Five friends gather around a table in the living room, about to embark on an adventure. But before they set out, they need to decide what kind of armor to wear and which weapons to bring with them. They also need to know their strength and magical abilities. Once this is all figured out, the friends will spend the evening exploring caves, fighting dragons, solving riddles, and rescuing captured villagers. By day they are bankers and baristas, but when they get together to play this in-person table-top game, they can be whatever they can imagine.
One plays the role of storyteller. He is the dungeon master (DM). He knows what’s out there: the mythical world and the dangers waiting for his friends this week. He narrates to them, in a vivid and compelling way, what they hear and see as they journey.
Welcome to Dungeons & Dragons. What started in the 1970s as a hobby popular mostly among geeky students and professors is now a creative roll-playing game that is played by enthusiasts from every walk of life and every age range. My 11-year-old plays with a gaggle of fifth and sixth graders. My 17-year-old is in an adult game with a college student, an urban professional, and my 52-year-old husband. Said husband also plays in another game with friends in Colorado run over Zoom. Even my book editor in Brooklyn, who’s in his 30s, plays once a week. As does my 20-year-old, a junior at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who says nearly everyone in her campus circles loves the game.
A Dungeons & Dragons T-shirt was once a badge of nerd honor. These days, however, wear one and you’re likely to get enthusiastic compliments from hip young people who tell you that they’re heading to their D&D game tonight after work.
Estimates vary but upwards of ten million Americans may play D&D regularly, engaging their minds, their imaginations, and their social skills. And D&D has become even more popular during COVID, according to ComicBook.com. Adults and kids alike play in cafes, libraries, game stores, or each other’s homes. Actors like Joe Manganiello and other movie stars and celebrities have even taken to the game, playing in their well-equipped game rooms and putting video podcasts of their adventures up for millions of viewers to watch.
Wait, What? What *is* D&D Anyway?
If you’ve never played it before, you may not know what D&D is. And for all its resurging popularity, it is not the easiest game to explain.
Dungeons & Dragons is an in-person, imaginative, role-playing game invented by Gary Gygax and his friend Dave Arneson. It’s an analogue game, played with a piece of paper and a pencil. To play D&D you first create a character of your choice. Your character then joins a party of other invented characters and together you go on a quest.
A dungeon master, or DM, narrates the story and directs the play. The DM is essentially a storyteller who guides the characters and informs you of what is happening as you make your way through an imaginary realm. While each DM has quite a bit of leeway to steer the direction of the play, the success of any given campaign is also based on rolls of the dice, your party’s ability to work together, and your own ingenuity.
Embodying An Alternative Persona
One of the fun things about playing D&D is that you get to be someone else. The first thing you do when you sit down to play is to create a character. That character—if you’re playing first edition—can be a human, an elf, a dwarf, or a halfling (a small humanoid with hairy feet). This is your character’s “race.” Your character will also have a “class.” Classes include fighters, paladins, rangers, clerics, and druids. You can also choose to be a thief or an assassin.
You outfit your new persona with picks, war hammers, torches, chainmail, and other useful tools. Your chosen style of clothing fits the character as you see them in your mind’s eye.
Your individual character’s success with anything you try to do—from taking a burning torch off the wall of a dungeon to light your way down the corridor to deciding whether to free a red-eyed creature chained to the back wall of the dimly lit room you’ve just entered—depends on several things: Your character’s race and class, the abilities your character has, your character’s experience points, and how lucky or unlucky you are when the dungeon master tells you to roll the dice to determine the outcome of a fight.
First Edition Versus Fifth Edition
The original game from 1974 was a spare, free-form set of rules published in a set of three small staple-bound booklets. It didn’t spell everything out—it was a game of the imagination, which every player could interpret and make their own. The meteoric rise of popularity made the creators realize that clearer structure would be helpful, and they published first a 32-page booklet of basic rules to get anyone up and running, then later a set of three large hardback tomes they called “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” that filled in the world with rich, meticulous detail.
