From nerd niche to mainstream hit: Everything you need to know about Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons Copyright Photo credit: AP Photo and Canva Images
By Theo Farrant
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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the tabletop role-playing game, has experienced a resurgence in recent years. In this article, we explore everything there is to know about D&D and how it's made a comeback.

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Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is back and it's bigger than ever. But as someone who has never played the game before, I couldn't help but wonder what all the fuss is about.

My personal introduction to D&D was actually through the hit TV show, 'Stranger Things'. I remember watching the show and being intrigued by the game the characters were playing, wondering if it was a fictional game created just for the show. 

Little did I know, it was in fact a real game with a rich history and a devoted fan base.

The franchise, currently owned by Wizards of the Coast, has estimated that a whopping 50 million people have played the game since its creation. 

And with the recent success of the Paramount movie "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves," which topped the box office with an impressive $38.5 million during its opening weekend, it’s clear that this beloved tabletop role-playing game is once again at the forefront of pop culture.

But how did D&D go from a basement-dwelling activity to a cultural phenomenon, and what makes it still so appealing to players young and old? 

Follow me as I embark on a journey through the history of the game, learn the rules, and discover why it has captured the hearts and imaginations of so many. So grab your dice and let’s roll!

The (surprisingly dark) history of Dungeons & Dragons

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Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of Ashardalon Board GameLUSA/Flickr

It all started in the early 1970s, when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two friends with a love for medieval war games and fantasy literature, began working on a new type of game. 

They called it Dungeons and Dragons, and it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

In 1974, the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons was published by Tactical Studies Rules, and it quickly gained popularity among gamers and "nerds". 

However, the game's history is not without controversy. 

In the 1980s, several conservative groups accused the game of promoting devil worship and other nefarious activities, as part of what has been called the 'Santanic Panic'. 

D&D's growing popularity meant that a lot of kids were playing it, and some of those kids happened to be involved in tragedy.

In 1979, a 16-year-old James Dallas Egbert III was reported missing from his dorm at Michigan State University. Private investigator William Dear, hired by his parents, believed that not only was it due to foul play, but it was also due to his history of playing D&D. The detective played on the D&D angle of the case to launch himself into the limelight, writing his own book, 'Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III', in 1984.

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The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III by William Dear (Paperback, 1985)Wikimedia Commons

Author Rona Jaffe also used the hype surrounding Egbert's disappearance to market herself and her work. She wrote a book called 'Mazes and Monsters', based on what happened to Egbert, which was later turned into a film (of the same name) starring a young Tom Hanks. 

In truth, Egbert was suffering from mental health issues and drug addiction, which resulted in him taking refuge in the utility tunnels underneath the school. He ultimately took his own life in 1980, and many still believed that the cause of his untimely death was D&D.

Elsewhere, Mary Towey, an 18-year old from Oakville, Canada, was murdered by two boys in 1984 who also happened to play D&D - Ron Adcox and Darren Molitor. Molitor even tried to blame D&D for his actions, claiming that it had taught him to play mind games that he planned to use on Towey and accustomed him to violence.

Despite the moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, the game has persisted and public perception of it has shifted. 

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Dungeons & Dragons for dummies

If you're a complete newbie to D&D (like me), fear not - I have an esteemed professional on hand to explain the rules of game and why you should be playing it too. 

Introducing my very own sister, Darcy. 

With nearly three years of Dungeon Master experience under her belt and a wealth of dragon-slaying slang in her vocabulary, Darcy is the perfect person to teach us the basics. 

"I first got inspired to play over lockdown. I started to see TikToks and YouTube videos about D&D, and it looked like fun," she explains. 

"I also got to an age where I no longer felt that my hobbies defined who I was or that I cared if people would judge me. D&D was not something I was interested in as a teenager in fear of people who would think it wasn’t “cool”.

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Credit: Darcy Farrant
A group of Darcy's friends playing Dungeons and DragonsCredit: Darcy Farrant

After speaking with my sis, I learnt that at its core, D&D is a game of storytelling. Players take on the role of characters in a fantasy world, and the Dungeon Master (DM) controls the narrative and creates the world. Think of it like an interactive choose-your-own-adventure book, but with dice and a group of friends.

Together, players solve tasks, engage in combat, explore, and gather treasure and knowledge. In the process, each player earns experience points (XP) along the way in order to level up and become more powerful. 

