Dungeons, Dragons and Dice: Is It Finally Cool to Play Tabletop RPGs?
Shaun Holloway (Unsplash)
“Geek culture” is an interesting thing to define these days. We live in an age where Fantasy epic Game of Thrones is the most pirated show of all time, and people have no qualms about proudly talking about how many hours they’ve sunk into Overwatch, or devoting an entire room of their house to TV, games, film and more. What was once considered uncool is becoming mainstream as more and more people devote a significant chunk of their lives to consuming and enjoying media.
And yet, when you bring up the concept of tabletop games to a lot of people–even people who are crazy about something geeky like Star Wars–you might be faced with a blank stare or an awkward look. Tabletop gaming can be a bit of a scary territory for some people: it’s not something that everyone is introduced to, but something that almost everyone is aware of. However, tabletop gaming is growing in popularity day by day, as more people discover the concept of RPGs where they can create their own stories based on genres and franchises that they know and love. In a lot of ways, tabletop RPGs are the “final frontier” of geek culture for a lot of people, uncharted territory that they’re curious to explore. Which begs the question: is it finally cool to play tabletop RPGs?
Tabletop gaming, especially tabletop RPGs, have always been at the pinnacle of geekery. The stereotypical image of a group of pasty, malnourished teenage boys sitting around in homemade cloaks, rolling dice and shouting spells has cast a dark shadow over the concept of tabletop gaming for a lot of people, but then again, most aspects of geek culture have begun their lives as something the general population has turned its nose up at. Now you can take your pick of a dozen Hollywood blockbuster comic book movies per year, and not raise any eyebrows when you announce at work that you’re off to see Wonder Woman this weekend. But if you’d done the same thing fifteen or twenty years ago, whilst babbling excitedly about all the new longboxes you just purchased, people might not have been so forgiving.
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Tabletop RPGs are becoming something that more people are at least aware of: their appearances in mainstream films and TV shows is helping to introduce the idea of roleplaying to a wider cross-section of people, even if they are still portrayed as games for, say, the hardcore geeks of The Big Bang Theory, or Community’s token nerd: “Fat Neil”. To many people, if they haven’t been properly introduced to the concept of tabletop RPGs, they see them as abstract mathematical challenges, where a collection of die-hard tabletop enthusiasts have tiny plastic elves and a large sheet of grid paper, both of which they use to argue for hours on end about +2 something-or-others. For a long time, even I didn’t realise that these people were telling stories, and as people begin to realise this, the idea of sitting down to a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is becoming more and more appealing.
Another thing that has helped the rise in popularity of tabletop RPGs is the fact that there are now an absolute wealth of tabletop-related YouTube channels, podcasts, webshows and more which show off the endless possibilities of tabletop gaming. One of the most popular ones comes from the Dungeons & Dragons team themselves, in the form of D&D group “Acquisitions Incorporated”:
What began as a podcast to introduce Penny Arcade‘s Mike Krahulik to the concept of tabletop games way back in 2008 quickly became a brand in its own right, which now spans merchandise, live shows, and even a spin-off “C Team” adventuring group, led by Penny Arcade‘s Jerry Holkins. Acquisitions Inc. is popular for lots of reasons (celebrity players and a dedicated fanbase being two of them) but a good deal of its appeal comes from the concept that it makes tabletop gaming seem far less complex than a lot of potential players fear it is. When people tune in to the games, or listen to the podcasts, they get to hear a group of guys (and sometimes gals!) having fun with the game: making jokes and coming up with silly, surreal answers to their fantastical problems. Sure, they still follow the rules–they roll their dice, use their spells, upgrade their weapons–but the mechanics of the game seem far less intimidating when set against a backdrop of laughter and comradery.
In this sense, it would seem that the web presence of tabletop gaming is definitely the medium’s largest ally: by being able to watch and/or listen to actual game sessions being played out, curious gamers can lose a lot of their anxiety about games where they’re relied upon to design characters and narratives, especially as most of the games shown online are geared to be fun and entertaining as opposed to overly serious and dramatic.
To conclude, it’s difficult to say that tabletop gaming has become quite as normalised as sitting down to watch Game of Thrones, or buying a Star Wars hoodie to wear to see The Last Jedi in the cinema, but things are definitely heading that way. As more celebrities participate in games which are streamed or posted online, more people will become curious about a medium which combines a lot of things that everyone with even a hint of geek to them loves: cool characters that you get to design yourself, lots of collectables in the form of fancy dice and miniature figures, and badass final boss fights where the stakes are higher than ever as it’s your creation(s) that are at risk. Tabletop RPGs will draw in larger crowds the more they are promoted, and as people start to realise that there’s no gatekeeping surrounding the hobby–at least, not from anyone who isn’t a dick. Tabletop RPGs are for anyone and everyone, and there’s nothing more fun than sitting down with a group of your friends to tell a story together.