The Allure and Intrigue of Dungeons & Dragons

Jake Monaghan

Descending deeper underground, the red clay and mangroves that color the cityscape fade to a forlorn gray; the sounds of exotic birdsong fade with the dying light as you submerge yourself deeper into Del Solan’s bloody past. 

You step into what looks to be the main tunnel. The subdued ambience of the flagstones is drowned in the hungry gurgling of the river, whose muddied waters plunge forward into darkness, heedless of the many side paths that meander deeper into the catacombs. Vines cling to the vaulted walls. The shadow of a beast permeates the place-one long dead to the light of day. A darkness brooding ‘till the death of all matter. 

Waning, yet suffused with a natural beauty, the plant life thrives with an unnatural volition…

Dungeons & Dragons has, since its creation, been considered the epitome of nerdom. It conjures the image of geeks in an attic rolling icosahedrons and fighting through imaginary dungeons.  

Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop fantasy role-playing game, played collaboratively with a group of people. Each player at the table has a character represented by a stat sheet and ability scores. These characters then inhabit the imaginary world created for them by the Dungeon Master, the runner of the game and the arbiter of rules (hitherto known as the DM). With the DM’s guidance, the player characters form a party of adventurers to pursue quests and mysteries as the protagonists of the group’s collaborative story.

“The idea of doing things beyond what normal people are capable of and feeling like heroes is really cool,” said Novato High senior Link Henderson.

On the surface, the sort of entertainment that Dungeons & Dragons provides is not unlike more familiar forms of fantasy, be it video games or novels. In truth, the game offers much of the same as these other mediums in both its immersive storytelling and nuanced battle system.

The line of difference is drawn in Dungeons & Dragons collaboration. It’s a team game; not only in the ways that the adventures fight together to take down the realm’s deadliest foes, but in the unique group storytelling that only role-playing games can offer.

NHS senior Taylor Bernard explains this perfectly. 

“You take parts of your character from yourself and it creates this interesting way of getting to learn more of the people you’re interacting with, and then you all get to work together and you’re putting yourself a little out on the line. So you grow closer in that aspect,” said Bernard. 

Dungeons & Dragons, with its encyclopedic rulebooks and polyhedral dice, has always been the black sheep of the entertainment industry. The game’s more immersive aspects made it an easy target for reprimanding parents throughout the 1980s, during which it was suspected of being a gateway to pagan worship.

The Satanic Panic (as it is retroactively known) began in 1979 with the disappearance of Michigan State University sophomore, James Dallas Egbert III. Egbert was something of a prodigal student, entering college at the age of 16. After his sudden vanishing, his parents hired Private Investigator William Dear to find out the cause. 

Dear immediately latched onto the idea of Dungeons & Dragons as the ultimate problem. Believing that Egbert had become so enthralled with the game, he completely lost touch with reality, Dear began an exhaustive search of the school’s steam vents, believing that Egbert had wandered there thinking he was living out the game.

In truth, Egbert, who struggled with drug use and depression, ran away to escape the pressures of academic life. He commited suicide on August 16, 1980, while the media was still fascinated by the alleged idea of Dungeons & Dragons being a gateway to pagan worship.

In the modern day, however, the legacy of Dungeons & Dragons lives on. Nowhere is this success more apparent than on Critical Role, a show dedicated to talented voice actors playing the game. In March 2018, the team behind the show began a Kickstarter with a modest goal of raising $750,000. By the end of March, the team raised nearly $7 million, making it one of the most successful fundraisers ever run on Kickstarter.

This success is evident in the localest of ways. Many students at NHS have begun to see the ways in which Dungeons & Dragons compliments their artistic passions.

“It’s this really big mental gymnastics exercise to make people believe they are people that they’re not,” said Henderson.

“With theater, you’re acting off of a script, and with writing, you only ever see it on a page, so I think it’s a really cool fusion of the two and getting to see what you had in your head. So I think it’s cool to get to play out a story as it happens,” added Bernard.

The narratives created through the game are characteristically expansive, with the lore and culture being developed alongside the player character’s stories (an ongoing narrative told over multiple sessions is called a campaign. These adventures can often stretch into years of real time). The characters that the players inhabit over this time become more human with each session develop unique personalities complex motivations that mix with the conflicts of the narrative at large. 

When everything comes together, Dungeons & Dragons offers an experience wholly unlike any sort of conventional storytelling. The sense of immersion it creates lends some of the game’s more intense moments a potent emotional viscosity. Everyone familiar with it can recall at least one moment where a lucky dice roll produced fabulously unexpected results, or when a character’s untimely death immortalize them in the hearts and minds of those at the table.