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Dungeons & Dragons: The journey from a basement game to a multi-media empire


Death, dramatic distractions and dark wizards: the new Dungeons & Dragons movie successfully adapts aspects of the famous tabletop game of the same name to the big screen.

To make US$71 million (A$106 million) worldwide and pull out the top box on opening weekend, Dungeons & Dragons: honor among thieves is a film that follows a group of thieves who must choose between heroism and wealth to overthrow an evil sorceress.

The film is one of the latest examples of a largely well received customization of the game. It knows which parts of the game are best represented through the movie medium: sprawling fantasy landscapes and visual depictions of magic and monsters. It also knows which parts are best left out for movie audiences, such as continued dice and elaborate meta-narratives.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is a great example of why the Dungeons & Dragons storytelling world has been around and thriving for so many years: its adaptability to a wide variety of different mediums and storytelling styles.

What is Dungeons & Dragons?

Originally published in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons (also popularly known as D&D) is a tabletop role-playing game where groups of players meet to play characters, fight monsters, and pretend play with their friends – usually using dice to decide how things play out.

Although traditionally played on a physical tabletop, online D&D game has become more common and is an accessible alternative for players who cannot participate in person.

Historically, Dungeons & Dragons have often been viewed as a complex high fantasy hobby and stigmatized when associated with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. This association started when unproven claims the death of two teenagers back to their Dungeons & Dragons game.

However, the game’s reputation, rules, and player base have evolved since then, and it is experiencing a modern resurgence in play and popularity.

Read more: ‘Satanic worship, sodomy and even murder’: how Stranger Things revived America’s 1980s satanic panic

While there are officially published game rules that help guide gameplay, Dungeons & Dragons publishers have consistently emphasized the importance of imagination and collaboration. They have encouraged players to tailor their games to their own interests by developing rules that allow for this different types of gameplay are valid. The most recent release of the player’s handbook even states:

D&D is your personal corner of the universe, a place where you are free to do whatever you want (…) Read the rules of the game and the story of its worlds, but always remember that you are the one who made them brings life. They are nothing without the spark of life you give them.

A table game from Dungeons & Dragons.
Wikimedia, CC DOOR

The modern trend of transmedia storytelling

In his book about converging culturemedia scholar Henry Jenkins describes ‘transmedia storytelling’ as telling a story in multiple formats.

At a time when we are consuming greater amounts of content across various digital and non-digital platforms, transmedia storytelling provides audiences with multiple access points to media properties based on their own preferences. In addition to the strong financial motives, transmedia storytelling also delivers content to audiences that might not otherwise have been targeted or interested.

Dungeons & Dragons has been extensively modified over the years, and many of these representations have brought more interest and attention to the original game.

Although the animated TV series from the early 80’s and the original trilogy of Dungeons & Dragons movies from the 2000s received critical reviews, both adaptations leaning into the strong visual affinity of their respective mediums.

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The 1983 animated series Dungeons & Dragons focuses on a group of six friends from Earth who are transported to the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.

This can also be seen in The record of Lodoss war. The independently created series originated as a published campaign log of a Japanese Dungeons & Dragons game. It has since grown into a multimedia franchise with manga, animation, and video game adaptations.

Really play is a term used to describe how people play tabletop role-playing games, such as D&D in front of audiences. It is growing into one of the most popular types of content for live streaming and podcast media.

Notable and popular examples of real-play D&D adaptations include The adventure zone, Important role, Dimension 20 And The Dragonfriends. The stories told can range from classic Dungeons & Dragons campaigns to unique and custom stories that simply use the rules system.

While varying in genre, runtime, and production methods, these real-life representations of Dungeons & Dragons games appeal to an audience interested in the players and the game of Dungeons & Dragons as much as the stories, characters, or worlds that are explored.

Dungeons & Dragons in Popular Culture

In addition to the game’s fantasy worlds and gameplay dynamics, Dungeons & Dragons’ capacity for social connection and personal growth is also featured in popular culture and media.

Stranger things, Freaks and Geeks And Community are just a few examples of how popular media has successfully integrated the social dynamics of Dungeons & Dragons play.

Characters in these shows use the game to develop skills to overcome various challenges or to connect with others. Research has indicated that representations of Dungeons & Dragons in popular culture have helped reshape perceptions of the game and likely played a role in the modern revival of the game.

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Dungeons & Dragons game pictured in Netflix’s Stranger Things.

The continued importance of D&D’s open gaming license

Dungeons & Dragons content and media is not created or distributed exclusively by the game’s official publishers. The game has been around since 2000 open game license (known as the OGL) has allowed the public to create content that is compatible with some of the game’s core mechanics.

However, the longevity of original and independently created content was jeopardized earlier this year when a new version of the license was proposed. This version of the OGL was seen as more restrictive and anti-competitive than the original version, leaving the future of Dungeons & Dragons adaptations unknown.

What we do know is that Dungeons & Dragons is experiencing a resurgence in play and popularity as it is able to tap into the way audiences currently consume content: in multiple forms and through different narratives.

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