D&D never went away, but it’s coming back

The last time I played Dungeons & Dragons was around 1979, maybe 1980, with two old friends from high school, Steve and Steve. The network of friends was broken up by my need to travel around the country, chasing an education and a career, and I never got back into it. It’s just not the same without those face-to-face friends. I have great memories of those years in that small gaming group in the Pacific Northwest, though, and it was my primary outlet for social networking at that time. I should just get on a plane to Seattle and surprise the two Steves some Saturday night.

Anyway, I guess there’s been a bit of a renaissance in D&D’s popularity lately, which, as usual, I’m missing out on. It’s an old-new way to escape some of the faceless anomie we sometimes experience in our digital universe.

In 2017, gathering your friends in a room, setting your devices aside, and taking turns to contrive a story that exists largely in your head gives off a radical whiff for a completely different reason than it did in 1987. And the fear that a role-playing game might wound the psychologically fragile seems to have flipped on its head. Therapists use D. & D. to get troubled kids to talk about experiences that might otherwise embarrass them, and children with autism use the game to improve their social skills. Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy, and a Brazilian study from 2013 showed that role-playing classes were an extremely effective way to teach cellular biology to medical undergraduates.

Hey, what? Teaching cell biology with role-playing games? That sounds interesting, and I had to look that one up.

In short, an RPG is a game in which a person (in this case, the teacher) tells a story that is enacted by the players who are given roles as the various pieces of background information. Challenges related to the story are then presented and must be addressed by all participants. Each player represents a character in the story and is attributed (quantitatively-defined) skills. These skills are tested during the game to decide if the character succeeds in his or her attempt to perform a task that solves the problem or overcomes the challenge. The skill is usually tested against some kind of quantifiable decision-making system, such as rolling dice. The dice introduce randomness into the game, create suspense and provoke playfulness among the players. This is the main difference between role-play, which refers to the playing of roles in a theatrical play, and RPG, that introduces clear rules according to which the players must decide how to act.

One of the most interesting and significant aspects of the RPG is that the whole team must win together: there are no losers in this kind of cooperative game, ensuring that nobody is excluded or feels excluded.

Unfortunately, all the details of how the game works are in appendices that I can’t find online! I can believe that adding a narrative to the biochemistry of the cell would help with student engagement, I would just wonder if the investment of student time in a game like this is effective enough.


  1. nathanieltagg says

    Teaching science-for-gen-ed courses in our department, we frequently want to talk about Venus as an example of runaway global warming. We do it by simply giving the relevant facts to players playing roles as ‘team members’. There are physicists who are given the details of blackbody radiation, some engineers who know about CO2, etc. Whichever team assembles the correct story as to why venus is so hot “wins” the game.

    Unbenownst to most of the players, one team of students are actually fifth columnists. They represent oil and gas companies who know that answer, and would prefer others didn’t work it out. They are secretly told they win if others fail to get the whole story, and are allowed to lie about facts. They win about 1/3 of the time.

    Takes about 1 class period. Worthwhile.

  2. Gorogh, Lounging Peacromancer says

    I doubt it can readily be co-adapted for teaching purposes, but if you are earnestly looking for game mechanics, check out Pathfinder (maybe here for slightly better interface and more comprehensive materials). Not entirely sure about the history there, but it’s roughly an open source D&D 4.0 (IIRC), with most features from previous versions but improved balancing etc. We’ve been playing it for about five years now, in the Forgotten Realms/Faerun setting.

  3. says

    Got my original 1st ed 3 box set on the shelf next to me (right next to Traveller) …

    I like that it’s coming back in fashion as an imagination/creativity exercise. When you get right down to it, you don’t need rules or a framework, you can just role-play and have fun. At that point, it becomes like a kind of dynamic acting game.

    A few years ago I was running an incident response drill for a large company, and we were role-playing through some elements of the problem, and someone asked a question I hadn’t thought of, so I handed him 2 20-sided dice and said “roll your saving throw” and everyone cracked up. D&D has been tremendously influential on popular culture and it’s been mostly a very positive influence. I credit early experience role-playing with helping me ingrain the idea that “not everyone is a white cis het ci-devant” trying to think “what is it like to be an orc?” has come in handy when I am trying to understand some of the political agendas I encounter. And, best of all, D&D annoyed the christian evangelicals, which was some kind of +6 Cake Icing of Sweetness.

