Dungeons & Dragons: Further thoughts

Continuing on from my previous post where I discussed the current popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, I had a few further thoughts that I wanted to share.

As well as the factors that I listed in that post: an accessible ruleset, online support, visibility in popular culture and the proliferation of people playing games over streaming services, there’s a few more that I thought deserved a mention. I’m going to continue the numbering system from my last post, so if you’re reading this and wondering why the numbering starts at 5, check out my previous post to catch up.

5. An increased interest in the fantasy genre due to television and film

This is a point that is distinct from the one in my other post, which talks about portrayals of D&D on the screen. Here I am referring to an increased interest in the fantasy genre as a whole.

Fantasy films have been around for a while, of course. There were the films of Ray Harryhausen, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the Titans (1981), and many others. Harryhausen was inspired by the work of Willis O’Brien going back to The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933), which both have elements of fantasy about them.

It has been argued that Star Wars (1977) fits more into the fantasy genre than science fiction, due to its classic ‘Hero’s Journey’ structure, the fairytale “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” opening, and a depiction of what is basically magic in The Force.

While there was a plethora of fantasy films in the 1980’s, such as Hawk The Slayer (1980), Conan The Barbarian (1982), Krull (1983), The Neverending Story (1984) and Willow (1988) to name but a few, it wasn’t until Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) trilogy that fantasy films became a truly global phenomenon.

The Lord of the Rings films were a huge commercial and critical success which, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say, changed the way that films were made and received. For some time after, Hollywood went into imitation mode, quickly rushing out anything which had a passing resemblance to The Lord of the Rings. A series of books with a vaguely fantastical feel? You bet it’s going to get adapted, and the film makers will do their best to crowbar in giant Lord of the Rings-esque battle scenes. This lead to flops like Eragon (2006), The Golden Compass (2007), and the more successful, but still lacking, Chronicles of Narnia (2005, 2008, 2010) series. While none of the imitators would achieve the same heights as The Lord of the Rings, there was a clear appetite for fantasy films. The problem was that the filmmakers weren’t able to hit the same notes of Peter Jackson’s films, try as they might. Be it a combination of rushed productions or less suited source material trying to be shaped into something that it wasn’t, it would be some time before fantasy would achieve the same kind of popularity that it did with The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

I think a tip of the hat must also be made to the position we currently find ourselves in, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though not traditionally thought of as fantasy in the same way that The Lord of the Rings is fantasy, there can be no denying there is something of an overlap. Hugely successful, they have bought to the fore a kind of long-form story telling featuring varied characters with powerful abilities: not a million miles away from the kind of stories that Dungeons & Dragons tells. Currently being the most successful films in the world, they have also gone a long way to further bring ‘geek culture’ to the mainstream.

The success of Lord of the Rings showed producers that fantasy as a genre could be hugely successful if handled correctly, which leads us to the television series Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019).

Adapted from the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy book series by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones has become the biggest show on television, with a lavish production featuring a huge number of characters, amazing special effects and a scope that eclipses even The Lord of the Rings.

George RR Martin has said that he was asked for the rights to adapt his books into films many times, but he knew that, due to their complexity, they wouldn’t be able to tell the story in a satisfactory way. He knew that a television series on HBO would be the only way to bring his vast vision to life, and so it came to be. There’s a very interesting interview with George RR Martin where he discusses this, which can be found here.

Game of Thrones, and the book series that it is based on, while being vastly different in terms of tone to The Lord of the Rings, is a direct descendant of Tolkien’s work.

The Lord of the Rings really did give birth to “traditional” fantasy as we think of it, giving us orcs, elves, dwarves and so on as we know them today. Of course, many of these things existed before, and there has been fantastical story telling traditions for thousands of years, going back to epic poems such as the story of Gilgamesh and the saga of Beowulf . Another great fantasy series, Conan the Barbarian, was first published in the 1930’s, but it wasn’t until the publication of The Hobbit (1937) and its sequel The Lord of the Rings (1954) that fantasy as we know it today really came into being. Without The Lord of the Rings, there really would be no Dungeons & Dragons.

