We didn’t mean to unleash the greatest evil the world has ever known,” says Chris Pine’s voiceover. “But we’re gonna fix it.” In the forthcoming movie Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, Pine plays Edgin, a lutenist bard who, according to the blurb, leads a band of medieval misfits with special powers who undertake an epic heist to retrieve a lost relic, but things go dangerously awry. Their enemy is played by Hugh Grant, hopefully channelling his villain from Paddington 2.
The release of the Dungeons & Dragons movie, next March, will be the culmination of a story more improbable than anything spawned by a Hollywood hack. As Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) approaches its half-century, the game, first played in a Wisconsin basement by a handful of geeks, is the most successful and popular role-playing game in the world, with a fanbase extending to the likes of Stephen King, Drew Barrymore, Dwayne Johnson, Elon Musk and, yes, Michael Gove.
It’s a tale that begins in 1970 in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when a Jehovah’s Witness and high-school dropout named Gary Gygax lost his job as an insurance underwriter. Taking solace in playing war games with friends in family basements, Gygax made tabletop recreations of famous battlefields, using protractors and rulers, with toys representing battalions of infantry, cavalry and artillery emplacements.
Those basement battles evolved into something more medieval, namely D&D. The idea is simple. Each player chooses to be a character in a quest. There is also a dungeon master, who creates obstacles, challenges and monsters during players’ journeys. There are dice to introduce an element of chance, some with as many as 20 sides.
In early games, Gygax was dungeon master. In one interview, he recalled how he issued instructions to players: “There is a ruined castle that you have heard is filled with strange monsters and treasures … Your object is to slay the monsters and take their treasures and become more powerful. Go! Why are you standing in this dead-end corridor trying to look for a secret door? The orcs have you cornered! Now you must fight them!”
From the start, D&D drew heavily on Tolkien’s Middle-earth with its quests, orcs, hairy-footed hobbits and charming elves with pointy ears peeping through silvery locks. This appropriation prompted the Tolkien estate to sue over intellectual property rights, seeking the removal of words such as “dragon”, “elf”, “hobbit” and “orc” from D&D materials. In the resulting settlement, some terms were changed – “hobbit” became “halfling”, for example – though others, such as orc and dragon, were deemed not to be copyright infringements.
With the commercial release of D&D in 1974, charmingly entitled “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” (essentially a cardboard box containing three stapled pamphlets and some reference sheets, retailing at a then eye-watering $10), Gygax and co-creator Dave Arneson opened a portal for an industry now worth tens of billions of dollars in video games, books, films, TV shows, YouTube channels, right down to little figurines that you can paint at home. As if that weren’t enough, to commemorate the game’s 50th anniversary, the Griffin and Gargoyle, an immersive theme park in Lake Geneva, will open to visitors in March 2024.
Thanks to the pandemic, D&D sales jumped 33% in 2020, the sixth consecutive year of growth according to a report by owners Hasbro. One reason for that increase is that players taught friends and family how to play during Covid confinement, creating a new cohort. The pandemic also brought about changes in the way the game is played. Unable to meet face to face, players turned to Zoom, Teams and Skype. There was also a rise in the number of people streaming D&D sessions on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube. D&D, like online chess, became a spectator sport.
Then, this summer, Dungeons & Dragons got another sales bump from the supernatural 1980s-set TV series Stranger Things. The show’s teenage heroes – Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas – have for years enjoyed playing D&D. The names of Stranger Things’ monsters – Demogorgon, Mind Flayer and Vecna – are borrowed from D&D, and so is its long-form structure in which sweet, like-minded geeks collaborate in a faintly daft fantasy quest.
Indeed, one profound impact of D&D is how it has influenced storytelling in lucrative fantasy franchises. Stranger Things’ creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, happily admit that playing D&D was one of their biggest creative influences. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss were also D&D players, while Thrones creator George RR Martin was a games master for a role-playing superhero game called Superworld.
Google searches for “how to play Dungeons and Dragons” shot up by 600% after Netflix dropped the first six episodes of Stranger Things season four in May, while searches for “Dungeons and Dragons starter sets” rose by 250%. But in this fourth series, the grownups in Hawkins, Indiana worry that the boys’ pastime is not quite as innocent as it seems. It is a case of art imitating life.
Only four years after its release, Dungeons & Dragons was almost terminated by self-styled guardians of public morality. In 1979, 16-year-old prodigy and D&D player James Dallas Egbert III went missing from his college dormitory at Michigan State University. A private detective tasked with finding the boy argued that people could be sucked into a role-playing game to the point where they were unable to distinguish fact from fantasy. More likely, Egbert had disappeared because of academic pressures and his parents’ refusal to accept that he was gay. Within a year of being found, he killed himself.
Three years later, Tom Hanks starred in Mazes and Monsters, a movie based on the Egbert case, as a college student whose fantasy role-playing causes a psychotic breakdown. This was the start of the “satanic panic”, a mass hysteria over supposed satanic ritual abuse that pointed the finger at Dungeons & Dragons and other supposedly demonic forms of popular culture, such as heavy metal music.
