• revised April 2023
Contrary to assorted modern folklore, Dungeons & Dragons — also referred to as D&D or AD&D (the A stood for “Advanced”, a modifier dropped from newer editions of the rules) – is not a recruiting tool for demon-worshippers or an insidious method of mind control. It and other fantasy role-playing games (RPGs) are, in essence, advanced forms of the “cowboys and Indians” or “cops and robbers” play common to American childhood prior to the television era. What our parents accomplished solely by means of imagination, D&D players achieve with imagination, pen (or keyboard) and paper, and large bags of funny-looking dice.
A quick aside here to note two things that D&D and its siblings are not. They are not Live Action Role-Playing (LARP), although some of LARP’s roots can be traced to tabletop RPGs (particularly Vampire: the Masquerade and its spinoffs). Nor are they MMORPGs (“massively multiplayer online RPGs”), as exemplified by World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and a host of others which are played wholly in simulated video universes over one’s smartphone or desktop computer.
Rather, Dungeons & Dragons is and always has been a tabletop game, characterized even this far into the computer age by its reliance on person-to-person interaction and mechanics designed for a group small enough to fit into an average living room or around a reasonably-sized table. The D&D rules, originally published in the mid-1970s, were the first successful attempt to codify “cowboys and Indians” play into a formal system built around pencil-and-paper maps, preplanned adventures, and personalities represented in game terms by a series of numerical ability scores for such characteristics as Strength, Dexterity, and Wisdom. The choice of genre – heroic fantasy – came about because the designers were spinning the system off from rules built for boxed war games featuring cardboard counters or toy soldiers, and the variant from which D&D sprung was a medieval-warfare simulation.
To its designers’ surprise, D&D was a significant commercial success, and its publishers went on to become the founding fathers of a good-sized cottage industry. A number of game companies rose and fell over the next decade or two, publishing rules systems for worlds inspired by superhero comics, vast interstellar SF sagas, the old West, the post-nuclear future, gangland Chicago, and James Bond’s brand of spycraft. Meanwhile, TSR, publishers of the original D&D rules, expanded its product lines both into other sorts of games and into spinoff product lines offering stories set in the company’s “house universes”. This last included several lengthy series of novels, a fondly remembered animated Saturday morning TV series, and a less memorable big-screen motion picture. Eventually, the company was purchased by Wizards of the Coast, publishers of Magic: the Gathering, which was itself subsequently absorbed into toy giant Hasbro.
The advent of Magic and other card-based games effectively pushed role-playing games out of the spotlight for a generation of gamers…but in recent years, RPGs have made a significant comeback. It’s tempting to speculate about COVID-19’s influence here – it’s comparatively hard to play bridge or Monopoly via Zoom, but much easier to run a D&D session – but it’s equally important to look at broader shifts in the pop-culture landscape. The commercial success of SF and fantasy (from Star Wars to Disney animation to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Lord of the Rings movies and Game of Thrones) arises in non-trivial part from people who grew up playing D&D getting jobs in Hollywood, and sharing their geek-culture roots with sympathetic and interested audiences. Two figures of particular note in this context: Felicia Day, founder of streaming production company Geek & Sundry, whose successful game-related shows – often featuring celebrity players – have arguably driven much of the RPG renaissance, and Star Trek alumnus Wil Wheaton, whose G&S series TableTop deserves particular credit for introducing viewers to a wide range of newer and classic games.
Today’s Dungeons & Dragons has evolved a great deal from its original roots (at last glance, the current rules are the 5th edition), and there are as always variants and competitors, but the game remains popular – and by early accounts, the brand new feature film is actually good. Here, then, are a set of resources for further exploration:
Dungeons & Dragons
(the official site for the pencil-&-paper game)
White Wolf Publishing
(publishers of Vampire: the Masquerade and related materials)
(one of the longest-lived streaming D&D campaign shows)