Dungeons & Dragons plays a huge part in fiction and popular culture more generally, but it is often overlooked or misunderstood. In this episode I gather together an experienced Dungeon Master and some complete novices (including myself) to play D&D for the first time. Joining me to explore this new world is academic, and life-time D&D fan, Professor Curt Carbonell, who has recently published a book on the subject.
Professor Curt Carbonell is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Khalifa University. He is interested in how the posthuman emerges in science fiction and fantasy studies, as well as in how analog-and-digital game studies are fields that describe complex modes of cultural production. His recent work focuses on how tabletop role-playing games offer an archive of fantasy and science fiction gametexts ripe for an investigation into the rise of realized worlds. He is currently working on a monograph that examines how digital computer games redefine how we understand the past through both the traditional interpretation of texts and gameplay. You can read his full bio here
His book, Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic, is about D&D and other tabletop role-playing games and is available from Liverpool University Press here.
Works Referenced and Mentioned
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Transcripts: Dungeons & Dragons
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
This is, in case it’s not clear, the beginnings of a Dungeons & Dragons session. Gathered together, a few weeks back, is the staff of The Podcast Studios, where I work. There were 8 of us – 7 complete novices, myself included, and Julie, an experienced dungeon master very patiently showing us all the ropes.
Julie had written the story and set up everything for us – including our characters sheets with our skills and attributes and provisions and so on.
I decided to make an episode on Dungeons and Dragons, or DnD as it’s usually called, because I realised it was such a huge part of literature and popular culture that I knew very little about. I’ve talked to, and read interviews with, so many authors who credit DnD with helping them to become a writer. As a dungeon master (a DM) in particular – this is the person who creates the world and narrates the story which the players adventure through – you are a storyteller. You are creating a compelling, magical world out of nothing, populating it with good and evil characters, and bringing players inside that world. What better practice could you ask for as a budding writer of fiction?
So DnD is this hugely influential part of pop culture, even if you’ve never played it. And, it turned out, I was in the same boat as the rest of the team at the studios – they had all heard of DnD, seen it in films or tv shows, and some knew a little more than others about the mechanics, but none of us had ever played.
So we got some beers and snacks, I turned on the mics, and Julie explained how we were going to set off on a quest / how it was all going to work:
Gameplay – Julie explaining the rules
Pretty soon we were telling our elaborate backstories
Gameplay – backstory clips
and just making fun of each other
Gameplay – Character falling down the stairs
So how did we get here? A bunch of people in their 20s and 30s, from Ireland, the US, and Peru, sitting in a recording studio trying to kill a particularly belligerent goblin that wouldn’t tell us who he worked for?
To get a bit of perspective on all this, I called on the services of another DnD fan, one who has been playing since the 1980s.
My name is Curt Carbonell. I’m an associate professor at Khalifa University, the UAE. I wrote Dread Trident: Tabletop Role Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic to sort of address what I thought to be this massive under-theorised archive of role playing material for science fiction and fantasy studies. And that’s what that’s what brought me back to dungeon dragons after not playing since I was a young kid
Professor Carbonell’s book looks at a number of different TRPGs – tabletop role-playing games, but it all started for him, like so many others, with DnD
You know, I started the book project by starting a Tuesday night d&d session at my home. I just opened it up. This was probably 2015, when the fifth edition came out. So I had been looking at the play test rules for a couple years because I knew they were going to do a new edition. And I had a young son. And so I hadn’t played d&d Since the early 80s. I had to drop it actually, because my dad was a preacher, an evangelical preacher. And I don’t know if you know what happened with d&d, but in the early 80s, it was a worldwide phenomenon. And there was a cultural backlash. And the evangelical Christians got all upset about it. So I wasn’t allowed to play.
So this seems kind of strange 40 years later, but there was a moral panic in the 1980s where a number of groups in the US vigorously campaigned against DnD on the basis that it was corrupting yougn people, and promoting satan worship and demonic possession.
So I kind of dropped it until I was an adult. And I thought, hey, I’d like to do this with my son. So I started back researching, and I said, you know what, I’m gonna start a game, I’ll DM and I’ll open it up to whoever. And it ended up being a four-year thing and had some great people come in, and they were all adults, all sort of experienced with d&d. And, you know, on that nostalgic kick coming back to it, some of them were younger, some of them were younger, and had been playing. And then that out of that the book project started
So Dungeons and Dragons is nearly 50 years old now, which is incredible – there’s such a huge compendium of knowledge around it – which is something I’ll come back to.
Long before DnD there were other tabletop games – wargames, in particular. Kriegsspiel – German for wargame – was a method of military training used by the Prussian army in the 19th century to study and develop tactics. Opponents would have armies, represented by small coloured blocks, laid out on a map, and they would decide on movements and strategies which would then be given to an umpire, who would to decide who was victorious in each situation.
