Not long ago, my sons, like many other preteens, were obsessed with Fortnite. It was all they played, all they talked about, all they spent their pocket money on. But one rainy afternoon this summer, my youngest took out the D&D starter kit we’d bought him for Christmas and began to study it. Some friends came round and they played for hours. Since then, they haven’t really stopped.
This is not an isolated incident. Originally released in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons is having what we now call “a moment”. The company behind the game, Wizards of the Coast, estimates that there are currently 40 million players worldwide, with new starters up 25% year on year, as its popularity grows and rules are translated into new languages.
Why now? We live in an era of complex fantasy video games such as The Witcher and Elder Scrolls that offer rich, incredibly detailed worlds to explore. In comparison, D&D still uses paper, pencils and dice. Now in its fifth iteration, it offers modernised and simplified rules, but the basic idea remains the same: a group of people sit round a table and pretend to be warriors, mages and elves embarking on imagined quests and deciding the outcome of battles and other climactic events through rolls of the dice. One player is the Dungeon Master – part storyteller, part referee – who uses the game’s instruction books and campaign guides to structure the adventure. It is nerdy, quaint and there is some maths involved. What is going on?
The obvious explanation is Stranger Things. The immensely popular Netflix series, which has attracted a huge teen audience, features Dungeons & Dragons as a key element. Not only do the boys in Hawkins play the game, they also use it to understand and contextualise the bizarre phenomena taking place in their small town. When a dimensional tear opens, they name the emerging creatures after D&D monsters. Later, Eleven flips their game board over to explain the Upside Down, with Dustin comparing it to the Vale of Shadows – a craggy, desolate, tomb-strewn area of the D&D world, the Forgotten Realms. Like the 1980s movie The Goonies before it, Stranger Things is like a dramatisation of a D&D campaign: a group of flawed young heroes combining their skills and limited resources to face their fearsome enemies.
“Stranger Things definitely put D&D back in the zeitgeist,” says actor and director Joe Manganiello, star of True Blood and lifelong D&D player and advocate. “People who didn’t grow up with it are curious and want to play. There’s an acceptance of geek culture now, because mainstream entertainment has been penetrated by Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. A lot of today’s actors, directors and writers grew up playing D&D and you can see that in their shows.”
YouTube shows and Twitch livestreams have also played a part. Popular channels such as High Rollers, Critical Role and Oxventure feature funny and engaging players undertaking D&D campaigns over multiple episodes, with participants often dressing up and becoming immersed in their characters. These shows present D&D in an accessible format for young digital natives.
There are also a lot of players coming across from video games, their appetite for fantasy adventure whetted by titles such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Age. “Being familiar with role-playing game conventions and fantasy tropes – both found in plenty of games – makes video game players especially receptive to giving D&D a go,” says Jane Douglas, editor and cast member of Oxventure. “Once you give it a go, you start to grasp how much modern games owe to the history of D&D, and all the enjoyable stuff they have in common.” Cementing this connection, the Oxventure cast have just released a Christmas song, Literally Everyone Else in the World, and accompanying video, with proceeds going to the charity Mind.
Even the most sophisticated open-world fantasy video game imposes limits on players’ decisions and abilities. Your interactions are mostly restricted to combat or engaging in highly directed multiple-choice conversations, and there is a fixed narrative you have to follow. In D&D, however, everything is seamless and improvised – the Dungeon Master might have a plan, but if the players decide they don’t want to raid the dungeon, and instead want to hang out in an interesting local tavern, a good Master can be flexible enough to indulge that. “With video games, I accept the limitations since only so much can be programmed,” says Shareef Jackson, a cast member on the Twitch stream Rivals of Waterdeep. “But with D&D, my mind and imagination are set free. It made me realise that video games have really been chasing the freedom that D&D has provided all along.”
