Dungeons and Dragons and Webcomics (Part 1)

Dungeons and Dragons – the archetypal fantasy roleplaying game which created and defined a genre – is a big part of the internet’s collective conscious so it’s no surprise how often it’s referenced in webcomics, whether directly or indirectly. Digital Strips episode 489 delved a little into the between the game, webcomics and their creators (and podcasters) so this seems a perfect time for a companion article series on just what DnD is, how it came to be, and the influence it has had on the webcomics scene.

Dungeons and Dragons is, as most of you probably already know, THE tabletop fantasy roleplaying game. It is a game played primarily with dice and imagination, and focuses heavily on narrative: both the narrative built by the person ‘running’ the game, the Dungeon/Game Master, and the narrative built collectively by the players as they work their way through the challenges the DM sets. Players assume the roles of adventuring heroes, questing for honour, glory or gold. To do this successfully, the players must navigate their characters through – yes – dungeons (amongst other places), using a combination of imaginative and narrative skill, and the random element of dice rolling to determine their characters’ success or failure. Because the game relies on the imagination’s of its players, it is infinitely variable and no two campaigns, even though based on the same source material, will play out in exactly the same way.

As Steve and Jason noted, Dungeons and Dragons was officially sired by O. G. D. M. Gary Gygax in 1974, when three wargame books: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures were published under the now famous overarching name. The game didn’t appear out of nowhere, however: this moment was the culmination of at least three years of development and thought between Gygax and fellow wargame creators Dave Arneson, Jeff Perron and Brian Blume. Gygax, who at the time was selling shoes out of his basement to make ends meet, even incorporated his own company with business partner Don Kaye to get the books printed. This first imprint, Tactical Studies Rules, was the first iteration of the company that would eventually grow into tabletop gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast.

The combination of tabletop wargaming rules with new systems designed to encourage narrative and player’s investment in their characters, was an immediate hit. The first printing run of 1,000 game books sold out within eleven months and the second print run of the same quantity, in half that time. A third printing run – of 2,000 this time – was completed and sold out again before that year was out. Dungeons and Dragons was officially a hit. The upwards trajectory continued, with more and more D&D merchandise being produced and sold every year. Novels were written within the settings supplied by Gygax’s company, and there was even talk of a major hollywood movie within the setting in the 1980’s. Within a decade and a half, Dungeons and Dragons had spread across most major media of the time and had picked up a large, dedicated following. True believers, who proselytized the virtues of the game to anyone who’d listen; who would convene regularly to play and discuss the game; who descended in outlandish costumes on the conventions that were becoming a part of America’s landscape at the time. A fan base who, to some observers, were acting very much like a cult

When we pick this up next time, we’ll have a look at how the rise of this (oc)cult fear about the game in the 80’s and 90’s affected the integration of Dungeons and Dragons into popular culture and the modern era – and ultimately, how that bled into the webcomics we see today.

Do you play D&D? Are you a relative newcomer to the game, or were you one of those to discover the game in its nascent form during the 70’s? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!

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  1. Pingback: Dungeons and Dragons and Webcomics (Part 2) | Digital Strips: The Webcomics Podcast

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