Dungeons and Dragons: A Critical Hit for 40 Years

Rolling a “nat­ural 20″ on a dice is con­sid­ered a “crit­i­cal suc­cess” and usu­ally results in a bonus for a “Dun­geons and Drag­ons” char­ac­ter. GIF/Nicholas Shigo
Rolling a “nat­ural 20″ on a dice is con­sid­ered a “crit­i­cal suc­cess” and usu­ally results in a bonus for a “Dun­geons and Drag­ons” char­ac­ter. GIF/Nicholas Shigo

The war­rior stands, sword held aloft, ready to take on the foul beast before him. The wiz­ard waits behind, chant­ing strange words under his breath, palms sparkling with arcane energy. The thief makes her way to the back of the cav­ern, keep­ing to the shad­ows, dag­gers unsheathed.

The dragon rears back its head, flame spew­ing from its gap­ing jaws.

Roll ini­tia­tive.

Rewriting Fantasy

Dun­geons and Drag­ons has been the world’s most pop­u­lar role-playing game, or RPG, for more than four decades. Play­ers cre­ate a char­ac­ter from fan­tasy races, such as elves and dwarves, and classes, like wiz­ards and bar­bar­ians, and using dice rolls and cre­ative sto­ry­telling to over­come chal­lenges set forth by the Dun­geon Mas­ter, sort of like a com­bi­na­tion ref­eree and author of their adventure.

Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from works of lit­er­a­ture such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian pulp stories and classic fairy tales, play­ers act out the lives and adventures of their characters, providing both an escape from the real world and think creatively to solve problems.

Gary Gygax at Gen­Con 2007. Gygax died in 2008 after mak­ing count­less addi­tions to gam­ing his­tory. Photo/Wikimedia, Alan De Smet
Gary Gygax at Gen­Con 2007. Gygax died in 2008 after mak­ing count­less addi­tions to gam­ing his­tory. Photo/Wikimedia, Alan De Smet

D&D was cre­ated by Gary Gygax, a game designer from Lake Geneva, Wis­con­sin. Accord­ing to Mike Witwer, author of Empire of Imag­i­na­tion, a biog­ra­phy of Gygax, he was inspired by a love of more real­is­tic wargames and the fan­tas­tic sto­ries he was read and told as a child.

Accord­ing to Witwer, D&D was a major influ­ence in just about any kind of media, not just games, since its cre­ation. Even those in a seem­ingly unre­lated genre, like first-person-shooters like the mas­sively pop­u­larCall of Duty, have Gygax to thank.

There’s a rea­son why every major game designer cites D&D as an influ­ence,” Witwer said.

Leg­endary game designer John Romero, cre­ator of the Doom fran­chise, one of the first of the FPS genre, cred­its D&D as his influ­ence for the mon­strous demon ene­mies in the game, accord­ing to Witwer.

Other aspects now con­sid­ered cru­cial to game design have their ori­gins with Gygax. Cre­at­ing and assum­ing the role of one par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter, maze ele­ments and even the clas­sic fan­tasy world can all be traced back to D&D, accord­ing to Witwer.

Even media for­mats so inte­gral to mod­ern soci­ety was cre­ated with D&D in mind.

Some of the ear­li­est social net­works were MUDs– multi-user dun­geons. They were built to model an online ver­sion of Dun­geons and Drag­ons,” Witwer said. “Some of the peo­ple who were doing the first social media sites were bas­ing it around D&D.”

Leveling Up

Since the first edi­tion of 1,000 copies was pub­lished in 1974 by Gygax’s game com­pany, Tac­ti­cal Strat­egy Rules, over 20 mil­lion adven­tur­ers have joined the game across the globe.

The game has gone through five dif­fer­ent iter­a­tions since its pub­li­ca­tion. Each edi­tion builds on the rules and aspect of the pre­vi­ous set, chang­ing the way the game is played.

Rules and mechan­ics evolved based on what play­ers wanted in their games. Greg Tito, Dun­geons and Drag­ons Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Man­ager, said edi­tion 3.5’s rules were based around player’s desire to cre­ate their own rules and mate­ri­als and the fourth edi­tion rules took many design sen­si­bil­i­ties from World of War­craft and other mas­sively mul­ti­player online role-playing games and allowed for more tac­ti­cal game­play. The most recent fifth edi­tion, released in 2014, goes back more to the story based games of early edi­tions and not a reliance on strict rule struc­tures, Tito said.

