Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Just who plays Dungeons & Dragons these days?

Liam O'Brien, Joe Manganiello, Marisha Ray, and Matt Mercer (Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Dungeons & Dragons)

The strangest thing about being in a room playing Dungeons & Dragons with Joe Manganiello, star of the Magic Mike movies and True Blood, is that no one here finds it odd. The actor-producer is still required to test his mettle in battles that grow increasingly dramatic and perilous, especially once game designer Chris Perkins joins the melee. None of his fellow adventurers is looking for an autograph or photo op; all they want to know is whether they can rely on Randy The Savage, his barbarian character, to get out of their latest scrape.

Such is the scene at the Stream Of Annihilation, a two-day event created by D&D developers, Wizards Of The Coast, to promote the newest storyline, Tomb Of Annihilation. The title should ring a few bells, as the upcoming adventure is rooted in the lore of Tomb Of Horrors, one of the most popular—and deadly—modules ever produced by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. It certainly holds a lot of promise for all the tabletop gamers who were invited to Seattle to test out offshoots of the storyline for the weekend-long streaming event. Popular YouTube and Twitch-based groups like Maze Arcana, Misscliks, and Dice, Camera, Action (which the aforementioned Perkins hosts), descended upon the Pacific Northwest from June 2-3 for high-rolling fun with some of the folks from Wizards. Twitch broadcasters Kelly Link and Misscliks co-founder Anna Prosser are hosting the D&D streaming weekend, herding players in and out of the studio for interviews, whether or not their characters survived the latest adventure.

In addition to product announcements to tempt the already initiated, Stream Of Annihilation also offers the dungeon curious a window into the fantasy game that, despite having been around for over 40 years, remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. At least, that’s the sense I’ve always gotten. Although I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons—my older brother introduced my three sisters and me to the game when the youngest girl in my family was 6—it was rare to meet anyone else who did. Granted, this was back in the ’80s (and early ’90s), when Satanic panic followed D&Dand Tom Hanks—around. That had mostly died down by the time I submitted my makeshift Monster Manual for the sixth grade Young Authors competition, but my bad drawings of my neighborhood bugbears still raised a lot of eyebrows. I remember trying to explain just how these paladins, goblins, and yes, dragons came to life on graph paper with nothing but rolls of the dice, but I just ended up learning the school’s anti-gambling policy.

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Anyone who’s played Dungeons & Dragons knows the game is not a gateway to Satan, or even casinos. For my siblings and me, it was an inexpensive yet thoroughly engaging hobby. We learned about strategy, teamwork, probability, and even death while fighting our way through lairs and castles. It sounds a bit grandiose, but I can also say the same about my copies of Little Women, Lord Of The Rings, and perhaps more appropriately, the Dragonlance paperbacks whose spines we reinforced with duct tape.

When my brother left for college, he took the campaigns with him, and that was it for D&D and me until recently. I have a fitfully productive campaign going with friends, and my job has also brought me back into the fantasy fray. But even though I’m surrounded by pop culture obsessives these days, and tabletop gaming in general has exploded in popularity (thanks in part to streaming), Dungeons & Dragons still appears to be a nerdy bridge too far for some folks. Well, not for A.V. Club deputy managing editor Caity PenzeyMoog, who admits she’s “a late D&D bloomer: I didn’t start playing until college, when I met my now-husband at the student newspaper, where several other lapsed D&D players also worked.” Whether it’s because she’s a more recent convert, Caity digs her husband’s dungeon master style, which is “very freeform and experimental.” They did previously play in campaigns that were “more traditional, albeit with far more puzzles and games than the typical game. I played as a gnome bard, probably the most worthless combination there is, but it takes the pressure off performing and lets you learn how to play when there’s little pressure to be an integral part of the party.”