  4. cartomancer says

    I’ve used vaguely RPG-themed exercises to revise Greek Tragedy before. Each student is given a role as one of the characters in a play (different plays for each, so one is Oedipus, one is Medea, one is Theseus and so on) and they then have to navigate scenarios from different tragedies based on what they know of their character from the text. So we have Hippolytus, Creon and Antigone cooperating to convince Ajax not to kill himself, Achilles, Phaedra and Hecuba sorting out the burial of Eteocles and Polynices and so on. The exercise aims to get them thinking about parallels and contrasts between plays and characters, different themes and moods in the genre, how Aeschylean, Sophoclean and Euripidean tragedy differ and so forth.

    I have pondered awarding EXP based on the criteria in Aristotle’s poetics for good tragedy writing at the end, but time ran out unfortunately. Sadly it’s not the sort of exercise you can do with classes much above eight or nine students, so I haven’t done it for a while. Time constraints too – it really has to be done once they’ve studied all their set texts in detail.

    Then there’s using tabletop wargames to teach the ins and outs of Alexander’s military conquests, but that’s low-hanging fruit indeed. The trick there is to tell one side that they’re following the description of the battle in Arrian’s Anabasis and the other side that they’re following Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. It rather forces them to get a good idea of where the texts differ – and then we discuss why the authors might have come to such different ideas about the same historical event.

  5. blf says

    I was at a training exercise once on improving multi-team interactions. At one point there was a sort-of rule-playing where we had to pretend we were passengers in a small-ish aircraft which crashed in a desert (killing all the crew). We obviously had to work out a survival strategy, given a few comments from a dying crew-member, an inventory, and an instruction from the teacher that agreements had to be made by mutual consent (no voting or rank-pulling or flipping coins or whatever). The idea being, obviously, to (improve or learn to) convince by discussion in an urgent & limited timeframe.

    Not an RPG as such.

    (As it happened, the plan agreed on turned out to be very close to what the teacher said experts recommend for that particular situation: Stay put and try to attract attention. With an exception, we deduced the purpose / usage and importance (or lack thereof) of all the inventoried items.)

  6. aquietvoice says

    For what it’s worth, I think the main driving force of more and more RPG’s being used is just the fact that game design has improved so drastically over time.

    When I say that, I don’t refer to optimising dragon statistics or the rules or stuff like that, I mean that game designers have learned a lot about how we play games, about cognitive load, about how, why and when people take on a persona, how people socialise in games, how people use games to socialise (two very different questions) and that kind of stuff. Gaming itself has become a far more enriching experience for it IMO.

    Specifically, the creators of DnD have focused more and more on the social aspect of play, and it really shines through their work over the editions. First and second edition were essentially someone’s best guess at fun, 5e is an almost self-starting train of storytelling, player & character interaction. Good stuff. Plus, you can get all the basics for free, so there is a really low barrier to entry :)

  7. says

    The funny thing about it being a way to gather your friends outside the faceless digital realm is that all my RP[G] experiences have been online. Though when all your friends are also only online it’s the only way.

  8. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says


    Got my original 1st ed 3 box set on the shelf next to me

    My original boxed set (3d edition) was sitting on a shelf, along with 3 of the first 4 expansion books, for decades.

    My daughter’s fiance’s sister had gotten married last spring and they were having a wedding celebration party about a month ago. Wife and I were trying desperately to come up with a good present for the youngsters (well, they are in their late 20s/early 30s (which is (to me) young)). Since they and their friends are very into gaming, we gave them the six books.

    The reaction, both from them and their peers, was amazing. Jaws dropped. One man said, “I’ve written about these books. I’ve only ever seen them on line. This is the first time I have seen them in the flesh!” They were posting photos of the books on line almost immediately. And, an hour later, one of them was DM’ing a quicky campaign using D6’s made out of cardboard and numbered with nail polish.

