You don’t feel guilty for trying to stop the empire of samsarans from making the world a better place. After all, they want to destroy it first. You and your party are nearly there, but the samsarans are aware of your intervention and are doing everything in their power to stop you.
Even attacking your mind.
“Make a wisdom save,” the dungeon master (DM) tells you.
You roll your 20-sided die, otherwise known as a d20, and feel uneasy with the number that appears.
“Five,” you say.
“You are afraid,” the DM responds.
In this world, that means you’re not just scared, you’re more vulnerable against the enemy. You hope the other members of your party are better off.
Ahead of you, you sense that something may be lurking in the darkness, waiting to attack. With a successful roll, the DM informs you that you have ripped through whatever was hiding with the acid in your sword.
“It looks pretty bad right now,” he says. “You think you’ve done a deal of damage.”
Once the party has secured the area, you all feel that you can take a breath, but it’s not over yet. At the hands of the samsarans, you’ve still got a planet hurling towards your own.
“How do you proceed, adventurers?”
Experiencing these perilous situations is common in one of the most iconic fantasy role-playing games there is: Dungeons & Dragons.
Known for its expansive form of role-playing with stories ranging from the Tyranny of Dragons to the Curse of Strahd to home-brewed original worlds, D&D has a long history of transporting its players to fantastical new places with only the rolling of dice. It first saw publication in 1974 and is currently on its fifth edition with correlating guidebooks, novels, board games and video games.
The basis of the game is surprisingly simple. With seven varied-sided dice and an imagination, or what is called “theater of the mind,” a full game can technically be played. The complexity arises with the specifics of the gameplay, and these specifics require a dungeon master. The DM leads the entire game by telling the story and determining any consequences, acting as a sort of referee. Just about anything imaginable can happen at the hand of anyone playing.
2There are of course rules and guidelines in place, but they are all at the discretion of the DM and fully customizable. A full play-through, called a campaign, is completed in sessions. Sessions can be as long as the players and DM would like while campaigns last as long as the storyline, which can be one session or years of many sessions.
Some players enjoy merging D&D with other beloved franchises. There are “Rick and Morty” themed games, “Stars Wars” and “Harry Potter.” The University of Kentucky’s TableTop and Roleplaying Games Club (TTRP), which inspired the situation above, just finished a year-long campaign inspired by the “Fire Emblem” video games.
Former vice president of TTRP and UK broadcast journalism 2020 graduate Alex Brinkhorst attributed D&D’s timelessness to its ability to present players with real-world problems that they overcome as a hero.
D&D is able to achieve this combination of reality and fantasy through its evolving yet consistent foundation; much of its strength lies in the way that the game is organized. UK Information Technology Services employee Michael Sheron finds that D&D is versatile at its heart. It is simple and easy to play as well as adjust, with every game and DM bringing something different, he said.
Having started playing D&D in 1984, Sheron watched the game evolve from misunderstood “devil worship” to a worldwide, beloved adventure that becomes more diverse and complex with each generation that plays, allowing them to live out any life they can imagine.
Characters tend to be incredibly detailed and mean a lot to the players who create them. Most players talk about their characters as individuals that actually exist. Some also use their characters to express deeper parts of themselves.
Another member of TTRP’s Silver Banner campaign and current UK junior linguistics major, Percy Devereaux, created his emotionally guarded character, a changeling assassin named Cain, with parallels to feelings he has experienced.
“It’s a very direct analogy for identity issues and social anxiety about being too ‘weird’ for anybody to love,” Devereaux said. “It’s definitely not that personal for everybody, but I get really invested in fiction.”
The character customization and storytelling core of D&D have also been instrumental to its 47-year survival. As Sheron puts it, the earliest form of art was storytelling, and now, the art has evolved and more stories for people to want to live have existed. D&D is a perfect format to immerse players into a story where they get to be the hero and lead a life of adventure. Sit in on any D&D session with accents and narration and it will feel like listening to an audiobook.
With its “underground” beginning, though, it took the game a while to see much diversity in its players. For the first 10 years he played, Sheron’s parties were entirely made up of white men and were much more difficult to find. Now, however, as generations pass on the game and it becomes more easily accessible, D&D has found its way into the lives of people from all backgrounds.
As a woman who plays D&D, Christina Floyd, a senior graphic design major at Western Kentucky University, said she has never felt excluded or that her point of view was not important. She has been able to explore her way of role-playing and learn that sword sage is her favorite class to play as. While recognizing that not all women may have this experience with the game, with some facing stereotypical tropes or awkward situations from some DMs, she feels that the D&D community as a whole is open and welcoming.
“It’s not a community that would reject someone,” she said, referring to it as a “nerd sanctuary.”
But despite the D&D community’s reputation, the stereotypical caricature of nerds in a basement is not accurate, Brinkhorst said. All kinds of people play the game, from college students to families to the professionals that Sheron plays with.
This is partly in thanks to Hollywood’s depictions of the game and the idea it brought along that being a nerd is cool. Shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “Community” and “Stranger Things” all have episodes that feature D&D, contributing to its rise in popularity.
“Nerd culture moved to the forefront,” Sheron said.
Celebrities such as actor Joe Manganiello, actress Drew Barrymore and “Game of Thrones” creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff play the game, as well as “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon, who even has his own show where he plays D&D with guests called “HarmonQuest.”
D&D-focused YouTube channels and podcasts including Critical Role and Dimension 20 have also lent a strong hand in the game’s surge, and the seasoned players love it.
“It’s a magical thing to see the rest of the world find this way to spend time with friends,” Floyd said.
And spending time with friends is another reason players keep coming back to the game. For Brinkhorst, D&D is a way to cultivate good friendships.
Floyd’s goal when she plays is to have “a happy group that has a great time together.” The game is at its best when everyone comes to the table excited, she said.
While coming to the table hasn’t been much of an option with COVID-19, Roll20 and other similar sites like Foundry have launched a sort of renaissance for D&D, not only allowing games to continue throughout the pandemic but allowing campaigns to include players from all over the world. Sheron currently DMs a campaign with players from Europe and multiple states in the U.S.
While playing in person tends to be better with one-on-one personal contact, playing online is convenient and has been a great source of social interaction during the pandemic, Brinkhorst said.
Perhaps the best aspect of D&D, though, is its flexibility. It can be as serious or as funny as you want it to be, and as deep and philosophical; it’s all about getting together and playing, Sheron said. With that and the essence of role-playing games, you’re able to develop empathy by adopting other roles and seeing and thinking outside of yourself, he added.
Brinkhorst has a similar idea, believing that D&D has more than just its roots.
“At its core it’s playing pretend, but there is a life to what you do,” Brinkhorst said.
Despite the seeming complexity of D&D and the vast gameplay that surrounds it, it really is a game for anyone. Find any dungeon master, ask to play, and they will undoubtedly say, “you can certainly try.”