I remember during my time as a counter monkey at my friendly local game store, I had been brought on to sell RPG’s. As a bright-eyed, fresh-out-of-high-school teenager, I thought D&D would never see a major player base in my small town. Then little by little, I started to see more and more kids, who couldn’t have been much older than 14-16 years old coming into the shop when school let out for the day. This was a bit mystifying to me at the time. When did this hobby I’d been playing for years suddenly become big enough that I had as many as four distinct groups of players coming together to play at our tables every week?
RPGs, and especially Dungeons and Dragons have attracted a larger and larger swath of the youth since D&D 5th edition hit the scene in 2014. According to an infographic published by GameRant, Dungeons and Dragons has a player base of 36% between the ages of 15 and 25. Surely a big portion of D&D 5th’s popularity among Gen Z is attributable to its increased presence in popular culture through shows like CriticalRole and Stranger Things. But this is hardly the first time that D&D has appeared in the media: I can remember watching Freaks and Geeks when I was a wee lad and seeing D&D for the first time. If you asked any wizened old veteran of our weird basement-gremlin, play-pretend, hobby fugazi whether they thought there would be big budget television using villains from their sourcebooks, they might have laughed in your face twenty years ago. But that’s not a fantasy anymore, just the world we live in.
I think it takes a lot more than representation of the hobby to draw people to the game and keep them there. That’s what I’m hoping to highlight with this article. Clearly something has changed since the burgeoning days of our fantasy game, something that managed to not just pull new players in, but keep them coming back for more. The easy answer is to say that newer RPGs make accessibility a priority, but I say there’s a deeper value to the tabletop-roleplaying hobby that doesn’t get covered nearly as often.
So what is it that draws so many people to RPG’s? Why does every college campus have a DND group? What’s the secret magnetic force that brings people into basements, living rooms, and libraries to engage in a bit of play pretend in the fantasy realm? I don’t know if this is universal, but when I was a kid, and life got to be a bit too much, I would frequently sneak out to my backyard or down to my basement, and run off to some fantasy world I’d crafted in my head. Some of my greatest epiphanies about life, myself, and about the world around me came from taking some time to explore the world inside my imagination.
Life is rough, and sometimes we need a healthy way to deal with the struggles and strife of the human experience. Role Playing games give us a safe environment to grapple with the ugliness of the real world. Free of consequence or the weight of our more genuine struggles. If you, like me, found yourself struggling with the nasty reality of armed conflict brought out by the war in Ukraine, it can be nice to imagine a perfect fantasy world where the good guys always prevail when war comes to their door.
RPGs are escapism, and that’s a good thing.
Everyone, to some degree, wants to break free from a life that can often be discouraging, disheartening, and disquieting. If you watch movies, read comic books, play video games, hell, if you watch professional sports, you can understand the value in using entertainment to escape our far-too unkind world for a time. It’s not hard to understand, especially given our recent social and cultural environment, why coming together with your friends to forget the real world is a positive experience.
There have been a healthy few times throughout my life, probably after I stopped playing pretend, where I’ve wanted to pull the blanket over my head and hide under the bed. When I discovered my first roleplaying game, I didn’t feel like I needed to pull the linens tight and sequester myself away from the hideousness of life around me. I could get away from this world for a while. This is the value that people find in these games. For a few hours, we are not living the mundane life of an average joe. We’re paladins who raise a gleaming sword against mighty foes, we’re futuristic hackers breaking into corporate mainframes, we’re space pirates piloting our starcraft to fight back a horde of alien bugs.
It’s nice to escape from the world every now and again.
There’s a simple beauty in the rich fictional worlds humans can craft. Imagination, and the ability to entertain ourselves in a complex way, is one of the most uniquely human things one can think of. Too often, as we grow old and jaded, we lose sight of the value of sitting in our yard, going on adventures only we can see, battling monsters and villains we created in our head. RPG’s have brought back some of those young days we can all remember. This is what brings new people to the DND table; this is what it is about RPGs that sinks its claws into us and keeps us there for life. Role Playing games suggest that we might be able to carry a small bit of our childhood with us forever.
So what am I getting at here? What makes roleplaying games valuable? For those who remain on the fence, those who think tabletop games carry no value, I’d like to ask that you put yourself back into your childhood headspace for a beat. Think about those times when you and your friends got together to play games using nothing but your imagination. You swung sticks at one another and imagined they were mighty swords in a struggle of good versus evil. That’s a beautiful, simple thing that children do, and that same beauty can be found in carrying imagination with you into adulthood.
It’s easy to be driven away from RPGs because they seem so intimidating. There seems to be such an enormous barrier to entry. I encourage you to consider games like Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire The Masquerade to be just like playing with your friends again. If you want a series of games that are a little bit lighter fare, I recommend Tiny Library RPG; a small deck of 50 bite-sized RPG’s that cover their rules in a space no bigger than a business card each (Check it out in this lovely article by Ian Howard). No matter what your interest or skill-level, there is a game for you. Come together with your loved ones to share in a beautiful little story whose only consequences end when you return to the real world.
It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be consistent, and it doesn’t even have to be well written. It can just be time spent with your friends and family. Carry imagination with you for as long as you can. Grip onto those epic tales of human struggle until your knuckles go white. Take comfort in knowing that there is this lovely pastime that you can use to figure out all those little insecurities and fears the same way we did in our backyards as children.
Cheers everyone! Thanks for reading! I hope to catch one or two of you around the table real soon!