At this point, we’ve all heard of Dungeons & Dragons. The game, which has enjoyed a dedicated cult following for decades, has lately seen its popularity lifted with the rising tide of nerd culture in the mainstream. It’s in Stranger Things, Community, and The Big Bang Theory; A-listers — Vin Diesel! Anderson Cooper! — dig it; general-interest media outlets are taking it increasingly seriously.
D&D is just one of a diverse family of games called “tabletop role-playing games” (often simply called “RPGs”), but it’s the only RPG that has managed to get significant traction in popular culture. Its fame is so far beyond its kin that multiple RPG experts I spoke with suggested that D&D’s brand has become virtually synonymous with the very concept of a tabletop role-playing game among the general public, achieving sole brand-name recognition like Kleenex or Xerox. But ironically, when it comes to advancing the popularity of the rest of the RPG medium, all this attention on D&D may actually be doing more harm than good.
First, let’s say what we mean when we talk about role-playing games. At base, an RPG is a group activity where players use rules and constraints to create a real-time narrative together. Each player develops and controls a character that they narrate for through an imagined world. That world, and the other characters within it, are described by a Game Master, who also administers the rules of the game. The GM is in turn guided by a book of rules that explain how the game world works and how to handle uncertainty — most commonly by rolling dice and interpreting the results.
The experience is somewhere at the nexus of writing a novel, playing a board game, and doing improv. The closest analogue might be role-playing video games like Final Fantasy — they share the same name, after all — but for RPG designer Chris McDowall, tabletop games offer even more possibilities. Video games are limited by their code, creating what McDowall calls “invisible walls.” In an RPG, he told me, “you can do anything, you can try anything. If you’ve got an idea for how you want the story to go, you can go off in a completely different direction.” The potential is virtually unlimited.
It’s a powerful selling point, and it’s what draws many people to Dungeons & Dragons. But those new to RPGs may find that they get more than they bargained for with D&D. Becky Annison, co-founder of the indie RPG studio Black Armada, has experimented with all kinds of RPGs for decades. “If there’s a form of role-playing game, I’ve probably tried it,” she told me. And in her judgment, D&D is a “terrible RPG to start [with].”
Annison explained that when it comes to D&D, the “barriers to entry are very high.” First off, you’ll need to drop nearly $100 on three large manuals that are canonically required to play. The bigger problem is what’s in those tomes. Running D&D requires you to “to internalize three hardback books-worth of complicated systems and lore,” Annison said. “That’s a huge investment of time and energy.” Those rules can significantly slow down the pace of play: When you’re learning D&D, Annison said there’s “hours and hours of, ‘oh, what do I roll again? Have you remembered to factor your encumbrance in?’”
RPG newcomers can find themselves overwhelmed by so many rules and systems. Unfortunately, they might not realize that there are alternatives, thanks to D&D’s dominance. But there’s a whole spectrum of RPG complexity. Chris Taylor, who co-founded RPG studio Rowan, Rook and Decard along with writing partner Grant Howitt, broke it down for me like this: On the “simulationist” end are games with “thousands of rules” and “incredibly complex systems,” more complex even than D&D. On the opposite side is the “rules-light” category, which Taylor and Howitt said they generally prefer to both write and play. Rules-light games feature simpler systems that emphasize playability and narrative experience. At the extreme edge of rules-light is the “one-pager,” an RPG which fits its entire handbook on a single sheet of paper. These are something of a personal specialty of Howitt’s, who for about three years has been releasing a monthly one-pager on Patreon.
I recently ran one of Howitt’s games, called Honey Heist, which he makes available on a choose-your-price basis. In the game, participants role play a crew of bears trying to rip off a honey convention à la Ocean’s Eleven. The rules are simple but elegant, featuring only two stats: Criminal and Bear. When you want to do bear stuff like mauling or climbing, you roll Bear. Otherwise, you roll Criminal. These stats fluctuate throughout the game, nudging you to approach obstacles in different ways to maximize your chance of success. For instance, if your Criminal stat is high, you might try to distract a security guard with a diversion, whereas a high Bear stat might inspire you to try to tear his arm off. There is just enough structure to keep the narrative rolling without letting the mechanics get in the way of the game’s gonzo premise.