Games can last for hours, days, weeks and in some cases even years. 

For those who are new to the game, Darcy advises to not be overwhelmed by the rules and mechanics initially. She recommends familiarising yourself with your character sheet and picking a class you actually understand.

"Don’t worry about understanding it all at first – especially the magic systems. And rules can always be broken once you know how to use them," she explains. 

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"If your going to DM, find where you’re comfortable. There are so many amazing pre-planned adventures out there in books and online that you can run for your players. But if you feel confident enough, don’t be afraid to add your own twists or plot points," she adds. 

Credit: Darcy Farrant
A custom map created by Darcy for her Dungeons and Dragons campaignCredit: Darcy Farrant
Credit: Darcy Farrant
A map created by Darcy for her Dungeons and Dragons campaignCredit: Darcy Farrant

She also points to the huge amount of D&D content available online, which played a crucial role in her understanding and learning of the game. 

"There are great examples of D&D media like Critical Role and Dimension 20 that you can watch to really understand how D&D works. There are also great communities out there on platforms like TikTok,". 

Why play Dungeons & Dragons

I was eager to ask my sister about why she enjoys playing it, as I'm aware from our dinner-table chats that it requires a significant amount of time commitment and effort. 

She dedicates countless hours to crafting her storylines, detailed character backstories, and custom-made props such as maps, ribbon-tied schools and wax stamped letters. 

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"The appeal of D&D to me was definitely an outlet for my creativity. I found a new way to tell stories and get creative. As a DM, I have created a whole world that’s always changing. Even I can get surprised with where the story goes based on what my players do," she told me. 

She also highlighted the social aspect of the game, stating, "Playing D&D gives me a reason to spend more time with my friends. We often make a full day of it, and it's always enjoyable to spend time with each other."

Why has there been a recent resurgence in the popularity of D&D?

Paramount Pictures and eOne
This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Sophia Lillis, Justice Smith, Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez in a scene from "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.Paramount Pictures and eOne

Once the pinnacle of fantasy gaming, Dungeons & Dragons had lost much of its luster at the start of the 21st century. 

Many had thought it was a relic of a bygone era, something that had been left in the past along with cassette tapes and VHS tapes. 

However, in recent years, D&D has made a stunning comeback. But why now? 

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Well it can be credited to a number of factors.

Its appearance in popular culture, such as the Netflix hit show 'Stranger Things', has clearly played a crucial role in attracting news players to the game. 

Credit: Netflix Tudum
Joseph Quinn portraying Eddie Munson in Stranger ThingsCredit: Netflix Tudum

The show's creators, the Duffer brothers, were inspired by their own childhood experiences playing the game and made it a central theme of the show. As a result, the game became a cultural touchstone for a new generation of viewers who were drawn to the show's blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and nostalgia. Wizards of the Coast, the owners of Dungeons and Dragons, even released a special Stranger Things D&D starter set in honour of the show. 

D&D has also been promoted by a number of celebrities, including Joe Manganiello, Deborah Ann Woll, Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert. These endorsements have helped to break the stereotype that D&D is solely for social outcasts and have demonstrated that the game can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of their social status.

The internet has also played a significant role in the resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons in recent years. 

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Online platforms such as YouTube and Twitch have been instrumental in showcasing the excitement and entertainment value that the tabletop game has to offer.

Additionally, digital communities such as Reddit, Discord, TikTok and Twitter have provided spaces for subcultures focused on role-playing games to thrive and exchange ideas.

According to my sister, the pandemic and lockdown has also been a factor in the increased number of people playing D&D.

"Lockdown was the first time people could really explore hobbies they were interested in. Something like D&D does take a lot of time and energy so it was the perfect time for people to start playing," she explains. 

Paramount Pictures and eOne
Pictures shows Jason Wong, left, and Rege-Jean Page in a scene from "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves."Paramount Pictures and eOne

The game has further cemented its place into the mainstream consciousness with the release of Paramount's 'Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves', a big-budget movie starring Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez. 

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The much-anticipated D&D movie made an impressive opening with $38.5 million at the domestic box office and over $71.5 million worldwide, dethroning 'John Wick: Chapter 4', which took in $28.2 million in its second week, from the top spot.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've reached the end of our campaign. It's time to pack up and go folks. 

I hope you've learnt something new and maybe feel inspired to try out the game yourself one day. Do let us know!

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