The corridor is dark, and in the torchlight you can barely see up to 10 meters. The air is damp, and if you reach out on the walls you can feel moss under your fingers – or something else, cold and slimy. You shiver from the cold, or maybe in disgust. Behind you, you can feel the heavy breathing of your fellow adventurers. You know Wayland is right behind you, you recognize the familiar sound of his chainmail. Your steps echo in the hallway and you keep walking, until you see that the tunnel opens up in some sort of wider cave. You can see something shimmer in the distance. You stop, and the group stops right behind you.
– Well, that’s all you see. Flint, your dwarf is first in the line. What do you do?
– Ok. “Everybody, quiet”, I whisper behind my back. “Maybe this is the place”.
I try to listen for sounds, usually when we explore dungeons I have a special sixth sense for danger.
You try to be as quiet as you can and you focus your attention in front of you, deep into the darkness. At first, nothing. Then you clearly hear a deep, raw, trembling sound coming from the cave. Something like a distant thunder. Or a very sinister breathing, a nightmarish sound that can only come from a body impossibly large and powerful beyond imagination…
This scenario will be very familiar to anybody who has ever played a game of “Dungeons and Dragons“. The sound? Who knows. Maybe a dragon is asleep, and you are stepping right into his treasure lair. Or maybe it’s something else…
What happens next depends entirely on your choices, and on those of your fellow players. Maybe the adventurers will try to sneak in as silently as possible, steal the magic ring, and run away. Maybe they will wake up the creature, and try to bargain. Or maybe they will just shout their battle cry, and charge. In short, that’s the essence of what a “role playing game” is.
Intro. What is “Dungeons and Dragons”?
(nerds, you can safely skip this. Although you probably won’t).
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is probably the longest-lived and most successful tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) existing today. Many people are familiar with the term “role play” from different fields like theater, education, psychology. But first of all, a role play is… a game.
How do you play?
Imagine friends around a table. They impersonate specific characters to create a story together. That is a “role playing game”. There can be a plot or a loose script, but the story as such is decided by the players and their interactions. It’s a mix between improv theatre and collective storytelling, with possible touches of collecting cards, miniature play, and luck thrown in the mix.
Most of the times, one of the players takes a special role and becomes the “Game Master” (“Dungeon Master” in D&D). This person has the task to describe the world to the players, animate all the characters that inhabit it, and decide the outcome of pretty much everything that happens. It’s a mix between the roles of referee, narrator, director, and coach.
Allright. Once we covered the basics, let’s get to the six reasons why D&D is one of the coolest
games experiences you can have.
1. It’s fun! All sorts of it.
A modern theory of fun is based on the “4 keys” by Nicole Lazzaro.
An RPG experience activates all 4 keys to fun at the same time. This is the mark of a really good game, and helps to explain why Dungeons and Dragons has been successful for 40+ years.
Easy fun: it’s playful, evokes sense of wonder, and people have generally a good time with it. A good game master will make starting very easy.
Hard fun: it presents players with problems and challenges to overcome, and rewards them with achievements, progression, new opportunities.
Serious fun: it requires concentration and discipline. A wizard has to learn spells (not literally, I mean to know what to cast, when and where). Healers are crucial to their teams, but they need to use their powers strategically. A rogue can really save the day by discovering and disarming a deadly trap, but this takes careful planning and execution. That’s serious business. Very serious.
People fun: finally, a good RPG is a social experience. Players create the story together, and their only goal is to have a good time telling a fulfilling story. They compete, cooperate, and manage the complex relationship with the Dungeon Master – a mix between best buddy, referee of disputes, and Supreme Court when it comes to rules.
Such a rewarding experience is used to create bonds between parents and children, teachers and students, therapists and their clients, and it’s also the objective of charity projects like this one.
It’s a force for good.
2. It’s the perfect storytelling practice. And you can explore infinite worlds, infinite times.
I explored the noir atmospheres of 1940s Los Angeles, trying to solve a murder case; I looked for a vampire in the gas-lighted alleys of London in the 19th century; I fought for my freedom as a gladiator in ancient Rome. The setting of an RPG can be realistic and historically accurate; fantastic; or a bit of both. Your story could be set in the galaxy far, far away of Star Wars, in the dark dungeons under Hogwarts, or in the universe of your favorite series or book.
The early setting was rather Tolkienesque (“The Lord of the Rings“, where hobbits were replaced by halflings and Ents by Treants, for copyrights reasons), with influences by other authors like Robert E. Howard (“Conan the Barbarian“), H. P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock. The result was one huge fantastic world to explore, with tributes to all the genre classics.
Later, as the game and its player base expanded, new campaign settings were released as boxed sets, each an entire universe, bringing a unique twist to the game. The choice was endless, including exciting options like the post apocalyptic Dark Sun; the multiverse hopping of Planescape; the classic horror of Ravenloft; or feudal intrigue with Birthright (adopted by fans of the George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” books as their favorite non-official game setting).
