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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.