'Dungeons & Dragons', now 50 years old, is enjoying a resurgence in popularity


By AGENCY

In 'Dungeons & Dragons', you can start an adventure in the Forgotten Realms on the exciting Sword Coast, home to the cities of Baldur’s Gate, Waterdeep, and Neverwinter. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Get out your 20-sided dice and graph-paper maps – Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), the tabletop role-playing game of fantasy adventure, is 50 years old.

Though the exact date of the game’s release has been lost to the mists of time, Wizards of the Coast, the company that currently owns D&D, selected Jan 27 for the official date, although the celebration continues all year through special events and product releases.

But even before its 50th birthday, D&D was having something of a pop-cultural moment.

Television and Internet shows, from Netflix’s Stranger Things to hit web series Critical Role, featured the game.

Last year saw the release of a big-budget D&D movie starring the likes of Chris Pine, Hugh Grant and Michelle Rodriguez – and the D&D-based Baldur’s Gate III was among the most popular video games of the year.

Not to mention that celebrities from Vin Diesel to Stephen Colbert to Anderson Cooper to Joe Mangianello have spoken publicly about their enjoyment of D&D.

There’s also a seemingly endless array of YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other online personalities who play D&D as a sort of spectator sport, with massive audiences tuning in week after week to see how the story of the game develops.

In short, D&D is everywhere.

But this isn’t the first time this happened. Back in the early 1980s, D&D had a similar moment in the cultural zeitgeist – as well as some intensely negative reactions. What did it look like here in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, the United States? We took a look through the LNP – LancasterOnline digital archives to find out.

The early days

The original version of Dungeons & Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and published by Tactical Studies Rules, which soon became TSR.

D&D expanded on the idea of miniature wargaming, a field in which Gygax and Arneson had been involved for years. The key innovation the game brought to the table was the idea of role-playing – instead of controlling military formations, each player created a character and played the role of that character throughout the game.

The key innovation the game brought to the table was the idea of role-playing – instead of controlling military formations, each player created a character and played the role of that character throughout the game. Photo: The Star/William Gary The key innovation the game brought to the table was the idea of role-playing – instead of controlling military formations, each player created a character and played the role of that character throughout the game. Photo: The Star/William Gary

One player took on the role of “dungeon master,” a combination referee and storyteller who also controlled the various monsters the players would have to vanquish.The first D&D set had a tiny print run, so it took a couple of years for the game to catch on – but soon it was a nationwide hit in the US.

Dungeons & Dragons was first mentioned in Lancaster newspapers on July 28, 1975. In a feature about a wargaming convention in Baltimore, D&D was mentioned as a hot new game, played by “30 pale-faced collegians.”

A few years later, the game got its first negative publicity, as the newspapers published near-daily wire stories about the hunt for James Dallas Egbert III, a Michigan State University student who went missing in August 1979.

Journalists and investigators alike were quick to point to Egbert’s interest in D&D as a reason for his disappearance, suggesting that he mistook fantasy for reality and vanished into the steam tunnels below the campus.

When he was found a month later, staying with a friend, it turned out that the game had nothing to do with his absence.

Despite the bad publicity, D&D’s popularity grew quickly, and by the holiday season of 1979, the game was appearing in Lancaster retailers’ Christmas ads.

Permeating pop culture

In 1980, D&D hit a critical mass of sorts, with lengthy features from the Associated Press and Parade magazine appearing in print here – followed by the first local story.

Jim Ruth of the Sunday News was the first journalist to cover D&D in Lancaster County, with a full-page feature in the Leisure section of Nov 16, 1980.

A close-up view of a 'Dungeons & Dragons' board game setting. Photo: The Star/William Gary A close-up view of a 'Dungeons & Dragons' board game setting. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Ruth visited a gaming convention at the University of Delaware to see the game being played, and also interviewed Larry King, proprietor of Allied Hobbies.

King said the demand for D&D books, figures and other accessories was so high that he couldn’t keep anything in stock and had waiting lists for most items.

“I’ve never seen people as fanatical about a hobby as they are about role-playing games,” he said.

“I just can’t keep stuff in stock.”

The next year, a local reporter took her D&D story a step further.

Cindy Cox of the Lancaster New Era not only observed a D&D game at Millersville University, she also pulled up a chair at a table in the back room of Allied Hobbies and joined a two-hour D&D session.

From her article: “As I sat at the table with my new friends, I underwent a strange transformation.“I exchanged my jeans and T-shirt for a long, homespun brown robe with a hood at the neck. My ears grew pointed, and I shrunk two feet. I felt holy, gentle and brave.

“I was now Dominique, an elf cleric.

“In the folds of my robe, I tucked a sterling silver holy symbol and a small vial of holy water for emergencies.”

After a session of dodging traps, solving puzzles and battling zombies, ghouls and giant spiders with her fellow players, Cox came to this conclusion:

“For those who are interested in something a little more challenging and interesting than Monopoly or Scrabble, D&D is perfect.

“My new alter ego, Dominique, is eager to be back with her friends now, searching out treasure, slaying dragons. And I’m ready to go with her.”

In 'Dungeons & Dragons', the dice dictates the fate of each character in the game. Photo: The Star/William Gary In 'Dungeons & Dragons', the dice dictates the fate of each character in the game. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Over the next couple of years, Dungeons & Dragons emerged from college campuses and hobby shops to permeate pop culture.

