As a teenager in the 1980s, Charles Starrett spent hours playing Dungeons & Dragons with his pals but stopped after high school. His interest was rekindled as a father when he introduced basic role-playing games to his two daughters when they were six years old, and he also persuaded his wife, Jung, to play.
“They just gobbled it up,” Jung Starrett says of her daughters’ interest in D&D.
Now the couple and their now 14-year-old daughters, Sophia and Julia, gather around their Brookline dining room table regularly on weekends to toss polyhedral dice, slay orcs and hobgoblins, and tell an unpredictable, unfolding fantasy story, together.
As it turns 40 this year, the pioneering role-playing game (or “RPG”) appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance after a period of decline. Once the province primarily of white, suburban teen boys and young men, D&D is drawing a more diverse group of players, owing in part to the widespread popularity of fantasy books, films, and television shows. And a new update of the game is renewing interest among veteran players.
An estimated 20 million people have played the game and spent at least $1 billion on its products since D&D’s early days. But the game, which experienced strong growth throughout the 1970s and ’80s, began a slump in the 2000s. The game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, does not make sales figures available, but analysts say that RPG sales have been declining for years, partly supplanted by the surge in video games and Internet culture.
In response, Wizards, a Washington subsidiary of Providence toy-and-game giant Hasbro, launched a revamp of the game’s rules this year, informally known as “Fifth Edition,” that returns D&D to its story-based roots. The response has been positive.
“Nearly every player I’ve spoken to says they like the new rules,” says David Ewalt, author of “Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.” When one of the core rule books, the D&D “Player’s Handbook,” was published in August, it climbed to the top of Amazon sales charts and hit number one on both Publisher’s Weekly and Wall Street Journal’s hardcover nonfiction lists.
Distributors and retailers say the new edition is selling better than expected, says Milton Griepp, founder and CEO of ICv2, a publication that covers geek culture. “And expectations were high.”
Nationally, and locally, retailers are saying the new edition is doing well and drawing players to game nights. John Beresford, books manager at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, reports that the store’s weekly in-store D&D events have grown by at least 25 percent. “Fifth edition is getting a lot of nostalgia gamers back in to take a look and is also drawing in a number of new gamers,” he says.
Unlike the last edition, released in 2008, the new D&D focuses less on mimicking video game-like action and combat, and more on ease of play, role-playing, and narrative. Also making the game more accessible, the rules ask players to consider characters who do “not conform to the broader culture’s expectations of sex, gender, and sexual behavior.” Your 12th level wizard might be gay.
In addition to getting a boost from the game update, D&D and other RPGs are also finding fresh player bases.
“There’s been a real expansion of the audience in recent years,” says Ewalt. When Ewalt went to his first game convention 20 years ago, the attendees were largely white, male, ages 15 to 40. When he attended the massive role-playing game and tabletop game convention called GenCon this summer in Indianapolis, “there were men and women, kids and adults, and people of all races and cultures.’’
Liz Schuh, head of publishing and licensing for Dungeons & Dragons, agrees. “We are seeing a broad mix of ages playing D&D today,’’ she says. “The game spans generations, as parents introduce their kids to the game that inspired them as kids.’’
One reason new audiences are embracing D&D is that so many of its key concepts are already familiar to a generation steeped in video games. D&D spawned a legion of game designers and programmers, and the industry borrowed heavily from D&D tropes such as outfitting characters, leveling up, cooperative game play, representing character traits as statistics, fantasy battles, dungeon environments, and controlling avatars.
D&D also benefits from the popularity of fantasy entertainment such as the “Lord of the Rings,” “Hobbit” and “Harry Potter’’ books and movies, and hit TV shows like “Game of Thrones.” As in the case of video games, the appetite for consuming fantasy worlds is one that D&D actually had a role in nurturing.
A whole generation of screenwriters, novelists, directors, musicians, and actors who once played D&D — including Stephen Colbert, the late Robin Williams, Matt Groening, Vin Diesel, and George R. R. Martin — have proudly embraced their basement-dwelling days as a nerdy badge of honor.
“All those kids who were obsessed with the game in the early 1980s have grown up, and many of them entered creative pursuits because D&D got them excited about telling stories and creating adventures,” says Ewalt.
The game’s imaginative reach extends beyond popular entertainment. “Gaming certainly provided me with an imaginative praxis that helped prepare me for the imaginative praxis of being a writer,” says Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and MIT professor whose group played D&D in the 1980s. “The game was an important source of solace, inspiration, learning excitement and play for us.”
Chris Robichaud, author of “Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy” and a D&D veteran since age 10, is bringing RPGs into the classroom as a learning tool. At the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he is a lecturer in ethics and public policy, Robichaud has been teaching D&D-like simulation called Patient Zero. “I wanted to give policymakers the creative, outside-the-box thinking opportunities that only a tabletop design with a gamemaster at the helm could really create,” says Robichaud, who believes his game “has the distinction” of being Harvard’s first “zombie pandemic tabletop simulation.”
The potential educational benefits are not lost on younger players. Back at the Starrett home, Julia and Sophia say they play primarily because it’s fun, but the game has also imparted valuable life skills.
“I have the reputation as a walking dictionary, which I got from playing D&D,” says Sophia, who has been blogging about “the benefits of playing D&D.” Beyond building your vocabulary, the two sisters reel off myriad other boons. The game improves critical thinking, decision-making, spatial intelligence, and team-building.
“In D&D, if you’re going to succeed,” says Julia, “you have to be part of a group of very diverse individuals all going for the same goal.”
Indeed, the role-playing game is a perfect tool for forging communities and connections “which can further knit our society together,” says dad Charles. “We can even explore living a life as someone who believes quite differently from how we actually believe, which increases understanding and empathy towards those who differ from ourselves.”
Like a warrior after an epic battle, D&D has survived to fight again — and its players hope it will keep on rolling for another 40 years.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com .