You awaken suddenly. You’re disoriented, but bright orange sparks catch your eye on the far side of the room. A medium-sized fire then erupts. What do you do?
This was the first scenario Dungeon Master Jim Zavala presented to two friends who walked into the comic shop this week with the hopes of beginning their journey into the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D.
“I make my way to the door then kick it down,” said Matt, one of the 30-somethings who had only ever played video games and the Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, so he didn’t think the jump to D&D would be that tough.
Jim asks him to roll one of the seven dice he had in his new polyhedral set to determine if he’s able to knock down the door. Seventeen — he’s clear. “What about you?” Jim asks James, the other friend. “I go straight to the fire and start peeing on it so I can put it out!” Everyone at the table laughs. “This is what this game is about,” Jim told them. “Having fun just being yourself. As long as you do that, you’ll really enjoy this game.”
As the father of tabletop roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons has had its ups and downs while in the public eye during its nearly 50-year history. From epic adventure quests to dice-rolling and imaginary spellcasting, the roleplaying world of D&D is a grand one. On its surface level, it may look like a simple kid’s game, or the setting for over-enthusiastic nerds to join together for improvised theatre, but it’s much more.
At its core, D&D is collaborative storytelling. Players get to pretend to be characters who embark on a group adventure. They fight villains and monsters, explore small towns and huge countrysides and roll dice to decide their outcomes. A sole Dungeon Master, like Jim, guides the narrative.
The 38-year-old graphic designer has been playing D&D since the fall of 2019. He, like most people, had heard about the game on television shows and movies while growing up but never sought it out. It wasn’t until he was browsing for a new comic to read at his local comic shop, Myth Adventures, when he saw a group of people gathered around a table.
They all varied in age — there was a mother with her son, who looked to be about eight, a few 20-somethings and a couple who looked to be in their early 40s. They were all laughing and enjoying the game they were playing. Their age gaps weren’t a factor. Everyone was immersed in their character and they each had a role in the quest they were playing. All they had to do was trust each other to do their part and move the story forward. Jim was hooked instantly and ended up staying at the comic shop for another three hours to see how their session ended.
Fast forward two years and he quickly went from player to Dungeon Master, has dozens of polyhedral dice sets, several printed maps with varying terrains, paint sets, different volumes of guide and rulebooks, that on top of all the miniatures he has for nearly every character. Jim, like the millions of people around the world who play D&D, doesn’t just play for the beautiful worlds a player can create with their imagination or all the fun props that can be bought and made, it’s the camaraderie that’s created with strangers turned friends.
It’s the way anyone who plays can experience adventures and travel off to new places without even leaving home. From horror investigations to the Wild West, there are endless possibilities to explore when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. That limitless potentiality is why millions of people around the world continue to visit these fictional worlds.
First dating back to 1974, D&D is now more popular than ever. According to statistics released in April 2020 by Seattle-based game publisher Wizards of the Coast, 2019 was D&D’s most successful year of all time. Reporting more than 40 million fans listed worldwide and 4.3 billion minutes of gameplay viewed on the video live-streaming platform Twitch alone, the number of players and fans is only expected to keep growing.
But at a time when video games look better than ever and anyone can have a 50 thousand-word book read to them on Audible, why are people going back to this game that still uses paper, pencils and a couple of dice? It could be that throughout its history, its concept has stayed the same: a group of people sit around a table, play as fighters, wizards, rangers and rogues, embark on legendary quests and have every adventure imaginable with each roll of the die.
“I think people are more curious and accepting about D&D because it’s more accessible,” Jim said. “There’s more exposure in popular culture. We see how much fun they have playing together in TV shows, which is the point of this game. So the more people play, the more adventures we as players can have.”
On the popular Netflix series Stranger Things, D&D plays a key role throughout its three seasons. The show’s leads use their love of the game to understand and solve all the phenomena going on in their small town. The cult comedy series Community dedicated two episodes to the roleplaying game, both of which did a great job as an introduction to D&D. Author and lifelong D&D fan Ernest Cline wrote Ready Player One and its sequel Ready Player Two, both of which feature the game heavily.
Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Joe Manganiello, Anderson Cooper, Jon Favreau, Stephen Spielberg and Drew Barrymore are also among the celebrities who have embraced the infamous 20-sided die. Manganiello is so invested in the game that he wrote a D&D movie script.
YouTube shows, podcasts and Twitch livestreams have also played a part in its popularity. Bigger channels like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone and HarmonQuest feature engaging and hilarious players who take part in D&D campaigns over multiple episodes spanning hundreds of hours. For years they have been recording their D&D sessions for audiences in the thousands so fans can watch and interact with them virtually.
First aired in 2015, Critical Role’s first episode now has more than 15 million views. It was nothing more than a group of friends who recorded themselves roleplaying for three hours. Hundreds of episodes later and their epic quests have now expanded to multiple comic books, a foundation, an art book, an online store and more. Their fanbase is so strong, they were also able to raise more than $11 million on Kickstarter to develop an animated adventure series called The Legend of Vox Machina.
Shows like these shed a fun and positive light on D&D through easily accessible formats for younger audiences who have spent their life online. It also adds to the experience when they become completely immersed in their character and dress the part.
But while some players go all out with costumes, props and accents during longer campaigns, it isn’t required. D&D started with paper, pencils and dice and it still holds true today. Players don’t need anything but things they can find at home.
“The great thing about D&D is that the barrier for entry is really low,” Jim said. “When I first started playing with my kids, I drew a grid on the inside of an old pizza box. We used fish tank gemstones as our characters and the enemies were coins and other small items I got from a kitchen drawer.”
There’s also more to playing tabletop roleplaying games like this than just for fun. In Jim’s experience, he’s also learned skills he can use in the real world like problem solving, quick thinking, being creative and working as a team.
“There are so many added benefits,” he said. “You learn to think on your feet and outside of the box to come up with creative solutions to problems. But I think one of the biggest benefits — and my absolute favorite part — is socializing and working with others.”
The human element of D&D is vital to the success of the game. At a time when people spend most of the time socializing digitally through phone screens and social media, roleplaying is something that gets everyone together in the same room.
Dungeons & Dragons has come a long way since its start in the 1970s. It’s no longer a game you need to hide away to play in your parents’ basement in fear of getting bullied at school. It’s now a social occasion. There are popup events all over the world like “Drinks and Dragons” in Philadelphia, as well as “Orcs! Orcs! Orcs!” in Portland. These events encourage both strangers and friends to join together and play at bars and restaurants. Popup events don’t require experienced players because the goal is to have fun and see how far everyone’s imagination can take them.
That’s the hook that gets people to attend and participate because nowadays, adults dismiss anything that’s make-believe. But tabletop roleplaying games like D&D can be the bridge that unites the child who loves storytelling and mythical adventures to the adult who seeks camaraderie and creativity.
D&D players can explore different personalities and interests, and push their expressiveness beyond their limits. It tells you which of your teammates will look for the diplomatic solution when confronted with a problem and which one will be more direct — like peeing on a fire. Games like this let you discover who you can be, and that’s what makes them genuine.