The mechan­ics were all stream­lined and easy to under­stand,” he said. “We took the best parts of all edi­tions and put them into one package.”

While par­tic­u­lar mechan­ics and rules have changed, the core empha­sis on build­ing a party and work­ing coop­er­a­tively on an adven­ture and cama­raderie around the table has stayed the same in each edition.

Peo­ple really just love that idea of a party of dif­fer­ently tal­ented folks join­ing together on an adven­ture,” Tito said.

“Nev­er­win­ter” was one of the first MMORPG’s based on the “D&D” uni­verse and was recently updated with the release of the fifth edi­tion. Photo/Rob Obsid­ian, Flikr
“Nev­er­win­ter” was one of the first MMORPG’s based on the “D&D” uni­verse and was recently updated with the release of the fifth edi­tion. Photo/Rob Obsid­ian, Flikr

5e” as it is called, is the first to blend both online and table­top plat­forms, with aspects of the story play­ing out in the D&D MMORPG, Nev­er­win­ter.

Tito said the inter­play between D&D and video games has formed an “inspi­ra­tion loop,” with each influ­enc­ing the game­play and story ele­ments of each other.

Game design­ers take every­thing and use that to cre­ate a more mod­ern game or mechanic,” he said.

Witch Hunts

Despite its pop­u­lar­ity among the gam­ing com­mu­nity, Dun­geons and Drag­ons did not have strong main­stream appeal for much of its his­tory and is even now still fight­ing to find its place.

D&D was always shown as some­thing on the fringes of soci­ety, played by social out­casts and nerds hud­dled around a table in the base­ment. It even went through a period when it was accused of pro­mot­ing devil wor­ship and started a cam­paign against the game and its community.

The most pub­li­cized of the cases, and the one that started the frenzy, was the dis­ap­pear­ance of James Dal­las Egbert III in August of 1979 from the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan.

Egbert’s fam­ily hired a pri­vate detec­tive to find their son named William Dear. In inves­ti­gat­ing the case, Dear found evi­dence that Ebert was an avid player of D&D in the tun­nels under­neath the school.

He comes up with an absurd the­ory that Egbert was play­ing the game and it blurs the line between fan­tasy and real­ity. He thinks he’s his char­ac­ter and becomes lost in the steam tun­nels under Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan,” Witwer said.

The news spread like wild­fire and every media out­let was run­ning sto­ries about this “bizarre intel­lec­tual game,” and even after Egbert was found in Louisiana (no thanks to D&D), the the­ory was never shaken.

Dallas, as the youth was called, disappeared Aug. 15 from his room on Michigan State University Campus, leaving a suicide note and paraphernalia of a game called Dungeons and Dragons.
– William Robbins, New York Times, Aug. 17, 1979

Accord­ing to a 1985 60 Min­utes report, more than a dozen sui­cides and mur­ders were asso­ci­ated with D&D and its play­ers. Par­ents, teach­ers and reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions ral­lied against the game but its cre­ators held that it was not to blame.

There are three to four mil­lion play­ers of the game right now through­out the United States,” said Dieter Stern, then direc­tor of Pub­lic Rela­tion of TSR. “Right at this par­tic­u­lar time, 1985 teenage sui­cide is an epi­demic. I think that to say because that child does plays Dun­geons and Drag­ons, what’s to say that child does not watch tele­vi­sion or play high school sports or what, per se?”

Stud­ies in the report said many of those who were killed had out­side prob­lems with school or family.

Even after the witch-hunts sub­sided, the play­ing the game never truly shook the rep­u­ta­tion. How­ever, in a weird twist of fate, just before this wild­fire was sparked, TSR recently began dis­trib­ut­ing the game to main­stream book­stores. This increased vis­i­bil­ity led to their rev­enue almost qua­dru­pling dur­ing the 80’s.

Critical Hit

The per­cep­tion of Dun­geons and Drag­ons as purely a “nerd’s game” is slowly chang­ing. With the advent of online stream­ing and game­play and being fea­tured in pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion shows such as Com­mu­nity and Big Bang The­ory, D&D is reach­ing new lev­els of popularity.

