Since its creation in America in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has become THE standard fantasy role-playing game.
Sat around a table and powered by ready-made stories or the imagination of a ‘dungeon master’ (DM), a party of adventurers take part in a quest, using rules laid down in the game’s handbooks. Some DMs use maps, or floor layouts with figurines to represent the players, but imagination and a willingness to surrender to the concept are key.
Games can run for weeks, months, even, as they embark on lengthy ‘campaigns’ with characters gaining extra attributes as they advance through different levels.
For long periods it has been associated with geek culture – kept on the fringes, derided even. It has also been subject to controversies – tied in with moral panics about Satanism and suicide (both disproved).
But there are times when it has figured in the mainstream: the brothers in ET are shown playing it; there is a fondly remembered 1980s cartoon which aired here on the BBC; it often pops up in sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory, and there was a not-so-fondly-remembered 2000 film which was a box office turkey.
However, with the more recent huge success of the Lord of The Rings and Hobbit film series and Game of Thrones on Netflix, it looks like fantasy epics are with us to stay.
Indeed, a trailer for a new big-budget D&D film, Honour Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine, Hugh Grant and Michelle Rodriguez has already racked up more than 16m views since it was released last week.
The game has also been seeing a surge of interest thanks to another cultural phenomenon – the runaway Netflix success, Stranger Things. D&D has been an integral part of the plot of the sci-fi/horror show’s latest series. Set in 1986, it features a D&D group called The Hellfire Club and taps into the real-life Satanic panic of the time.
And of course, a special Stranger Things edition of D&D has now hit the shelves to capitalise on the boost.
Wizards of The Coast, the owners of D&D claim there are now more than 50m players worldwide.
And among those are the players who get together for weekly sessions Retro Gameplay in High Street, Cosham. With DM Alastair Russell at the helm, the seven-strong team are currently on a campaign which saw them recently narrowly survive a bruising encounter with an extremely powerful demonic entity...
Jo Barratt, 51, is Retro’s business manager, and a recent convert – she plays as a cleric dwarf. ‘I got involved in D&D here,’ she says, ‘I watched a couple of sessions that we held and I saw people come along as individuals, on their own, but by the time they'd finished the session, they left the room friends, exchanging numbers, having a great laugh.‘I was amazed how people could come together over one game, and it seemed like such a positive experience for everybody.
‘People don't have to be themselves, they can be a character – they can forget all their burdens in the real world and be this character in another world for a couple of hours a week.
‘I could see what a difference it made to them. Some would go in so insecure and come out really confident, almost like they'd known each other for years. That made me think, I wanted to see what it's all about.’
The role of the Dungeon Master (DM)
Alastair, 26, first encountered in 2016, when he moved into a shared house where they had a weekly D&D night, with up to 12 people taking part.
‘Eventually I got addicted to it, and started DMing as well. Ever since, I've always been trying to find people to play with – I just really enjoy telling stories.
‘The whole draw for me is telling stories and facilitating a group dynamic which allows them to problem-solve something that I've come up with. There's just a massive sense of fulfilment to that.’
The DM is in charge of guiding the story, but needs to be flexible based on the players’ actions.
Jo says: ‘As a player you get a lot of surprises as you don't know what's planned for you...
Team-mate Becky Hartt (plays as a half-orc) finishes: ‘...until you see him smile, and you're like: “Oh no, why are you smiling?”’
‘The DM knows what's coming up when you decide to go left rather than right,’ continues Jo, ‘he knows what's in store. It's quite a lot of pressure I think as the DM – a lot of planning goes into it.
‘It's basically about storytelling, and getting people to live your story for you.’
Becky explains how she took up D&D: ‘I joined another group of friends last July. They had two spots free, so me and my partner joined. We jumped in halfway through their campaign, straight in at level seven,’ all new character usually start at level one, ‘so we were overwhelmed. I saw Jo's advert for beginner sessions, and that helped us fill in the blanks for what we didn't know – learning the foundations.’
The inclusive side of D&D
For the players, the social, inclusive side of it is a big draw. While there is an online side to D&D, the players at Retro agree, nothing beats playing in person.
‘The community as a whole is very supportive of each other and really like sharing ideas and collaborating,’ says Alastair. ‘The community for it is huge, and everyone is pulling to support each other. It's super-inclusive too.’
Jo adds: ‘People can come along who are perhaps non-neurotypical and find themselves among friends and I think more than any other social event, D&D is really inclusive in that regard.’
The group’s veteran is Jo’s husband Nick (plays as a half-elf druid): ‘I first played when I was 13/14 – about 40 years ago! I played the basic edition and Advanced D&D for a number of years in the ’80s, then left it. I only came along to this because Jo was worried there wouldn't be enough people at the first session, and I enjoyed it, so I stayed.
‘It's a very different game to the one I played back then, but it's the same principles.’
The more complex Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, was created in 1977 but was eventually folded into the third edition, released in 2000. The game is now on its fifth edition, released in 2014.
One aspect of the game which has enhanced its nerdiness, is the reliance on dice – with anything from four to 20 sides. The roll of a dice can determine anything from the outcome of a fight to whether a spell sparkles or fizzles out, or you found the hidden treasure in a room.
‘A lot of people don't like to do maths on their downtime,’ says Alastair, ‘which is fair enough, and then they see dice and numbers and are like: “No, that's not for me”. But it's literally just rolling a dice and then adding a number to it, or is your dice roll higher than their dice roll? That's all you have to do.
’People are shocked at how simple it actually is.’
Some people also get hung up on thinking acting is a crucial part of the game.
Alastair, who is known to dabble in different voices for the various characters he has created as DM, explains: ‘That's another thing that worries some people – what do I do about my character? Do I have to role-play them? Well, no. I have a simple home rule, everything you say is in character, so you don't have to worry about putting on a voice, or worry about what they would say. Everything you say in the moment is what your character is saying in the game, because that's how you would react, and how your character would react.’
‘If you need to talk to me in a straightforward way, just put your hand on your head, and then I know you're not talking in character. Just little things like that help people figure out what they're doing and where they're going.’
Jo says they have recently noticed younger children wanting to get involved. ‘It's probably because of the influence of Stranger Things and people are hearing about it more, but we're getting a lot of inquiries from parents of kids who are 10 or 11 who want to learn D&D.
‘We did a couple of sessions in the last half-term that was geared towards kids – it was a much simpler character sheet, a two-hour session with a short story, and some plastic figures to go by. And they loved it.’
It gave Jo her first foray into being a DM: ‘You have to a be a good storyteller and be ready to guide people through the story that you want to tell, but also give them room to do what they want.
‘At one point in the story they were supposed to rescue a princess. One group of boys killed the princess straight away, but another group, there was this one lad, he would find out how to cure the all of the evil creatures that the others were fighting, and befriending them.
‘I thought I would reward’ that behaviour, so he ended up with a small armada of strange creatures that would follow him.
‘You never know what you're going to get.’