It seems like the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons is more popular today than it’s ever been. I believe that this is due to a number of factors creating a kind of perfect storm, and I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about what I think has caused the seemingly unstoppable growth of D&D.
Before I get into that, however, it’s worth laying the groundwork with a bit of history.
Dungeons and Dragons was first released in 1974, and for the first years of its life it’s fair to say it had a bit of an image problem.
Beyond the obvious accusations that this was a “nerdy” pastime, and the stigma that came along with that, in the late 1970’s and well into the 1980’s Dungeons & Dragons became embroiled in a number of controversies. These included links with suicide, murder, witchcraft, the occult and satanic rituals. Of course, much of this was absolute baloney, and has been repudiated many times. The controversies surrounding Dungeons & Dragons grew out of a larger moral panic, often called The Satanic Panic, that originated in the United States in the 1980’s (read more about it here).
There were comics strips created to warn children and parents of the dangers of D&D. Probably the most famous of these is Dark Dungeon by Chick Publications.
There was even a film created on the subject, loosely based on a real life case, starring a young Tom Hanks, with the rather on-the-nose title of Mazes & Monsters (1982).
So how did Dungeons & Dragons overcome this tide of hostility and convince the world it meant their children no harm? Well, I think the outrage died down and people simply moved on.
They saw, one would hope, that there was no substantiated link between what they were being told about Dungeons & Dragons and the reality. This wasn’t some corrupting ‘Satan Worshipping Starter Kit’ (though I don’t doubt that there are still some people who see it that way), but rather it was a game that encouraged often quiet and socially awkward people to come together, enjoy each others’ company and be creative together. That there were other moral panics (horror films, Marilyn Manson, violent video games) that took the attention away from the benign-by-comparison D&D probably didn’t hurt either.
So this leads us to the middle age of Dungeons & Dragons, where, while still popular, it didn’t receive as much attention as it did in its early days, nor was it as popular as it is today.
There have been a number of editions of D&D since it was first released, and I have played most of them in the 20 or so years since I started playing.
I never played 1st Edition – it was before my time.
I have a lot of experience with 2nd Edition (first released in 1989 as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition), as this is the edition that I first cut my teeth on and played for a number of years. While I enjoyed it at the time, being my first introduction to roleplaying, many of its systems now seem horribly dated, and looking back I can see just how wonky some of them were.
3rd Edition (released in 2000) was a huge overhaul to the system. It moved to a D20 based system, which was jarring to some but I thought it was a huge improvement over 2nd Edition. 3rd Edition was revised to v3.5 in 2003, which made some small tweaks to the ruleset.
4th Edition (2008) is the version I am least familiar with (beyond 1st Edition), but as I understand it, it was a real step-change in the direction of the franchise. Each character now had a number of powers which could be used at different intervals (At-Will, Encounter and Daily, I believe). This meant that each ability was effectively on a cooldown timer, much in the same way that some video games (such as World of Warcraft) handle ability timers. There was a feeling in the hobby at the time that this was a conscious attempt to try and lure back some of the players which tabletop games had lost to video games like WoW, which was at the peak of its popularity at the time. I think there is probably some truth in that.
As I understand it, being such a massive shift from what people liked in 3.5 lead to 4th Edition not being a particularly popular edition. To many people it simply didn’t feel like D&D which leads to… Pathfinder (2009).
Pathfinder is a cousin to Dungeons & Dragons. Essentially, there were a group of people that were happy with D&D 3.5 and didn’t want to be forced to change to 4th Edition, so they said “We quite like this version, can we buy the rights from you [D&D Publisher] to keep using these rules and publish our own stuff?” And that’s what they did. And it worked out great. Pathfinder is a lot of fun, I ran a campaign which lasted for around a year and a half, and I participated in another that last for around two years. It is a great system, even if it can feel a little bloated sometimes.
This leads me to my first factor for why I think D&D is enjoying such popularity at the moment:
1. 5th Edition
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was released in 2014, and it’s really good.
5th Edition is a massive step away from 4th Edition and, in many ways, feels like a culmination of everything that has been learnt in previous editions. It manages to make characters feel like they have powerful and unique abilities like in 4th edition, it has deep character customisation options like in 3rd edition, but retains a stripped-back classic feel reminiscent of 2nd edition.
Whereas previous editions could seem daunting, 5th edition feels accessible and welcoming. In the Player’s Handbook (which contains the main rules for playing the game) there are quick start guides for each character, to help you get up and running quickly including not just suggested statistics and equipment, but suggested backgrounds too. This means that someone wanting to join a game isn’t forced to make a ton of choices which could seem overwhelming, especially if you’ve never played a roleplaying game before.
The rules feel streamlined too, but not to the point of over simplicity. The magic system has received some much needed improvements which helps speed up play well.
Each character class, as mentioned above, feels powerful and distinct, with a range of interesting customisation options at each level.
Game play feels smooth, with a minimum of downtime while adventuring, meaning the rules melt into the background more than in other editions, allowing you to get on with the meat of the game: interacting with your fellow players and the world around you.
5th Edition is great, and having a game that is deep and fun, but easy to pick up is one of the biggest keys to D&D’s current success.
2. Online Support
A simplified version of the D&D 5th Edition rules were released online when the edition launched. This surely had a great positive effect on getting people to try the system. It’s not hard to imagine that some of the players that had perhaps lapsed to other systems, or away from roleplaying games altogether, would download a free PDF and give it a try. You can find the basic rules for D&D here.
As well as releasing the base rules for free, there is also D&D Beyond which is an online, digital toolset for Dungeons & Dragons. It allows users to create characters using easy-to-use online tools, which can then be exported and printed off as character sheets to use in the game (or you could play with the app open in front of you on a tablet or phone). It’s also useful for Dungeon Masters, as it lets them keep track of the characters in their campaign, their equipment and spells etc.
