The tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) experienced a revenue increase of 33% in 2020.
A group of adventurers is sitting in a tavern. It is an ordinary, medieval-like setting by all accounts … except for the salad bar in the corner. On a whim, one of them walks over and stuffs fistfuls of croutons into a bag as a joke. Later, the same group uses the croutons to distract guards on a pivotal mission. They sneak past them successfully and avoid a potentially deadly encounter.
There is only one game where this could have happened: Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) just shy of 50 years old. “D&D,” as it is frequently abbreviated, sees players create and roleplay as high-fantasy characters. It features 12 to 14 playable classes such as Wizards, Rogues and Barbarians and an absolute abundance of rules. It has been popular for decades but is seeing new exposure from web series, podcasts and other media. For instance, a few players may have been introduced through Netflix’s Stranger Things or massive D&D web series Critical Role. However D&D owner Wizards of the Coast has gained its new players, the fact remains that the game experienced an increase in revenue of 33 percent in 2020.
But there is another potential driving factor: the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the pandemic, or rather because of it, the game saw its most successful year ever in 2020. While social media and appearances in popular culture helped, a jump this massive at a time when the pandemic took off was no coincidence.
Or so one would think.
In this case, the numbers do not lie, but they may be misleading. Attributing D&D’s rise in popularity to the pandemic might have some merit, but it does not tell the full story. SuperData, a now-defunct gaming division of the Nielsen data firm, reported that a quarter of Americans who played video games during 2020 did so to socialize with loved ones and strangers alike. This desire could carry over to virtual sessions of D&D and other RPGs.
The popularity, the desire to connect with others — everything ties into something a bit abstract: what the game allows its players to do. Deciphering the “what” is not difficult under normal circumstances, but COVID-19 has unexpectedly brought it to the surface.
When the pandemic struck, many veteran players had to switch to online programs such as Roll20 and Foundry Virtual Tabletop. These services recreate the feeling of sitting at a roundtable with other players. On Roll20, for example, a player can move their avatar around on a map or go into their “character sheet” and roll damage dice with a couple of clicks. But even with the advancement of these programs, for some people, a physical presence cannot be beat.
“In-person, there’s something that grounds you to that table,” DePaul freshman Casey Freeman said. (Freeman, who has been playing D&D for three years, was also the leader of the game that crouton scenario came from.)
That “something” is hard to describe, but it is what has given D&D its lasting popularity. Even if the group dynamics among a game leader, or “dungeon master,” and the players are always changing, there is an ever-present feeling of camaraderie. This shared experience becomes a unique outlet for creativity and exploration.
“With all of my characters, usually there’s at least something with [them] I want to explore, whether it’s a certain personality or a belief system or how certain backstory components would affect a character,” says Evren Bly, the marketer of DeRPG, DePaul’s role-playing game community. “Fiction can be a safe place to explore complex topics.”
Perhaps D&D and its capacity for expression attracted some people because of the pandemic and the social isolation it brought. Alternatively, the game’s increase in coverage could have happened regardless of how 2020 went. Wizards of the Coast have been publishing new editions and content for decades, the sign of a thriving game, not a dying one. Plus, while it may be hard to believe for younger people just now starting to play, D&D had some stigmas attached to it that have only now begun to fade, and the rise in popularity is a natural (albeit partial) result of that.
One such stigma was the outlandish fear of the game being connected with devil-worshiping. (Although multiple factors were involved, it did not help that the first editions of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide had sinister demons on their covers.)
DePaul student Sascha Mendez, president of DeRPG and longtime D&D player, remembers when the game was caught up in the 1990s “Satanic Panic.”
“I have a vivid memory of my grandmother throwing holy water because I wanted to go over to my friend’s place and play D&D,” Mendez said. “I couldn’t even say to my grandparents or my mom, ‘I had a D&D game.’ It was, ‘I had a game night.’ Thankfully, my grandmother has changed about it … over the years of her understanding [that] we’re not making blood sacrifices, we’re just a bunch of nerds around a table rolling dice.”
One prime example for how this fear has subsided, at least with the general public, is one woman’s unusual project. Author and artist Alexandra Carter incorporated a modified version of the game into the curriculum for a third-grade math class. After the project ended, Carter reported that many of her students showed unanticipated enthusiasm for learning. Math was not the only subject affected, either, with one student going from a hesitant writer to an active, passionate journal-keeper. Such a project would have raised an outcry a mere 30 years ago.
The pandemic may have played a small part in Dungeons and Dragons’ recent popularity, but its enduring acclaim comes from something deeper: the wish to explore interesting concepts and create entire worlds. With these benefits, fading stigmas and more exposure, D&D was going to surge no matter what. It is a limitless game that allows the player to do math, fight dragons and, yes, steal croutons to their heart’s content.
Header image by Samarah Nasir