I don’t know if you’ve ever played Diplomacy – it’s a tabletop wargame where you need to form alliances with the other players, and then invariably backstab them, in order to conquer different countries. You can play online as well, where everyone has 24 hours to complete the round of turns. I played with 6 other friends in the first covid lockdown and it took us a full month to complete it. And it totally takes over your life, agonising over permutations, making side deals, wondering who’s going to betray you – it’s exhausting! It’s also a good test of friendship – no, I won’t buy you a pint tonight, Paul, not after you invaded Piedmont when we’d expressly agreed you wouldn’t!
So anyway, from Prussia in the 19th century, this method of rigorous tabletop wargaming soon caught on with other armies in Europe and elsewhere – and is still very much something that is practiced today, in more hightech forms, in militaries all over the world.
And then, in the mid 1970s two Americans, interested in wargaming, changed the rules entirely:
Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson took that sort of scenario of two armies at a table with very strict rules and a referee and said, Hey, let’s throw in some magic, right? And of course, in the 60s Tolkien had written his, you know, big fantasy epic. And so, and Dungeons and Dragons started in the mid 70s. And so that was the response of sort of sword and sorcery. Tolkien was less an influence on dungeon dragons and more of an influence in culture in terms of bringing, you know, fantasy into culture. And this desire to make Wargaming fantastic. And so what was it 1977 I think was the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons – the Advanced Edition there was there were two or three supplements that came out in early 70s. And, you know, this was very niche still.
The advanced dungeon dragons, and the basic rule set that came out were sort of the basics for kids. And like, that’s what I played in 1980. And the advanced was for more adults and more complex rules. So Star Wars came out in 1977. So this was the beginning, I think, of Spielberg’s Close Encounters, right? We had this sort of shift happening, and in which the fantastic as a mode and an impulse was starting to be recognised in pop culture. Those are still anomalies, I think, but you know, all through the 80s, there was this kind of movement. So by the mid 80s it was a phenomenon around the world, right.
And what it allowed people to do was to say, hey, I read, you know, let’s say Sword and Sorcery novels, like R.E Howard’s Conan, which was a big influence on Gary Gygax, the founder. And he’s like, I don’t want to just read and imagine, I want to play. So they took the Wargaming rules, they added magic, they added, you know, divinities and pantheon of gods and devils and all that sort of thing. And slowly, a lore developed out of the gameplay that we would see in published adventures, and campaign settings.
And that lore has been growing ever since. There are the official rules books and other resources which govern the mechanics of the game, as well as all those decades of worldbuilding. And that’s the top-down elements – there’s also the world that gets created within each individual game, with no two alike. And DnD campaigns, made up of individual sessions lasting maybe 3 or 4 hours, can last months, years, there are some that have lasted decades.
Of course Dungeons and Dragons is by no means the only tabletop role-playing game, even if it is by far the best known. Pick your favourite genre, and there’s a TRPG to suit you:
You know, so Dungeon and Dragons is very much high fantasy, high magic, in essence, right? And then you’ve got all these other kinds of TRPGs like, Call of Cthulhu, which is cosmic horror. You’ve got Cyberpunk 2077. There’s Worlds of Darkness, which is vampires, werewolves, the Gothic kind of thing. There’s all kinds of science fiction, Traveller. I wrote about Eclipse Phase. Of course, 40k, Warhammer 40k, is games workshops, sort of space tabletop role playing game, that was the end of the, that’s been around. I mean, that was in the 80s as well. Late 80s and start off with Warhammer Fantasy. And then they said let’s add space marines and that became Warhammer 40k.
Before continuing with the space marines I wanted to take a quick break to tell you about two things. The first is that this episode is sponsored by the Dublin Literary Award, which has a great shortlist of novels, and you can tune in to the award ceremony next week. This is a very big deal in the literary world, the winner gets €100,000. So, check it out.
The second thing is, as I’m sure you already know, that this show is part of the HeadStuff Podcast Network, home to some of the best Irish podcasts around. Like Fad Camp, in which Grace and Conor talk about the insane world of diet culture in a way that is both really well researched and informed, and very funny. It’s a great show, check it out!
HeadStuff Podcast Network Cross Promo
So the rise in popularity of all of these different TRPGs, and DnD in particular, can be viewed as a part of the more general phenomenal rise of fantasy in the part two decades – in film, tv, computer games, fiction, and everyone elsewhere – sure go listen to Episode 33, all about this very topic.
