Dungeons & Dragons between Community and Commercialization

by Jula Maasböl

Within the last decade, Dungeons & Dragons has turned from a relatively niche hobby that few people were aware of to a vastly popular game with renewed cult status. Helped along by the publication of a more accessible rule system with Dungeons & Dragons’ 5th Edition in 2014, its appearance in Netflix’s beloved Stranger Things series (2016) and the trend of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) groups broadcasting their games on streaming platforms, the pen-and-paper role-playing game has made a roaring comeback. The growth of the community and the pool of game materials has not ebbed in years: In 2018, Hasbro Chairman Brian Goldner told CNBC that “people are more into Dungeons & Dragons than ever before,” crediting the game’s immersive and face-to-face experience for its success. In 2020, the property had its seventh consecutive year of growth. The pandemic seems to have inspired more people to pick up the hobby rather than discourage newcomers, and the community was quick to adopt solutions for online play via video, voice, or text chat, many of which predated COVID.

At its new height of popularity, D&D represents a growing interest in community and connection. In essence, the game consists of a group of players who have created characters using the rules laid out by the system of the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) to navigate a world described by another player, the dungeon master (DM). Players verbally narrate their characters’ actions and responses to the situations laid out by the DM, who in turn decides what happens as a result. The success or failure of the characters’ choices, especially in combat, are often determined by rolls of the dice and statistics specific to the player characters (PCs) and the situation they find themselves in. This leads to the players shaping a dynamic, of-the-moment story together. This spontaneous co-creation of a game world and narrative requires close collaboration and a delicate social balance. Communication and compromise are essential: does a flirty character cross boundaries in ways that make other players uncomfortable? Will the rest of the table wait patiently while one player goes on a shopping spree? What happens when a fight goes wrong and a character dies because another player prioritized their own character’s emotional story arc over healing? Players must work together – the very existence of the game world depends upon the shared theatre of the mind of their narrative. Thus, D&D by its very nature fosters a culture of participation, exchange of ideas, and a community in constant dialogue. Perhaps as a natural result of the game’s collaborative nature, its players and those of similar games form tight-knit and active online communities that remain in dialogue with one another. This predisposes the game as a cultural battleground over participation, representation, and the question of what this community ought to look like in the future.

One driver – and marker – of the renewed interest in D&D has been a new way of experiencing the game: livestreamed or pre-recorded broadcasts of game sessions. At the forefront of D&D’s recent success has been one group of role-players in particular: Critical Role, a group of LA-based voice actors who first began streaming their home game in 2015 to a quickly growing and highly engaged fanbase. Other groups sharing their games with the internet, such as Dimension 20, Acquisitions Incorporated, and High Rollers, have also garnered large audiences. Critical Role has now followed two story arcs and groups of characters to their conclusions and is currently on its third campaign – to millions of viewers of their Twitch and YouTube streams and listeners of the podcast format of the show. In 2019, the group’s Kickstarter campaign for a short animated prequel for their first campaign gained a record-breaking 1,000,000 USD in support within just the first hour, with a final total of over 11 million USD pledged – the largest Kickstarter project for film and video to date. The Legend of Vox Machina was picked up by Amazon Studios within a month and has recently been renewed for a third season.

Throughout their meteoric rise in popularity, the team of Critical Role has been embroiled in a complicated mixture of expectations: their community (self-appointed “critters”) expects and prides itself on participation and dialogue, and many see CR as a safe space and think of the actors as their friends – they are deeply invested in their parasocial relationship with the cast[i], as fans of social media personalities and celebrities tend to be. The intensity of this investment is understandable when one considers the sheer amount of time spent engaging with the show – most episodes are four hours long – and the seemingly personal nature of its content: despite its high level of professionalism, CR has retained the jovial, personal feel of a D&D game between friends.

Promotional image for the animated series The Legend of Vox Machina

Because of their close involvement with the community, disappointment, vocal criticism, and vitriol arise when the group makes unpopular decisions. Even seemingly innocuous choices such as taking one week a month off calls down the wrath of a part of the fanbase. But the company has also faced more serious concerns and accusations. Past concerns over orientalism and appropriation within the fantasy setting of the game have caused the group to hire sensitivity advisors and Matthew Mercer to co-author the setting of the show’s current run alongside a number of cultural and sensitivity consultants. Nonetheless, the all-white cast and the story’s treatment of the setting have incurred sharp criticism. The company appear to be aware and attempting to address these issues: a jungle-exploration themed introductory sequence which featured the cast in period costumes as tropical explorers á la Indiana Jones compounded associations of orientalism and colonialism and has since been replaced by a new intro.