    In college, I had a professor who set up an RPG (role-playing game, not rocket-propelled anti-tank grenade (though, one of the history students . . . )) in which we were each a European nation in 1910, complete with scores for ego, army, navy, industry, railroad and some others, and we tried to hold Europe together without starting a war. We managed to get past Ferdinand’s assassination without a major war (Serbia did not survive). What finally set it off was an argument involving Greece, Hungary, and some Macedonian nationalists in 1915. The prof was very good at presenting challenges which stressed (in multiple ways) the treaties and ethnic connections.

    Biology RPG sounds easy.

  9. says

    This part is kinda blowing my mind…

    Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy…

    Based on one of the major issues coming out of geek culture, this really surprised me.

  10. says

    I still play weekly. Nearly 25 years with only a few months here or there missed.

    Mostly, it is just a weekly or so gathering of friends, and we have a game going at the same time.

  11. says

    “This part is kinda blowing my mind…
    Last year, researchers found that a group of a hundred and twenty-seven role players exhibited above-average levels of empathy…
    Based on one of the major issues coming out of geek culture, this really surprised me.”

    I’m not surprised. Mostly, for me, gaming is made up of people who take everyone. Gencon is a great example of this. There are a few bad apples, but just like other groups, the outside people see only those bad apples.

  12. microraptor says

    At my college, the councilor who worked with autistic students and students with other social issues ran a weekly D&D game as part of it.

  13. says

    If you choose to use role-playing in your class, please make room for opting out.

    I don’t role play, I simply don’t. I can’t stand it, I can’t use it, it just doesn’t work for me. I can only be myself, and even that can be hard at times.

  14. Rich Woods says

    @Marcus Ranum #3:

    Got my original 1st ed 3 box set on the shelf next to me (right next to Traveller) …

    And if you have Runequest right next to Traveller, instead of Stormbringer, I’ll admit you’ve got me beat.

  15. Travis Odom says

    See, now I’m imaging a video game like Artemis Bridge Simulator where various players control different aspects of the cell and must work together to react to biological challenges

  16. mynax says

    I’ve played with one of the Steves, and think I know who the other one is. He’s still running his game!

  17. says

    Rich Woods:
    Nope you’ve got me beat. All I have next to them is my playtester’s copy of Squad Leader.

    I do have Ultimatum and Junta somewhere… which reminds me I need to do a blog posting about how remarkably Junta captures USA2017

  18. F.O. says

    Spent my teens desperately looking for someone to play with, barely found anyone. =(
    Even with 5th ed, D&D is very cumbersome and rule-driven relative to more modern RPGs designed narrative-first.

  19. antigone10 says

    Just played D&D last week. Email me next time we’re in town, we’ll fight a dragon by convincing him that his musculature would be unable to support him in these gravity conditions.

    We play 3.5, but I got to be honest, we house-rule A LOT of things. And we’ve incorporated a lot of Fate and Cortex rules.

  20. whheydt says

    For those looking for a weekend of gaming, DunDraCon 42 is being held over President’s Day weekend (Feb. 16-19) next year in San Ramon, CA. Check it out at http://www.dundracon.com I will admit to a vested interest as I’m the head of Con Reg. For those who mentioned RuneQuest!, Steve Perrin is also on the convention committee.

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Based on one of the major issues coming out of geek culture, this really surprised me.

    I strongly suspect that people who play pen-and-paper role-playing games will score very differently than those who play typical online video games like League Of Legends and Halo. Completely different “skillset” and gaming experience, and I strongly suspect that these populations have substantial amounts outside of the intersection.

    I swear that League Of Legends as a game was carefully designed in order to bring out the worst from the people who are playing it, much moreso than other typical online video games like Halo and Counter Strike.

    We play 3.5, but I got to be honest, we house-rule A LOT of things. And we’ve incorporated a lot of Fate and Cortex rules.

    Most groups house-rule a lot of things, AFAIK. I’m DM-ing my own Pathfinder adventure path (saves time for me, and the players still like it), with mixes of 3.5, Pathfinder, and copious house-rules.

