Words by Marley DeRosia
Photos by Gianluca D’Elia
Hello, my name is Marley and I’m a nerd.
Kind of a big one. I grew up with anime, video games, and a healthy love for reading. But the one stereotypical nerdy thing that I never got involved with was Dungeons & Dragons.
It was thanks to a little pushing from my friends—and an incredibly helpful website—that I was finally able to sharpen my sword and pull up a chair at that fateful tavern (Thank goodness for D&D Beyond — #notsponsored).
This 1970s role-playing game checks all my boxes: fantasy, horrifying creatures, and adventurous missions with friends by your side. It’s not to say that D&D has always been beloved; just like fears of demonic witchcraft plagued the game back when it was released, there are still many people who think of this game as a sinful pastime. It might have partially contributed toward the pastime’s popularity among people who identified as “outcasts” in some form or another.
But ever since I began playing around three years ago, I’ve noticed more and more people entering the tavern to begin their own adventure. Welcome.
Your Primer to D&D
Matthew Vercant is the owner of Just Games, a small community-centered game store in Penfield. Walk through its plaza doors and you’re transported into the ultimate game space: the walls are lined to the ceiling with board games, miniature figures, plushies, and more.
Not surprisingly, he’s been a fan of D&D since he was seven.
For those of you who are new to the world of D&D, allow Matthew and I to be your humble guides (authors) as we set out on this quest (article). After all, many learn their cantrips before achieving higher level spells.
In short, Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy role-playing game where players create a character to go on quests around a unique world filled with creatures, crime, and adventure. There are countless backgrounds to choose among, from human to orc to rabbit-person, and a slew of classes on top of that, like rogue, paladin, and wizard. For example, my first character was a dragonborn bard with an affinity for chaos. While I initially chose it because of the funny contrast of a 6’5” dragon person playing a tiny little flute, it actually ended up being my favorite character to date thanks to the bard’s ability to wield magic.
That’s how a lot of D&D goes, actually. While the mechanics are static—roll a twenty-sided dice (D20) for initiative—the magic and memories come from the unexpected. You never know what you might encounter or how play styles will change once you’re a member of a group. And now that more people are playing, there’s a great chance that you might click with a new group, too.
Matthew explains that this isn’t the first time D&D has had a sporadic burst of popularity.
“It’s actually the second or the third time it’s done that,” he starts. “One of the big things that I’ve seen is a lot more community organizations willing to jump in and find a niche for their group.”
What niche might you ask? Isn’t it a bunch of fantasy nerds gathering in one place? Au contraire mon frère. There are two parts to the game: the game itself, and the players with whom you commune.
“I’ve seen libraries get involved, even the Strong Museum of Play started a group. I just talked to a parent who joined their middle-schoolers in what they called a ‘D&D camp’ at their school,” Matthew says. “Parents and educators are realizing that it’s a good game for all ages, and it’s educationally valuable, too.”
After all, this game demands a number of skills to play, and not just creativity. You need your hard skills like math to be able to add up your dice and take down monsters. You need reading and writing skills to flesh out your player—or even your world if you’re the Dungeon Master (the person who leads the rest of the players through the story). Even science and music can pull up a chair when it comes to investigating a dungeon or using music to sway a crowd.
“The game requires soft skills that a lot of kids—and let’s be honest, adults—struggle with,” Matthew explains. “Acquiring these skills through play has always been encouraged, and the more ways kids engage, the better they are in terms of quality of life. D&D is a fun way to encourage these abilities.”
With a background in childhood education, Matthew knows what he’s talking about. He doesn’t care how you grow and learn, just so long as they’re doing it.
“Some of the best opportunities in my life have come around from playing D&D,” Matthew says. “I’ve met a tremendous number of interesting people, both through playing and running my game store. D&D is great because it gets you out of the social group that you’re in. We live in a world where you get into your own social bubble and it’s very self-affirming.”
“What I love about D&D is that there’s such a broad cross-section of people playing it. Politics doesn’t tend to come up but you get to know people who have different opinions. Over the course of a campaign, you might get more comfortable sharing your differences in opinion. I think that’s something that’s challenging to find. There’s been a lot of sociological research done on this, and D&D does a lot of the social work among people that you might never have met otherwise.”
And it seems there are more venn diagrams of people connecting than I’ve seen in my short lifetime. I think there are a few reasons behind this boom:
Social Media’s Sound Wave
“One thing about the current boom in D&D is that it’s particularly organic,” Matthew explains. “There hasn’t been a push from the company producing the games: it’s because the people playing the games are doing something different.”
Search for D&D hashtags on any social app and you’ll find sordid tales of fun adventures; tips to get into the game; and incredible art advice for players trying to build their own maps and dungeon tiles for tabletop play.
“They’re making it more accessible, more available,” Matthew says. “It’s like a grass roots push centered around the product, and the community has made D&D its own thing. It’s a huge part of its resurgence.”
The Pandemic Zeitgeist
Remember when all of our socialization had to be done via zoom at the start of 2020? It was awkward to force conversation through a screen, but we missed our friends. While this was a culture shock to most, many long-time D&D players felt right at home.
“There’s a stronger emphasis on connection and fun as we come out of the stress of lockdown,” Matthew says, “D&D is growing as a way to reconnect with family and community. I’m seeing a lot of gaming pop-ups from passionate players, and while some of these game nights might be sponsored, people are getting out more and sharing their love of games with the community.”
That’s the beauty of games, especially those that aren’t necessarily tied to a board: they bring people together and build memories, even if you don’t really have anything to talk about. Strategizing in game is a great way to spend time together, to forget about the stressors of the day, and to feel like you’re making progress on something!
It was a multitude of factors that led to D&D’s biggest boon since the ‘80s. The pandemic occurred at a time when nerd culture is more accepted than ever. Paired with the ever-rising popularity of Stranger Things and Tik Tok’s explosion on the social media scene, D&D found itself reentering the chat. As more people looked for new ways to connect, a perfect storm formed the ideal setting for D&D reacceptance into mainstream society. Now, you can find podcasts, web series, novels, and even movies inspired by the game with ease.
Dungeons & Dragons is riding a wave that continues to grow. Thanks to social media, nerd acceptance, and a cool-looking movie to boot, I bet more and more new adventurers will swing open those tavern doors to start their first journey.
“If you haven’t played D&D you owe it to yourself to try it!” Matthew says. “After three generations of players, it’s worth seeing what this has been about.”