Dungeons & Dragons Moves Beyond Nerd Culture

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Everyone’s been playing Dungeons & Dragons without you: your co-workers, Anderson Cooper, Tiffany Haddish. More than 50 million people worldwide have “interacted” with D&D since it was created in the mid-1970s, according to its publisher, and while that number also includes movies, video games, books, television and livestreams, it doesn’t factor in the number of people reached over TikTok.

The infamous tabletop role-playing game became a household name when “satanic panic” — a general fear of satanic ritual abuse that caught fire nationwide in the 1980s — began to take root in the suburbs. Anything with even a remote whiff of the occult, from astrology to heavy metal, was suspect. Since casting spells during a game could label you a devil worshiper, a nerd or something in between, Dungeons & Dragons was banished to the underground.

As a universe of dedicated players expanded steadily in the shadows, the game popped up intermittently in the pop cultural consciousness: D&D was either alluded to or mentioned by name in TV shows including “That ’70s Show,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Community” and in the series finales of both “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Freaks and Geeks.” Rivers Cuomo sings about the solace he found among his Dungeon Master’s Guide and 12-sided die in the Weezer song “In the Garage.” In “The Simpsons,” Homer tells his family that he played Dungeons & Dragons for three hours with a new group of friends — until he was slain by an elf.

But regardless of its pop culture appearances, the general public’s impression of the game had more or less remained the same: Dungeons & Dragons was for outcasts.

In the last decade, the tides of cool began to shift. Now, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become something of a social flex — the antithesis of the popularity contest that was the 1990s and early 2000s, an antidote to our more basic tendencies and cheugy proclivities.

“It’s hip to be a nerd now,” Stephen Colbert said in a 2018 interview with the actor Joe Manganiello, where they spent eight whole minutes of his talk show discussing their shared love of the game.

Marisha Ray, 33, a Los Angeles voice actor and cast member of “Critical Role,” one of the best known D&D livestreams, recalled a moment several years ago when she realized “the nerd kids” had become the entertainment industry. Enter a decade of Marvel films, including four directed by the Russo brothers, who grew up playing D&D. The Duffer brothers, the creators of the hit Netflix show “Stranger Things,” were influenced by tabletop role-playing games like D&D and Magic: The Gathering, the fantasy card game with its own rabid fan base. George R.R. Martin, author of the fantasy novel series upon which HBO’s “Game of Thrones” was based, is a noted J.R.R. Tolkien fan, and Tolkien novels are often cited as a gateway into D&D. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dave Arneson and E. Gary Gygax, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, were enormous Tolkien fans.)

But nothing proliferated the good word of D&D as effectively as the internet. Video game streaming platforms such as YouTube and Twitch showed gaming voyeurs just how fun the world of tabletop games could be. Online forums like Reddit, Discord and Twitter created digital homes for role-playing game subcultures to cross-pollinate and thrive, and from there, pieces of insider gaming lingo worked their way into the meme vernacular.

Add all of that to a nearly two-year stretch of our lives during which pandemic-induced isolation converged with a desperation for escapism, and there you have it: a potent spell to summon Dungeons & Dragons from the depths of our collective mother’s basement into its rightful place upstairs at the kitchen table.

Ellen Remley, 31, who works in creative marketing, was lured into the game by way of TikTok. “I think I liked one TikTok about D&D and then suddenly my entire For You page was posts about Dungeons & Dragons,” she said. From there, she found Dimension 20, watched “a lot of D&D content” and decided she wanted to play.

This winter, I joined my very first D&D game at the Brooklyn Strategist, which describes itself as a “community board game store.” My character was a Level 2 paladin orc named Atlas (after my dog) who carried a great sword, had 19 charisma points and was able to conjure divine smite. My fellow players and I partook in “Curse of Strahd,” a fifth-edition fantasy-horror adventure that, in our case, began with a quest and ended on a cliffhanger, and since then I have not stopped wondering what might happen next.

That’s how it keeps you coming back.

A four-hour game is not uncommon. A typical D&D session takes at least three hours, and that’s just one chapter of a campaign that can last for months, if not a year. But that time commitment might not seem so intense when measured against the hours we spend on our phone, scrolling through Instagram or bingeing TV.

“Play is a part of the experience of living on this planet,” said Siobhan Thompson, 37, a cast member of Dimension 20, a popular comedic D&D show on Dropout and YouTube. “The other stuff is so that we get to play, as far as I’m concerned.”

A quick playbook for those who haven’t delved into this world before: Players announce their characters, along with their characters’ classes, levels and races — dwarf, elf, halfling, gnome, dragonborn. With the help of an evolving rule book, seven polyhedral dice, quick addition skills and flexible imaginations, players determine their characters’ backgrounds, strengths, moral alignments and traits. As you play, these identity elements factor into every decision your character makes (with rolls of specific dice, which determine the intensity and impact of the action you wish to take). The dungeon master is more an omniscient narrator than an in-game player; it’s the so-called D.M. who leads the players through the twisting, turning valleys of what’s to come.

