Wanna Know Why DnD is So Popular?
A Lot Has Changed Since Gary Gygax Imagined Greyhawk...
By Riley Rath
Title Image © Wizards of the Coast
Before we go any further, the REAL answer to "why is DnD so popular?" is "Dungeons and Dragons is still not 'popular'"!!!
School D&D clubs are outnumbered by the backup offense of the JV football team. Family members raise eyebrows when you tell them you are playing (often requiring clarification that you are NOT dabbling in either LARP or the occult). And "So You Think You Can Dungeon Master?!" will not be premiering on CBS, Netflix, or the Discovery Channel anytime soon.
But it is undeniable that the game's popularity has exploded in recent years.
- Wizards of the Coast claims that over 50 million people have played the game.
- The 2000 D&D movie grossed over $33 million; the 2023 movie grossed over $208 million (600% increase).
- Matt Mercer's Critical Role has a big enough cultural footprint to get their own Amazon animated series and take out a billboard on the ever-busy Olympic Blvd in LA, which probably got over 700,000 (at least) eyeballs while it was up.
- Bonafide Hollywood hunks like Joe Manganiello proudly proclaim their love of the game.
- Baldur's Gate 3 is an official Dungeons and Dragons game and it is blowing people's socks off. It is considered to be the best video game of 2023.
- And perhaps most mind blowing of all... they sell D&D-branded Nerf crossbows in Target.
Need I say more?
Case and point: when I was in Jr. High, I was quiet about getting into LOTR Warhammer, but I went out of my way to make sure people knew I did NOT touch D&D with a 10 foot pole. Now I'm a borderline "voice in the wilderness," proclaiming all cool-kids to repent, for the Kingdom of Orcus is at hand and we need to send his ass back to the Abyss.
So other than my cultural ignorance and social cowardice, what changed?
Compared to the past 47 years of its existence, why oh why is DnD so popular?
© Duffer Brothers
The D&D Hobby as Presented in Media
I'm going to start with the thing people THINK is the reason it has become more popular: people are seeing fun examples of Dungeons and Dragons in some of their favorite TV shows. Tabletop games are for the general public and no longer reserved exclusively for nerd culture.
The most obvious example is Stranger Things, which displayed the ever-so-charming boys Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin having tons of fun playing D&D in their basement. But the show went a step further and had the characters use the canon D&D monsters to make sense of the completely weird and unknown monsters they were facing. Translation: Dungeons and Dragons was woven into the fabric of the show. This show was a monumental success and remains one of the crown jewels of the streaming giant, Netflix. As a result, every viewer now associates Dungeons and Dragons NOT with the disparaging "unrelatable, nerdy, awkward weirdo" stereotype, but with likable, relatable characters and high quality entertainment.
Why is DnD so popular? Because pop culture has softened the "too nerdy" stigmas and displayed some of its best traits.
While Stranger Things accomplished this on the widest scale, it is certainly not alone. South Park showed that D&D 5e is for girls as much as it is for boys. Harmon Quest displayed how truly HILARIOUS TTRPGs can be. And both of the D&D Community episodes are great examples of how real life relationships are formed through the fictional experience. Finally, there is the newest D&D movie, which managed to not only remain a wild, high-fantasy adventure, and not only reflect the unique lore and world of Dungeons and Dragons, but ALSO have a star-studded cast and a well-developed emotional core that any movie goer could relate to.
In summary, one reason people ask "why is DnD so popular?" is because they see positive examples of it that they like in mainstream media.
© Wizards of the Coast
5e's Simple(r) Gaming Rules
However, while quirky demonstrations of D&D in pop culture caught a lot of attention, I do not believe it is THE reason D&D became more popular.
Real quick, take a look at this character sheet from 4th edition and this character sheet from 5th edition.
4e character sheet (left) and 5e character sheet (right)
© Wizards of the Coast
The one on the left is a cluttered, overwhelming mess that reminds me of filling out IRS tax form 1041. The other is an open, neat block that reminds me of filling out a Facebook profile. Guess which one is intimidating and which one feels natural and accessible? Especially when you follow our handy guide on easily filling out a character sheet?
Why is Dnd so popular? Because it is WAY easier to learn than previous editions.