  22. Emily says

    I’m not much of a fan of D&D. I’d rather play it than not be in a tabletop RPG campaign at all, but there are quite a few issues I have with D&D’s mechanics that would require rewriting the game from scratch to deal with.

    (Current favorite is CJ Carella’s Witchcraft. Not only is the core book pdf available for free, but it is a classless, levelless system with a neat magic system. )

  23. says

    I prefer GURPS, as I don’t like being tied to medievalish fantasy, but any form of collaborative storytelling is worth cultivating. There is a D & D club here at Central Washington University that seems to be doing well.

  24. DanDare says

    On Sunday I will be GMing session 32 of my open table DnD game. We have 4 GMs and 20 players. 2 have strong aspergers 1 has mild autism. We all get on a treat and learn things and develop real life friendships. Good stuff I say.

  25. johnquixote says

    There’s a reason that D&D got a little burst of popularity again. In 2014, D&D’s publisher (Wizards of the Coast) released the 5th edition of the advanced D&D rules—marking the first time since Wizards bought D&D from the old publisher (TSR) circa 2000 that they’ve managed to crank out a decently playable iteration of the game that actually looks and plays something like the old TSR versions of D&D. (Most role-playing games get a new edition every so often to clean things up and fix bugs, that’s to be expected; but Wizards-published D&D is an odd bird. Every time they remake D&D, they create an entirely new game, incompatible with the previous edition, which produces a drastically different gameplay experience. I cannot properly express just how unusual this is when compared to other RPGs.)

    The 4th edition? It was a complicated tabletop skirmish- and wargame. Nobody who isn’t already into D&D wants to learn how to play that. 3rd edition? Extremely complicated mess of a game that tried to do everything and so did nothing well. 2nd edition, published by TSR throughout the 90s? It was during this period that the game’s drop-off in popularity took place, because the game was getting more complicated and unwieldy on the one hand, while on the other it was trying to become something it wasn’t (by following the fads and trends of the time and trying to become more “story-driven” like those silly Vampire games).

    5th edition looks a lot like 2nd edition, which isn’t ideal, but it’s workable. You can actually play the game, even if you don’t know much about D&D, and you don’t have to worry too much about arcane minutiae—the way it should be.

    That said, if you want a proper role-playing experience, you’re better off hunting down the 1st edition of advanced D&D, or (better yet) the original/basic D&D (sometimes facetiously called “0th edition”). These days, the old rules are published “with the serial numbers filed off”, so to speak, by hobbyists (and fanatics) as part of a movement in RPG circles known as the “old school renaissance” (OSR). OSR fans like to recapitulate and clean up and reorganize and republish these older rules (the knockoffs are known as “retro-clones”), often with plenty of pontificating and exegesis to explain how the games best work when run properly. (It’s quite different from what most folks think of as “D&D”, and considerably more fun.)

    The most popular retro-clones these days are Swords & Wizardry (which clones original D&D, the 1970s “white box” version), Labyrinth Lord (a clone of the 1980s version of original D&D, the red box Basic/blue box Expert version), OSRIC (a relatively faithful clone of 1st edition Advanced D&D, this is the most complicated and least user-friendly version of the old game), and Castles & Crusades (which is more of a fast and loose interpretation, but easy to learn and play and you can usually find the books in game stores).

    Any one of these is going to be an excellent choice if you want to get into (or back into) D&D, but one word of warning: with Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord (or if you must have all of that 1st edition complexity, OSRIC), you can get a single rule-book and it’s all you’ll ever need for life. Castles & Crusades (as well as 5th edition D&D) expects game referees to buy three core rule-books which are necessary to play, and they publish a ton of supplements too. Something to consider if you don’t want to invest too deeply into a hobby like this. (Players of ether game can generally just get by with a Player’s Handbook though.)

  26. hierophant says

    “One of the most interesting and significant aspects of the RPG is that the whole team must win together: there are no losers in this kind of cooperative game, ensuring that nobody is excluded or feels excluded.”

    Someone has never played Paranoia..