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50 Years Later, Dungeons & Dragons Is Undeniably Cool

 50 Years Later, Dungeons & Dragons Is Undeniably Cool


As the resident “forever DM” of my social groups for the last 15 years, I’ve never had it so good. 

Over the last couple of years, the world of tabletop gaming has seen an explosion of popularity. There are more options than ever before; everything from comic conventions to craft fairs sell dice and accessories; the United States Postal Service just dropped a collection of D&D-themed stamps; and streaming video services are full of people playing a massive variety of these games. At the core of this ever-expanding world of fun is Dungeons & Dragons, which is on its way to a dramatic and highly anticipated overhaul of its fifth-edition rulebook alongside its 50th anniversary. But the journey leading to that moment has been years in the making, reaching 2024 in ways few could have predicted even five years ago.

It’s a full-time job, keeping up with all of the amazing things the tabletop roleplaying game community is up to on a daily basis. In the last week alone, I’ve been delighted by a stream showing a game where you complete a heist in the style of the popular TV series Leverage, and an escape room-style mystery in Arkham Asylum. Two dramatically different experiences using a massive set of real-world puzzles and augmented reality on your phone. At the core of these experiences are clear indications of a Dungeons & Dragons heritage. The game that spawned a nearly infinite universe of ideas still very much occupies center stage, and while the reasons for this vary depending on who you ask, all of the answers have a central theme.

a group in baldurs gate 3 overlooks a valley from a cliff a group in baldurs gate 3 overlooks a valley from a cliff

If you’ve played the smash-hit video game Baldur’s Gate 3, you may have played D&D without even knowing it.

Larian Studios

If you ask D&D SVP Dan Rawson, the biggest reason this game has continued to grow is a focus on accessibility. “The first I would say is D&D and the fifth edition of D&D, which we’re in, it’s more accessible than ever. I think a lot of barriers have come down to play in the game design. We’re going to strengthen the fifth edition, that’s what the 2024 update is about, and make it even more accessible to folks,” Rawson says. “2023 has been a pretty awesome year. We had a really big movie [Honor Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine], which brought all kinds of fan attention. [Award-winning PC game] Baldur’s Gate 3 is bringing all kinds of attention. I mean, these are both fantastic expressions. Each of these help generate interest in playing D&D.” 

In the last year alone, Wizards of the Coast has published five major physical releases for the game, ranging from a spectacular collection of heists you can drop in to any story to a gripping horror-style adventure to a total reboot of the extremely popular Planescape books. And while new D&D books on a regular schedule isn’t new, the pages within very much are. There’s been a dramatic shift in how these stories are told, giving players and DMs alike resources and language for adjusting games to different age groups, setting boundaries within gameplay, and offering thoroughly documented options for ramping up adventure and risk depending on who you’re playing with.

Read more: Best Books for D&D

It all comes down to more options, and better guides for different skill levels. There are better tools in place for character creation, allowing for more flexibility in the kind of story you want to be a part of. If you want a gritty, dark, classic tear through a network of caves with a big bad at the end to eliminate, you can have it. If you want a more dramatic focus on character development and smart puzzles to solve, it’s never been easier. It’s true that some of this comes from a more diverse pool of people playing and bringing new stories with new perspectives, but the D&D team listening to player feedback and actively improving the platform to support those stories makes a difference. Without really altering the format of the books themselves, new D&D material has genuinely never been easier to set up for every kind of player and story.

Being able to play wherever you are is a huge part of that accessibility as well. The web- and app-based companion service D&D Beyond, which Wizards of the Coast acquired in April of 2022 has been regularly adding features. According to Rawson, D&D Beyond crossed 15 million registered users this year, and continues to grow. But D&D Beyond is far from the only option. 

Apps like Foundry Virtual Tabletop offers a more customizable experience where you can set up games from a ton of different platforms and a video chat interface to play together. You can even jump into a largely text-based D&D game using just your phone and the Dungeon Realms app. When you can play from just about anywhere, when gathering around a physical table isn’t a limitation, playing is so much easier. In the last month alone, I’ve been able to host a game for my daughter and her friends from across the country, to spectacular effect. You can play for hours and have the absolute best time. 

The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2 The Legend of Vox Machina Season 2

The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated series on Amazon Prime Video, is a retelling of a deeply popular Critical Role campaign.

Amazon Studios

It’s impossible to talk about why D&D is so popular in this moment without mentioning the network of stories, podcasts and now Amazon Prime animated series from the folks at Critical Role. Show stars Marisha Ray and Sam Riegel recently shared with me that the team in the last eight years has grown from the opening mantra of every episode “a group of nerdy-ass voice actors sitting around playing Dungeons & Dragons” to a company that employs over 60 people. Critical Role books, miniatures, comics and a ton more have gone from a couple of cute things you can order from their online store to dominating entire walls of physical game stores in that time, with sold-out hours-long broadcast events at major theaters around the world. Seeing these incredibly talented people play through a unique story in a unique world has created a massive amount of opportunities for players of every skill level, but in many ways it goes deeper.

