Nathan Stewart had a tall task ahead of him when he and others first looked to revamp Dungeons & Dragons. A tarrasque-sized challenge, indeed.
Nearly eight years ago, the game’s accessibility had come into question ahead of the release of the fifth edition, its current iteration. When Stewart joined D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast, the strategy was to “reinvigorate the tabletop game.”
Their efforts have paid off in almost unimaginable ways. D&D’s fifth edition, released in 2014, isn’t just a success. It’s revivified the franchise, with 2018 and 2019 – the 45th anniversary of the game — consecutively marking the best years for D&D sales.
That’s not all.
“Beyond the sales, there’s a lot of other ways to look at it, too,” Stewart told USA TODAY. “I think we’re seeing more players than ever. We’re seeing more mainstream mentions and more exposure, impressions, if you will, in terms of the number of references and times D&D comes up in a pop culture TV show or movie, or even just someone’s Twitter.
“It used to be, ‘Oh hey, cool, D&D got mentioned.’ Now it’s like, ‘Yeah. It’s a weekday.’”
In an age where screen time is synonymous with free time, tabletop gaming surrounded by friends is making a comeback.
At the forefront is D&D. Thanks to live-streaming services, celebrity endorsements, frequent pop culture references and — above all else — an accessible game, the D&D community is thriving and eager to roll initiative again.
Dungeons & Dragons: Go on an adventure in a ‘safe, controlled space’
Dungeons & Dragons certainly isn’t new. The game’s first edition launched in 1974, and groups of friends have been led through adventures by storytelling Dungeon Masters (DMs) ever since.
At its heart, D&D is simple. DMs create and guide players through worlds filled with monsters, treasure and intrigue, with dice rolls deciding key outcomes.
Some tables take on psychic fish-monsters from the dawn of time. Others prefer political debates.
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But, at its core, D&D is about collaborative storytelling with friends. That spirit was captured in the creation of the fifth edition following a slump brought on by previous editions that led to in-community fighting, Stewart said.
This time, he said, the team focused on cutting out “complexity for complexity’s sake.”
“I think everybody who works here at Dungeons and Dragons take the role of steward really seriously,” Stewart said. “It was such an old, beloved brand at the time, and it was kind of falling on some troubled times.”
Rules were added and scrapped and tweaked to make sure the game was approachable for newcomers but also engaging for longtime players.
“Every time you put in a rule that took away from friends getting together and telling stories, we were kind of going against the core ethos,” Stewart said. “We play-tested the hell out of it and, also, when we were looking at things, we said, ‘Is this really making it more fun for everybody or this just for one group?’
“Whenever it was just for one group, we tried to find a better way to do it.”
D&D’s principal story designer Chris Perkins said D&D allows people to tap into the “human need to escape the confines of our reality and experience other worlds in a safe, controlled space.” D&D’s universe is vast, with pantheons of gods, devils and demons, established villains and heroes.
And there are always DMs willing to create their own worlds while taking cues from D&D’s preexisting library.
“The game allows us to be ourselves and someone else at the same time,” Perkins said in an email. “D&D is also a great creative outlet, allowing us to craft our own fictional characters, worlds, and adventures, and that’s very appealing when the real world is quickly burning to a cinder.”
Still, despite streamlining, D&D can be intimidating for new players. It’s not easy to pick up the fifth edition’s “Monster Manual” — a book that has a monstrous floating eye with teeth on its cover — and simply dive into the game. Not everyone can pick up the Player’s Handbook and immediately choose if they’re going to be a barbarian or a sorcerer, either.
That’s where the established community comes in.
A ‘diverse’ community of players bolsters Dungeons & Dragons
D&D’s community is multifaceted.
There are 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 is endless.
Satine Phoenix, a storytelling consultant and founder of collaborative art studio Gilding Light in Los Angeles and a host of a popular series that provided tips for Dungeon Masters, said the community is more diverse than ever. She’s been playing D&D since 1988, when she found a beginner’s box in her parents’ basement at 8 years old.
Phoenix is writing a book about how D&D helped her through PTSD and childhood trauma.