The new guard will tell you that playing D&D is like doing improv around a table with your friends. A collective willing suspension of disbelief keeps the narrative moving; dice randomize the outcomes. And while it is, at its roots, a war game, the appeal is less about winning or personal scores. The consensus among players interviewed for this article is that the real-life magic is born out of the communal storytelling.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

It’s the newer generation of players who make D&D — and tabletop role-playing games generally — what it is today.

Connie Chang, a 24-year-old game master who runs “a semi-Tumblr-famous D&D meme blog,” is the G.M. of Transplanar, “a non-colonial, anti-Orientalist” livestreamed game consisting entirely of players who are transgender and people of color.

“I really feel like marginalized people are the vanguard of making D&D blow up again,” Mx. Chang said. “People say ‘Stranger Things,’ but I’m like, ‘Nah, it’s the queer community.’”

“Within the community, it’s the Black folks, right?” Mx. Chang continued. “It’s the Asian folks. It’s the Indigenous folks. It’s the people of color who are really bringing cool, innovative, fresh, much needed new blood and air and perspectives and voices and ways of G.M.ing and ways of playing to the space that would shake up an otherwise stale play community, straight up.”

For all its fantastical otherworldliness, Dungeons & Dragons — created by Mr. Gygax when he was 36, and Mr. Arneson, at 27 — is deeply rooted in Eurocentric ideals of the Middle and Dark Ages. In interviews, players pointed to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien for inspiring entire races and subclasses within the D&D game that were built on racist tropes and reinforced harmful stereotypes. Players of different races, gender identities and sexual orientations cited instances of feeling unwelcome by legacy D&D players, by the game itself and by its history of straight white maleness and overt colonialism.

“D&D was originally published in 1974, so it’s very nearly 50 years old now,” said Ray Winninger, 55, the executive producer of Dungeons & Dragons. “And D&D is obviously not unique in this: We all try to tune our heads back to what pop culture was like 50 years ago. Obviously, things have progressed in a lot of ways since then, and in a lot of positive ways. And so, D&D wrestles with some of the same problems that any beloved franchise that’s that old has.”

Dungeons & Dragons recently outlined several diversity, equity and inclusion goals. A June 2020 blog post by Wizards of the Coast, the game’s parent company, acknowledged that “some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow being two of the prime examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.”

A list of course corrections followed: The company changed “racially insensitive” text in recent reprintings of “Tomb of Annihilation” and “Curse of Strahd,” two D&D books that players use to run campaigns. The game said it was working with sensitivity readers, promised to “continue to reach out to experts in various fields to help us identify our blind spots” and vowed to seek “new, diverse talent” to join its staff and pool of freelance writers and artists.

For Ms. Thompson, the Dimension 20 cast member, Dungeons & Dragons “is absolutely real to me in a way that sometimes my real life is not,” she said. She described how, during a “Game of Thrones”-themed campaign that resulted in many character casualties, she found herself crying as if someone had actually died.

That kind of intense emotion is so widespread among tabletop role-playing games that there’s a name for it: “bleed,” referring to the way emotions can bleed over from make-believe into reality. The release is cathartic, but perhaps more therapeutic is the act of play itself. In interviews, many players described using Dungeons & Dragons to safely explore facets of their identity, to parse through the enduring existential question of all humankind: Who am I?

Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo, 34, an actor and dungeon master in Britain, has a tattoo of a character from one of their campaigns, who was made up of “all the bits of myself that I really wanted to aspire to be even more of.”

“I was in therapy at the time, and so much of my life has changed just because I was able to explore these big themes and tell these stories and understand myself through play,” they said.

Elise Portale, a 33-year-old social media manager, came out as pansexual — someone who is attracted to people regardless of sex or gender — by way of Dungeons & Dragons.

“I’ve played gay characters, I’ve played straight characters,” she said. “I’ve recently played a character who, just in the course of our game, became very sapphic. It feels like as I got comfortable with this character who I was playing in a lesbian role, I started realizing that maybe I feel this way too. And I think a lot of people gravitate toward that.”

Central to Dungeons & Dragons’ appeal is its ability to foster community. Jimmy Doan, 42, a former “Wall Street guy” and Navy veteran who is now the community manager at the Brooklyn Strategist, said that for children in the store’s after-school program who are bullied or isolated in school, the game had become a safe haven, even a second home.

Adult players described the feeling of finally finding their niches in games like Dungeons & Dragons. They spoke of reconnecting with childhood friends over virtual D&D campaigns, of overcoming childhood speech impediments and strengthening social skills, all in the comfort of a welcoming space. They spoke of meeting significant others, making lifelong friendships, of finally finding their people.

“D&D has showcased that we are an evolved species,” Mx. Lewis-Nyawo said. “We want shelter. We want warmth. We want companionship. We want to be fed, hydrated. There are basic human needs, and I think storytelling is one of them.”