The 5e character sheet is an excellent example of how 5th edition, as compared to the previous editions, is SIMPLE. From artwork, character creation, and combat rules... fifth edition D&D is a much, much simpler game for a number of people, less about knowing every little rule and more about player imagination. The game can be learned in a single session, rather than a single DAY of sessions, and players can start having fun the MOMENT they begin playing (here's how!). With easy rules and resources, accessible entry points, and beginner-friendly content, the game has become less intimidating for new players.
Granted, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, I've posted over a dozen posts BLASTING the asses of WOTC for not having better exploration rules. On the other hand, I have also admitted many, MANY times that their emphasis on simplicity is THE reason D&D 5e is so much more popular than it used to be.
DnD 5e on Roll20
The Internet Made Playing A LOT Easier
So I write blog posts about D&D. I run my own campaigns, homebrew rules, and brainstorm ways to get the most out of each character class. But I didn't even start PLAYING Dungeons and Dragons until 2015. And you know what is painfully obvious to me?
I CANNOT FATHOM BEING A DM BEFORE THE INTERNET.
That is not hyperbole... I do not believe I would have ever become a Dungeon Master if the internet did not exist when I started playing at age 25. For a style of game that is not very intuitive, has thousands of rules, and theoretically infinite possibilities, the internet has been a GAME CHANGER. Being a Dungeon Master was at least 100x harder before websites like RPGBOT and DnD Beyond existed. I mean, for Pete's sake, look at D&D 5e's wiki homepage... it has VOLUMES UPON VOLUMES of information just sitting there.
But while that stuff makes character creation or looking up Grapple rules for the 87th time easier... that is just the tip of the iceberg! In today's digital age, I can listen to a podcast on the Forgotten Ream's kobolds as I workout, play online with friends thousands of miles away, and observe true D&D legends by watching actual plays. The internet if FULL of influencers, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers with combined CENTURIES of experience. They offer insight on worldbuilding, character creation, campaign design, dnd dice sets... you can literally ask a DnD question on Reddit or Stack Exchange and randos will answer it.
Why is Dnd so popular? Cuz every aspect of Dungeons and Dragons has been made more accessible by the internet.
To sum it up, the digital age has significantly shaped Dnd 5e's popularity due to the ubiquitous presence of Dungeon Masters leveraging social media, video games, and streaming platforms. Additionally, Dnd 5e's integration into the digital age engages players through virtual tabletops, online forums, and streaming channels, expanding the game's reach globally. YouTube and gaming streams have played a pivotal role in boosting the game's visibility, while its adaption into video games has successfully attracted a new player base.
© Acquisitions Incorporated
5e as an All-Inclusive Game
Finally, Dungeons and Dragons is popular because, in general, anyone that wants to play is welcome to play. The game was founded on when being nerdy was bad for your mental and physical health... long before people took quizzes on which Harry Potter house they belonged to. And victims of social hierarchies are hesitant to form equally exclusionary hierarchies.
So it doesn't matter how different you are or how much society finds you "difficult"... the rules of the real world do not apply when everyone gathers at the table! You can swing a sword even if you aren't a starting pitcher on the baseball team. You can role-play even if you did not get the lead role in the play. You can be heroic even if you are shy in class. You can outsmart a villain even if you didn't make the debate team. You can win the princess's/prince's heart even if you weren't prom king/queen.
Why is DnD so popular? Because Dungeons and Dragons has always been welcoming and inclusive.
And with the benefits of pop culture exposure, a simple rule system, and the internet at your fingertips, D&D was met by a flood of new players who felt they didn't quite fit into culture. While there are a few bad apples in any community, the whole D&D culture is predisposed to welcome with open arms any social outcasts that wash up on its shores. It is not only an "isle of lost toys," but a place where ANY toy is welcome to play!
"Is D&D still nerdy?"
Oh, don't worry... it usually is. Only nerdy stuff deals with goblins, sorcery points, 1,000 year dragon/giant wars, and arguing for hours over how Counterspell works. But the game can also work in everything from sci-fi to raw historical settings!
© The New York Times
Why is DnD So Popular?
D&D 5e is popular because people saw positive examples of it in mainstream media, it is a simple game to learn, it is much easier to play with the internet, and is accepting of anyone and everyone that wants to play.
But that begs the question... WHY should you give it a try? What makes it special... what makes it fun?
And that is a topic for a future blog post :)
Oh! And there is one more reason I forgot to include!
Why is DnD So Popular?
Cuz the Dice Are So Damn Awesome!
Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!