There’s a huge amount of useful content and tools on there, and it’s another step to help make playing the game as easy as possible.
3. Greater Visibility In Popular Culture
Though Dungeons & Dragons has appeared in a variety of popular media during its lifetime, including a notable early appearance in E.T. (1982), it certainly seems to be appearing more and more on television.
The Big Bang Theory (2007 – present) has a number of sequences where the characters play D&D. Though I am not a fan of the show, there can be no denying that this sequence looks like a lot of fun (due in part to the excellent impressions by Simon Helberg). It’s a hugely popular show, so it’s clear how these moments could bring D&D to the attention of many people.
One of my favourite series, Freaks and Geeks (1999), staring James Franco among others, also has a sequence where the characters play D&D, in its final episode Discos and Dragons. To my mind, it is the most endearing, sympathetic and charming portrayal of D&D on screen.
Although these are fairly niche shows, I think it is certainly a contributing factor towards the current popularity of D&D. People see characters that they like on a show they enjoy, having fun playing a game and they want to try it out too.
Another hugely popular show that featured Dungeons & Dragons is of course Stranger Things (2016 – Present). The first time we see the main characters, they are down in a dimly lit basement, having a blast playing D&D.
It’s easy to see how this scene, coupled with the appealing 80’s nostalgia that drips from every frame of that show, could lead to people giving D&D a try.
So strong is the link between Stranger Things and D&D that, at the time of writing, they have just released a Stranger Things D&D Starter Set.
It includes a distressed red box (which would be authentic to the early 80’s setting of the show), pre-made character sheets, dice, and an adventure based on the one that the characters can be seen playing in the video posted above.
It’s a very tempting package, and the perfect entry point for any fans of the show who are looking to give D&D a try.
It’s also a masterstroke of marketing, one which I can’t help but feel made the team that come up with it feel like this..
4. Watching Others Play
The last factor, and perhaps the one that has had the most impact on Dungeons & Dragons’ resurgence in popularity, is the ability, thanks to the internet, to watch other people play.
In the last few years there has been an explosion of people playing roleplaying games and then broadcasting them for online audiences. Whether that be audio podcasts, or videos via YouTube or streaming platforms such as Twitch, it’s never been easier to watch someone else enjoying D&D. (Of course, there are a huge variety of roleplaying games, and these broadcasts are not solely limited to D&D).
Probably the most well known and successful of these is Critical Role. Featuring a cast of talented voice actors, their channel on YouTube has 30million views at the time of writing. There is over 500 hours of them playing D&D. It feels incredible that I’ve just typed those words. They even have a rather excellent, high-quality intro.
Equally as incredible, one of their campaigns is about to be turned into a high-quality animation, thanks to a successful Kickstarter which made over $11,000,000.
See the intro for the animated show below
Another extremely popular series is Acquisitions Incorporated, which started as an audio podcast way back in 2008, but has since spawned several others series, and is now played at live shows (such as at gaming convention PAX) in front of thousands of people.
Such has been the success of Acquisitions Incorporated as a brand, that it’s seen spinoffs outside of the videos. The Dungeons & Dragons video game Neverwinter featured some missions and characters from Acquisitions Incorporated. There is an official Acquisitions Incorporated source book for D&D, and the dungeon-themed board game Clank! is soon to be releasing an expansion based on the property.
High Rollers is a UK based stream, DM’d by the excellent Mark Hulmes. Mark is a fantastic DM, and their videos are well worth checking out.
If you’re looking for something slightly shorter than the 100’s of hours that you can find on some of the channels above, Shut Up & Sit Down did a play through a while ago (also DM’d by Mark Hulmes) that clocks in at a much more manageable 3 hours. It’s a highly accessible, fun and entertaining series, and I would definitely recommend it.
Perhaps one of the most left-field inclusions in the genre is Outside Xbox who, as their name suggests, are a video game channel.
A couple of years ago, they made a short video series of them playing Dungeons & Dragons and it went down extremely well. Since then they’ve made plenty more videos and now play D&D in front of live audiences. They are an extremely entertaining and charismatic bunch, and their videos are a lot of fun.
I think that a channel like Outside Xbox (which has over 2million subscribers) whose viewers were almost entirely video gamers, probably went a long way to introducing lots of people to D&D for the first time.
There are, of course, many, many more podcasts, videos, streams and channels out there.
I think that the rise in popularity of Dungeons & Dragons has also lead to an increased interest in roleplaying games generally. As more people get into the hobby through D&D than ever before, they find other games in other settings. These could be Cyperpunk, Tales from the Loop, World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu or any of the other hundreds of roleplaying systems out there.
This increased interest in the genre seems to have lead to a proliferation in roleplaying games being released. Many board games are getting roleplaying game adaptations, which is something that I am not sure would have happened not for the current interest in the hobby. Root, last year’s game of the year for many, is seeing a roleplaying game version soon, and the Android universe of games (which includes Android: Netrunner) has just received its own roleplaying game.
As interest in D&D grows, other roleplaying games benefit also. A rising tide raises all ships, as they say.
When you take into account all of these factors: the streamlined and accessible 5th edition, the excellent online support, the increased visibility in popular media and the explosion of people playing online for an audience, it’s not hard to see that Dungeons & Dragons is going through something of a golden age.
It’s hard to imagine a time, 10 or 15 years ago, when someone would have believed that you could play a game of Dungeons & Dragons, and not only would people watch it, but they would do so in their millions.
Dungeons & Dragons has seen an incredible rise in popularity in the last few years, and I think that can only be a good thing, both as a player, and as someone with an interest in the hobby generally.
Long may it reign.