In a weird sort of way, the game has become cool, in a geeky sort of way,” Witwer said. “If geeky just means being unashamedly enthu­si­as­tic about things, which I think it is, then it’s cool to be geeky about things.”

Groups record­ing them­selves play the game, whether on a table­top or via dig­i­tal means, have reached viral pop­u­lar­ity on YouTube and game stream­ing sites like Twitch. Ongo­ing games like Crit­i­cal Role and Acqui­si­tions Incor­po­rated gar­ner hun­dreds of thou­sands of views for each episode.

Video games have seen a huge uptick in Twitch and see­ing other peo­ple play and I think that has bled into Dun­geons and Drag­ons as well,” Tito said.

Accord­ing to Tito, more and more play­ers are join­ing games online, using video call­ing pro­grams and vir­tual gam­ing tables like Roll20 to play with friends thou­sands of miles away.

Even though the dig­i­tal audi­ence is grow­ing at a much faster rate, Wiz­ards will con­tinue to focus on the table­top audi­ence, Tito said.

The core will always be pro­duc­ing high qual­ity pub­lished books for play­ing around the table. That is what the game is designed to and those are our core fans,” he said.

Mem­bers of the UConn Gamers’ Guild plan their next move in a D&D cam­paign fraught with demons, pol­i­tics and real estate pur­chases. Photo/Nicholas Shigo
Mem­bers of the UConn Gamers’ Guild plan their next move in a D&D cam­paign fraught with demons, pol­i­tics and real estate pur­chases. Photo/Nicholas Shigo

At the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut, the table­top gam­ing com­mu­nity is alive and well. The Gamers’ Guild club meets at the Stu­dent Union to play board games, trad­ing card games and, of course, D&D.

Mike Stankov, fifth semes­ter biol­ogy major, said he started play­ing the game when he was ten years old and has been hooked ever since.

One of my friends in ele­men­tary school, for my birth­day, got me the starter kit and we stayed up until 5 a.m. play­ing that start­ing adven­ture for D&D and I’ve been hooked since,” he said.

Many of the Gamers’ Guild play­ers started with the club for the sense of com­mu­nity and shared expe­ri­ence of the game. It lets play­ers spend time with like-minded indi­vid­u­als and have fun in a fan­tasy setting.

It’s a great release. You get to be some­one you’re not nor­mally,” said Abra­ham Elfen­baum, third semes­ter com­puter sci­ence engi­neer­ing major. “It’s my one chance to let go, no holds barred.”

The Next Chapter

The player-base itself is also chang­ing. A hobby that was gen­er­ally seen as a “boy’s club” has slowly been gain­ing more female fol­low­ers. Tito said he has seen more women and more play­ers of dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds play­ing and lov­ingDun­geons and Drag­ons, though no sta­tis­tics have been gath­ered on this yet.

Tito said the newest rule set was pur­pose­fully writ­ten with what he calls “inclu­sive lan­guage” to avoid alien­at­ing players.

Accord­ing to Witwer, the game is nat­u­rally one of inclu­sion. The first D&D playtesters were men, women, chil­dren, ado­les­cents; peo­ple who had noth­ing in com­mon but a love of gaming.

Storrs, Conn., Friendly Fire Game Center’s Dun­geons and Drag­ons and other RPG selec­tion. Buck said the shelf was emp­tier than usual after a large pur­chase of D&D mate­ri­als. Photo/Nicholas Shigo
Storrs, Conn., Friendly Fire Game Center’s Dun­geons and Drag­ons and other RPG selec­tion. Buck said the shelf was emp­tier than usual after a large pur­chase of D&D mate­ri­als. Photo/Nicholas Shigo

Co-owner of Friendly Fire Game Cen­ter in Storrs, Conn., Jacob Buck, said the groups that play at the game store fea­ture a diverse mix of players.

We have games every Sat­ur­day and Wednes­day,” he said. “There’s a girl in each of those groups.” Buck said.

D&D is only grow­ing. With books and games still being released on a reg­u­lar basis, it con­tin­ues to be a favorite among gamers. How­ever, an August press release from Has­bro, par­ent com­pany of Wiz­ards of the Coast, announced a D&D movie is in production.

We feel like this will spread the pop­u­lar­ity even more, much in the way of Harry Pot­ter and Lord of the Rings spread the prop­er­ties to a mass media audi­ence,” Tito said.

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