It wasn’t that many years ago that Dungeons & Dragons had been nearly left for dead.
The tabletop role-playing game had once been “one of the coolest, most meaningful fantasy brands on the planet,” said Nathan Stewart, who runs D&D at Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro subsidiary that makes the game. But when he was hired in 2012, he said, “it was really obvious that the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons was not ubiquitous. Everyone wasn’t loving it.”
Players from its 1970s-1990s heyday had grown up and moved on. Younger generations, embracing video games and smartphones as their escapism of choice, seemed indifferent or bored by D&D’s make-believe world of swords and sorcery, labyrinthine rules and polyhedral dice.
“My main goal was to help this glorious brand get its swagger back,” said Stewart, who grew up playing D&D and its digital relatives, like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. He joined Wizards of the Coast, based in Renton, Wash., after more than a decade working in brand marketing for such video games as Madden NFL and Backyard Sports and for companies like Xbox and Rockstar Games.
Now D&D appears to have been resurrected as if by a 17th-level necromancer. It celebrates its 45th anniversary this year and is luring a more diverse fan base. You can see its reach on live streaming platforms like Twitch; in classrooms, therapist’s offices, living rooms and bars; and in shows like Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which weaves D&D’s tropes and monsters like the Demogorgon and mind flayer into its plot.
“We loved playing tabletop games growing up, and still do, so it’s extremely exciting to hear that the show is getting more kids interested in D&D,” Matt Duffer, who created “Stranger Things” with his twin brother Ross Duffer, wrote in an email.
Matt Duffer attributes the “tactile, social experience” as integral to D&D’s comeback. Ross added a different spin: “We think some of that is due to nostalgia, and some of it is because people are looking for a way to connect that doesn’t involve a computer or a phone.”
Wizards of the Coast declined to share detailed sales figures but said that 2018 was the fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth for D&D, and its best sales year ever. Many of the game’s rule books, which list for $49.95, have landed on best seller lists. This summer, Target began selling a new “D&D Essentials Kit.”
“D&D’s in that place right now,” said Jim Zub, a writer and artist based in Toronto. “Everyone is super excited and just pumped about the hobby and about gaming in general.”
It’s a busy time for Zub. He is one of the authors of the Dungeons & Dragons “A Young Adventurer’s Guide” series, whose aim is introduce younger players to the game’s concepts. The first two titles, “Monsters & Creatures” and “Warriors & Weapons,” were released in July, and the next in the series, “Dungeons & Tombs,” comes out later this month. He’s written several D&D graphic novels, including a “Rick and Morty vs. Dungeons & Dragons” spinoff in collaboration with the fantasy novelist Patrick Rothfuss (“The Kingkiller Chronicle”), and he has a hand in the mash-up role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons vs. Rick and Morty” set for release on Nov. 19.
Several factors — some engineered, others organic — led to D&D’s rebirth.
The first was Wizard’s decision to reboot its rules system. The game’s fifth edition, or “5e,” was released five years ago and emphasizes storytelling and role-playing. The goal was not only to court old players whose D&D habit had lapsed, but to attract curious newcomers who were turned off by its nerdy reputation.
“I wanted to make sure that someone who had played D&D back in the ’70s and ’80s could play this edition and it would feel like the same game,” said Jeremy Crawford, the lead rules designer for Dungeons & Dragons.
Crawford, who is gay, also wanted the new rules to reflect the racial, ethnic, gender and sexual diversity of its players. No more cisgender damsels in distress, scantily clad in chain mail bikinis. Your adventuring party might contain a lesbian elf wizard, a brown-skinned dwarf fighter and a nonbinary half-orc rogue.
“Just as in on our world, humanity is wonderfully diverse,” Crawford said. “We wanted to make sure that people remembered that’s also true in these fantasy worlds.”
“‘What, there’s black women? Someone like me can exist in a fantasy game?’” Tanya DePass remembers thinking when she saw the new rules. The founder and director of the Chicago-based nonprofit I Need Diverse Games, DePass is also part of “Rivals of Waterdeep,” a show on Twitch in which nonwhite and queer players live-stream their games.