With so many options to explore, you could play an entire Dungeons and Dragons campaign without ever entering a dungeon, or meeting a dragon. Creative masters (such as myself, modestly) could always find a semi plausible way to include aliens, robots and dinosaurs – because of course – in their games. All our favorite subjects from movies and books became part of our games. As long as people had fun, no problem!
Coming from traditional boardgames, when I was introduced to the unlimited freedom of a RPG, I couldn’t believe it. It changed my way to understand “game”, forever.
3. It’s a classic that created a genre and made history.
The first, amateurish version of D&D appeared in 1974, created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, a 36-years old wargames fan who decided to write a rule system (“Chainmail“) to spice up his favorite hobby. Legend has it that the name “Dungeons and Dragons” was chosen by his two-years old daughter Cindy (or by his wife Mary Jo).
1000 copies were sold in the first year. Gygax understood he had hit a jackpot, and raised the stakes. In 1977, his company TSR (Tactical Studies Rules) published Dungeons and Dragons as a boxed set, focusing on storytelling and improvisation; a version for more hardcore gamers was released in 3 books as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (we called it AD&D and no, it’s not an attention disorder).
The two games had separate developments throughout all the 80s. In 1989 AD&D 2nd edition was published, bringing minor rule changes, and a general tone more aware of the huge cultural impact it was having. The game sold 750,000 copies a year back then (a lot), basically opening an entire new market.
In 1997 the game industry superpower Wizard of the Coasts (“Magic: the gathering”) purchased TSR, and in 2000 a unified D&D 3rd edition was published.
At that time, the game was already a global phenomenon, translated into at least 18 languages. Its players base was estimated in 20 million people worldwide – that’s like the population of Romania – who had already spent a total of 1 billion USD on its products.
D&D came first. It created the market, experimented, made some mistakes. Thanks to this game, so many other RPG systems were able to explore genres and niches. So if you enjoy LARP, computer RPGs, or even escape rooms, chances are you owe it to D&D.
4. The stuff you learn is real. And very useful.
All games are a learning experience. But the specific nature of tabletop RPGs makes for some unique opportunities.
As generations of gamers make their way into academia, the business sector and media, an increasing number of articles and research papers appears on the benefits of RPGs in education and personal development. There is a huge amount of material and a couple of TED talks on the topic, so I will not repeat. A couple of examples: a comprehensive analysis of learning through role playing can be found here; and an initiative by a group of teachers who develop resources based on D&D, here.
This is the story of “War Games“, a week-long training for trainers entirely focused on game-based learning. We created avatars based on D&D characters and stats – adapted to our needs, of course.
Here I will focus on what I have personally learned by playing Dungeons and Dragons.
A game of D&D is always a social experience – not always true with videogames – through which everybody can learn team work, the value of communication, cooperation and tolerance towards diversity. You end up meeting every week the same group of people. It creates community around a common purpose.
Making decisions: when I am confronted with a choice in a videogame, I usually save my progress, try out a solution, then re-load if I am not satisfied. In a RPG, instead, your choice is final and has consequences on the world and on other players. This teaches to deal with the consequences of actions and mistakes – very useful in the world out there.
Problem solving: adventures present players with open-ended challenges. Solutions are left to the creativity of the players, who need to manage resources and cooperate for a common result. If I could write “problem solving attitude” on my cv, it wasn’t because I learned it at school.
Empathy. Speaking of which, the strongest feature of role play is to experience being someone else. How would a 120 years old Elf deal with this situation? Would the heir to the throne be afraid of the strangers coming from the north? And the shoe maker’s son? This helped to develop my capacity to look at the world from different perspectives.
Acting and reacting. Finally, every player develops abilities to speak in public, react quickly and improvise. It’s like a very eccentric toastmaster club, where you can expect minotaurs, wizards and fairies to show up. As an adolescent, didn’t know how to deal with my shyness. Thanks to games like D&D, the problem took care of itself. It cannot be a coincidence that so many public figures from show business and entertainment have been (and still are) role players. Role playing helped me immensely to be comfortable with speaking in public and presenting my ideas to a group.
Not to mention, mastery of language, written and oral. And foreign languages, too. I was way ahead of my class in English language, thanks mostly to my passion for RPGs (and videogames). I knew words like “cloning”, “maelstrom” and “beholder” when my classmates were learning basic grammar structures.
The art and craft of “being a DM”. The last bit I want to mention is the Dungeon Master, a special figure who directs the game and creates the world in which others are playing. This can literally mark the difference between a boring session and a memorable experience. Nobody can “win” a role playing game, but the master (sometimes called “narrator”) succeeds when others are having fun.
Gamers were a small community, back in Napoli in the 80s – and I was the first among my friends to discover RPGs. So, most of the times the role of Dungeon Master fell on me “naturally”. Through years of dedication and hard work I learned the delicate balance between authority, trust, negotiation needed to ensure everybody’s fun, while at the same time telling an engaging story. A DM doesn’t have to be a natural leader, but learns how to keep others engaged, motivated and entertained.
These are valuable skills for leadership and life.
(Even Forbes says it).