“Throughout that trauma, I held on to my character, I held on to these stories, so D&D is in my veins,” Phoenix said. “It helps me understand the world differently. It helps me escape. It helps me attack problems.”
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Eventually, Phoenix started a D&D group at Meltdown Comics, an iconic L.A. comic shop that closed in 2018.
“People came out that I didn’t expect,” she said. “There were women and there were professionals. The fascinating thing was they thanked me for providing a space. Suddenly, we had Sundays with six tables and six to 10 people at each table. There wasn’t a space and, suddenly, there were people like me in all the major cities going, ‘I’m going to make a space,’ and people just flocked to it.”
Humans are social creatures, Stewart said. D&D just provides an excuse to come together — like a poker game or a movie night, only with dice and maybe a few kobolds.
“These stories are the ones that stick with us,” Stewart said. “When you think about some of your best friends, at least in my world, half the people tell the story about their best friend and they met them playing D&D.”
David Price, store manager at Game Theory in Raleigh, North Carolina, told USA TODAY that D&D’s popularity has surged in the five years he’s been managing the store. There was a time when there are only two tables reserved each week for D&D.
Now, he said, there are “at least 15 to 20.”
“If I had to pick a community that is the most diverse, it’s the role-playing community in general, and the D&D community specifically,” said Price, 47. “We have kids 10 years old and up, all the way to people who are close to retirement age — actually, we probably do have a few retirees.”
The digital age has helped ‘demystify’ Dungeons & Dragons for new players
Some of the most recognizable players in D&D put their faces alongside the game on a regular basis.
According to a D&D fact sheet, more than 7,500 unique broadcasters streamed live games for more than 475,000,000 minutes watched in 2017. And, D&D’s official Twitch channel streamed about 50 hours of content weekly.
Shows like “Critical Role” – which recently raised more than $11 million on Kickstarter to back an animated television show – draw thousands of viewers per week.
“What all of those are showing people is this game is for you,” Stewart said. “I look like you. My group is made up like you.”
The online shows — and in some cases, live shows played in front of sold-out theaters — lower the barrier of entry for D&D, Stewart said. Interested viewers get a chance to see what a game is like in real time — a table of friends goofing around — instead of worrying about the game’s complexities.
“Technology has helped demystify the game by showing that you don’t need to be a rules expert to have a good time,” Perkins said, and added, “All you need are some dice, a good imagination and some friends.”
Outside of live broadcasts, the digital age has provided new ways for players to get involved with D&D. Meetup.com is a good place to start for anyone looking to join a game. DND Beyond is D&D’s web-based service that provides digital rulebooks and can even create a character for free. Looking for new content? Try the Dungeon Master’s Guild.
What’s next for Dungeon & Dragons?
So, after back-to-back years of top-tier sales, what comes next? How does the D&D franchise build on its momentum?
“I think if you just ask people what they want, you’re never going to get an answer that leads to the next product or the next popularity wave,” Stewart said.
“But, if you’re asking all of the people and you’re really listening and you’re really triangulating in terms of the different ways they’re getting their opinions out there, whether it be on Reddit or Twitter or different surveys … then you can kind of stay ahead of the curve that way.”
“Dark Alliance,” a video game featuring one of the series’ most popular characters that’s set to launch this year on PC and consoles, is one project deemed integral to D&D’s future strategy.
“When someone comes in through a film or a video game or through a YA novel, they’re getting an experience of D&D, that whets their appetite and then they want to go search out more of the gaming experiences we have,” Stewart said.
This week, D&D also announced a new sourcebook in collaboration with “Critical Role,” which is set to release in March.
“Dungeons & Dragons has had such a massive, positive impact on nearly my entire life, and I am ever inspired by the endless creativity I see it spark in so many others across the world,” Matt Mercer, DM for “Critical Role,” said in a press release.
Whatever comes next, the storytelling consultant Phoenix is excited for it.
“Over the past 10 years, America has just embraced Dungeons & Dragons,” she said. “Over the past couple years, Europe has and so has Asia-Pacific, and it’s really going to make a huge difference when we can get all over the world playing together.
“That’s going to be one of the next big, positive changes, is going global and going global together.”