I play Dungeons & Dragons almost every week (and sometimes more). I love games in general, but D&D is my favorite game. Here’s why:
1. It adds knowledge.
As a kid, D&D sharpened my math (especially probability) and expanded my vocabulary (especially martially: cuirass, hauberk, greaves, trebuchet, arbalest, spetum, glaive). As an adult, world creation pushes me to expand my knowledge of geography, climatology, history, ancient religions, and literature.
2. It stretches my brain.
A game of D&D unfolds as a sort of structured improvisation. Ideally, the dungeon master (who creates and runs the world) and the players co-create the storyline. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. The mental challenge of impersonating a character is difficult and exciting. Some of this happens on a superficial level (imitating various accents is not a required part of the game, but for me it’s a fun part — right now I’m working on a South Irish accent for my druid Shoren Shallows, something like Nathan Young on Misfits). Some of it is deeper. In real life I’m sensible, sane, and reasonable (most of the time). The characters I play in Dungeons & Dragons are usually kindhearted, but also eccentric, unreliable, erratic, and slippery. When I run a game (as dungeon master) I play villains and monsters who are cruel, malicious, conniving, greedy, and psychopathic. At the very least this kind of role-playing is cathartic. At other times it even feels therapeutic, as if I’m exploring or reconciling the shadow aspects of my personality.
3. It makes me happy.
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks cites research claiming that joining a group that meets at least once a month produces the same happiness gains as doubling your income. Playing D&D definitely boosts my own happiness. I couldn’t tell you exactly why. Maybe it has something to do with hanging out with friends and drinking beer. Maybe it’s because the activity itself is engaging and challenging but not overtly competitive; the players might want to impress each other but there is nothing to prove. I’m not recruiting here — D&D (and tabletop role-playing games in general) aren’t for everyone. Many would find the pace too slow, or the record-keeping aspects too work-like, or the role-playing too awkward and stressful, or the people who play to be too nerdy. But for people who enjoy simulation, improv, fantasy, strategy, and cooperatively generating narratives, there’s nothing else like it.
4. It’s cheap.
D&D and other tabletop RPG’s (like Pathfinder, Fate, 13th Age, Numenera, Call of Cthulhu, and Runequest) can be expensive hobbies, but they don’t need to be. Resources for 3rd-edition are available for free under the Open Game License. To get started you need a group of people (ideally at least three and no more than seven), a rulebook or electronic rules document, polyhedral dice, a few miniatures, pencils and paper, a table and chairs, and plenty of time (at this point in my life the time is the most expensive element). Compared to almost any other form of entertainment, D&D is a bargain. A single night of clubbing in Vegas could easily set you back a grand. That much money invested in D&D gear would result in an epic collection of hardcover rulebooks, dice, miniatures, and terrain. It could even get you started on converting the spare bedroom into a medieval tavern.
5. The nerds won. So why not join them?
We’re in a strange cultural epoch. Watching Game of Thrones counts as mainstream entertainment, programming computers counts as a regular job, and jock types play a game called “Fantasy Football.” So D&D might be a notch less nerdy, relatively, than it was when I was growing up, because collectively we’re all nerdier. Some of my friends and family still shake their heads a little at my refusal to give up my nerdy childhood pastime, but mostly they get it; it’s entertainment.
THE REAL DANGER OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS
In the seventies, during D&D’s initial run of popularity, there were some hysterical reactions linking the game to devil worship and teenage suicides. These are the same people (mostly fundamentalist Christians) who are aghast at the popularity of Harry Patter (witchcraft!) and consider our culture to be awash in “occult influences.”
I agree that D&D is a threat to Christianity. Polytheistic pantheons are a part of the game, and I could see how reading Dieties & Demigods could lead to a relativistic view of religion (it did for me). To some Christians, this is a threat.
But overwhelmingly, role-playing games are a force for good. If you have any doubts about this, watch this video — it might change your mind.
But there is a real danger of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Sitting for hours, consuming soda and/or beer, and eating salty snacks is bad for the waistline and bad for cardiovascular health. D&D works best as a lifestyle element if there is some other outdoor/exercise-type hobby to mitigate the sedentary calorie consuming. Something like larping. Or for the hardcore types who aren’t afraid to lose a tooth, there’s this:
D&D and other tabletop RPGs are enjoying a surge in popularity. Sometime in the next year Wizards of the Coast will release their new edition of D&D (even more remarkably, Forbes is covering Dungeons & Dragons). Celebrities like Wil Wheaton and Vin Diesel have championed the game. Nerd culture in general in on the rise. I think we’ll see tabletop RPGs rise in popularity for some time. I predict they’ll steal “market share” from television and video games.
But if it doesn’t go that way, I’ll still play. D&D has been my favorite game for thirty years, and I don’t see why I can’t keep playing for at least another thirty.
What’s your favorite game that you keep coming back to, year after year? And why?