In 1985, CBS devoted an episode of 60 Minutes, its investigative news show, to the controversy. On the programme, Dr Thomas Radecki, president of the National Coalition on Television Violence, linked D&D to 28 cases of murder or suicide. Patricia Pulling, whose 17-year-old son Irving had killed himself three years earlier, believed his death was linked to his fondness for D&D. She formed a campaign group, Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, and unsuccessfully sued the game’s makers.
“This is make-believe,” countered Gygax. “No one is martyred, there is no violence there … There is no link, except perhaps in the mind of those people who are looking desperately for any other cause than their own failures as a parent.” Gygax was an odd target of this legal action, since, although he had by now dissociated himself from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he had long striven to keep the devil out of his game. The problem was, he couldn’t control the rules by which others played D&D.
In the same year Mazes and Monsters was released, Steven Spielberg put D&D into the mainstream with his considerably bigger hit ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. At the start of the film, our hero Elliott is trying to join his older brother Michael and his friends, who are engaged in a role-playing game around the kitchen table, acting out an adventure with the help of a “game master”. But the game they are playing is only a simulacrum of D&D because Spielberg could not secure permission to use trademarked elements. Had he been able to do so, the ending of the film would have been very different – and might have done much to spike the guns of those who took D&D to be the work of the devil. “The last scene was going to be all of us playing Dungeons & Dragons again,” recalled Robert MacNaughton, who played Michael, “except this time, Elliott’s the dungeon master. Because he was the one that found ET, he sort of got in with the group.”
Why is D&D so enduringly and increasingly popular? Back in 1984, Ben Elton accounted for its success during a TV report: “Have you felt unexciting, bored with yourself? Of course you have. But you can change, become someone else, get into role playing.” Much postmodern culture was like this in opening the portals to self-transcendence: take the way David Bowie and Madonna adopted different personae, or video games such as The Sims and Grand Theft Auto, which are predicated on players leaving their real-life identities behind. D&D has the same appeal.
“It takes me into that world where people didn’t know if there were dragons and they believed in monsters and they thought that there were elves in the forest,” says Canadian history professor Robert Wardhaugh. “And so it takes you into an age where you can get away from the scepticism that we have today into that world where all these things do seem possible.”
Wardhaugh is dungeon master of the world’s longest-running D&D game. It started in his Ontario basement in 1982, when he was a teenager, with four players; now it has expanded to a changing membership of up to 60 players, including his teenage daughter and others who tune in for weekly 10-hour sessions over Zoom. The game has taken over his house: there are 20,000 miniatures and acres of carefully crafted fantasy locales. “I wanted to create a world where I was able to use the history of our world. My world is an alternate Earth, so you can be Roman, you can be Greek, you can be Sumerian, you can be Babylonian, you can be First Nations,” explains Wardhaugh.
From the very beginning he saw D&D as pedagogically valuable: “It taught kids vocabulary, it taught people history, it taught you sociology, it taught you philosophy. There was so much educational potential in sitting around, playing this game, but people at the time [ie during the satanic panic] weren’t really willing to accept it,” says Wardhaugh. Now things are different: “With shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Lord of the Rings, there’s certainly been a change in popular culture and its acceptance of fantasy themes.”
D&D has long been satirised as the preserve of boy nerds who can’t get girlfriends, but according to last year’s report by the game’s publisher, of an estimated 50 million players, 40% identified as female. What’s more, according to a Guardian report, there has been a rise in the number of queer and neurodiverse players.
“It has always been a safe haven for folks who might not feel at home elsewhere,” says the game’s principal rules designer, Jeremy Crawford. “D&D is about a group of people with wildly different pasts coming together to create an intentional family and overcome adversity. A group of players who are stronger because of their differences from each other. You don’t want four fighters; you want a fighter, a cleric, a rogue and a wizard. In other words, you want a group that is powerful because of its diversity.”
With the biggest shows on TV now being fantasies, and films based on comic-book superheroes having dominated the box office for the past decade, it is safe to say that the culture that spawned D&D has moved firmly into the mainstream. The geeks have inherited the earth.
My 17-year-old daughter enjoys playing D&D with her friends. For her, the appeal is the way the game lets you escape from the real world into an idealised place of pure creativity and collaboration, regardless of slaying dragons or beating other players – winning is irrelevant to her pleasure in playing. “When role-playing, you intuit the desires and actions of someone who lives in the back of your head – often an exaggeration of secret qualities,” she says. “Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have to cost millions, or do anything that Hollywood might want it to. It doesn’t even need a protagonist.”
Whether such a utopian vision figures into the forthcoming movie remains to be seen. Hopefully it will avoid the critical and box-office disaster of the 2000 Dungeons & Dragons film (which starred Jeremy Irons). But there’s a risk that Chris Pine and his team of thieves have stolen the spirit of the game and reduced it to the usual blah: a bunch of buff narcissists with breastplates, comedy lutes and special powers going toe-to-toe with CGI dragons and human baddies in ways we’ve seen a hundred times on screen before. If so, that would be a shame. Dungeons & Dragons has become such a significant and cherished part of our culture, it deserves better than that.