I think it’s clear to see how the massive mainstream success of The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones has lead to an increased interest in the fantasy genre. They are inhabited by characters that people love and they conjure deep and evocative worlds, and what game lets you inhabit that type of the world better than Dungeons & Dragons?

6. Video Games

It might seem odd to make the statement that video games could increase the popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, as video games are often seen as being in opposition to tabletop games, but bear with me.

The history of fantasy video games goes back almost as far as video games themselves, one of the best known early examples being text adventure Zork (1980).

Zork was a dungeon adventure game where you navigated by typing instructions into a text parser, things like “Go North” and “Get Sword”. Although basic by today’s standards, it was hugely influential at the time, and helped birth Interactive Fiction as a genre in its own right.

The popularity of Zork and other text adventures would eventually lead to ‘Multi-User Dungeons’ (or MUDs) which, as their name implies, were a sort of virtual realm where people could create a character and interact with each other. These games often featured fantasy worlds and dice rolling mechanics based on Dungeons & Dragons.

As graphic technology improved, soon MUDs evolved into what we know today as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games), such as EverQuest (1999) and Ultima Online (1997). The most successful of this genre is the hugely popular World of Warcraft (2004 – present) which at its peak had around 14 million players.

For anyone who is familiar with World of Warcraft (and the Warcraft series of games which preceded it), the parallels to the worlds of The Lord of the Rings, and so in turn to Dungeons & Dragons are obvious.

Although one branch of the Zork tree would go on to lead to MUDs and then to games like World of Warcraft, another branch lead in a different direction which focused on single player experiences.

Though Zork was purely text based, it was not long before other similar games started to introduce simple graphical representations of the dungeons you were exploring. So instead of typing “Get Torch” you could instead click on it. This lead to games such as Bard’s Tale (1985) and Might and Magic (1986).

These sorts of first person roleplaying games would eventually evolve into, among others, The Elder Scrolls series, which has gone on to be massively successful. The most popular of these were Oblivion (2006), which featured voice performances from big name actors such as Sean Bean and Patrick Stewart, and Skyrim (2011) which is widely regarded as a masterpiece and one of the greatest games ever made. In 2016, the game’s executive producer Todd Howard stated that Skyrim had sold over 30 million copies since its release.

You can find out more about the history of the Elder Scrolls series in this video.

There have, of course, been other huge video game RPG successes. The Witcher series, based on a series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, have done extremely well, reaching their high point with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) which garnered critical acclaim and sold over six millions copies in six weeks.

While RPG video games were once a niche market, the mainstream successes of World of Warcraft, The Witcher and Skyrim mean that more and more people have been introduced to the kind of fantasy gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons.

But why play tabletop games at all if you have video games? Well, of course, you can play both, but I believe that Quinns from Shut Up & Sit Down makes a good point in his talk about the rise in popularity of tabletop games.

He states that, as well as having a huge history which can be traced back hundreds if not thousands of years, and apart from the fact that sitting down with people that you love just feels good, tabletop games might actually be filling a void which was, for a time, occupied by video games.

Quinns (who was a video game writer for many years) states that, while couch co-op and local multiplayer were big things with video games for a time, with friends huddled around one television all sharing the same screen, as video games have moved towards online play for their multiplayer elements, people who miss those social experiences have turned to tabletop games. I think that is a point that makes a lot of sense.

Video games are great, and I love them. I have played them for most of my life and have written extensively about them in the past, but they will always be limited to the worlds created by the developers, as fantastical and as wonderful as those worlds may be. Roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons have no such limitations. They can be anything that we want them to be, and are the perfect way for a group of people to tell stories together.

Video games tell great stories, but they often aren’t your stories. You are experiencing the dreams of another, and while beautiful, they will never feel as rich as your own.

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