Dungeons & Dragons Isn't Back, Because It Never Left
Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s first fantasy role-playing game, has enjoyed enduring popularity since it was launched in 1974. But it’s always been something of an underground culture—something people wouldn’t really admit to playing because of its association with nerds.
But over the past few years, Dungeons & Dragons has been steadily making its way into the contemporary mainstream, thanks to shows like Stranger Things and Community. The CEO of Hasbro, parent company of Wizards of the Coast, which owns Dungeons & Dragons, has even said that the fantasy role-playing game is “experiencing its best year ever.”
Celebrities like Vin Diesel, Joe Manganiello, Stephen Colbert, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are into it, and even Judi Dench plays the game with her grandchildren. Critical Role—a group of American voice actors who record and upload their Dungeons & Dragons sessions to Youtube—has such a large following that their videos often get over a million views.
The game is just as popular on Philippine shores—chances are you know someone who’s into it, or you’ve run into a group rolling dice at your local Starbucks or McDonald’s. So how does this game work, and why is it so popular?
44 Years of Roleplaying
While watching Stranger Things might give you the impression that Dungeons & Dragons is an '80s game, its first edition was actually launched in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. According to game historian Jon Peterson, the game was “first published as three booklets shipping in a woodgrain-colored cardboard box: Men and Magic, Monsters &Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. Within eleven months, the entire hand-assembled print run of 1,000 games sold out.” In 1975, Gygax and Arneson printed a total of 3,000 more copies, all of which sold out before the end of the year.
Dungeons & Dragons grew in popularity until the 1980s, when it hit a snag thanks to what fans call “Satanic Panic.” Adults didn’t quite know what to make of their kids holing up in basements pretending to be wizards and dwarves. When a computer programming student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared in the steam tunnels of Michigan State University in 1979, the private detective who took on the case blamed the incident on Egbert’s passion for playing Dungeons & Dragons.
In reality, Egbert had been struggling with drugs and depression, and had gone into the tunnels to attempt suicide. Nevertheless, the damage to Dungeons & Dragon’s reputation was done. As Atlas Obscura recounts, books like The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III and Mazes and Monsters (which had a TV movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks) sensationalized the incident and continued to paint Dungeons & Dragons as a “corruptor of youth.”
In 1982, the Pulling family blamed their son’s suicide on the game and formed an anti-occult group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD). In an effort to rehabilitate the game’s image, Gygax removed all mention of demons and devils from the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 1989.
Satanic panic aside, Dungeons & Dragons has had a significant impact on popular culture for a relatively obscure game. All role-playing games have their origins in D&D, including Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft. But D&D’s influence doesn’t stop with video games. Writers like Michael Witwer of Slate and Time magazine's James Poniewozik contend that because the game draws so heavily from Lord of the Rings, it’s played a big part in popularising the fantasy genre.
As Poniewozik writes, “By taking the mythology of The Lord of the Rings and translating it to game form, D&D was a precursor to the kinds of sweeping, obsessive entertainments we’ve become accustomed to since: videogames from Myst through World of Warcraft, TV shows from The X-Files through Buffy through Lost.”
How It Works
At its core, Dungeons & Dragons is about getting a group of people to tell a story together. One player takes on the role of dungeon master while the rest create their own characters.
To create a character you have to choose your race, such as human, dwarf, or elf. Dungeons & Dragons has a plethora of less common races, including tieflings, aasimars, dragonborn, etc. Next, you determine your character’s class: are you a fighter, wizard, ranger, rogue, or cleric? You also get to decide on your background—are you a noble, urchin, criminal, acolyte, or outlander?
Your race, class, and background will determine your character’s skills, strengths, and abilities. It’s also good to determine your character’s personality and reason for adventuring—what motivates him to join the group? Part of the appeal of playing Dungeons & Dragons is that you can be whoever and whatever you want.
The dungeon master is the storyteller of the game—he establishes and describes the world your characters move in, puts them in different situations, plays the characters they encounter, and pits them against different monsters and villains.
How you and your party react to each situation is entirely up to you and your imagination. But as you go on each adventure, the success of each of your actions depends on the score you get after rolling dice.