Look, if fantasy is your scene, then great — you’ll probably love ‘D&D.’ ... But wizards and elves are simply never going to be everyone’s flagon of mead.
Another way that alternative RPGs can lower the ante for newcomers is by just taking less time to play. D&D, with its emphasis on incremental character growth, lends itself to long-form campaigns. Tony Carter, who has been playing RPGs for a decade, tells me that his longest D&D campaign spanned an estimated 100 hours over two years, broken up into sessions lasting 4-5 hours. It can be rewarding, if you’re able to maintain momentum. But because the same group of people need to be at each session, Carter told me that scheduling becomes “a huge part of the game.” When he runs a campaign, he might also need an hour or more of personal prep for each session. It’s a labor of love, but a time commitment nonetheless.
Enter the “one-shot,” an RPG meant to last only one session. If a campaign is like a multi-season television series, Carter said, then the one-shot is like a film. “They’re great for introducing someone to RPGs if they’re feeling leery about the commitment of joining a campaign,” he said. The lowered stakes let players experiment with different games: Playing a Howitt one-pager like Crash Pandas (think Fast and the Furious but raccoons) this week leaves you free next time to try the Star-Trekky one-pager Lasers and Feelings, or a horror one-shot like Ten Candles.
That brings me to another major misconception that D&D perpetuates about RPGs: that they’re necessarily high-fantasy. Look, if fantasy is your scene, then great — you’ll probably love D&D. And sure, cultural events like Game of Thrones have made major inroads for the genre; fewer people today seem to consider fantasy the exclusive domain of children and irredeemable geeks. But wizards and elves are simply never going to be everyone’s flagon of mead. Jacob Spafford, RPG devotee and lifelong fantasy fan, told me that even he resisted playing D&D as a kid, because it “felt like a last threshold into being super nerdy.”
It coasts on familiarity. And it’s not where the interesting things are happening.”
But like books or movies, RPGs are fundamentally genre-neutral. They can be used to tell all kinds of stories, be it pulp, romance, or even historical fiction. A good example of the last category is Night Witches, which is based around an actual night bomber regiment in World War II composed entirely of women. By night, you go on bombing missions of historically-accurate targets. By day, you might face interpersonal conflict, sexism, or discrimination back at the airbase. For instance, the Night Witches were relegated to biplanes that were 20 years out of date, making their already-dangerous missions all the riskier. Annison said that the game’s mechanics bring this to life: “When you’re playing the game, you get a real sense that the odds are against you. Every time you fly a mission, you’re very keenly aware that there’s a good chance that one of the characters is going to die, or that you’re going to smash up your plane.” It’s a visceral way to get immersed in a remarkable piece of history.
The point is, there’s an RPG for everybody. Annison said that the nature of the RPG scene is such that, whatever your favorite genre is, “there is likely to be a pretty cheap, easy-to-get-into role-playing game that emulates that genre.” So it would be a shame, she said, if newcomers “stopped at eating chocolate ice cream, without realizing that their favorite flavor was cherry.” For many of the people I talked to, D&D was not particularly high on the flavor list. “D&D is the corporate option these days,” said Spafford. “It coasts on familiarity. And it’s not where the interesting things are happening.”
That’s not to say that they dislike D&D, necessarily. I’ll speak for myself: I like it. I can buy into the rules, the time commitment, and the genre, and have a great time. But at the very least, that high buy-in can kneecap D&D’s effectiveness as an ambassador for its medium. As long as D&D hogs all the oxygen in popular culture, RPGs seem more likely to remain something you hear about, but never try, which is a shame for such a unique medium with such a vibrant scene.
So if you’ve ever thought about trying RPGs, know that you’ve got options. It’s worth doing a little research up front to find the flavor you’re most likely to enjoy. D&D may turn out to be your favorite anyway; it’s a classic for a reason. On the other hand, with such a variety of experiences out there, it might justifiably never occur to you to descend into the Dungeon at all, and that’s all right. I’m sure Anderson Cooper has it under control.