In conclusion, I can say without the shadow of a doubt that all those hours contributed to a great extent to my personal and professional growth. In short, D&D (and role playing in general) made me the person I am.
5. It’s a cross-media experience which continues today.
The game gained a cult following among the first generation nerds, and as such it was perfectly positioned to become a pioneer of convergence culture.
D&D inspired videogames appeared in the late 80s, like the dungeon-crawlers of the Eye of the Beholder series (1990-1993);
then came the Baldur’s Gate series (1998-99) that made world exploration possible on an entire different scale, also thanks to its spin offs such as the spectacular Planescape: Torment which is still considered by many “the best role playing videogame ever made”;
and thanks to more powerful gaming computers and consoles, it came the switch to first-person perspective of the Neverwinter Nights (2002) series, which opened the doors to online multiplayer play.
These games led to the contemporary masterpieces like “Dragon Age”, “Dark Souls” and “The Witcher”.
Did you know? D&D had a dedicated cartoon series (1983-85, inspired by “He Man and the Masters of the Universe“) which was not so bad, after all. Check it out:
And it has had a few official motion pictures (the first released in 2000) which are, uh, definitely forgettable.
A new attempt is under production right now, the new D&D movie will be directed by Rob Letterman and will be released in 2021. Let’s hope it’s better than the predecessors, also because it can’t be worse.
D&D was also periodically accused of corrupting young generations, inspiring suicide, satanism and/or various criminal acts, but this happens to every medium that cannot be fully understood by observers, from jazz music to stand-up comedy. So, yeah, there is that.
It’s true however that its early versions represented poorly ethnic, cultural and sexual stereotypes. The game has made giant leaps forward, as it moved towards its more modern forms.
6. It’s so hot right now.
In 2014 (40 years after the first book) D&D 5th edition was published. This came after two years of listening to the player base, and incorporating the feedback in the game design process. Hasbro, now owning the brand, really wanted to bring the game as close as possible to its community.
As I understand from friends and articles (I haven’t played the new game… yet) the 5th edition seems to bring back the early feelings of fun, improvisation and exploration; it has a faster pace, less bulky rules and more space for players to be engaged.
All the efforts paid off. An “unprecedented growth” was announced in 2017: 8.6 million players in the US only, and 9 million viewers on Twitch. That’s people watching other people play. That’s right. If it sounds strange, think about football, billiard and chess. What’s the difference?
The game is cooler than ever. Check its Youtube platform (more than 220,000 subscribers) with live streaming of games and events (the “Stream of Many Eyes” is a celebration of the game that brings together celebrities, players, fans and cosplayers),
or channels like Critical Role (a live gaming show with more than 300k subscribers). Their games are followed by millions of people worldwide (3 millions and half for the video below):
In another success story, Critical Role raised more than 900,000 British pounds on kickstarter to produce their miniature game. Their initial goal was 20k.
Against fears that electronic entertainment would take over everything, good old RPG seems to be alive and well, thank you very much.
Why? Because they are very different experiences. Compared to videogames, RPG are more relaxed, inclusive, creative. There is space for both forms to thrive.
Celebrity endorsements also contributed to the modern success. Back in the 80s, RPG was a hobby strictly restricted to nerds. But a lot of former gamers who made it as public figures are contributing to bring the game out of the basements.
D&D is a pop culture icon. It’s featured in tv shows such as The Big Bang Theory (obviously),
but also The Simpsons, The IT Crowd, Stranger Things,
and in movies like Ready Player One (2018) and famously, in the opening scene of E.T. (1982).
Public figures from all areas of show business (names like Robin Williams, Moby, Vin Diesel, Stephen King, Jon Favreau, Elon Musk, Sasha Grey), have said that they play or have played the game. Really, the list is ever expanding and you can check it here.
The popular tv host and comedian Steven Colbert never misses a chance to nerd out in his “Late Show”:
And with so many resources out there, getting started has never been so easy.
So, what do you think? I hope you enjoyed the article.
Whether you are a veteran player and D&D is part of your life story (like of mine); or just a curious reader who would like to understand what’s going on, my advice is the same: play. There is no age limit or requirement (although we liked to make fun of my younger brother, who started when he was 8, below the “legal age” of 10 as it was written on the box. We were horrible).
Parents play it with their children. Teachers with their students. Friends and spouses. It’s rewarding, it’s creative, its’ fun. And as you can see, it creates memories that last for a lifetime.
Maybe you won’t like D&D, but for many it has been a “gateway game” to other, more gratifying experiences.
With my friends we enjoyed exploring other settings and game systems (like Cyberpunk 2020, Vampire: the Masquerade, The Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, Stormbringer, Star Wars, and more) but at some point we always wanted to get back to the roots. There is a unique sense of familiarity and joy that can only come from rolling a “natural 20”. For us, it was like going back home.
Here is a story: we used to play in my parent’s garage for hours and hours, until late and night. The neighbours were obviously annoyed, and decided to complain to our parents. One thing was particularly disturbing, they said: they couldn’t understand why we kept shouting “twentyyyyyy!“.
They couldn’t understand. But now you can. Game on!