The human contact element of D&D is also vital. In an era when much of our socialising is mediated through phone screens and social media, role-playing is one thing that gets people in the same room. “With digital games, you can play co-op but it doesn’t quite have the connection of real people at a table,” says Richard Whitters, senior art director for D&D. “This is a thing that humans have always done: gathering around the campfire, telling stories, interacting. And for many players, D&D is an event – one person will say, ‘oh, I’ll bring some casserole’, another brings music. It’s a social occasion.”
Manganiello says that in his industry, D&D is gaining cult appeal. He now runs a D&D group from his home in Beverly Hills for Hollywood producers and directors – Game of Thrones TV series co-creators David Benioff and DB Weiss are among his regular players.
D&D also chimes with the performative element of platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and TikTok – role-playing as a bard or charming thief gives you the chance to create a character and show off to friends. Jane Douglas has called it “improv theatre for nerds”. “It’s really exciting for extroverted introverts like us. You get to perform for your friends, you get to collaboratively tell a story. It’s creative and sociable and intimate, but also there’s winning and losing, and you’re totally invested and present. It’s like improv theatre but with dice and rules, in the best possible way.”
As the game’s popularity grows, one major challenge has been to overcome stereotypes – not just the assumption that the game is arcane and complicated, but also that it’s just for young white men. Wizards of the Coast says they are addressing this by employing a more diverse roster of artists and writers and adding racially diverse and LGBTQ+ characters into its official campaign books, as well as working with streamers and influencers from outside the perceived target market.
Tanya DePass from the Rivals of Waterdeep stream, which features a cast of POC players, recognises these efforts, but says more needs to be done, both in the game and the team behind it. “I’m really glad to see the changes that have come with the fifth edition. But there are not a lot of POC working at the WotC offices, and we don’t see any brown faces on official streams. We need more staff, not just freelancers, doing work for WotC. But I do feel seen, yes – the inclusion is getting there.”
This feels important because from my own experience, D&D can be more than just a pastime. My oldest son is on the autism spectrum and has difficulties with vocabulary and communication. He has responded to the openness and humour of systems within the game. To our immense surprise, he has even started writing his own campaigns, boosting his confidence and comprehension. Many other players have mentioned the game’s mental health benefits. “I can’t make claims about therapeutic qualities, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had beneficial qualities for some,” says Douglas. “It pulls off the nice trick of being highly sociable and escapist at the same time. Both those things feel restorative, at least to me, and I can imagine other people getting the same benefit.”
Bill Benham, who administrates the D&D Adventurers League, agrees. Previously an army medic, Benham would set up D&D games with other soldiers while stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, and credits the game with helping him come to terms with his experiences on active duty. “I have PTSD and I’ve been to counselling at the department of veterans affairs,” he says. “But I’ve also found, working with other vets, that D&D is an effective tool for addressing these issues, because you’re able to engage with something that’s potentially frightening or uncomfortable in an environment where you’re safe, you’re with friends and you’re engaging in an abstract way. By processing these emotions in the game world, you’re better able to process them in the real world.”
The run-down, leaky summerhouse in our garden is now effectively a D&D dungeon for our sons and their friends, who bring their own campaign books and dice, staying in there for hours without a screen in sight (though there are apps that help you create your characters or manage your dice rolls). At the same time, many of my games industry colleagues in their 20s and beyond are forming groups. Joe Manganiello told me, only half-joking, that he thinks the game will replace the traditional poker night as a venue for American adults to socialise. D&D artist Suzanne Helmigh expressed it to me very simply: “Being called a geek isn’t bad anymore. It’s cool now.”
As adults, we tend to leave make-believe behind. I think that’s a shame. Video games can only partially make up for this loss of narrative exploration and fantasy in our lives; role-playing games answer to an atavistic human need for socio-ritual play and storytelling. They break down barriers, within us and between us.
Mark Hulmes from High Rollers sums it up nicely. “Being an awkward teen who was into theatre and anime, playing D&D allowed me explore different personalities and interests. It lets you know which of your friends will try to befriend everyone and who will axe a goblin in the face without asking any questions. It tells you who you are.”