Will Dungeons & Dragons Be the Next Hobbit?

The Hobbit and Game of Thrones have become full-on pop culture phenomena, but what about the game that kept the fantasy genre alive in the 1970s and '80s? Where's the mainstream love for Dungeons and Dragons?

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www.wizards.com
www.wizards.com

The level of excitement surrounding the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a reminder of the way in which Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds have been embraced by mainstream pop culture. We think nothing of orcs, dwarves and elves on our screens these days, whether those screens are IMAX-big or — in the case of HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones — television-small. While the fantasy genre hasn’t quite achieved the pop culture saturation level of superheroes or zombies just yet, there’s one mainstay of fantasy that remains curiously unloved by the world at large, staying the butt of jokes and the property of a level of geekery that somehow hasn’t risen above parents’ basements — which raises the question: Why is Dungeons & Dragons still considered a fringe subculture after all these years?

Admittedly, it’s a big subculture. In the 38 years since its creation, it’s been played by upwards of 20 million people and made more than $1,000,000,000 in revenue for its owners (Originally TSR Inc., although it was purchased by Wizards of The Coast in 1997); it’s been the subject of three movies and a fondly remembered, if short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series (which, by the way, really didn’t have a mythical “final episode” that was never broadcast). And yet, despite all of that, there’s always been a cliché of those who play D&D that has somehow never managed to disappear. “Let’s not beat around the bush here,” complained fantasy site Shades of Sentience earlier this year, “people who play Dungeons & Dragons are popularly conceived as the epitome of nerd, geeks, social rejects and eternal virgins.” In a world where The Hobbit‘s biggest competition for being the most successful movie of the year is Marvel’s The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, that seems almost unbelievable. What is Dungeons & Dragons doing wrong to remain such a clichéd niche in spite of its own success?

Well, there’s always the fact that it’s Satan’s Tool. Or, at least, that’s what some would have you believe. Almost since its creation, D&D has been accused of promoting Satanism and the occult with everyone from grieving parents to an overly excitable media blaming the game for moral decline and societal collapse. “Dungeons & Dragons was unique in that it was the only game associated with its subculture for at least a decade, and it got popular at the same time as the Satanic Mass Hysteria in the USA,” said screenwriter and gamer John Rogers. (In addition to co-creating and showrunning TNT’s Leverage, Rogers also spent a year and a half writing a monthly Dungeons & Dragons comic book for IDW Publishing.) “So when opportunistic hucksters wanted to beat the Devil, they’d point to Dungeons & Dragons. Not ‘roleplaying games’ but ‘Dungeons & Dragons‘. Remember when video games were going to destroy our kids? Imagine if there’d only been one video game.”

The accusations were, of course, baseless and the result of panic-mongering. Perhaps more importantly, however, studies have suggested that they also tended to be counter-productive and reinforce the sense of community for those playing the games, as the mainstream’s “othering” of gamers resulted in their seeking solace and comfort from each other.

(MORE: How D&D Changed the Culture)

These days, the mainstream media may not be declaring Dungeons & Dragons’ satanic intent, but there remains a feeling of cultural isolation about the game. As io9.com’s Meredith Woerner pointed out when she wrote a Community episode based around D&D, “The only thing that irked me with this episode was the depiction of current D&D players. Two fat kids. Not all D&D players are fat and lonely.” Even in the Freaks & Geeks scene that TIME’s own James Poniewozik called “the best depiction of Dungeons & Dragons on TV,” the game is still an example of über-geeky. Dungeons & Dragons is continually used as a punchline to drive home how unlike “us” characters are.

That said, it’s not as if the very nature of Dungeons Dragons the game doesn’t act against its own self-interest. The appeal of Dungeons Dragons is its interactivity; its potential is limited only by those playing it: “The world [of D&D] is bigger than what you can fit in your Xbox or Playstation,” explained Satine Phoenix, who hosts DnDMelt, a monthly D&D gaming venue in Los Angeles. “Anything you can think of, your character can do with an infinite number of possibilities and maneuverable physics depending on where the game takes place.” That same freedom, however, means that there are no recognizable, recurring characters for newbies to grab hold of, nor any consistent narrative for them to follow. The video games that followed the rise of D&D found mass success by consistently basing games around recognizable characters who would go on to become recognizable pop culture icons in and of themselves and constructing ever-more-elaborate storylines around which the games take place. D&D isn’t like sports or gaming either. “You can watch a football game. Everyone’s had at least a passing experience with sports thanks to physical education in school,” Rogers said. “You can’t watch Dungeons & Dragons. There’s no score, there’s no beginning and end. What’s the first question you get when you explain Dungeons & Dragons to non-gamers? ‘How do you win?'”

