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War of Words

Dungeons & Dragons’ alluring world of magic and monsters has bled into novels, movies, and conventions, touching millions worldwide who have created their own stories and adventures.

Article
Donna Leahey
Photos
Sarah Eliza Roberts
Posted
November 28, 2019

Right now, a group of friends is gathering around a table covered with books, maps, tiny figures, and colorful dice. At least, that’s what you see. They see castles, steeds, noble warriors, crafty wizards, and charming entertainers. From that hand-drawn map emerge giants, balrogs, and even enormous, terrifying dragons. Will our heroes prevail against these deadly enemies? It’s time to roll initiative and find out. Welcome to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is enjoying a surge of popularity thanks to Netflix’s Stranger Things, podcasts like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, and the release of Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition books. Celebrities — including hunks and tough-guys like Joe Manganiello, Terry Crews, and Vin Diesel, as well as late-night host Stephen Colbert, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll, musician Moby, and actor Drew Barrymore — aren’t shy letting others know they enjoy D&D as well.

“D&D has been around for 45 years, and it is more popular now than it has ever been,” says Greg Tito, senior communications manager at Wizards of the Coast in an interview with CNBC. “In each of the last five years, sales of Dungeons and Dragons merchandise has grown by double digits.”

The Dungeon Master guides the players through the story. Together, they create endless worlds and quests with the only limit being the groups’ imagination and their die rolls. (Photo: Sarah Eliza Roberts)
The Dungeon Master guides the players through the story. Together, they create endless worlds and quests with the only limit being the groups’ imagination and their die rolls. (Photo: Sarah Eliza Roberts)

Wizards of the Coast, owned by toymaker Hasbro, attributes this massive sales boom to the launch of the fifth edition of the game in 2014 and to Critical Role, a weekly show on livestreaming video platform Twitch that features voice actors from TV shows and video games playing Dungeons and Dragons with Matthew Mercer (Overwatch) serving as the dungeon master.

D&D was created by war-gamer and game developer Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. Gygax incorporated rules and concepts from some of his strategy games and added in fantasy elements from some of his favorite stories. It took Tactical Studies Rules (later known as TSR) 11 months to sell the first 1,000 copies. The next run sold out in six months. After that, TSR started measuring sales by the thousands per month. It spread through hobby shops and by word-of-mouth — not just among the old-guard, who had come up in the historical wargaming scene, but among sci-fi and fantasy fans too.

Overcoming conservative criticism in its early days and giving rise to role-playing juggernauts like World of Warcraft, D&D hasn’t just survived. Its alluring world of magic and monsters has bled into novels, movies, conventions, and collectors’ items, touching millions worldwide who have stepped into the boots of mighty heroes (and sneaky antiheroes) to create their own stories.

What exactly is D&D, though? Writer and game developer Kaz Kirkpatrick, who hosts a live D&D stream on Twitch, picked up his first D&D book at age 8 and has been playing for 28 years. He explains D&D as basically improv.

D&D was created by war-gamer and game developer Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. (Photo: Sarah Eliza Roberts)
D&D was created by war-gamer and game developer Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974. (Photo: Sarah Eliza Roberts)

“At the core of every D&D game is the collaborative creation of a shared story woven together by your adventuring party and your dungeon master,” he says. “The basis of most games, whether they are commercial quests sold by a store or a custom quest written by a dungeon master [DM], is that a group of characters set out on a quest of some sort. The dungeon master, in all cases, sets the stage, portrays every non-player character you meet, every monster you do battle with, and narrates the major events that affect your characters.”

The DM guides the players through the story. Together, they create endless worlds and quests with the only limit being the groups’ imagination and their die rolls.

It’s a creative effort that’s part spontaneous, collaborative novel writing; part improv theater; part research project; and part anthropological study, all wrapped up into game night with your friends.

In the beginning, D&D offered a social outlet for the awkward set before it was cool to be a nerd. It was a misfit pastime that existed outside the mainstream. For many players, it made them interested in reading and learning.

