How Dungeons & Dragons Went Mainstream
We spoke to experts and game developers about the shifting culture of the revered, and increasingly non-geeky, fantasy tabletop RPG.
Dungeons & Dragons has had a good year. The release of the fifth edition of the classic tabletop roleplaying game has been hugely popular: The Player's Handbook hit the number-one spot on the Amazon best-seller list, attendance of players at events in gaming stores is up, and there's even a new D&D movie in the works at Warner Brothers. Players often guide their characters through prepackaged adventures, and the latest one to be released is Out of the Abyss. Out September 15, the adventure involves evil elves, demons, and the Underdark, an underground world the writers have redesigned from a dank, gray maze of caves to a more colorful, hypnotic, Alice in Wonderland–like realm. When the fifth edition was released last summer, it seemed like D&D was on the verge of being "cool." Now, a year later, Wizards of the Coast, which owns D&D, seems to be getting Out of the Abyss to as broad an audience as possible.
In the 15 years that I've been playing D&D, I've never seen a marketing push behind an ancillary product (i.e., not a new edition with its Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide) like the one that's being marshaled for this new adventure, including a high-budget CGI trailer featuring howling demons, squid-faced mind-suckers, and various other underground beasts. The minds behind the game are bringing the character Drizzt Do'Urden (star of a slew of R. A. Salvatore's New York Times best-selling D&D books) to the forefront of this story, where in previous adventures, Do'Urden and his pals have always seemed one step removed from the action. All this is an attempt to get more eyes on the D&D brand, and this marketing push matches a move toward openness and accessibility that the game's never seen before.
"Geek culture and nerd culture is now just culture." —Chris Perkins
Dungeons & Dragons started out in 1974 as a strange passion for the nerdy and fantasy-obsessed. "In the early 80s, D&D actually had a cultural cache because it was like, 'What is this weird, kind of occult-inspired activity?'" said Mike Mearls, head of research and development at D&D since 2005. "And if you didn't play it, you didn't understand it. And if you watched people play, it still didn't really make any sense."
With its mix of magic and witchcraft, D&D has received its fair share of fundamentalist backlash in the past—like in 1989, when William Schnoebelen railed against D&D in his article " Straight Talk on Dungeons & Dragons" (and followed up in 2001 with "Should a Christian Play D&D"), published by fellow D&D-hater Jack Chick.
However, Chris Perkins, principal designer for D&D since 2013, wasn't so concerned, citing a greater tolerance for the game's occult themes due to the prevalence of video games and the internet. "Demons are a part of D&D and always have been," he said.
Occult concerns weren't the only troubles nagging early D&D, according to Ethan Gilsdorf, author of the pop-culture memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. "People began to notice how much time the game takes up," he said. "It was seen as something so immersive and so involved that people supposedly lose track of reality, or lost the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy." This idea was taken on in the made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters, which starred Tom Hanks as a college student who becomes obsessed with a D&D-like game and eventually loses his mind.
Over the past year, however, the general public's reaction to D&D has been "shifting," according to Mearls. "I was just watching Wet Hot American Summer," he said, "and there's a D&D reference in the original movie, and the D&D player is a total nerd, right? They got all the details wrong. The person who wrote that dialogue probably never actually played D&D, or didn't have much firsthand interaction with it. These days, people who are generating our pop culture now have actually played D&D."
"For those in the know, for those who follow popular culture, the game has gained a kind of legendary status," agreed Gilsdrof. "It's almost like a badge of honor. People who used to play D&D in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are now reaping the benefits."
"Geek culture and nerd culture is now just culture," observed Perkins.
"Now we're getting lumped in with comic books and everything else," said Mearls.
David M. Ewalt, author of the hobby-delving D&D history Of Dice and Men, attributes D&D's more mainstream success to the fact that people are, generally, playing games more often. "The game doesn't have the same stigma that it once did," he explained. "Games in general have become so much more mainstream."
It's a trend that Wizards of the Coast seeks to continue by broadening the public perception of the brand.
"Our vision of D&D has evolved over the past few years," explained Perkins. "While the tabletop roleplaying game is, and always will be, the spiritual heart of Dungeons & Dragons, we're thinking of the game as a larger entertainment property. Similar to the way Marvel uses their comics as the heart of their brand but they are branching off to other entertainment experiences in order to capture a larger audience. They can then take that new audience and reintroduce them to the comics and say, 'See, this is where all this great stuff comes from.'"
"[Wizards of the Coast] knows that this is a different world," agreed Ewal. "They know they're competing against video games and other tabletop games, so they've done a lot to reach out to new players."
But Dungeons & Dragons isn't just evolving from a business or franchising standpoint. The game's making strides to embrace diversity and acceptance within their community.
"A lot of it starts with us and how we approach our storytelling," Mearls said. "When you're a creator, and you're trying to be mindful of race, gender, and sexuality, it's very easy to create a caricature. But for us we want everyone in the game to see themselves."
Much has been written about D&D's push to catch up with third-wave feminism, and many were pleasantly surprised when the official rulebook commented on gender binaries and fluidity. "We kind of thought, Would people freak out about this?" Mearls said. "I can't think of anyone who's directly told me that they had a problem with it. I mean, who wants to admit that they're a bigot?"
Part of this uptick in inclusiveness comes from how the game is played. Mearls noted that the very nature of the game—as an activity you sit down with your friends to play—means that there's a smaller barrier to entry. You don't have to go into a comic book store and have a know-how showdown with strangers. You don't have to seek out cosplay conventions and build a place for yourself in a new community. If you like it, and your friends like it, you can play.
"I don't necessarily need this big support network to take part in this culture," said Mearls. "So I think there's a certain amount of built-in accessibility helping D&D."
"We see about a 40-60 split of female to male players in our store," related Lauren Bilanko, co-owner of Twenty Sided Store, a game shop in Brooklyn. Though she admits, "We are in New York, so I imagine that might skew the numbers a little bit." Bilanko said that, growing up, she was never introduced to Dungeons & Dragons. "I'd heard about it, but I grew up in a house of all sisters, and fantasy wasn't as in your face in popular culture back then. Sci-fi was huge, but fantasy really wasn't."
So now, when "women are coming in and buying the game all the time," she can't help but think it's related to the prevalence of fantasy in pop culture. "That being said, it's still very intimidating for women, really for anyone new to the game, to come and play in a public space. We try to fight that by creating an open, welcoming environment, and I think a lot of stores are following suit."
Mearls said the inclusiveness, and their attention to their diverse audience, has strengthened the game's following. "We're seeing a bigger audience than we've seen in a very long time—in decades. It's so easy to cast this idea that technology will be the death of D&D, but it's been really interesting to see how that has been absolutely incorrect."
As the game continues to grow, Perkins is convinced it will remain important to those who play it. "Once you actually experience the game," he said, "it's something that you end up loving your entire life."
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