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Amid a pandemic and a racial reckoning, ‘D&D’ finds itself at an inflection point

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Victoria Rogers got in trouble when she started playing Dungeons and Dragons online. It was the mid-1990s, and Rogers, unable to find people to play the tabletop fantasy roleplaying game as it’s traditionally done, played over a bulletin board system (BBS) powered by her home dial-up connection.

“It was all text-based,” she said. “It was like writing a novel and everyone would take turns posting written descriptions of what they’re doing.”

Games of Dungeons of Dragons (D&D), where people control characters on open-ended adventures based on rules, stats and dice rolls, can famously eat up entire afternoons. But Rogers’s childhood sessions were even longer than usual.

“One scene could take three hours to type out,” Rogers said. It wasn’t long until she flew past her family’s 50-hours-a-month Internet package. Strict limits were imposed from then on.

Today, Rogers still goes online to play games designed to be played in-person. She’s the dungeon master (the host and arbiter of a D&D game) of The Broadswords, an all-woman and non-binary D&D podcast whose players first met on a fitness subreddit. Since her BBS days, tabletop gaming has become a lot more popular, and the online infrastructure supporting it has grown more robust. The game has also seemingly transcended some of its stereotypes: it’s played in maximum security prisons and analyzed by dramaturges, a far cry from the image of preteen nerds roleplaying in a basement.

But this growth spurt has come with concurrent pains. Amid a pandemic that has confined a large number of people to their homes and a public reckoning centered on racial injustice, latent tensions in the tabletop gaming world appear to be bubbling over. Now, as real-world events play out in and impact the fantasy worlds of D&D, the game and its administrators find themselves at an inflection point.

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In mid-March, when the pandemic began to peak around the world, players flocked to services that accommodate online play. Fantasy Grounds, a virtual tabletop service which licenses D&D content, saw numbers skyrocket. “We saw an initial burst of new users at nearly 15 times our normal rate,” said Doug Davison, president of SmiteWorks USA, which oversees Fantasy Grounds. “It is starting to settle down now, but we are still trending at around 5 times the rate of new user acquisition we saw last year.”

Some of these platforms have struggled to keep up with spiking demand. “We would have had significant [server] downtime if we hadn’t had a couple of days where we saw more Italian users than U.S. users joining the site and thought, ‘This is serious,’” said Nolan Jones, a managing partner and co-founder of Roll20, a service that incorporates battle maps, dice-rolling algorithms and voice- or video-chat to approximate the experience of playing around a table.

New players joining the D&D community enter at an unprecedented moment in history, and a tumultuous one for the tabletop gaming scene. Protests over the deaths of Black people at the hands of police have forced the industry to reexamine its products and practices. Last month, Wizards of the Coast, the game publisher that owns the D&D franchise, announced it was banning certain cards, including one titled “Invoke Prejudice,” from “Magic: The Gathering,” the popular card game it also administers. Around the same time, the company put out a statement about how it plans to change the way it treats different “races” — the categorization it uses to differentiate elves, dwarves, orcs, humans and more — in the D&D universe.

“Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow [a type of elf] being two of the prime examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated,” reads a statement from the company promising future changes. “That’s just not right, and it’s not something we believe in.”

They’ll have their work cut out for them. “The reason that evil cultures exist in Dungeons & Dragons is because there is a non insignificant subset of players who want to play a game where they kick down the door heroically and kill the bad guy without interrogating what that means, without understanding why the bad guys are the bad guys. To do that, you need to have a setting that washes its hands of any sort of moral judgment of someone who wants to pursue that style of fantasy violence,” said Austin Walker, game master for the role-playing podcast Friends at the Table. “When you have an entire culture that’s evil, it’s very easy to allow that style of play to happen and even subtly encourage it.”

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The company has pledged to change some of the mechanics of the game, including fixing what it refers to as “errors of judgment” in reprints of old campaign books, and introducing a way for characters to alter the ability modifiers afforded to different races. (In current iterations, Half-orcs, for example, get a boost to strength and the ability to make “Savage Attacks.”)

