Ask any Dungeon Master out there, and they’ll probably tell you the most satisfying game to run takes the players through a journey where every accolade and victory is fraught with peril and only achieved through determination and teamwork. So, it’s almost fitting that Dungeons and Dragons itself had to fight a very similar battle to be seen as a celebrated hobby instead of indoctrination to the occult. D&D has a complicated and elaborate past. However, thanks to the D&D community and those willing to speak up about the amazing benefits this silly game with trolls and wizards has to offer, D&D is having a resurgence of popularity and quickly showing a very screen-centric world the beauty in imagination and cooperative storytelling.
Names We’ll Never Forget
There are a few names that are almost synonymous with D&D. Gary Gygax, for starters, is known not only as of the father of D&D but of role-playing games in general. He created D&D with Dave Arneson and together they laid the foundation for the most widely known TTRPG (tabletop role-playing game) system in the world. Unfortunately, shortly after the release of the next edition in the D&D universe, another name became quite attached to the game for all the wrong reasons – Pat Robertson
Timing is Everything
After the infamous rise of Anton LaVey and his founding of the Church of Satan, there was a widespread fear that occult practices and ritualistic dealings were running rampant across the US. Although LaVey’s organization was, in fact, atheistic in nature and did not worship Satan, that didn’t reduce the unease and media reports fueling fear with unfounded news stories.
While this goes much deeper than games and media, they were an easy target. Music, cartoons, movies, and games of the late 70s and 80s were being chastised for trying to steal children’s souls through their imaginations and that the imagery and references to demons, magic, spells and the like were opening children up to dark forces. Instances of suicides, murders, and people remembering repressed childhood memories of the occult like rituals gave fuel to the fires that attempted to eradicate D&D along with a multitude of bands, and other media. While no evidence or study has ever proven any occult connection to D&D that didn’t stop the media and religious figureheads like Pat Robertson from going full tilt – blaming it for these instances. Robertson was a televangelist that shocked many in 1989 as he aired a special presentation, on CBN’s The 700 Club, entitled “Satan’s Targets”. In this presentation, D&D wasn’t the only pastime that was demonized. Other suspects that were accused of being an instrument of evil were Iron Maiden, Madonna, Friday the 13th, Ghostbusters 2, Thundercats, 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Smurfs, and many more. And once again, in 2013 and 2016, during an interview, Pat Robertson was asked about games that contained elements of magic and witchcraft and again he restated his belief in the evils of D&D and said “it’s literally ruined people’s lives.” and “… it’s demonic. Demons are out to destroy you.” While bazar, this part of our history is fascinating and much more complex than can be explained in a few paragraphs. Needless to say, these accusations didn’t diminish the popularity of D&D and those who played it knew that these falsehoods had no foothold in the truth.
Timing REALLY is Everything
Fast forward to today, In a time where the new panic is children and young adults losing, or never developing, the skills needed to communicate face to face due to an increase in screen time, a game that promotes every social skill imaginable is in many ways an answer to parent’s fears. While D&D has never stopped being played, it’s much more widely accepted in the eye of the mainstream media. With the absolutely amazing realization that being a “nerd” is cool, D&D is really catching its second wind. While an ill-fated “perfect storm” drove the game into the underground the same could be said about its resurgence. In a world looking for creative solutions to insurmountable issues, social skills to bring a civil voice to debates, and empathy for a beautifully diverse society, a game that allows players, young and old, to practice these skills is an invaluable tool.
Why it Rocks SO Incredibly Hard
New players may be brought to the table – pun TOTALLY intended – for a multitude of reasons. There are celebrity endorsements from the likes of Terry Crews, Felicia Day, Vin Diesel, Tim Duncan, Judy Dench, Joe Manganiello – and the list could go on. There are also beloved podcasts, streaming and video content from The Adventure Zone, Critical Role, and Matt Colville. D&D has even been referenced in shows from Stranger Things, and The Big Bang Theory to Community and even loosely in Spongebob. But what keeps people coming back for more, is the game itself.
It’s not just using a controller or keyboard and making moves dictated by a combination of keys or buttons. D&D, and other TTRPGs, offer a unique way to play with friends. It gives the player the opportunity to make decisions only limited by their imagination, and even better, their friends get to go on this journey too, making other decisions that simultaneously affect the story. There will never be a game of D&D played exactly like another game. Each campaign is an individual story. Even if the BBEG (big bad evil guy) is the same, the way the player’s characters decide to handle it makes the story as unique as the players themselves. Although dice decide if a plan succeeds or fails, the possibilities are truly endless. Want to talk the shopkeeper into handing over a rare potion for only a couple gold pieces? Do it! Want to slay a dragon and use its gold horde to start a small empire? Do it! Want to jump off a bridge and morph into a goldfish before attempting to land in the water? Do it! TTRPG takes the beauty of the human imagination and offers a set of rules to help a group of people engage in collaborative storytelling, and there’s really nothing else out there like it.
Now, parents who grew up playing the game are introducing a new generation to the marvelous world of D&D. Liam O’brien, a cast member of Critical Role, DMs for his children. There are even some epic families that have introduced their grandmas to the game like Cardboard Vault; they interview their D&D Grandma, here. D&D is really for everyone. People of all different types, in all different settings, with all different play styles are rolling their adventures all over. There are even studies being done about the benefits of RPGs and how they can support learning in an educational setting.
Want more? Of course, you do!
If you’d like to gain an even deeper knowledge of D&D there are a multitude of resources out there to dive into. I personally got my introduction to D&D through Critical Role, and I might be a bit bias but I think it’s truly one of the most epic and life-changing pieces of content on the internet right now. These “nerdy ass voice actors” showed me a world where makebelieve was still an option and gave me permission, as a grown woman, to enjoy a pastime that engages my imagination in a way that I don’t even remember achieving as a child. I will forever be grateful to the cast and crew for the magic they produce every week.
And when you’re ready to play don’t let all the sourcebooks and pretty dice overwhelm you. Wizards of the Coast has a starter kit that you can pick up at Target or order from Amazon for under $12, and it has everything you need to go on your first D&D adventure.
So, what’s your D&D story?
Whether you’re a level 1 RPGer or you’re a famous DM running a game for a group of talented voice-actors, we’d love to hear your D&D stories. What brought you to the game, how has it impacted your life, and what keeps you rolling back for more?