And then there are the practicalities of participating. I admit, as the non-playing heathen that I am, that the prospect of playing Dungeons Dragons evokes as much fear as it does curiosity: 20-Sided Die! Endless streams of books filled with classifications and measurements! The rules of D&D, to the uninitiated, can appear to be in a foreign language that mixes math in with all of the other words that you don’t understand, and that’s even before you get to the part where you actually have to play the game. As Rogers puts it, to successfully play D&D, “you have to be emotionally open enough to pretend in front of other people without the shield of the stage,” a concept that may give the more reticent of us the willies. You have to do math and perform? Why would anyone want to play this game?

Surprisingly, Phoenix actually had an answer: “Since I started playing regularly, my imagination and problem-solving skills are far more toned than they were before. I drive better and have better interactions with people because I am now thinking and existing more awarely in every situation.” D&D as stealth self-improvement? It does make some sense, I suppose. Playing encourages social as well as problem-solving skills, as others have said before. We’re back to the transformative element shown in the Freaks & Geeks clip above — the notion that pretending to be someone else can make you into a more versatile you. (There’s also the secondary answer: Chances are, it’s probably fun.)

(MORE: Community Watch: Character Alignment)

It’s no surprise that Phoenix, whose constant promotion of the game has earned her the title of “The Queen of D&D” from those at DnDMelt, is a firm believer in the mass appeal of Dungeons & Dragons. For her, the question isn’t whether the game can become mainstream, but how best to make it happen. “When people think of Dungeons & Dragons, they think of a bunch of dudes in their mom’s basement. That’s such an ’80s way of thinking. A ton of people actually still play that way, which is fine, but not everyone. Once a year or so I run a Celebrity Charity Dungeons & Dragons game where various actors and other celebrities [including Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch and artist Coop] who play D&D game and raise money for Reach Out and Read Los Angeles. We livestream it, and their fans — who have no idea they were into this — suddenly get interested in D&D. Sometimes people just need things explained to them.”

For Rogers, however, the game’s crossover appeal depends on more than a simple introduction. “It’s not so odd [that] big fantasy movies don’t send people off to play D&D,” he says. “Big science fiction movies don’t send people off to pretend to be astronauts, and big crime movies don’t send people off to become con men. It does drive them to become more interested in similar passive — movies are, after all, passive — entertainment in the same genre. My Dad loved Lord of The Rings (which are, at their heart, ass-kicking war movies). Didn’t mean he wanted to play D&D. But he did start picking up some fantasy novels from Amazon, and it made him open to watching Game of Thrones.”

At some point in thinking about Dungeons & Dragons‘ “failure” to be more embraced by the mainstream, it occurred to me that I might have been looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. In wondering why the game and the culture wasn’t more successful, I was ignoring the fact that it’s a 40-year-old game that has created its own (thriving) community and scores of similar text-based role-playing games. It has penetrated popular culture to such a degree that Community could spend an entire episode based around it without having to first explain was D&D actually is. Instead of being a fantasy mainstay that Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit could bring to greater prominence, Dungeons & Dragons was the entry point for many into fantasy in the first place, and re-introduced the various races and tropes of Tolkien’s high fantasy to popular culture and prepared us for Peter Jackson’s movies in the process.

Perhaps the game itself will never achieve mass popularity, but what (non-video-)games have done in recent memory? Dungeons & Dragons may remain a sub-culture with limited appeal for some time — perhaps forever — but nonetheless, its presence has touched and changed popular culture. If only all cults could be that limited.

24 comments
franklyn.azubuike.174997
franklyn.azubuike.174997

wow, i love dunguns and dragons alot, but dont know if it will be the next hobbit. anyway,  Hey! Check out the unn site by clicking http://unn.edu.ng for all your academic needs.

travsjwebb
travsjwebb

I've played D&D since the 90s. Back then, I WAS the epitome of
geekery. Now I write a weekly gaming column, am dating a model and run
half marathons for fun.  Not too shabby for a basement-dwelling
troglodyte.

Good read, by the way.


stealthshafaq
stealthshafaq

I love Record of lodoss war, glad some people know about it.

Abreu
Abreu

Hasbro should get Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to reimagine a new Dungeons and Dragons animated series.

Air it on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, and they'll have a D&D revival.

MikeStevens
MikeStevens

Interestingly enough, Japan has figured out a method to make RPGs (what they call "Tabletalk Roleplaying") a spectator event of sorts - they're called "Replays", which are transcripts of games that were recorded. They're then sold at small book stores or enthusiast shows. Some of these transcripts have even gotten anime series and manga deals, like Record of the Lodoss Wars. It brought in more players and even more amazing, just some people find the stories really entertaining and just follow them. Wizards of the Coasts did this, in a way, to promote D&D4e via a serialized podcast with famed webcomic people playing a session.

MikeStevens
MikeStevens

I can absolutely understand how Dungeons and Dragons appears intimidating with all the books, heavy focus on rules of battle. I love the recent 4th Edition rules but in no way could recommend it for my girlfriend who has felt overwhelmed by complicated rules before. Role Playing Games beyond D&D, or its more easygoing kid brother, "Story Games" (games that are more intended to eschew traditional parts of the RPG experience like no game/dungeon master or multiple roles per player) are more vast and in many ways more user friendly so beginners can jump right in, like Mouse Guard or Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. 