But what’s also important is the T in TRPG. These are tabletop games, and there are obvious attractions to gathering together, in person, to play:
The hardest part of role playing games is getting the people together. It’s getting the people it’s getting six people or five people to say yes, I can be at that table at that time, and then people show up. So I think that embodied experience has been a big part of the tabletop role playing game I think when you when you play it and you enjoy it, part of the argument I make is you get a little touch of the of the enchanted experience. Right? Of course, it’s imagined the LARPers they really go out and try to embody it right. But I think that’s what it does for you. It’s the magic circle for four hours at the table with friends
The LARPers that Prof Carbonell is referring to here, by the way, are Live Action Role Players – where you take the game away from the board and each player physically plays a character, dressing up in costume and acting with other players.
Back at the table though, the continued rise in DnD is part of a more general surge in interest in board games
I noticed that a lot of the people that were drawn to the fifth edition, which really was at the same time board games were starting to blow up on Kickstarter is that they wanted to play the game, not on a screen
But there’s been a renaissance right, that’s what they call it the board game renaissance in the last decade, look at Kickstarter and see how many board games, right. People want embodied connection.
The board game industry is huge – worth about 12 billion dollars apparently – and is continuing to expand. There is demand not just for the classics – monopoly and connect 4 and all the rest – but for a whole world of indie games, many of which are funded on kickstarter and other crowdsourcing sites.
Hi, Conor how are you?
I sat down with Paddy, the day before we played our DnD session
So would it be safe to say that you are part of the board game Renaissance?
Accidentally….Yes, I am. So it all started a couple of years ago, when myself and four other friends picked up Risk Legacy. I played some board games growing up, you know, we played quite a bit of monopoly and things like that. But risk legacy was kind of where a new level of board game love. So if you don’t know what Risk Legacy is, it’s you have to play the same game, but over 15 turns, as in 15 times playing the full game [of the traditional risk board game?], of the traditional board game, but it’s slightly different, there are some new aspects of it. And then the board changes and the rules change as you’re playing each game. So then when you’re playing the second game, anything that’s changed from the first game continues on, and that goes all the way to 15 games. So it took us nearly to go to the year to sit down and play it 15 times. But it was great. And then we were kind of hooked.
So like there’s a world of board games out there, a lot of which are completely new, like, so you’re talking about some of the maybe reimaginings or new versions of older games, but there’s hundreds 1000s, maybe of new games coming out all the time, right?
All the time. So we were definitely on the lookout for new games to play. And so one place where I was looking was Kickstarter. And that started a slight addiction. So I started backing board games on Kickstarter, early 2020. And so far, I have backed 25 games over two years.
So you have all of these games that you’ve played, haven’t gotten
Some of them haven’t come through to yet. But I’ve got I’ve got a lot of them. And it’s like it’s fairly, like fairly varied about, like, the types of games that they are. So it’s like from print and play. Yeah. Like that cost $1. Okay, on Kickstarter, that they’ve basically. So it was a game called bot hunters. And that was basically like a $1 Kickstarter campaign to fund their next Kickstarter campaign for the physical game. Okay, so really getting in there on the grassroots. And then there’s like, big, new kind of big games similar to the likes of Settlers of Catan or Risk sort of either Co Op or like, kind of two to five player kind of setup games. Which, you know, I’ve so I’ve spent from $1 to $70. Okay, on board games, but worth every penny – worth every penny. I think so my wife is not too happy with my current my current spending but I’ve taken it down a little bit over last few months
And have you ever played any tabletop role playing games?
Not yet. Okay, I hope to change that hoping to change. Yeah, Dungeons and Dragons has definitely been one of those games that I’ve known about for nearly the entirety of my life. And I’ve never played Yeah. Because I think you need that one person to start to start everything off. Yeah, you know, you need somebody that knows what to do and, and to set everything up. And I think I found that person
What do you think has caused the board game renaissance?
I think there’s definitely that little bit of nostalgia and retro feel to it. And so people trying to get off the computer maybe. Even though I think like board games on consoles have kind of skyrocketed as well. Especially over lockdown. But yeah, I think in the same way that vinyl made a huge comeback. It’s kind of the same for board games. Yeah, people like that tactile sensation of playing games, rather than just playing on a console. Plus, it’s got everything else in like just just like vinyl where you’ve got like, the really nice packaging. You’ve got little pieces or you know, “meople” that you that you play with. And yeah, I think it just it definitely that nostalgia or time tactile sensation of playing board games really just brings it back to your childhood.
So there’s definitely that nostalgic element, a desire to not be on a screen, to be interacting with people in person.
Different people are drawn to the role playing game experience for different reasons. So for example, I’m very literary. So I was drawn to the texts, a lot of role playing when you’re younger, it’s just you with the with the campaign setting, waiting for your friends to come over. Right. And I did that a lot. I would read. So I was drawn to that. And when I’m at the table, the kind of DM I am, I don’t do voices. I am very descriptive. I’m very, I tried to be articulate. I tried to create atmosphere with my words, right. And not everyone can do that. But some people, they’re really good voices, and they like to embody a character, and they’ll sit down at the table, and they stay in character.
