In 1974, a fantasy role-playing game involving combat and strategy was created by two friends by the names of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Nearly 50 years after the game’s inception, it is now known worldwide and is considered to be one of the most popular tabletop role-playing games in the world. It has been the subject of countless controversies throughout the 1980s, appearing in news headlines regarding a widespread “Satanic Panic” and even in an episode of 60 Minutes. Its name? Dungeons and Dragons, otherwise known as D&D.
Approximately 13 million people play D&D worldwide. And thanks to the summer release of the fourth season of the Netflix Original Stranger Things, a show that is heavily inspired by the lore and mechanics of the game, there’s no denying that this tabletop RPG has once again made a major comeback in modern pop culture. But it has always remained a huge part of modern culture, beyond just the confines of nerdy communities.
In the past, D&D has made countless appearances in popular media, such as references in movies, television, music, and even comic books. Not to mention, D&D merchandise is becoming increasingly common. With the rights to the game currently being under the ownership of Hasbro, it’s no wonder there’s a plethora of D&D-related toys and clothing.
But, if D&D has maintained its popularity and cultural significance for so long, why is that? What has made D&D such an influential game for so many generations? What about it draws people in?
Mark Carter, teacher and sponsor of the D&D Club at Salem High School, believes that its popularity is due in part to the sheer amount of creativity involved in playing the game. “Because it gives you a chance to use your imagination, to act out a character that is completely different from your personality.” He described the game as being similar to a computer game, but it’s “all in your imagination” instead of on a screen. “It expands [students’] imaginations, you have to use math, you have to use logic and reasoning skills to figure things out, you have to communicate.”
Carter enjoys running the club, explaining that it not only gives him the opportunity to play, but it also allows the students to play without feeling “geeky”. He knew that a lot of the students at Salem wanted to try their hand at D&D, but it was initially a difficult task gathering enough people together to form a club. However, with the combined efforts of students and school staff, the club proved to be successful, bringing in around 20 members and three separate ongoing campaigns.
“I was honestly just stoked to have the option,” said Senior Abigail Martin, a member of the club. “Putting a group together is the hardest part of D&D, and having a room full of people who are considering your campaign was really exciting for me.”
So how is the game played? For starters, the players, typically four to five people, seat themselves around a table, each equipped with their own set of dice. The dice are used to determine whether a character’s attack hits or if an attempt at using a skill is successful. The Dungeon Master, also known as a DM, is the main leader of the campaign. They guide the players through each session, acting as both a storyteller and a referee.
Having been a part of several campaigns in the past, Martin enjoys being able to control and map out the story. “As a dungeon master, I love coming up with challenges for my players. Designing encounters and a story is a way of being creative that I really enjoy.” She said it allows her to “bring stories to life with just words and imagination.”
With each session in a campaign, the players are led onto a journey in which they have to battle enemies and progress the story throughout different environments, such as villages, cities, mountains, and deserts. The most recent version of the game, D&D 5th Edition, utilizes a d20 System in which a player rolls a 20-sided dice and adds a modifier to their score. The modifier is a predetermined number that aligns with the character’s unique abilities. If the added score is high enough, the character is able to either attack or use a skill, whether it’s in combat or problem-solving. “The other dice are used entirely for the amount of damage you do on an attack,” said Martin. “Your character has customized additions to these scores that help them pass or fail according to the background you’ve created for them.”
Although D&D may seem complicated with its many systems and rules, it is also known to be a customizable game. The story, characters, setting, and gameplay can change throughout the course of a campaign, and, based on the preferences of the group playing, they can be altered in ways to make the game more appealing. “Unlike other games, you can make D&D your own,” said Billie Reynolds, a junior at SHS. “You don’t have to follow the D&D story at all, you can make your own stories and characters and everything.”
It would be an understatement to say that there are plenty of resources available to learn how to play D&D. With web series such as Critical Role and Dimension 20, a lot can be learned by simply watching others play as they figure out their own characters and immerse themselves in the game. “They show a lot of the background mechanics and are a great way to learn the game,” said Martin. Not only can they provide entertainment, but these series can act as a helpful tool by providing beginners with a vague pathway that they can then build upon as they learn more.
There are also handbooks available to help guide new and experienced players alike. But at its core, D&D is best learned by just jumping in. “I'd say probably [find] a group of people to play with,” said Anthony Scifres, local business owner and long-time D&D player. “...trying to start from scratch without having any context could be a very overwhelming experience.”
Scifres has been playing D&D since he was a young child and has participated in countless campaigns, both in-person and virtual. Although he prefers to be a player rather than a DM, he recognizes how D&D encourages creativity in everyone involved, especially the one leading the group. “I also think that because there's so many ways to play and enhance your game experience that players and dungeon masters get to exercise a lot of their own creativity and there aren't a lot of other games that let you do that.”
Years of moral disputes and concerned parents have led to where Dungeons and Dragons is now. It has persisted through the allegations and demonization, never falling behind as an obscure, sacreligious game, but instead pushing forward and becoming what is known today as a foundational part of modern gaming. Its influences can be seen reflected in many of today’s tabletop games, especially those of the roleplaying genre, such as Magic the Gathering and Pathfinder. D&D incorporates valuable skills into its gameplay, undoubtedly leaving a positive impact on those who play it. It acts as a worthwhile tool for growth, whether that’s by encouraging a sense of community among a group or instilling a feeling of well-being in each of its players. The game has had a complicated history from the start, but it is because of this that it has found success in the hearts of many. The future of Dungeons and Dragons looks promising.