There are a few other high rollers in A.V. Club contributor Samantha Nelson and illustrator extraordinaire Nick Wanserski, the latter of whom helped me review Volo’s Guide To Monsters earlier this year. But overall, I’d still be hard-pressed to put together a campaign. Although rooted in the same fantasy material that’s made Game Of Thrones a rating juggernaut, roleplaying games like D&D seem to have too high a bar for entry for newcomers, whether it’s all the rules and math involved (which can be ameliorated by house rules), or seeing the whole thing as playing dress-up or make believe with your friends.

So when I found myself in Seattle’s House Studios, surrounded by people who’d been playing together for weeks and in some cases years, I had to ask what they think is keeping people from just diving in. Is it misconceptions about the game, or the players? Are they worried they can’t find enough people to start a campaign? (Roll20 has helped make it almost a moot point.) Or is it really about the (nonexistent) mark of the devil?

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The cast of Maze Arcana (Photo: Mat Hayward/Getty Images for Dungeons & Dragons)

Manganiello acknowledges but dismisses the demon ties; he thinks most people just don’t really know what the game’s about. But he breaks down what they’re really getting into:

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“Where I grew up, the people who played D&D were insanely creative. If you think about it, the job of the dungeon master is the equivalent of a showrunner on a TV series. You’re tasked with creating a storyline or narrative that’s potentially going to run for years. That’s the responsibility, it’s the same mechanism.”

The actor, who’s set to play Deathstroke in The Batman, never balked at or registered the presumed nerdiness of the game. But Manganiello says it helped him develop his storytelling skills, which have since translated into a successful career in Hollywood as a producer and writer. He effuses over the game throughout the weekend, herding others into pickup games in the green room when not on camera with Wizards Of The Coast’s Mike Mearls, senior manager of research and development, and Chris Perkins, chief game designer. So it’s not hard to believe that he’s written a script for a D&D movie with a playwright friend and fellow Carnegie Mellon alum. He couldn’t elaborate on whether the script was being shopped around or in development, but it’s obvious that it’s a passion project for him. He describes the idea of leaving 40 years of great stories on a shelf as a “great travesty.”

Manganiello isn’t the only celebrity there, either from the acting or gaming world. The Annihilation event contains multitudes, including actors Matthew Lillard, Dylan Sprouse, and Abraham Benrubi. Twitch users will undoubtedly recognize Satine Phoenix, Jeffrey Shih, Nadja Otikor, Liam O’Brien, and Taliesin Jaffe. Matt Mercer, the man of a thousand voices and host of Critical Role, is following up his work on Force Grey: Giant Hunters by serving as dungeon master for the Girls, Guts, Glory streaming session.

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This Los Angeles-based group is made up of six actresses who regularly post videos of their campaign to YouTube, though this is their first time live streaming. Kim Hidalgo, Alice Greczyn, Allie Gonino, and Sujata Day were all novices before their current campaign started, while Erika Fermina and Rachel Seeley had already played together for years. Because they’re all personable and working actresses, Hidalgo says they encountered comments early on that wondered if they weren’t just models who’d been hired to play the game. They all laugh off the idea of sponsored content, but admit they don’t really fit the D&D player stereotype. Though, like so many other players, both here and elsewhere, they were drawn to the communal aspect of the game and the collective storytelling.

Tomb Of Annihilation promo art (Image: Wizards Of The Coast)
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Looking around the studio and green room, it’s hard to find anyone who fits the awkward, reclusive image usually associated with roleplaying games—and really, most nerd subcultures. With all the costuming and conviviality, it almost feels like a nerd prom. Although some people are tucked away, working on character sheets or even campaigns, there’s a lot of socializing going on between sessions. When meals are served, people who just had their asses handed to them in the Meat Grinder sit next to folks like Australia’s Dragon Friends, who are wearing suits, for crying out loud.

