In a world where online gaming has totally taken over, you’d think that a game played with pencils, paper and a set of dice would just fade away from people’s memories. But even more than 40 years after the game was first launched, Dungeons and Dragons is still as relevant as it was on day one. In fact, it’s becoming more popular now than ever before.
Back in 1974, when the game was first launched, Dungeons and Dragons took the gaming industry by storm. The tabletop game is credited to have been the beginning of modern role-playing games, allowing people to use their imagination without any limits. In fact, Dungeons and Dragons is probably the longest-lived and most successful traditional role-playing game that exists today. The game is a mix of improv and collective storytelling where one person becomes the Dragon Master and is responsible for creating the world, assigning tasks and deciding all the outcomes of the game. The rest of the people are characters in the world with their own backstories and motives.
Dungeons and Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson both of whom were part of separate gaming groups. But before there was Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax created a game called ‘Chainmail’ which pretty much had the same rules. At the end of the game, there was a 14 page manual that described all the rules of the fantasy game in detail. When Dave Arneson saw the game, he took a lot of inspiration from it and created his own version of a fantasy RPG called ‘Blackmoor’ where players had to explore underground dungeons and solve puzzles to escape. When Gygax saw Blackmoor, he was completely blown away and the two soon started expanding the game – creating new rules building on the world Dave had created. Soon, Gary & Dave had turned all their ideas and experiences into a ruleset they titled Dungeons & Dragons – Little did they know that this simple tabletop game would be a revolution in the world of gaming.
Sadly, the duo were unable to find a publisher and ended up forming their own company called Tactical Studies Rules which then launched the game. D&D sold 150 copies in its first month, and by summer, TSR ordered another 1,000 copies. The game cost $10 dollars at the time and because of its sudden popularity, people also started circulating pirated copies of the game’s rulebook. The great thing about Dungeons and Dragons was, of course, the fact that it took the players in a world where anything could happen. The gameplay of DnD was and still is infinite. Which explains why people would spend hours playing the game. Because of the game’s success, TSR grew from being run off Gygax’s dining room table to a corporation valued at millions of dollars with offices in Great Britain and Los Angeles.
Even with the game’s growing popularity, the 80s proved to be a difficult time when people started calling DnD Satanic, saying that the game promoted practiced like witch-craft and murder. In 1979, a 16-year-old boy called James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his room at Michigan State University. A private investigator, William Dear, was hired by James’s parents to find their son. Despite apparently knowing little about roleplaying games, Dear believed that D&D was the cause of Egbert’s disappearance – which is what kicked off what is now called ‘The Satanic Panic’ surrounding the game. DnD made sure to remove all references to demons, devils and other factors in the game that received backlash from religious fanatics. However, what’s surprising is that the controversy actually resulted in a boost in sales and by the end of the 90s, the game had made $8.7 million dollars.
However, in the 90s, online gaming had also started taking over and that meant trouble for a simple RPG like Dungeons and Dragons. Not just that, but other tabletop games also started making their way into the market so DnD wasn’t the only player in the game anymore. TSR was now under the pressure to innovate and make sure that their game moved ahead with the times. This is why the company began to experiment with CD ROMs, games with videotapes and what not. Now, this was all very exciting. But at the same time people who were playing Dungeons and Dragons preferred to play it the old-fashioned way. And of course, the costs of taking the game digital were also giving TSR a hard time.
In 1997, a near-bankrupt TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast. Following three years of development, Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition was released in 2000. The original version of the game was discontinued. However, it was pretty obvious that the game had become a cult classic in the eyes of most gamers. By 2004, the game was being played by 20 million people all over the world and as it’s popularity grew, the game was also translated into tons of different languages. In fact, to celebrate just how much people loved Dungeons and Dragons, 16th October was officially declared as Worldwide Dungeons and Dragons day – An honour that no other game in the world has. Dungeons & Dragons version 3.5 was released in June 2003, with a 4th edition in June 2008.
However, that’s when the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons started to die down a bit. With online gaming and gaming consoles like the Xbox and Playstation taking over – Nobody really had the time to sit around and plan out fantasies in their heads. After a few years of the game slowly losing relevance, people believed that the future for tabletop RPG games was pretty much over. The game released its fifth edition in 2014 but besides a number of dedicated cult followers, it did next to nothing in the overall gaming landscape.
However, everything changed with the release of the TV show ‘Stranger Things’ in 2016 which helped DnD sales skyrocket once again. The show features tons of DnD references in addition to it being the main characters’ favourite game. In fact, Stranger Things proved to be a real-life dramatisation of Dungeons and Dragons where a group of young heroes combined their skills and limited resources to face monsters. The show went as far as to collaborate with the DnD franchise and launch a special ‘Stranger Things’ version of the game.
This meant that people who had grown up with the game found another reason to get back into it. And for the people who never knew what Dungeons and Dragons was, they picked up the game out of sheer curiosity. As a chain reaction, the gaming world once again returned back to the old fashioned RPG and it was now cooler than ever. YouTube gamers and Twitch livestreams have also played a huge part in the game’s revival. Popular channels such as High Rollers, Critical Role and Oxventure feature funny and engaging players undertaking D&D campaigns over multiple episodes, with participants often dressing up and becoming immersed in their characters. These shows are the perfect way to take DnD digital while also staying true to the game’s original nature and gameplay.
This has also helped the game overcome stereotypes such as the assumptions that it only caters to a certain demographic. As the game gains relevance once again, the creators are now working with a more diverse roster of artists and writers and adding racially diverse and LGBTQ+ characters into its official campaign books, as well as working with streamers and influencers to appeal to a whole new market – and it seems to be working.
Dungeons and Dragons has definitely come a long way since it was first created. A game that was once only played by a certain demographic has now become an icon of pop culture. With bars and restaurants now holding DnD tournaments, it’s crazy how the game has taken over once again. With more mainstream exposure, the DnD community now has new players and players who grew up with the game. Young players and old players. Parents teaching their children. Children teaching their classes – the list goes on!
As the game takes over the digital sphere, the whole world is now slowly embracing Dungeons and Dragons. Which means that we’re definitely moving towards a future where Dungeons and Dragons will change the world of gaming, allowing us to let our imagination run free once again.