Dungeons & Dragons riding geek wave, 44 years after table-top fantasy game brought wizards and goblins to life
With 15 million players in North America alone, D&D is more popular than ever thanks to a fantasy revival led by shows such as Game of Thrones and Stranger Things
The lift doors close behind you and you face a dragon. Razor-toothed creatures, some sleek as steel and others as gnarled as ancient oaks, are stretched across the doors. All the while, the lights change from purple to green to red.
This is where reality ends, and where the stories and characters that inspire awkward teenagers and accomplished adults to transform into wizards, clerics, bards and trolls begin.
On the third floor of a nondescript building in the city of Renton in the American state of Washington, a stone’s throw from Ikea and lines of car dealerships, Dungeons & Dragons – the table-top fantasy role-playing game now in its 44th year – carries on under the ownership of Wizards of the Coast. (The Hasbro subsidiary has owned the game since 1997.)
During the past few years, Dungeons & Dragons – also known as D&D – has gained legions of new players, thanks to the rise of geek culture and the new-found realisation that people need to look up from their screens, create their own stories and connect.
“It was the cosmos and us colliding in one magic moment,” says Nathan Stewart, D&D’s brand director and executive producer, citing the popularity of films based on Marvel and DC comics and shows such as Game of Thrones and Stranger Things. “You’ve never seen geek culture at such a height as right now.”
He also pointed to the 2014 release of the game’s fifth edition, which was play-tested by almost 200,000 people, and designed to be more accessible to new players by streamlining play, simplifying the rules, and putting renewed focus on the story.
There was also a new effort put on the inclusion and representation of women, Stewart says.
“As we went into development, we wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted to play felt welcome at the table,” he says. “The more people in the hobby, the better.”
It worked: a 2017 survey found that nearly 40 per cent of D&D players are women. “It’s a special time, and I have a big belief that people are really craving face-to-face connections,” he says. “Gaming is the perfect construct.”
As a result, 2017 was “the biggest” in D&D’s 44-year history, Stewart says.
He declined to disclose sales numbers but noted that in 2017, the D&D brand saw 44 per cent sales growth over 2016, and the most number of players in its history – 12 million to 15 million in North America alone.
And, because more than 50 per cent of those who started playing D&D since 2014 watch games online, the company is hosting its third – and biggest – event on live game streaming platform Twitch.
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“The Stream of Many Eyes” will originate from a Los Angeles sound stage from June 1-3. The story – which will be revealed on June 1 – was described by one D&D staffer as “The Da Vinci Code meets Gangs of New York.”
D&D was created by the late Gary Gygax and his partner, Dave Arneson. They dreamed up a fantasy role-playing game that brought the wizards and goblins that people had only read about in the books of J.R.R. Tolkien to their kitchen tables and unfinished basements.
“Fantasy has gone mainstream,” says Mike Mearls, the franchise’s creative director. “People know what an elf is. Now that society has digested those tropes, anything is possible.”
The people who work at the D&D offices serve as the stewards of Gygax’s legacy, refining the rules and expanding the stories.
Gygax’s pen is now in the hand of Chris Perkins, D&D’s senior story designer. He has more than 68,000 Twitter followers and is a celebrity Dungeon Master who runs games at tables and on stages all over the world – sometimes in costume.
“Story is the most important thing,” Perkins says. “It’s the heart of it, and it’s my job to write that book.”
He calls the stories he writes “the framework” for whatever players come up with. “We’re building the cup, not the drink,” he says. “Our stories are meant to be a starting point. I’m looking for great stories that become shared experiences.
Jeremy Crawford is D&D’s lead rules designer, the game’s managing editor and also heads the design of the player’s handbook. He started playing D&D as a six-year-old, from the first edition, and spent a day with Gygax.
“I am constantly working on things that we can do better,” Crawford says. “I have to restrain my impulse to revise things now.”
Feedback from players is “vital to us,” Crawford says, adding that there is one person on staff assigned to go through the comments and suggestions that come in.
It’s also not unusual for Crawford to sit down at a table and play D&D with fans during game conventions.
“I need to be in the world to see the blind spots,” he says. “It’s research for me. What’s confusing? What worked well?”
And there is the magic of the game. No matter who plays, or where, D&D is fed by imagination and fantasy and story – all made clear the minute you step through the doors of its headquarters and 44 years after it started.
“Given how open-ended D&D is,” Crawford says. “I can see people playing it a century from now.”