The 3 Factors That Made Dungeons & Dragons Cool Again
Pop culture, a redesign, and the need for human connection brought back this game
Dungeons & Dragons has had a hell of a comeback.
In the 1980s, a moral crisis overtook America. Weird, nerdy boys were playing games that fostered violence, made them aggressive, and caused them to commit horrible crimes. Religious figures and parent-led coalitions were bravely speaking out against these games that turned their children into satanic worshippers.
I’m talking, of course, about Dungeons and Dragons, commonly shortened to D&D. Yeah, that game that takes place in people’s imaginations and involves a lot of weird-looking dice. Throughout the decades, D&D actually went through a pretty tumultuous period including lawsuits, prayer circles, and psychology studies. (There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to controversies surrounding this game.)
But even before it was besmirched for potentially leading kids to evil, it was known as the ultimate nerd game. You could be into anime, you could be into computer games, you could own limited-edition action figures and still be normal. But as soon as you role-played that you were a barbarian halfling with a giant sword, that’s when you became a hardcore nerd.
And yet, things have changed. I’ve sipped overpriced, trendy coffee in an overpriced, trendy café, eavesdropping on the very cool group of people behind me, wearing overpriced, trendy clothes as they fought against orcs and explored dank caves — all in their collective imagination.
How did D&D go from unpopular to potentially demonic to actually — well, kind of cool?
Pop Culture Made a Difference
As always, the media makes a massive impact on our day-to-day lives. TV shows, podcasts, and a whole slew of celebrities are certainly responsible in part for its resurgence back into the mainstream.
We hear of Demogorgons in Stranger Things; fans of Community will evangelize about its D&D-focused episodes. The Critical Role YouTube channel has received over 168 million views. I personally have listened to all of The Adventure Zone podcast well before I even began to play the game. And when I did, it was partially due to that podcast.
But beyond that, we’ve been prepped for fantastic adventures. We’ve all watched the beautiful, magical worlds of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones brought to near-breathing life before us. We’ve explored the spooky, futurist Westworld and we crave the supernatural creatures of Twilight. In other words, we’ve seen the fantastic and we can’t get enough.
Put that in context with the D&D-based shows, podcasts, and movies that give us a way to do just that, and you have a recipe for rapid adoption.
It Was Rewritten to Make it Accessible
If you looked at the rulebook from the fourth edition of D&D (yep, there were four iterations before our modern-day take), you’d be forgiven for believing that you needed a Ph.D. in D&D to roll a single D20.
Do you know how many people take up fencing? It’s not a lot, despite being a really cool-looking sport. Before you even get going, there are obstacles. You need to invest in a ton of kit. The rules are obscure. The arenas are few and far between. Compare that with running, which is one of the most popular sports worldwide, where all you need to go for your first jog are a pair of shoes.
D&D’s fifth edition transformed it from fencing to running. All of a sudden, anyone could do it.
Before, you needed a board, figurines, and a deep understanding of in-game mechanics before you even rolled a single die. Now, it came with starter kits, simplified rules, and more tools for players to be creative outside of the boundaries of the rulebook. Anyone, whether first-time role-player or experienced Dungeon Master could — and did — pick up a die and start rolling.
Now, More Than Ever, We Need Human Connection
D&D is intense. It demands a huge amount of brainpower because, hey, continuously imagining stuff for three hours straight is like the marathon of mental exercise.
But it’s intensely rewarding. Playing Dungeons and Dragons is one of the most social things you can do, even if you do it virtually like we now have to. Unlike most board games, you don’t compete with your friends — you cooperate. You problem-solve, you brainstorm, you connect together as a team.
“The idealistic part of me says, as we get more attached to screens, we want to do things that are imaginative and where we talk to humans,” Waterman said to journalist Samantha Melamed when she asked him what drew him back to D&D.
I have to agree: even though I haven’t seen my friends in months, and even though all our interaction is online now, I’ve battled demons, solved puzzles, and defeated enemies with them. And isn’t that what we’re all after? A common enemy to beat and a shared goal to achieve?
Starved for connection in our technology-focused world, we’re all looking to get away together. D&D is our escape pod into another universe where the only things we have to worry about are whether we’ll be eaten by dragons.
There’s no good way to track the number of D&D players for the same reason it’s so popular: all you need is a functional imagination. Since Roll20, an easy-to-use online role-playing platform came into existence, you don’t even need any dice.
But just look at Google Trends to show us how, since its lowest point in 2012, it’s been on the rise.
Even a pandemic can’t put a dent into our appetite for role-playing with our friends. Looking at the trends for Roll20, we can see how when we were forced indoors, we turned to each other for connection:
Dungeons & Dragons has come back in a huge way.
Thanks to continual reference in pop culture, a redesign to make it accessible to anyone, and finally, an ever-growing hunger for online and in-person community, Dungeons & Dragons is not only no longer seen as a satanic danger to impressionable young children, but has actually made it cool to slay imaginary dragons with your friends.