When asked whether the mythical D&D nerd and the attendant stigma live on, Dylan Sprouse says no. The actor says he and his twin brother, Cole, have played for the last 10 years, with Dylan taking on the role of dungeon master. He admits that it could be a generational thing, but he’s never encountered “any stigma or weirdness. People who play D&D are very open minded. Now I think if you asked me that question 20, 30 years ago, it would have been a way different answer. But I think the popularizing of pop culture and video games and ‘geekiness,’ whatever that means, has really made people more understanding of gaming like this.”

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When your dungeon master looks like an elven prince (Dylan Sprouse; Photo: Danette Chavez)

Twin Peaks revival cast member Matthew Lillard echoes Sprouse’s statements about the disappearing stigma around geeky pursuits like D&D. The two actors also had similar thoughts about the fantasy genre enjoying a renaissance, which is hard to argue with after Peter Jackson took home multiple Oscars for The Lord Of The Rings movies, and Game Of Thrones is dominating the ratings and Emmys. And both Lillard and Sprouse also talked up the face-to-face interaction—so necessary when we’re all otherwise staring at screens—and the group storytelling. Another common theme, whether I’m talking to TV or Twitch stars, is the overlap between roleplaying games and acting or even improv comedy. They all require a lot of creativity, adaptability, and passion, all of which are in abundance here.

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Going back to the game’s reputation and misconceptions: the various players and hosts of the weekend’s gameplay show just how much the old gender split has changed. Shelly Mazzanoble, the brand manager for Avalon Hill (another Wizards product), says the game always appealed to her, but even in her own experience saw that it was kind of a boys club early on. But though the customer base was overwhelmingly male (not to mention white), Mearls and Nathan Stewart, senior director of D&D, note that it’s now more like 60-40. Though that ratio still favors men, Mearls, Stewart, and Perkins are optimistic about that number eventually being evenly split. They all agree that inviting in more perspectives, from women and people of color, keeps the game feeling expansive.

Since this is a marketing event, it does occur to me that this could just be Wizards putting its best face forward, but there’s proof all around us. About half the players here are women, with a couple serving as dungeon master. And even though the customer base is still mostly white, according to Wizards, there are people of color in several of the gaming groups, including Nadja Otikor, Jeffrey Shih, and Satine Phoenix. Though these Twitch broadcasters are all too aware of the white, male nerd or geek stereotype, they also know that female nerds and nerds of color have always been around. Still, they’re happy to stretch or blow up the definitions of “nerd” and “geek.”

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Which isn’t to say that there isn’t room for improvement, or that Wizards isn’t primarily responsible for leading the charge. The customer base might have widened significantly, but the makeup of the creators and staff remains a reflection of the game’s early adopters. But the game developers have acknowledged the lingering divide, and are working to close it. In addition to engaging with players through social media and streaming (which make up Stewart’s wheelhouse), there’s the Dungeon Masters Guild, which has helped boost the number of women DMs. Perkins says all these new viewpoints, including those housed in this online group, have actually had an effect on the storytelling at the source, with the result being more “LGBTQ characters. More women in leadership positions.” Just as the weekend’s attendees bucked the old nerd convention, D&D’s shepherds refuse to adhere to past iterations of medieval fantasy: “We have changed our world. D&D worlds aren’t a perfect reflection of medieval Earth, and we wouldn’t want them to be, because I think that would disenfranchise a large part of audience.”

As the weekend draws to a close after two 12-hour blocks of streaming and announcements, including the upcoming release of Xanathar’s Guide and a new season of Force Grey, I go over my notes. Quotes jump out at me, as do running themes, and it occurs to me that, despite not arriving with a group of my own, I never once felt like an outsider. There’s the professional remove required by my job, of course, but I’ve nonetheless taken part in the group storytelling we’ve all been touting. A narrative has come together organically, in much the same way it does during a campaign—although, after nearly 24 hours, I should probably have at least conquered the Tomb Of Annihilation, which is after all what brought us out here in the first place. But as is so often the case with D&D, the journey’s what’s most important. What was a nerd prom turned into a nerd homecoming.

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