The format of live broadcasting with a rolling chat on Twitch, even though the CR episodes are now pre-recorded and the actors can no longer see the chat or respond to it in real time, pools the community’s real time reactions and augments this perception of fan participation. Because these are real people making real decisions in real time, even those watching it long after it aired or remembering their feelings from five years ago still feel strongly about it – unlike a TV show that might be rerun or streamed years later, this narrative is spontaneous and personal, and the decisions made in game can be questioned in a different way – they reflect enough about the people to make audiences feel they know them personally, they are imperfect and fallible enough to make viewers feel as if they would have done better or the players should have done better – and the option of reacting to the show in Twitch’s live chat creates a puppet show effect: like children screaming that the big bad wolf is right over there, live viewers can express their feelings on the game’s events as it is happening. What distinguishes CR’s relationship with their fanbase from that of other fantasy IPs, many of which are likewise known to have active fanbases with toxic, entitled factions, is that in a game of D&D, there is no fixed text to refer to – and the rules give the DM the last say in all decisions and expressly allow for, even invite, customization. Unlike fans of large fantasy franchises that have no actual experience or authority in the realm of writing or TV production, most CR fans also do have experience with shaping a game of D&D. Even years after something happens within CR’s game, it may still be debated online with exceptional intensity. The decision of one player to have her character jump off a cliff, believing she would be unharmed, and subsequently turning into a goldfish mid-fall only to have her character die upon impact, for instance, is still relevant enough to the community to spark a Reddit discussion thread five years later – and garner 180 responses within days.

Even TTRPG fans and creators outside of Critical Role’s fanbase have been forced to respond to the show’s impact due to the close interconnectedness within the larger community: Many have discussed the newly coined “Matt-Mercer-effect”: the idea that players now expect their own DMs to lead their home games precisely to the level of CR’s professional DM. Mercer himself has responded a number of times, stressing that “every table is different, and should be! If [your players] just want to copy what we do, that’s not very creative nor what makes the game magic at the table.” [ii]

Putting one‘s own spin on the game and sharing original ideas with other players has had a long tradition in the world of D&D ever since the original sourcebooks were published in 1974. After all, D&D requires a sensitive balance not only between players at the table and characters’ goals and choices, but also between the different elements of the game – should one prioritize roleplaying over combat? Strictly adhere to the rules as they are written or ignore them when common sense or fun suggest one should? How impactful are dice rolls, should character statistics and the game’s mechanics outweigh meaningful player choices? From the beginning, players have debated amongst themselves what could be improved upon within the rules and worlds of their game. Today, this exchange of ideas mostly happens online. D&D’s culture of participation and community is currently on display in the development of the newest edition of the game’s core rules. Called “One D&D” by Wizards of the Coast (WoC), who have held the publishing rights to D&D since 1997, the new edition is not simply being published in a finished state but through a laborious process of playtesting. Different changes and new additions to the game’s rules are being released and tested one by one, each new iteration building on community feedback to the last one. And community feedback is ample: According to Jeremy Crawford, WoC’s Game Design Architect, just within the first few weeks of the first round of playtesting, the company received over 40,000 filled out feedback sheets from players. Even changes to the rules that may seem minute to non-players make a difference in the experience of playing the game, and rumored changes to details that are of particular importance to players have become the subject of extensive debate even before the playtest materials were released to the public.

It is clear from WoC’s handling of the new game system’s introduction that they are not only painfully aware of their player base’s expectations of involvement but also the volatility of their goodwill. A misstep could do more than anger – it may alienate parts of the community enough to turn their backs on D&D in favor of other RPG systems or “homebrewed” solutions.

D&D dice

The participatory expectations and frictions within D&D’s diverse audience and the community-building capacity of the game result in constant re-evaluation not only of its mechanics and moving parts, but also the core values it ought to represent. Already during its first peak in popularity, in the 1980s, Dungeons & Dragonscame under fire when fears and misunderstandings, as well as two misinterpreted cases of suicide, led to a moral panic about the alleged devil-worship and violence promoted by the game (Byers et al. 2016: 22-23)[iii]. Interestingly, the concerns around the game in the moral panic of the 80s were focused on what the game would do to societal order – and they were voiced by those who had little to no knowledge of its contents. Today, during its second peak of success, awareness of what the game actually entails has grown – and so has the diversity of D&D’s player base. Recent criticism has been coming from within the community and directed at the actual content of the game’s materials. D&D’s reliance on old fantasy tropes such as monstrous or evil races (orcs, goblins etc.) that historically contain orientalist, racist, and antisemitic tropes and are accused of perpetuating racial bio-essentialism within the structure of the game has been the subject of online debate for some time.

Most recently, Wizards of the Coast issued an apology for including the Hadozee – an ape-like people from older D&D sourcebooks whose description included a history of enslavement and some language reminiscent of racialized depictions – in published material. In their apology, the developing team states: “Throughout the 50-year history of Dungeons & Dragons, some of the characters in the game have been monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world groups have been and continue to be denigrated. We understand the urgency of changing how we work to better ensure a more inclusive game.” (statement on the D&D Studio blog, 9/2/2022)

Despite these assurances and efforts on the part of its publisher, there are those who stubbornly defend the long gone status quo of a once stereotypically white, male hobby – and others for whom the changes made by WoC remain too incremental. Some have even created and shared their own alternative rules for those who prioritize a game they feel politically aligned with over sticking to the original rules of the tabletop RPG. Nonetheless, the consistency with which both Wizards of the Coast and Critical Role implement changes, albeit not fundamental enough for some, in response to community criticism, and remain in close contact with their fan bases, shows that even the biggest players in the D&D community are beholden to the game’s culture of collaboration, if only to maintain their audiences.