One of the most notable things to come from the cast of Critical Role being so popular is a notable increase in attention toward voice acting as a potential job. The Legend of Vox Machina, which is now a staggeringly popular Amazon Prime animated series that brings the adventures of a Critical Role season to the screen in a whole new way, was originally pitched on Kickstarter as a small animated special until the campaign ended with over $11 million. It’s now a multiseason project with Amazon, with more shows on the way in 2024. 

Ray confirmed that one of the most common questions she gets from fans has rapidly become tips on how to get into voice acting. “As animation and RPGs and more cinematic games like The Last of Us have become more popular, I think all of these and our work have really helped change the perception of voiceover work, for lack of a better term, be more respected in the industry, and seen as a valued and valid career path that you can take,” Ray said. “But acting needs to be your passion first, and that’s what we tell everyone who asks.”

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The Heroes’ Journal is a TTRPG-themed journaling book (or PDF) to help with planning and mental health. 

Heroes’ Journal

There’s an element of parasocial relationship building in watching other people play games like D&D, especially when so many of us were stuck at home during COVID-19 lockdowns. Actual-play shows like DesiQuest, Critical Role, Dimension 20 and so many others also introduce fans to the real people playing these games and the ways their real-life struggles affect both the real world and the characters they play. When you pull from the real world to build a character and act it out, conversations about mental health aren’t just inevitable, they’re actively encouraged.

Riegel’s current character in Critical Role, a sentient machine named Fresh Cut Grass, spends a lot of time playing therapist to their companions. “I think in any friend group, whether they be fantasy heroes, or just a group of people who hang out at a trivia bar, it’s always a great idea to have somebody who is like, ‘Hey, how you doing, wanted to check in,'” Riegel says. “And that sort of therapeutic friend is something that I hope [fans] got out of this campaign and can incorporate into their own lives.” 

Read more: Best D&D Accessories

These healthy conversations aren’t limited to actors around a table on the other side of the screen, there are some great tools available nowadays to help talk about these topics. You can stick to the D&D theme with The Hero’s Journal, a daily writing prompt journal with themed rewards to keep you sharing your thoughts or dive into an active group conversation while playing Stardew Valley with Hero’s Journey. Not to be confused with a one-on-one therapy session, which is sadly too expensive for many in the US, Hero Journey Club creates gaming groups with folks who have common interests and needs that are then guided by trained professionals. 

In a conversation with Hero Journey Club CEO Brian Chhor, he shared the company currently sees a significant retention rate among users, nearly 70% of whom come from marginalized communities. “We set up groups of five people, they meet each week for about an hour and a half with a therapist who is credentialed either with a master’s or doctorate in counseling. And there’s a whole range of topics from addiction and grief all the way over to navigating divergence in your career identity,” says Chhor. “It’s a pretty broad range of routes, because people are so dynamic in what they’re looking for. And as we’ve seen many kinds of people look for support online, what we’ve heard is mental health care is so intimidating and so scary to get [that] it’s often avoided.” 

Chef Mike Haracz and Sujata Day on Heroes' Feast Chef Mike Haracz and Sujata Day on Heroes' Feast

Chef Mike Haracz and Sujata Day on the Freevee series Heroes’ Feast, a cooking show themed to Dungeons & Dragons.

Amazon Freevee

What has made Dungeons & Dragons so popular? If you ask Sujata Day and chef Mike Haracz of the new D&D-themed cooking series Heroes’ Feast, it all started with Stranger Things being so wildly popular that it helped boost all of these other things into popularity. And while it wasn’t the record-shattering blockbuster many thought it would be, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is deeply loved by those who watched it. 

But when I asked lifelong D&D fan and hardcore nerd celebrity Matthew Lillard what he thought, it’s very clearly not one thing. “I think it’s been a very exciting year. You have to start with the launch of the movie and what D&D was able to accomplish worldwide. We saw with the launch of our company Beadle and Grimm’s five years ago, there’s a real appetite for people to gather around a table,” Lillard said. “At our core, people are inclined to gather and tell stories. That’s who we are as people, it’s as old as time itself. So when we decided to focus on adding value for every player at the table, it would enrich the overall experience. We’ve seen the overall popularity of tabletop gaming grow in that five years, but with the launch of the movie at Comic Con last year there was this coalescence, which has been really exciting.”

Ultimately, all of these things come together to answer the big question. People who have never played D&D before watch or listen to one of the many games out there today; apps and greatly improved storytelling from the D&D team make it easier than ever to play from anywhere if you can’t physically gather around a table; and showing off your love for the game in the real world lets others know they aren’t alone, on multiple levels. And the pace of these things aren’t slowing down. With Wizards of the Coast preparing to add even more to D&D next year with a big update to Fifth Edition, and the end to Stranger Things on the horizon, it’s clear the rise of tabletop gaming is far from its peak.



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