An example that requires some full disclosure - I'm part of a team releasing a japanese role playing game called Golden Sky Stories that shares themes with Disney and Studio Ghibli movies like "Kiki's Delivery Service" or "My Neighbor Totoro". In many tests, I've found non-gamers, children and parents alike, take to the game quickly (about a 5-10 minute discussion of the rules is all that is needed) specifically because there are no dice, you just gain points to spend per scene to do neat tricks to help others in need and other players reward what they liked of your actions with points to upgrade your character. I've seen grandparents, parents and kids figure it out and quickly get to playing their characters like 4-6 year veterans on their first game. Time and time again this happens. So I have to say that no, RPGs by itself are NOT required to be complex or intimidating to be compelling and fun.

seanmeaney
seanmeaney

No. Dungeons And Dragons is like the Two six sided dice in the Monopoly Game - an ever expanding rule book collection like two six sided dice does not equate to a literary great.

S.d.Houston
S.d.Houston

AS far as the article goes, it's a great article!  As for the comments about Pathfinder, it may be more popular than D&D at the moment, but let's face it. You say Dungeons & Dragons, and every non-gamer in the world knows at least vaguely what you're talking about. If you tell the same people Pathfinder, they're simply going to tilt their head a bit and look at you with no idea what you're talking about

Mr.Wallingford
Mr.Wallingford

Criminy, this article is almost as long as a game of D & D!

AaronGomez
AaronGomez

It's about as mainstream as it'll probably get. Let's be honest it's hard enough to get six adults around a table once a week to play a game, hell it takes us a month to arrange a game these days.  Kids are more in tune with playing video games anyways, just the way things go.  I think MMOs to some extent scratch that gaming itch for a lot of us, while not perfect it is much easier to facilitate. 

AaronGomez
AaronGomez

Yeah I suppose they could have mentioned Pathfinder in the article, though people still think of the hobby as "D&D".  

It's nothing like calling console gaming "Tomb Raider", though we've all heard non-video game players refer to games as "Nintendo".

GeraintHarries
GeraintHarries

And yet no mention of Pathfinder... strange.

The biggest Fantasy RPG at the moment is not D&D, it's Pathfinder.

This is liking writing an article about console-gaming and calling all of console-gaming 'Tomb Raider'.

The name may have cultural reach but it is not the only game available, and it isn't even the most popular.

baerrwind
baerrwind

Don't forget that Wizards of the Coast was acquired by Hasbro. They have been licencing some really stupid games to become movies. Perhaps they will finally use D&D better than previous owners have.

TomDenson
TomDenson

Great article! I hope hope that D & D never achieves mainstream popularity, the counter culture is part of what makes it so much fun! Also, look at the mainstream successes, such as WoW, that  seem to have compromised to keep being popular. At the same time it probably is more widely played then we think, a lot of people use it as they're escapism tactic, something wonderfully enjoyed but all yours and not to be shared with the wider social circle.

joe.random.wizard
joe.random.wizard

I do not think D&D will ever reach mainstream, as the opportunities to do so were taken by others. D&D could have been easily been World of Warcraft or it could have gained mainstream momentum with a "good" movie rendition like Spider-man and other comic book based intellectual property, but the company that acquired the game could not overcome the hurdle of just being a game company. I have recently got back in touch with my gaming roots and started writing about it  http://randomwizard.blogspot.com/  Maybe with the release of D&D next on the 40 year anniversary, the popularity of the game will rise once again, and spur on another generation of creative thinkers.

carraghbray
carraghbray

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon done by Marvel in the 1980s has the potential for a really good movie franchise.  That show is quite underappreciated and it's amazing the number of writers that cut their teeth on it, including Paul Dini and Michael Reaves.  And it's actually amazing it got on the air with the higher concepts and some of the violence for a Saturday morning cartoon.  

What the D&D roleplaying game lacks is characters, which is what has made Lord of the Rings so successful.  Doing something like the D&D cartoon for an older teen audience, rather than 6 year olds, has real potential.

DuneTraderGames
DuneTraderGames

Some horrible production company has the rights to D&D movies and as long as they keep squeezing out bad movies every few years, they keep the rights. That's why there hasn't been a good D&D movie.

SimonRohrich
SimonRohrich

The cognitive, imaginative and problem solving skills I learned playing tabletop RPG's (role-playing games) enabled my career as an inventor and technology innovator. The ability to verbally describe complex and dynamic objects, people and situations in enough detail for other to understand and interact is central to any good RPG experience

AnthonyRobinson
AnthonyRobinson

Pedant here.  Things are "based on" other things, not "based around" them.

justplncate
justplncate

The Dungeons and Dragons as the next Hobbit?  As opposed to being the next D & D movie flop, to follow the last two Dungeons and Dragons movie flops?   LOL!!