Dungeons & Dragons at 50: How the fantasy world can be a home for everyone

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It’s a world of mighty heroes and terrifying beasts, where the only limitation is your imagination.

Dungeons & Dragons – or D&D – the fantasy role-playing game has just turned 50 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past.

After seeing a big surge in popularity online during the pandemic, an estimated 50 million people now take part.

Even Hollywood is getting involved, with a film adaptation and its own D&D club run by Magic Mike star Joe Manganiello.

But as more people join, there is an effort by some to shape its future to make it a more inclusive space.

One band of adventurers hoping to change the way we see the game is Jeremy Cobb, Liv Kennedy, and Jasper William Cartwright, known on their podcast as the Three Black Halflings.

As well as playing the game, their show also looks at the intersection between D&D and black culture.

“Representation is so important to make you feel like something is accessible,” Jasper tells BBC Newsbeat.

“People like us have shown others that there’s a place within that space, which typically a brown person wouldn’t have looked at.”

On their podcast and in most of the worlds they create, Three Black Halflings say every character is black, even if the person playing them isn’t.

The hosts say it is to challenge some of the biases they’ve seen in traditional D&D and fantasy storylines which tend to be based on Tolkien’s more Eurocentric visions of a fantasy world from Lord of the Rings.

In that series, entire races can be aggressive and savage, which Jasper says echoes racist views of the past.

Artwork showing a fantasy world where five characters in robes are posing with a red dragon, in front of a village with flames coming from the housesIMAGE SOURCE, WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Image caption,

In D&D players team up with their friends to take on quests in a fantasy imagined world

He feels the podcast has helped him become more confident with himself, being able to discover new parts of his identity as someone with mixed heritage.

“A big part of it was feeling like I hadn’t been in contact with the black half of my heritage.

“I’ve now been able to think about who I am and incorporate whole sides to myself that I refused to let out as I felt a little bit ashamed because I didn’t feel black enough,” he says.

Wizards of the Coast – the company behind D&D – has now mostly done away with those traditional biases, with race no longer defining if a character is good or evil, which Jasper says “makes the game more interesting and exciting”.

There have, however, been recent controversies.

In 2022, the company apologized and announced all material would go through a series of inclusivity checks after one story included a race of sentient enslaved monkeys which were criticized as racist.

‘Delve into multiverses’

It’s not just ideas of race that D&D has encouraged some players to explore.

Liv feels it has become a safe space for queer people like her who can use the game as a place to experiment with both their sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the game, there are no limits on what gender you want your character to be or how they identify.

“It helped identify that side of myself. Being able to see what feels good is freeing,” she says.

Six actors including Hugh Grant and Chris Pine wear armour and cloaks and look down towards the ground at the cameraIMAGE SOURCE, WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Image caption,

Chris Pine and Hugh Grant starred in last year’s movie based on D&D

Jeremy thinks the reaction to D&D has shifted, with people more open to the idea of the game, even if they haven’t played it themselves.

That, he says, has a lot to do with it popping up more in popular culture.

“We’ve seen a similar shift to what happened with superheroes.

“At the beginning of the 2000s, it was still kind of uncool to be into superheroes. Most people had no idea who Iron Man was.

“But then in 2008 and 2009, they really came into prominence and suddenly it’s cool to like superheroes,” he says.

On YouTube and across streaming services, there are now shows specifically based on D&D stories, such as Amazon Prime’s The Legend of Vox Machina and Critical Role.

The Dungeons & Dragons movie with Chris Pine also received generally positive reviews.

In the gaming world, Baldur’s Gate 3 won game of the year at the 2023 Game Awards – surpassing expectations for a game based entirely on D&D mechanics.

A man wearing a white t-shirt and a flat cap and a ginger beard smiles at the camera in front of shelves with Dungeons and Dragons books on them
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Jake says D&D is becoming more popular at the shop he works at in Manchester

D&D’s growing popularity has been big business for shops like The Travelling Man in Manchester.

While the game can be played almost entirely in your imagination, there is plenty for new players and diehard fans to invest in.

That includes books with pre-written quests in them, small figurines to represent your character and lots and lots of dice – most importantly, the D20 – the name for a 20-sided die – which is used to generate random outcomes in the game.

Jake works at the shop and says he’s seen more interest in D&D, with “people from all age ranges and all walks of life” entering.

“It’s great to see people included in something that when it first started, wasn’t so palatable,” he says.

He feels new people who come into the shop then also return to expand their collection, including fans Jake describes as “dice goblins” who collect particularly colorful and interesting sets.

 

When he’s not at work, Jake plays D&D himself, represented on his quests by a cleric of the light domain.

“She’s a sister of Selûne, the God of the moon. Her role is to keep the party alive and dispel undead creatures.”

Looking to the future, Jake hopes D&D continues to grow.

“I would love to see it expand into space and delve into multiverses.

“A campaign where you run into alternate versions of your character. That would be fun to see,” he says.

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