a fantasy world. But it’s no longer a niche hobby for young white males, and the pop cultural belief that it is a gateway into Satanism and madness seems like a silly relic of a bygone era. Instead, it is an outlet for creativity and a tool to encourage social interaction and bonding between people who would otherwise never meet.
Or, as Chris always closes his YouTube videos with, “Let’s have some fun. D&D is for everyone.”
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