Last year, Dungeons & Dragons players had to face a challenge no sword could slay and no spell could undo. Their much-beloved game -- one where the players come together to create tales of sorcery and high adventure -- was about to turn 30.
Instead of moping about it, which a lot of soon-to-be 30-year-olds tend to do, gamers everywhere decided to have a party. It was called National Dungeons & Dragons Game Day, and more than 1000 game and hobby stores across the globe hosted the event. On the big day, more than 25,000 people showed up.
Turns out that D&D is a little more popular than you might expect. And this year, it's expected to be even bigger.
Chances are you've heard of D&D. You might recall seeing the funny-looking dice role players use, or have a vague notion that D&D was something nerdy kids played back in the '80s, before video games got to be really good. You might even have decided that D&D is like a really complicated version of Monopoly for people who liked Lord of the Rings. (And, from a certain perspective, you'd pretty much be right -- though D&D's official Web site describes the phenomenon as "part acting, part storytelling, part social interaction and part war game" -- and they also mention the dice.)
Since their baby turned the big three-oh, though, the gaming community has become a lot more confident in itself. Stars Vin Diesel, Robin Williams, Moby, Matthew Lillard (best known for playing Shaggy in the Scooby Doo franchise) and The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert have all publicly embraced the game. In fact, pop culture references to D&D are becoming downright commonplace.
That's not all that surprising, however, given that more than 25 million people have played it.
"There was an issue of Rolling Stone a few months ago that had two separate references in it, because the bands they were profiling had D&D players in them," says Charles Ryan, the Brand Manager of D&D, from his office in Renton, Wash. "You see all these nods to the game out there, and you start to see that [it] really has become demystified a little bit."
It's quite a change from the days when gamers were cast somewhere between Chess Club geeks and Satanists on the counterculture totem pole. And few people know that better than Ryan.
"I started playing D&D in 1979, when I was a freshman in high school, so I certainly remember the stigma that went along with it," he says. "That has changed. ... In the early 1980s, people didn't know what this thing was. It was weird and different, and it wasn't what most people thought of as a game. Whenever D&D got press coverage, it was usually seen as a very odd thing."
But Ryan says having a three-decade-plus track record has helped alter public perception. And he notes that the upswing in fantasy entertainment -- the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchises in particular -- has gone a long way toward making D&D mainstream.
"The whole idea of being a geek has become more popular, or it's at least seen as making you less of an outsider," says Ryan. "When you watch The OC on television, or see movies like Napoleon Dynamite, you see these sorts of nerdy characters being presented as the heroes. They've become socially acceptable characters -- even role models. That's a pretty big turnaround from when I was a high-school nerd."
This Saturday, Wizards of the Coast -- the company that publishes D&D -- is promoting its second Dungeons & Dragons Game Day. According to Ryan, its new status as a mainstream hobby is making the game less and less prone to the fickle trends of the gaming marketplace. At 31, D&D is looking like it's going to stick around awhile.
Pondering the secret of the game's longevity, Ryan ventures that D&D "has a lot of strengths which have never really been replicated by any other form of entertainment.
"Even the most sophisticated electronic games are much more limited, because other people have set all the parameters," he points out. "D&D is the opposite of that -- the only parameters that are there are what you can imagine."