For example, you’re in need of horses and the dungeon master says you encounter a stable. You decide to steal the horses, and the dungeon master asks you to roll a 20-sided die. The higher your score, the more likely you are to succeed. So in this case, if you get a 20, you could make off with your steed without anyone being any the wiser. If you roll a one, everyone in the stable along with the townsguard will come running. Your character’s stats also affect these outcomes. For example, if you have a high charisma bonus, you’ll have an easier time convincing those stable hands to let you go instead of sending you to jail.
Why People Love It: The Magic of Dungeons & Dragons
In a world where we keep up with our friends via social media and chat groups, the magic of Dungeons & Dragons lies in seeing people face-to-face and collaborating with them to tell a story.
“I really enjoy the collaborative aspect of it. You get together with other people and you tell a story together,” says 22 year-old Nikko Dela Paz. He started playing this year, and acts as dungeon master for a party composed of nine people. “It’s really fun and I think there’s something in it for almost anybody. For people who like writing or are interested in storytelling, there’s a lot of opportunities for that.”
“I do enjoy dungeon mastering more because it gives you a lot more freedom,” he adds. “You’re also free as a player, but being a dungeon master you control the story. You control what happens—the enemies and everything else. In all the scenarios that you run, it really lets your creativity flow.”
Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons is the spontaneous interactions that occur—because players are free to let their imaginations run wild, anything can happen. “My players have a habit of recruiting the bad guys,” Dela Paz says. “I planned the encounters so that they’d kill the enemies, but they decided to spare two after torturing them and they’ve been sort of hired by the party as mercenaries. I didn’t plan to have these characters as long-term non-player-characters.”
“You can kind of assume what the players will do, but based on experience from a lot of games, it never comes out how you wanted it to,” says 26 year-old Arv Avendaño, who has been playing for a year and a half and enjoys dungeon mastering as well. “Be prepared for your players to go off the rails, and have the confidence to change your plans.”
Players can get so immersed in the game that they can go on for hours. The longest game Dela Paz has played lasted eight hours; Avendaño once had a session that lasted 16 hours. Another unusual aspect of Dungeons & Dragons is the emotional attachment players develop towards their characters. When the group comes face to face with a particularly dangerous monster, the tension is palpable.
If a character dies, players grieve in the same way most people would grieve for their favorite TV, movie, and book characters. “There’s drama in it,” says Avendaño. “If you’re from the outside looking in, you’d think, ‘Why is this person crying?’”
“I guess it’s the time spent really customizing and playing out the characters,” says Dela Paz. “The game is really meant to make you feel like you’re there, or at least that’s what a good game in my opinion would do.”
Since the game is so dependent on personal interaction, both Dela Paz and Avendaño say it’s important to find the right group of people to play with. Some players are focused on number-crunching stats to make their characters as strong as possible, while others are more into role-playing. Some people like playing serious characters, while others like to be as quirky and ridiculous as possible.
“It really gives people a sense of freedom and community,” Dela Paz says. “I think there’s always going to be a place for Dungeons & Dragons in culture.”
Locally, there are groups like Greasy Snitches and Adventurers Anonymous who host community events. “There are groups in every city—Makati, Pasig, Mandaluyong, Taguig, Baguio, Davao. Though people might think it’s hard to find a group just you just have to find the right person to talk to. You could ride the MRT along EDSA and there’s a D&D group for each stop.”
If you’re interested in playing Dungeons & Dragons but don’t know any players, Avendaño says there are local Facebook groups you can join, such as Adventurers League Philippines, Greasy Snitches, League of Extraordinary Bestfriends, and Adventurers Anonymous. Just post or comment with the area where you’d like to play and ask if there are any parties who are open to new players.
But if meeting up with people isn't feasible for you or playing with strangers just isn't your cup of tea, you can also opt to play online. Dela Paz says Roll20.Net is a good resource for this.
While Dungeons & Dragons can be a lot of fun, there are a lot of newcomers who get overwhelmed with all of the rules and stats, not to mention the sheer magnitude of Dungeons & Dragons lore that’s out there. To this Avendaño says, “Just play.” After all, it’s the role of the dungeon master to know the rules and guide people through the game. The most important thing is to just have fun.
“Don’t be pressured,” Avendaño adds. “People are very open to helping new players get into the game. They’re not exclusive at all. They like playing with other people, and they love the idea of people joining. They will try their best to make it the best experience possible for you.”