In praise of Dungeons and Dragons

The perfect pandemic social activity

Dungeons and Dragons.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

We're heading towards our tenth month of pandemic, and for me it has been hard to maintain any semblance of human contact. For a while, there were happy hour video calls now and then, but that is such a poor imitation of the real thing that they have mostly dropped off. Like David Klion I tried an online game of Diplomacy, but I couldn't seem to remember to submit my orders, and was the first player to get knocked out.

One thing that has kept going, however, is my Dungeons and Dragons group. We've been playing the same campaign for almost four years, even after I moved away from my friends in D.C. Now, thanks to the pandemic, video calls together with the online tool Roll20 are the only way to do it. It's a very old-fashioned — dare I say wholesome — game, and that's why it works in 2020.

For those who may be unfamiliar, D&D is a pen-and-paper role-playing game invented by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson back in the 1970s. Each player creates a character by selecting from Tolkeinesque archetypes of species and classes (my character, for instance, is a dwarf cleric), who have various spells and abilities. Another person, the Dungeon Master, then invents a scenario for the characters to play through, typically involving a search for some magic artifacts, fighting monsters, freeing the land from evil, and so forth. Combat is simulated with various dice rolls, taken in turns.

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When it first came out, D&D was the subject of intense social stigma. It's hard for modern audiences to really understand on a visceral level, but nerdy fantasy stuff like this was deeply uncool or even feared back in those days, mocked and shamed by the hegemonic culture. It was collateral damage in the 1980s Satanic panic — blamed for suicides or murders by irresponsible journalists caught up in a moralistic feeding frenzy. (A 1985 60 Minutes segment on the topic is hilariously unhinged.) Even in the 1990s and 2000s, it was still considered low-status compared to sports or even marching band.

Since then, of course, nerd culture has completely conquered the globe. Comic books are written by the most prestigious cultural figures, and comic book movies are routinely the biggest global blockbusters. Sci-fi and fantasy novels, or their movie and TV adaptations, dominate both sales and cultural criticism. Video games are a major entertainment industry, complete with celebrity endorsements and breakfast cereal tie-ins. (Contrary to reactionary gamers who cling to imagined cultural victimhood that is decades out of date, the most truly despised "nerd" class today might be fans of difficult literary fiction.)

But D&D, while a modest sales success as it has always been, is still a relative backwater compared to, say, The Avengers or Grand Theft Auto. Many millions of people play it worldwide, but it does not command the same kind of attention as the recent release of a new PlayStation console (good luck trying to find one of those for sale anywhere today, outside of the resale market). No doubt part of the reason is that you don't actually need much to play. There are lots of books and modules that you can buy — often lavishly produced and beautifully illustrated — but all the necessary stuff is available online for free. That means less potential profit and less reason to cultivate an audience with mass advertising.

But I suspect another reason is the inherently lo-fi, analog nature of the experience. There is no 4K UHD screen filled up with CGI clutter from an entire Rhode Island School of Design's worth of computer animators, no addictive task-reward loop designed by the world's least scrupulous software engineers, no GTX ray-tracing, no volumetric lighting, and no Turing mesh shaders. All the interactivity and fun comes from conversation, one's own imagination, and the amateur acting skills of you and your group. The game has changed little over the years, save some slight adjustments to mechanics and gradually removing the tinge of racist colonial ideology that Gygax and Arneson inherited from Tolkein. Even now, aside from the digital tools, which merely simulate in-person conversations and the analog mechanics, there is nothing that could not be done with two-thousand-year-old technology. Like a vinyl album, or a handmade pair of boots, it feels so old-fashioned that it almost comes back around to being cool again.

And that, I think, is why it works so well as a pandemic social activity. Its plodding, retro mechanics feel solid and reassuring — a reminder of what life was like before the coronavirus. The awkward thing about a Zoom happy hour is that only one person can talk at once, but that's always how a turn-based D&D game goes. Because groups are generally small (mine has five people), any break is a good chance to chat and catch up. I know of no statistics on the age of D&D players, but my sense is that unlike in the 70s, players today tend to skew middle-aged. Indeed, I am the only member of my group that doesn't have kids.

So if pandemic isolation has you down, might I recommend rounding up some friends and using some good old pen and paper to slay some demons? Perhaps you can even bring the kids, and teach them what we did before computers did our imagining for us.

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