In spite of, and maybe even because of, the necessary debates over Dungeons & Dragons’ contents, its past, and the right path forward for the game, its growth does not appear to be coming to a halt anytime soon. In a time of increasing isolation and erosion of trust networks, we are seeing the revival of a hobby that brings a diverse group of people together both online and in person under the wholesome cause of collaboratively going on imaginary adventures.  Larger societal debates and trends are mirrored and even heightened within the microcosm of this vibrant community and its discourse and culture.


Footnotes

[i] A term first coined by Horton and Wohl in 1956 to describe the interactions of viewers with media figures from “radio, television, and the movies” and specifically the “illusion of face-to-face relationship with the performer” (Horton and Wohl 1956: 215).

[ii] Mercer in a 2019 Reddit response.

[iii] These allegations were most recently referenced in Stranger Things. The Netflix show served as many viewers’ first introduction to D&D. The series’ chapter structure, aesthetics, and title font reference the traditional design of the D&D sourcebooks, and the games portrayed at the outset of seasons one and four serve as characterization, narrative hook, and introduction of the respective monstrous antagonist all in one. In an additional twist, the show’s fourth season sees the High School Dungeons & Dragons group, “The Hellfire Club”, become the target of a moral panic about the game and its players. In the words of Jason, the basketball team captain spearheading this witch hunt: „I’ve heard the wrong person plays this game and it can warp their mind. They confuse fantasy and reality, and innocent people die. It’s been happening all over the country, it’s an epidemic.” In actuality, of course, it is the club’s members who defend Hawkins from the real evil threatening it. As Wetmore observed about the first season, D&D itself becomes a force for good in the world of the Stranger Things series, “a useful game and a way of seeing and interpreting” (Wetmore 2018: 62). This thrust of the show becomes all the more clear in its most recent season. Not only has D&D given the characters a framework and a toolset to cope with the dangers they find themselves facing, it brings them together in their heroic stand for geekiness and community. “The Hellfire Club” and D&D’s symbolic importance within the show appear to have resonated with the audience as well: Eddie Munson, the club’s Dungeon Master, proved to be the season’s most beloved new character – his signature look and iconic “Hellfire Club” t-shirt immediately referenced across internet platforms and sold by various brands. Among a number of popular TikTok sounds using soundbites from the show were not one but two of Joseph Quinn’s performance as Eddie: his riff of Metallica’s Master of Puppets, which Metallica themselves responded to, and an autotuned snippet from a scene where a frantic Eddie is trying to wake up Vecna’s first victim (“Chrissy Wake Up”). Despite the internet’s short attention span, Eddie’s popularity has persisted long enough for him to be a popular choice of Halloween costume, too: Eugene Lee Yang (of recent Try Guys infamy) opted for an Eddie/Vecna costume, and multiple entertainment news outlets anticipated enough interest to publish how-to guides for the simple costume (among others Popsugar, Hollywood Life, and Netflix Life, which prophesied that “you can bet your top dollar that everyone (and their mama) will be dressing as Eddie Munson for Halloween”).


About the Author

Jula Maasböl is a doctoral researcher within the research tandem Culture Wars: Contested Cultural Heritage of the University of Heidelberg’s Flagship Initiative Transforming Cultural Heritage. Her project focuses on the way that N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy and her short fiction depict processes of heritage-making and the contention of cultural heritage.

Jula studied English and German Literature and History of Art at the University of Heidelberg and Durham University. Her academic interests include speculative fiction, games, and texts that occupy the edge of what we think of as literature. She also picks up a new personal interest every few weeks – currently, it’s the history and techniques of weaving.  

Get in touch (about D&D, weaving, or anything else) via email: jula.maasboel@as.uni-heidelberg.de


Sources

Arneson. Dave, and Gary Gygax 1974. Dungeons & Dragons: 3-Volume Set. Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames, Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. TSR, Inc.

Byers, Andrew. 2016. “The Satanic Panic and Dungeons & Dragons: A Twenty-Five Year Retrospective.” In Role-Playing Society: Essays on the Cultural Influence of RPGs, edited by Andrew Byers and Francesco Crocco, 22–45. McFarland.

Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. 1956. “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” Psychiatry 19 (3): 215–29.   

Wetmore, Kevin J. 2018. “Monsters and Moral Panics: Dungeons & Dragons as Force of Good in Stranger Things.” In Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series, edited by Kevin J. Wetmore, 60–70. McFarland.


Images

Promotional image for the animated series The Legend of Vox Machina: free downloadable image from Critical Role website

D&D dice/ Header: by Timothy Dykes, SONY, ILCE-7, via Unsplash


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