Which is where DnD and podcasting fit together very naturally. There are a whole host of actual play podcasts, where people record their DnD and other game sessions for others to listen to – sometimes this is in a fairly straightforward manner and it’s the world-building and storytelling that is so engaging. In other shows the players are voice actors or improv comedians and the podcast might be put together with music and sound design. In either case, it is yet another way that DnD has been adapted to become a part of contemporary popular culture.
That’s not to say that this cross-media mass popularity always translates well into cultural respectability. As Prof Carbonell sets out in his book, there’s still something of a blind spot when it comes to academic research around Dungeons and Dragons. Even within the field of science fiction and fantasy research, the importance of DnD can be easily overlooked.
I was drawn to the archive, and that’s where the book started to form, was when I realised: oh, I have these colleagues who are science fiction and fantasy studies experts, who have no idea about this archive. And this archive has been with us since the 70s. And has been a big part of the lexicon of what the fantastic is for a lot of players, and especially people who’ve sort of transitioned from tabletop to computer gaming. And they know, and they played all the different role playing games, or they’ve read, you know, varieties of different high fantasy novels. And I think the barrier is gaming. And there’s a sort of a prejudice that I have argued against, in literary studies against play, that it’s not childish. That play allows for the discovery of these subjectivities and allows you to enact them and allows you through that enacting to find voice.
So where does this leave us? Well, firstly, DnD is bigger than ever – estimates put the number of players worldwide at around 50 million. Ireland is actually one of the countries outside the US and Canada where it’s most popular.
At the centre of DnD is fiction. It starts with a set of texts, and expands outwards with ever-widening circles of narrative, dialogue, character development and collective worldbuilding. And yet, despite this, from a critical literary perspective it is often overlooked, even dismissed, as a central fantasy text in its own right, and a hugely important source of inspiration, shaping so many authors’ style and approach to storytelling.
As a tabletop game, it is certainly part of a growing trend for tactile, nostalgic, screen-free activities. And yet it’s very much a part of the digital world – from DnD podcasts to livestreams on Twitch, to virtual games played online with friends across the world.
And it seems likely that future developments will harness the latest technology too:
It’s interesting, because now we have something like the Oculus Quest, which was bought by Facebook, have you seen these, these are standalone VR headsets? Right? Where you can, in essence, have virtual parties, they want to create more of this. And so my interest, well, my concern, well I want to see what happens is, when people try to socialise in button in an embodied space, together with their VR headsets, are they gonna get together, hey, let’s have a VR party, and then everybody goes to the table. So what I think is gonna happen is we’re gonna have glasses, like, you know, you’ll have an AR glasses that Apple will release or something, and you can see through them, so it’s mixed reality, you’ll be able to see the person at the table, and you’ll be able to have augmented digital content. And that’s going to be amazing for dungeon dragons, because you’re gonna be able to sit at the table, and then you’re gonna be able to see a 3d version of your character at the table. That can be animated. Yeah, so this is this is my hope. So a combination of the analogue and the digital, which is what I’ve been arguing, you know?
Whatever the future holds for DnD I am definitely a convert. I mean it wasn’t a hard sell – I’ve always loved board games, I’m a fantasy fan. But the game was fun for so many reasons: the creativity and storytelling, the early beginnings of some collective worldbuilding, the shared adventure with friends. It’s easy to see why campaigns can last months and years.
In the end, we just brought that belligerent goblin for a pint in the local inn.
Gameplay – Let’s bring the goblin to the pub
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
For more on this episode, and for full transcripts, all previous episodes, links to follow the show on social media and lots more you can head to wttepodcast.com, the home of the podcast.
You’ll also find details of Prof Carbonell’s work, including his book on this topic, Dread Trident. All of that is at wttepodcast.com and a huge thanks to Prof Carbonell for chatting to me
Thanks also to Paddy, for his thoughts on the boardgame renaissance, and to the whole team at The Podcast Studios – Alan, Matt, Marisa, Claudia, Gearoid, and Paddy – for the first of what I hope will be many DnD adventures – and to Julie, above all, for being the only DnD literate person in the room.
Finally, if you’d like to support the show, maybe make a contribution towards buying a really nice set of DnD dice, you can sign up to HeadStuff+ and as a member you’ll get lots of nice things like bonus episode, discounts on future live shows, and just that warm fuzzy feeling you get from supporting something you love. For details on how to become a member, go to HeadStuffPodcasts.com
This podcast is recorded in the Podcast Studios Dublin with artwork by Matt Mahon, production help from Marisa Brown and marketing support from Claudia Grandez – oh, check out my social media platforms soon for some short videos I made with Claudia’s help.
And that’s it, I’ll see you next time