Your typical Saturday-night, beer-'n'-pretzles-type game of D&D. (Photo by Flickr user Spablab)
When I was 15 a bully walked up to my friends and me with a shit-eating grin on his face I’ll never forget. We knew we were busted. We were playing Dungeons & Dragons in the library, and we thought we were doing it on the down-low. We were wrong, we were found out, and we were publicly embarrassed. I’ve since forgotten the specific teases and mockery, but the red-faced shame that flushed our group sticks in my memory. So where is the game now? Who plays it? And why does it seem, against all odds, that Dungeons & Dragons is getting cool?
It turns out that D&D, the role-playing game produced by Wizards of the Coast, didn’t die with our childhood. The basics are still the same (all you need is a pencil, paper, and a shit ton of dice), but like a copy of Adobe Photoshop that needs upgrades and re-installation, Dungeons & Dragons has come out with five editions over its 40-year history. And within those editions there were variables, basic and advanced versions, and tweaks to the rules.
The fifth edition saw wide-release across the US just yesterday, but Wizards of the Coast has been teasing it for months. In July, a "Starter Set" was released, which includes 32 pages of new rules, a single 64-page adventure, dice, and sample players. Yesterday they debuted the Player's Handbook. Next month will see the wide release of the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide will be out in a few months.
With the release, all types of people (some neckbeards might refer to them as "noobs") are checking out the game. This past week I noticed more curious hipsters skulking into my local game shop, picking up the "learn-to-play rules" of the fifth edition.
I asked Lauren Bilanko, co-owner of Twenty Sided Store in fashionable Williamsburg, Brooklyn, her thoughts on whether D&D is becoming cool. “D&D has always been cool. Maybe there has been a stigma about the people who play D&D as being not being cool, especially when you are 12 years old and anyone who does something different than you is lame. But in reality, anytime we ever played make believe or acted in a play, we were role-playing, and D&D is a shared role-playing experience. It is just too bad that most of us only realized so late that it was cool! Better late than never.”
So what’s changed since high school? It feels like the tide of public opinion is turning on the game. Sure, the old standbys—snerkling naysayers obsessed with rules, heaving adolescents hoping to role-play a sex scene—are probably all still playing. But when I asked Nathan Stewart, brand director of Dungeons & Dragons, about the game’s target audience, he explained, “Our fans have shifted, but mainly they’ve evolved with us—and with entertainment—through the years.”
That’s an important point. As entertainment and tastes change (we’ve gone from one so-so superhero movie a decade to two OK movies a summer), the fanbase changes and grows in stride.
Photo by Ben Loomis
I like Stewart's use of the word evolve. It speaks to the feeling I get that there’s a growing trend in gaming communities to be less bombastic, less homophobic, less chauvinistic, and more socially aware. Coming from a game that used to give statistical penalties for playing as a female character, the game is now asking the players to think critically about things like gender. Are you playing as a male or female dwarf? Do you even have to make that distinction? This line of thought is far and away from the musky basements of our youth, and steps like this will only broaden the appeal of the game.
Classically speaking, D&D targeted its marketing toward a young audience already mired in the genre tropes; dungeons, dragons, etc. But by the time my friends and I got to sneaking in sessions between the stacks there were no commercials, no subway ads, nothing. It was all word of mouth, and it created within us a sort of cult-like fandom. “Did you hear Pat’s running a game of D&D?” “I heard they get drunk and use real swords!” The mystique, fueled by years of anti-D&D sentiment, was too enticing to pass up. We were nerds, but we were middle-of-the-road nerds. We read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because we weren’t smart enough for Dune. We were straight-B students, too smart for jocks to like us and too dumb for the real smart kids. We were nerdy as hell, and we were soaking in a form of viral marketing ages ahead of its time. Get kids playing the game, and get them talking in secret to other like-minded nerds.
Now, according to Stewart, Wizards of the Coast and he are “focusing on great storytelling and making sure we find the best ways to bring that story and those adventures to the fans.” It’s not about the product anymore, it’s about the vibe the game creates. Is it easy to learn? Will you be able to persuade your friends to play? On Wizard’s Organized Play page (devoted to helping people find games at local shops), the only players we see depicted are cool, young professionals—a multi-gendered, multi-ethnic blend of gamers who look more at home on Comedy Bang! Bang! than The Big Bang Theory. D&D may not have any new awesomely corny commercials coming anytime soon, but the game seems now to be pitched to sympathetic (and much cooler) ears.
Another huge barrier to entry in past iterations of the game has been the level of complexity. “We listened to player feedback on how to streamline the game,” Stewart said, “and have given the players the freedom to add complexity when desired.” The desire, in some camps, is certainly still there. Old, die-hard fans who enjoy digging through hundreds of pages of rules text will find plenty to love with the new Player’s Handbook launching this week. But, for the first time in the history of the game, that complexity is (almost completely) optional.
So to answer the question posed at the top: Is Dungeons & Dragons cool now? I think the answer is, “Sure, as long as you’re cool with Dungeons & Dragons.” In a world where ironic trashy T-shirts and Warby Parker are the status quo, why wouldn’t a game based around orcs, gray wizards, flaming swords, and leafy druids excel? We’re no longer afraid of bullies, we’re more socially aware than we’ve ever been, and no one’s going to tease us any more.