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  • Writer's pictureMason Edwards!

Theater of the Mind: Why Is Dungeons and Dragons Trending?

Updated: Jan 27

The raging inferno that tore through Fate’s community scorched everything—her friends, family and even her memory. She became an empty vessel; barely a person, surviving on the roads as a scavenger and thief, until she found a mercantile group with, somehow, even less morals than her own.

Fate is a smuggling Elf, and an example of one of the characters involved in a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) game. D&D players are like authors who collaborate on a story, except they create and imagine themselves as their character. Fate’s creator, Ryland Jones, often serves as the referee and storyteller—the Dungeon Master. Most of the time, he leads other players in role play: leading the group on adventures through fantasy worlds.

“I love the feeling of really impressing the players with what’s happening in the story,” Jones explained. “Coming up with these, like, a-ha moments that… they’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s so cool.’”

Aspen Sanderson thinks about their next move. Their character interrogates a strange, hybrid creature about its corrupt master. Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Photo by Mason Edwards

A senior in college and President of the UTC Tabletop Gaming Club, Jones faces his own decisive moment: as Dungeons and Dragons’ popularity reaches all-time highs and his graduation date inches closer, how to lead the club as its membership balloons?

According to Google Analytics, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) reached an all-time high in online popularity in March 2023, as Paramount Pictures released a multi-million-dollar movie based of the game. Then, in December, the Game Awards 2023 awarded Baldur’s Gate 3—a game based off D&D mechanics—Game of the Year. All that media attention, Jones said, has translated into an explosion of new interest and players.

Prior to the movie, The New York Times claimed in 2022 that Dungeons and Dragons “has never been more popular, and players seem to be getting more out of it than ever before.” Besides its appearance in popular media, fans play the game “in homes, at large conventions and even in prisons” according to one New York Times Magazine article.

Locally, Jones has noticed a surge in D&D interest. As a freshman in college, he knew a handful of other players. Four years later, space in his games is so limited, he’s having to stick to short, single-day sessions and asking people to pick time slots well in advance.

“It’s really the only thing I can do to deal with that influx,” Jones said.

Unlike other games, D&D’s publishers regularly create new editions of the game, leading to several boom-and-bust periods, largely depending on licensing rules and the current edition of the game.

As a cyclical trend, not every generation has picked up the game, but for families whose parents picked up the first edition—they often carried it with them to family game night. Rue Plummer, a first-year college student, remembers playing 1st edition with their father—who himself learned it back in the 1970s. Now, the game is on its fifth iteration.

“Fifth edition is definitely the easiest to learn for the beginner,” Plummer said. "It’s ideally optimized… it’s got a very simple character sheet.”

At its core, D&D combines elements of adventuring, roleplay and combat, drawing inspiration from fantasy literature like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The game's inventors, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, incorporated rules and probabilities, utilizing dice rolls to determine outcomes.

Fern Nafrada rolls for an insight check. In the game, the success of certain abilities depend on the players' luck. Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Photo by Mason Edwards

According to Jones, internet access is all one needs to get started with D&D. The game, much like any hobby, is as expensive as the player wants it to be. While some players purchase or make elaborate accessories or set pieces, Jones’ games rely on players’ imaginations.

People wanting to play the game have one major barrier: finding others who want to join their party. Besides Jones’ club, locally owned game stores often have spaces for people to play. He knew of Abacus and Game On Chattanooga, but also recommended people search social media.

Plummer added that new players should be prepared for bad luck. As one of many writers in the game’s story, the players share the same victories and setbacks. As the group encounters problems, they rely on their ingenuity or teammates to escape—sometimes taking detours or out-of-the-box decisions.

“What makes it fun is that you can do things incorrectly,” Plummer said. "If you get to a point where you’re not having fun, you’re not playing it right.”

Aspen Sanderson's character casts Guidance: a divine spell meant to help another player's luck. They touched Chris Neal's hand to seal the effect. Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. Photo by Mason Edwards.

Within the roleplay, players can determine how involved they become. Some even create unique voices for the characters, and the Dungeon Master acts as any non-player characters the players interact with, ranging from city guards to magically resurrected bodies.

The ability to become another character, Jones and Plummer agreed, helped a new wave of people adopt the game. The company behind D&D and owned by Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast, experienced a power shift: new rulebook and story writers have prioritized making the game as inclusive as possible.

“D&D has become a great resource for people who are neurodivergent or people or who want to explore their gender identity…” Jones explained. “It provides a safe environment where you can learn how to interact with people without the fear of social repercussions.”

While the players feel free of judgment, the companies behind the game have faced numerous scandals in the past few years. The game’s developers have faced moral panics, licensing policy outrage, accusations of racial stereotyping, and most recently—mass layoffs before the holidays.

Then, while new interest helps a community grow, Plummer felt D&D’s popularity could harm it in the short term. Learning its mechanics takes multiple sessions, and pre-established games with high-level characters typically avoid letting new players instantly join.

Moreover, as Hasbro’s sales slump compared to their main rival, Matel, many fans worry new corporate policies will squeeze as much profit as possible.

“I figure that there's probably a good few more years left in 5th edition,” Plummer said. “There are definitely a lot of changes coming for the official concept of the game.”

Whether the rumored 6th edition proves popular matters little to Plummer. A failed release might divide the D&D community and slow the trend, but the current players won’t abandon past versions of the game—particularly the well-loved 5th edition.

“The fun thing about having an RPG that has a series of additions that are still being sold and played around with is that you don't have to transfer over to the new, you don't have to transfer over to the new rules,” Plummer said. “You can make up your own rules.”

At his most recent club meeting, Jones felt confident in its future. A couple of people were interested in learning how to Dungeon Master, and even though the game filled up, a handful of others were content watching.

If their interest sticks around, Fate could make a return.

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