Who's Playing Dungeons & Dragons? Everyone!
The game that launched a thousand imaginations
Sometimes a hobby is more than just a hobby.
A fantasy baseball player might become so invested in managing their meticulously-crafted team that they crunch more numbers than a professional statistician. Annual basement draft parties become time-honoured traditions.
Someone’s love of gardening might blossom to the point that their perfectly manicured backyard wins them awards.
Some activities step beyond the realm of hobby and become something far more communal.
I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since I was a teenager, and I’ve been the Dungeon Master (the player who writes the overarching story and acts as a referee for the other players) of the same shared story in the same shared world for over 20 years. Some of the players at my table are the very same friends who sat down to my first game in the spring of 2000.
For us, the game is a cultural hub that informs and highlights other aspects of our lives. Dungeons & Dragons is popular precisely because it’s a shared narrative experience. It allows communities to build a fantasy world all their own and tell a story together.
In fact, the original creator of the game, Gary Gygax, published several D&D novels in the 1980s — including Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, a novel that lays out in book form the trials and triumphs of the authors’ actual D&D group.
Since it hit the shelves in 1974, D&D was a game that flew under the radar, but in the last 10 years, the game has experienced a massive renaissance, inspiring an entire cottage industry of content, from hit shows to incredible audiobooks in Canada and around the world.
For many viewers, the hit HBO series Game of Thrones was their gateway to epic fantasy. This show was their first taste of sorcery, dragons and prophecy.
But for the show’s creators and for George R.R. Martin, the author of the original series that inspired the show, their gateway to fantasy was D&D.
The show’s creators met playing the game and were inspired to adapt the show to TV because of how closely the storytelling in the books mirrored the types of fantasy stories often encountered at gaming tables.
A Game of Thrones, the first title in the audiobook series, gives us fantasy tropes you’d expect to find in any classic D&D adventure. In one of the story’s main protagonists Jon Snow, we have the exiled scion destined to retake his seat of power in Westeros; in Tyrion Lannister, we have a black sheep who refuses to be sidelined, short on stature but long on cunning; in the White Walkers we have the great and terrible force of darkness descending upon humanity.
These story beats played out at gaming tables long before they were published as novels.
Author and activist Ta-Nehisi Coates revealed himself to be a long-time Dungeons & Dragons nerd when he cited D&D as his “first literature.” For Coates, the uphill struggles he endured growing up were mirrored by the hero’s journey in D&D to rise above hardship. In real life, it was a difficult experience. In the game, it was empowering.
What makes a D&D story so appealing is its improvisational and responsive nature. You choose how you want your character to interact with and change the world. You can build a story path, but you need to convince the other players that this journey is worth taking.
For Canadian fantasy writer Evan Winter, writing stories is a lot like D&D — it’s a dance between the writer and the audience. Creating a world for the listener to inhabit only works if you can hook them into taking that crucial first step and committing to the story.
Winter, whose fantasy epic The Rage of Dragons blends Game of Thrones with Gladiator, has talked about D&D and the other pop culture influences that have shaped his work in interviews. For diehard fantasy fans, there are many great stories with dragons to choose from, but Winter’s mashup of dragons and demons, as well as his unique magic system, could have easily stepped out of a tabletop game — making this a title not to be overlooked.
Audible has thousands of fantasy titles to choose from but they all share one major trait — exploration. Whether you’re listening to lighter children’s fare or dark fantasy titles for grown-ups, the genre is a space for setting out on adventures, for pioneering and for pushing pre-existing boundaries. Authors are constantly teasing limits and seeing where they can take the genre.
Using basic fantasy trope ingredients like mythical creatures and magic spells, New York Times bestselling author Sarah J. Maas mixes magic with a heaping dose of suspense and the right mix of sizzling romance in the thrilling House of Earth and Blood. The result is a new kind of fantasy story that zigs when you expect it to zag. It’s a heady brew, and it treats her listeners to a world that feels familiar but introduces exciting new flavours. The eccentric mix of werewolves, fauns, half-Fae and angels who inhabit Maas’s gritty Crescent City would fit right into a tabletop setting.
There are no real rules when it comes to fantasy. It doesn’t have to be historical, and magic lets you get away with just about anything. The possibilities that fantasy opens may be why it’s become such a popular genre for LGBTQ2S stories.
Witchmark is a brilliant fantasy debut from C.L. Polk that combines magic, betrayal, conspiracy and romance in an original world that feels like Edwardian England in the shadow of a fantastical war. In this tale of castle intrigue, noble families use magical gifts to puppeteer the fates of nations, while one young man seeks to break free from tradition and live a life of his own. As the winner of the 2019 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, Witchmark is a must-listen LGBTQ2S fantasy.
The characters in this story are such perfect fantasy creations, you have to wonder if they made their first appearances at a gaming table before they made their way into fiction. If you’re curious, ask the author herself, whose Twitter feed is filled with references to her D&D campaigns.
Of course, Dungeons & Dragons is a hobby that doesn’t only inspire writers — it also inspires players to take their games to new heights.
A-list celebrities like Vin Diesel and Stephen Colbert played the game in their younger years and use their celebrity status to bring attention to a new generation of gamers.
Dan Harmon, creator of Community, created the extremely popular web series, HarmonQuest — where his core group played tabletop games along with weekly guests like Aubrey Plaza and Thomas Middleditch whose gaming experience (or inexperience!) would alter each episode’s structure and outcome.
Ask any gamer, however, and they will tell you that the biggest D&D success story is without a doubt Critical Role. This weekly web series follows a group of voice actors, led by veteran Dungeon Master Matt Mercer, on epic storylines that span hundreds of hours of play time — and attract hundreds of thousands of weekly viewers. As the face of the game for a new generation, this group has created something that might have started as a D&D game, but has become something more. There are even hints that an animated television show is on the horizon — voiced by the players themselves.
The World of Critical Role tells the tale of this gaming group’s meteoric rise, from casual hobbyists to household names. Listeners are treated to the backstory of the game, from its humble beginnings to its reign as the most-watched tabletop gaming livestream of all time.
Most interesting of all are the interviews with the cast — which illustrate the secrets of the game, as well as the massive fan community who contribute to the game and support the world in their own way through crafts, cosplay and art — much of which is featured at their table. This title illustrates how the shared narrative of a tabletop game can blossom into a shared artistic universe.
Dungeons & Dragons has inspired actors, thinkers, writers and creators to take up the pen and write their own stories into reality.
The game has influenced TV, literature, film and the gaming industry, and it’s changed the fantasy landscape. Thanks to a renewed interest in the hobby, it’s easier than ever to see how D&D has influenced the broader culture. Some fantasy titles inspire us to dream big. Some fantasy titles promote self reflection. And some are just plain fun to dive into.