Part of the game’s awesomeness is the artwork and fearsome dragons planted in mysterious, pseudo-medieval lands. This didn’t go over well with some parents, who feared the fantasy game had sinister undertones. At one point, opponents claimed D&D drove players to suicide, an accusation that was swiftly debunked.

Today, however, the battle ax has swung the opposite way: D&D is considered wholesome and therapeutic. Some therapists use D&D to teach autistic children social skills. And when a UCLA researcher adapted the game for a third-grade class, the students improved in areas including math, reading comprehension, and conflict management.

Michael Burris is also a player and a DM. To him, D&D is like sitting around a campfire telling stories with your friends, except that the story changes as each person adds more to it. It’s collective storytelling at its best.

Local artist Malea Thomas considers her regular D&D game to be one of the more essential parts of her life. “It’s a fantastic creative outlet, and getting to spend that time with friends is amazing too,” she says. “It’s become part of my life so much that even my family knows not to schedule anything on my game night.”

So how does one play D&D? First, acquire a starter set that will have everything you need to start playing. (There’s even one featuring the Stranger Things Demogorgon.)

You’ll also need dice. Dice for D&D range from a pyramidal four-sided die up to a nearly spherical 20-sided die. You use these dice, along with your character’s skills and abilities, to determine if you convince a noble to hire you and to see who goes first when you find yourself in a battle with a brigand. You also roll to see if you notice that the brigand has several friends, whether you hit with your bow or your sword, and whether you manage to avoid a ball of magical fire flung by the brigands’ wizardly friend.

One member of the group will be the DM, who will guide you through the game. The DM describes the scene. Perhaps your party is in a tavern, and you see a street kid steal a purse. What do you do? Your party is traveling through the woods, it’s late, and you’re ready to camp when you are approached by a bandit who demands you hand over your money. What do you do? Through the scenes, you develop your characters, build relationships, solve puzzles, and perhaps along the way, you save the world from an evil dragon.

If you’re ready to jump into the world of D&D, you can create your party with your friends, or look for a group around Tulsa. Wizard’s Asylum in Tulsa has regular gaming sessions, and Kiss My Ale on Admiral Place is designed for gaming. If you give them a call, they will be delighted to help you find a group.

“Dungeons & Dragons is imagination made real,” says Burris. “These are moments that you create with your fellow players that become as real as any birthday or holiday because these moments are shared with your friends.”

And more people are playing, partly because it has never been easier. D&D used to be a nitpicky, number-crunchy affair. Then, in 2014, Wizards of the Coast (which bought the company from near-bankrupt TSR in 1997) released a new edition that is more streamlined, more spontaneous and less rule-driven.

The company also made it more inclusive. Gone is the rule mandating female characters’ strength to be less than males. Gone is the sexist artwork — no more armored bikinis, no more monsters with breasts, no more topless ladies. Characters come in a rainbow of skin colors and body types.

The mainstream popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Game of Thrones has made being a fantasy nerd no longer a badge of dishonor, while the internet has given fans a giant trove of homebrew content and entertainment.

According to The Washington Post, technology has been a game changer. In 2019, people play D&D by video conference, via Skype and Discord. They use dice-rolling apps, fill out online character sheets, and draw maps on laptops and iPads instead of on graph paper. They livestream on Twitch. When they can’t make it to a physical tabletop, they log on to “virtual tabletops” such as Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 to crawl through dungeons with players half a world away. Here, Dungeon Masters hire themselves out like itinerant knights — they’ll lead your campaign for $10 to $20 a head.

“We are constantly meeting people at events and conventions and live shows who tell us, ‘I never played, I never thought that it was something that I could get into and enjoy and now I play in three campaigns,’” Mercer told CNBC. “It’s been unexpectedly wild to see people engage with the game. I never expected to find such a widespread and growing audience.”

All in all, there’s never been a better time to be a Dungeons & Dragons player.

December 2019 Cover