“It wasn’t just all just blond, blue-eyed muscular people,” she said. “The paladin looked like me.”
The mainstreaming of geek culture has helped D&D, too. No one has to “worry about dorky things not being cool anymore,” Zub said. “Hobbies that you might have been previously a little bit embarrassed about now, we proudly wear.” “Game of Thrones,” Harry Potter books and movies and “The Lord of the Rings” all popularized fantasy storytelling and pushed arcane nomenclature like orcs, sorting hats and Valyrian steel into wider circulation.
The CBS show “The Big Bang Theory” portrays its stars playing the game. Celebrities ranging from Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper to Joe Manganiello (“True Blood”) and Deborah Ann Woll (“Daredevil”) cite D&D’s influence on their teenage psyches and profess the game’s positive influence on them. You can play D&D at a luxury, 14th-century English castle. Even fast-food chains are getting into the game: Last month Wendy’s released its own D&D-esque parody called “Feast of Legends.”
All this helped to normalize D&D. No one has to feel like an outcast, alone with their “Monster Manual” and miniature figurines, anymore.
Being able to view actual D&D sessions on the internet, some featuring celebrities, have been instrumental to D&D’s growth. “For a long time people didn’t understand what the game was,” said Matthew Mercer, a Los Angeles-based dungeon master (the game’s chief storyteller and rules referee), for “Critical Role,” a web series that features voice actors like him playing.
Watching other people play and seeing how easy it can be to run your own game, Mercer said, viewers “realize just how much freaking fun it is.” One metric of the show’s popularity: Its fans, called “critters,” pledged $11.4 million last spring to fund an animated adaptation of “Critical Role,” making it the most-funded film/video project in Kickstarter history.
“How weird it is to live in a time period where you can be a professional D&D player? That’s bonkers to me. But that’s where we’re at,” said Travis McElroy of Cincinnati. His podcast “The Adventure Zone,” which features him, his two brothers and their father playing D&D, has been downloaded more than 150 million times, he said. The podcast has blossomed into onstage performances around the United States and the basis of a forthcoming board game. The family’s third graphic novel, “The Adventure Zone: Petals to the Metal,” is slated for release in July.
Another factor: older players who have gotten back into the game, teaching their kids to play. “It’s not the satanic stuff our parents worried about,” said Matt Forbeck, of Beloit, Wis, who plays the game with his five children. A 30-year gaming industry veteran and novelist, he wrote D&D’s rebooted “pick a path” series called “Endless Quest,” including two new titles, “Dungeons & Dragons: The Mad Mage’s Academy” and “Dungeons & Dragons: Escape From Castle Ravenloft.”
Therapeutically, D&D has emerged as a powerful spell of healing for those who struggle with social anxiety, autism and ADHD. “Why does building skills around being social have to boring, or annoying? It should be fun,” said Adam Johns, a therapist who, with Adam Davis, founded the Seattle-area based Game to Grow. They’ve developed a customized fantasy role-playing game, called Critical Core, to help people on the autism spectrum. No one uses a cutthroat game like Monopoly to treat social anxiety, but D&D’s collaborative gameplay can work wonders.
In the wake of our technological addiction, we’ve left our storytelling traditions behind, Davis said. D&D, he added, can be an “accessible and ensorcelling way to get human connection, where we can work towards a common goal.”
Which is not to say D&D’s fantasy world is perfect. DePass has encountered players who question the historical accuracy of her brown-skinned or kinky-haired characters. Her response? “I have a flaming sword and I have a talking wolf. Why is this an issue for you?”
Ultimately, your interest or passion for D&D “has nothing to do with your gender or your race,” said Marisha Ray, a cast member and the creative director of “Critical Role.” (She and Mercer met through D&D and are married.) Rather, she said, it’s about feeling welcome and the game feeling accessible. “So much of that acceptability comes from putting the power of the storyteller in the hands of the players.”
Can D&D change the real world? Ray thinks so. “They say you don’t truly know someone until you walk a mile in their shoes,” she said. “I think Dungeons & Dragons is the perfect augmented reality to exercise that.”