Revised versions of the rules came out over the decades, with a second edition and its successors. These revisions culminated in the fifth edition which is the one most new players use today. Fifth edition (frowned on by many original players who insist that first edition is the best) has many times more character options than the original did in its heyday. But the editions are all fairly compatible. If you have played a character in any edition, you can jump into any other with ease.
Don’t be daunted by all these details. A player doesn’t need to learn a huge set of rules to begin—you can design a character with the help of another player or the DM and jump right into the action, since play is mainly freely imagining whatever you can come up with to do when faced with a temple full of evil snake-cultists where the players have to sneak through traps, for example, or find the way through a labyrinth to fight a dragon in order to rescue a captive and gain the dragon’s treasure trove of gold and magic swords.
Also, if you’re eager to try an analogue imaginative table-top game, D&D is not the only option. These days there are hundreds of other role-playing games with settings from sci-fi space opera to steam-punk Victorian vampires.
How Playing D&D Makes You a Better Person
Playing D&D isn’t just fun. It’s also good for you. D&D teaches you unexpected skills, beneficial to both your mind and your mood, no matter your age.
1. You Learn Cooperation
To have fun and go on a successful quest, players must cooperate. Any party of adventurers usually has between 3 and 8 players. Since humans are, well, human, all of the players will have their own ideas about what to do. Unlike traditional board games or choose-your-own-adventure books, the options in D&D are not limited and laid out for you. Instead, you have to actively think them up for yourself.
So you collaborate with the other players, and argue through different ideas and strategies. In the end, each player decides on their own action in each situation, sometimes with chaotic or disastrous results.
If the party doesn’t work well together, or tries to split up, the dangerous monsters and traps of the dungeon will often quickly get them injured or even killed.
2. You Forget About The World’s Worries
As you play the game, you start to imagine yourself as the character, and discover your alternate personality. You imagine yourself in dire circumstances: in a room that starts filling with water where all the exits suddenly lock, say, or walking down an underground corridor when the torches go out and you are besieged by foes you can’t see.
You talk, argue, and joke with other players the whole time, and hours pass during which you forget the workaday world and its stresses. The dungeon master talks to you in the persona of the ogres, dragons, and wizards you face, and in each encounter you must decide whether to talk your way to safety, avoid conflict with a clever ploy or negotiation, fight it out, or use up some of your limited magical resources to help you. You encounter runes engraved on cave walls, presenting you with riddles you must solve to find your objective—or even to survive the adventure.
3. You Gain Unexpected Problem-Solving Skills
Every adventure is a complex challenge. You can’t just blunder your way through—you have to use all your social, intellectual, and imaginative abilities to solve the problem. But unlike in the real world, you also have a set of magical powers to help you as well. To succeed in your quest you will have to solve many different types of problem. If you fail, your character may not survive the adventure.
But, luckily, a death in D&D isn’t the end of the story. If your beloved character dies (and some DMs are partial to killing off whole parties), you can make a new one. Perhaps someone different this time, like a nature-loving druid or a tricky, Bilbo-Baggins-style burglar.
4. You Learn To Do Math
There are things to keep track of, including how many gold pieces you’ve gathered, and numerical measures of your injuries and your character’s abilities (like strength and intelligence). The success or failure of your actions is determined by interestingly-shaped dice with 4, 8, 12 or even 20 sides to randomize events and provide the thrill of your fate resting on the roll of a die.
The basics of probability become familiar to players, and you learn how likely outcomes differ when rolling a single 12-sided die versus two ordinary 6-sided dice.
Even geometry comes in to the game as players become cartographers, mapping the dungeons you explore as you discover more about them, finding that a suspicious round gap in the area you’ve been visiting reveals a domed chamber behind a secret door.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and co-author of “The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery.” Three of her four children, her husband, brother, and cousins are all D&D enthusiasts. Learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net.