Many in the tabletop community have applauded these proposed changes. To others, however, the problematic elements of D&D are too embedded in its long legacy — and at the company that produces the game.

In its statement addressing mistakes around portrayals of different peoples in the D&D universe, Wizards of the Coast highlighted its recent efforts in bringing in more diverse voices to craft the new D&D source books coming out in 2021. But in a widely circulated statement, Orion D. Black, a narrative designer who was contracted by Wizards of the Coast for seven months, described a workplace where they felt tokenized and neglected.

“Most people in that group were not ready for me to be there, a non-binary Black person who would actually critique their problems,” Black wrote. “I firmly believe that I was a diversity hire. There was no expectation for me to do much of anything. I probably disrupted them by being vocal and following up.”

“We deeply regret the negative experience had by Orion Black during their time as a contractor at Wizards, and for that we apologize,” reads a Wizards of the Coast statement shared with The Post. “Their statement is being taken seriously internally and is an opportunity for us to improve the experiences of all those who contribute to our company and community.”

These conversations — around depictions of race and alleged treatment of employees of marginalized backgrounds and identities — have encouraged players to seek out other tabletop roleplaying experiences. There are many. Over the course of the nearly six years of Friends at the Table, Walker estimates his group has played 48 different roleplaying games; none of them were D&D.

“The fact that there are that many games out there is really exciting to me, because it means there’s something for everyone,” said Walker. “There’s something for any need that you might have, instead of trying to take this base product that I think a lot of people tend to use as the gateway into the hobby and trying to force that thing to fit your needs.”

Over the course of a recent podcast season, Walker switched between a sequence of roleplaying games: Technoir, The Sprawl, Stars Without Number and Microscope. For people unenthusiastic about combat, Walker recommends games like Stewpot, where players run a tavern and have to solve problems like cooking with fantastical ingredients or preparing for a visiting dignitary. Those looking to escape rigid portrayals of gender, love and identity can play Dream Askew, a game about queer community-building in a post-apocalyptic world, and Dream Apart, which tells the story of a Jewish shtetl in a fantastical version of nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.

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Walker chooses to highlight games from the independent scene because of the nuances offered by newer titles, unencumbered by deep-rooted fantasy tropes. “I want you to find a way to enjoy things the way you really want to enjoy them, versus the way that it’s been packaged for you,” said Walker. “But I wouldn’t say that that world is fundamentally or only in opposition to D&D. It should get to be its own thing.”

D&D continues to be by far the most popular gateway to the vast world of tabletop roleplaying games. And while it can be hard to discern how many people are playing D&D for the first time, anecdotally, it would appear that there are plenty of newbies.

Jones, the co-founder of Roll20, said he can sense an increase in new players from the kind of inquiries Roll20’s customer support desk has been getting: Users often ask about the rules of D&D instead of the functionality of the website.

Ray Winninger, executive producer of D&D at Wizards of the Coast, said they look to sales of introductory rulebooks as a way to quantify new players. While the trend has been steadily upward for the past five years — thanks in part to D&D’s role in shows like “Stranger Things” and “Community” — the pandemic has only accelerated it.

“We’re sure we’re adding fans right now,” Winninger told The Post.

Among those fans is Quyen Tran, a Los-Angeles based cinematographer, who played her first ever game of D&D in April, a result of looking for ways to reduce screen-time for her two stuck-at-home children, ages 6 and 8. The dungeon master? Her husband, Sam Riegel, a voice actor and cast member of Critical Role, the immensely popular online show featuring a group of voice actors playing D&D.

Over the course of four hours, the group infiltrated an enemy lair to rescue the village pig, a storyline that Riegel developed that morning while Tran got started on a loaf of sourdough. Throughout the game, the children often had to coach Tran on the rules.

“We finally found the time to play the game that we’ve wanted to play as a family for so many years,” she said. “It was incredible; I was like, ‘Why haven’t I been playing for the last six years?’”

Sebastian Modak is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist based in New York. In 2019, he traveled the world as the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @sebmodak.

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