“D&D camps” were added to the roster of summer camps kids could attend, and the game appeared throughout the newspaper – from stories about how playing D&D could be a source of family bonding to D&D being listed among the hobbies and interests of countless kids featured as “Teens of the Week”. Middle schools and high schools across Lancaster County sponsored after-school D&D clubs.

Retailers’ Christmas ads featured not only the game itself, but spinoffs in the form of video games for early home consoles, electronic toys and action figures.

In 1982, a TV movie called Mazes And Monsters – based on the erroneous theories about the Michigan State incident of 1979 – gave a young Tom Hanks his first lead role.

And in 1983, the Saturday morning cartoon Dungeons & Dragons made its debut – as did an array of D&D Halloween costumes at local shops.

The evil link?

But despite the massive popularity of the game (or perhaps because of it), some religious organisations actively campaigned against D&D, claiming it had Satanic connections.

On March 18, 1983, the New Era reported that Marticville Middle School principal Gary Campbell had shut down the school’s D&D club, citing complaints from parents who believed it would allow children to “use their imagination to link ... with the devil or with evil.”

Two months later, on May 29, the Sunday News printed a front-page story about the concerns local educators and religious leaders had about the “evil” nature of D&D – as well as statements from teachers who felt the game was a boon to learning.

In the game, one player takes on the role of ‘dungeon master,’ a combination referee and storyteller. Photo: The Star/William Gary In the game, one player takes on the role of ‘dungeon master,’ a combination referee and storyteller. Photo: The Star/William Gary

Alongside quotations from D&D books describing evil deities and bloody battles, the article included a statement from Marticville principal Campbell, who declared that the decision to ban the game at his school was ultimately based on the violence inherent in a game about medieval-style battle.

“I read parts of the game,” he said, “and found some of the descriptions were lurid, descriptive scenes of death.”

Some religious leaders, however, had objections for spiritual reasons.

Steve Smucker and Larry Thompson, children’s minister and youth minister, respectively, at The Worship Center in Leola discussed the spiritual danger they believed the game presented.

“We believe in the real presence of the devil in the world,” Thompson said, explaining that he viewed D&D as Satanic and its players in danger of literal possession by the devil.

Smucker related the story of a boy who became “overwhelmed” by the game and, after “prayer and counselling,” decided to destroy it.

“When he did,” Smucker said, “he felt an incredible relief, as if he were being released.”

On the other side of the coin, the Sunday News presented a variety of game retailers, educators and parents who extolled the virtues of D&D.

Mike Murphy, owner of game shop The Flight Box, pointed out that the demons and devils in the game were the bad guys, meant to be defeated by the players – and the amount of gory detail around descriptions of battles could be increased or decreased based on the age of the players at the table.

Chris Ahlstrom of Neffsville was the mother of two boys, age 12 and 15, who played D&D. She said the game improved their reasoning skills, vocabulary and imagination – and gave them a place to act out frustrations in a harmless way.

And in addition to after-school clubs, some teachers were even bringing D&D books into class to aid in lessons about ancient mythology and mythological beasts.

Fading away – and coming back

By the mid-1880s, the D&D wave had crested, though there were still occasional stories in the papers. Anti-D&D groups were still forming, and D&D events were still happening – like a 24-hour marathon game at Millersville University serving as a charity fundraiser.

The game's resurgence into mainstream culture began around 2015 and 2016, fuelled by the widespread success of 'Stranger Things', featuring D&D-playing protagonists, and the rise of 'Critical Role', which pioneered online D&D content. Photo: The Star/William Gary The game's resurgence into mainstream culture began around 2015 and 2016, fuelled by the widespread success of 'Stranger Things', featuring D&D-playing protagonists, and the rise of 'Critical Role', which pioneered online D&D content. Photo: The Star/William Gary

But by about 1987, D&D had completely vanished from the local news.

It returned a couple of times in the 1990s. In 1994, James Horning of Denver organised a boycott and prayer vigil outside Dragonfire Comic Book and Hobby Shop in Ephrata because of the “Satanic” influence of the role-playing games sold and played there.

And in 1999, for D&D’s 25th anniversary, New Era collectibles columnist Harry Rinker mentioned the game’s US$60 (RM284) anniversary edition as an example of commemorative editions of games that he felt would not hold their value. (The set currently sells for up to US$400, or RM1,892.)

In the decades since, D&D has been a sporadic presence in Lancaster’s media. D&D clubs formed at local libraries throughout the 2000s, and their schedules were often printed. A D&D movie starring Jeremy Irons was released in 2000, and an accompanying story featured local gamers.

It wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that the game started to once again make inroads into the cultural zeitgeist beyond diehard gamers, thanks to the massive popularity of Stranger Things, in which the kid protagonists played D&D, and the rise of web series Critical Role, which arguably launched a whole genre of online D&D content.

By 2017, the game was once again popular enough to warrant big feature stories – and the stage was set for D&D’s second big explosion into the larger world of pop culture.

Just in time for its 50th birthday. – Lancasteronline.com/Tribune New Service

Models and props for the photos are courtesy of Here Be Dragons MY board game store in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.

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