Dungeons & Dragons and Us: The Rise of Geek Culture

Adam Gravano


With the last few Star Wars installments being some of the most anticipated releases of the past few years, and The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda selling Disney Plus, one may think something major is underway.


And this isn't only happening for one franchise, too. The Avengers franchise has continued to sell well, and Joker took home a score of nominations for various awards. An observer with a slightly broader frame of reference might consider that a change has happened. Revenge of the Nerds is no longer just the title of a delightful college movie; now it is a description of a cultural environment. Subculture has crossed the rubicon to become culture.


This process isn't just confined to movies, though. Interestingly, it has extended to that apex of nerdy pastimes, the tabletop roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. Many are familiar with the game, either from garish mischaracterizations in the press or from the pulpit or from their own personal practice. Lately, though, the game isn't being characterized as a means of communing with demons or the driving factor of suicides; it's getting top billing as a pastime of characters in Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory.


The surge in popularity can possibly be traced to a moral panic taking its natural course coupled to a surge in other forms of geek culture, but why should this game take a surge when, say, other forms of geek culture, like online gaming, are also available? There are other board games and card games, and they're quite fun.



But Axis & Allies and Settlers of Catan are fun if you're participating in the board games, and Magic: the Gathering, for example, is both an acquired taste and only fun if you're playing. Other, more popular card games, like Cards Against Humanity or its more literary equivalent, Dick, which is of similar rules but uses cards bearing quotes from Melville's Moby-Dick, can, after a while, get boring, especially after your friends have worked through the permutations of algorithmic humor.


There are a few areas where the tabletop roleplaying games, Dungeons & Dragons being the marquis brand among them, excel compared to these alternatives. Firstly, if you have a regular game night, a long-term roleplaying campaign allows players to have a series of adventures over the time populated by similar characters. Secondly, tabletop roleplaying games allow players and game-masters, the people refereeing and managing the game, flexibility. Dungeons & Dragons can be described as a collective storytelling enterprise, as well as a game; this goes for other tabletop roleplaying games, as well.


In this storytelling enterprise, players choose to be characters, shaping the story as they tell it through their play. And, while the game-master can set out a pretty well-crafted world and path through that world, players have been known to riff – like jazz musicians or a comedian telling a shaggy dog story.


In fact, it's a common story among game masters, or Dungeon Masters as they're known, for an intricate and well-planned design to be made for the players, yet the players, through their action, go another direction, forcing some improvisation on the part of the game master. Of course, one can also purchase premade campaigns and play by the book. Because players can build their own characters, potentially with conflicting goals and aims, to say nothing of general demeanors and personalities, at the discretion of the game master, there is an abundant opportunity for the plot taking unforeseen turns – even if it's modeled after a well-known fantasy novel.



Perhaps this leads the reader to a new theory for what Dungeons & Dragons offers its players. Of late, epic fantasy series have made for well-received adaptations to both television and motion picture screens. It is easy to sympathize with characters in realistic fiction. We have often heard of people in or around our own lives winding up in situations similar to those in realistic fiction.


But how often do we get to join a cadre of heroes on a mystical quest to recover a lost artifact? Rarely have the mechanics of wish fulfillment been so accessible to someone willing to play a part, roll some polyhedral dice, and maybe suspend a little disbelief. With a bit of effort, you, too, can make an epic tale fitting of Homer, heavy on brain-teasing puzzles with which to challenge your heroes or with enough hack-and-slash action to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty barbarians.


Here is the genius of the game: the control it affords both the game master and the players over the direction of the story, which is a victory all its own.


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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Wizards of the Coast; Google Images
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