How Dungeons & Dragons Quietly Took Over Pop Culture

"Defeat Your Demons With Dungeons & Dragons" is the latest in Fandom's Fandom Uncovered docuseries, which gives a platform to niche or maligned corners of fan communities. Following her eye-opening trek to Forks, Washington to see how an annual Twilight festival rescued a dying town from financial collapse, Executive Producer and host, Roth Cornet rolls initiative and dives into the world of Dungeons & Dragons this time around.

As well as the game's therapeutic and co-operative qualities, one of the things the short sheds light on is how pervasive it has become in our wider culture. The resurgence of the table-top, role-playing game in the last few years has been nothing short of meteoric. Over 40 years since its inception, D&D is everywhere. But, for newcomers, wrapping your head around the improbability of this requires some real-world lore.

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Fandom Uncovered Dungeons & Dragons

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D&D has survived with all of the odds stacked against it -- from the rise of video games and the digital age to the belittlement and even demonization of its players. As Luke Gygax, son of D&D co-creator, Gary Gygax, reminisces to Cornet, playing D&D wasn't exactly a badge of honor for someone growing up in the '70s and '80s -- the game's original golden age -- even if your dad was its maker.

Like many a teen subculture, it also bore the brunt of the "satanic panic," instigated in 1982 when a high school student took his own life. His mother, Patricia Pulling, pointed the finger of blame at his interest in D&D, even going so far as to try and sue the school's principal -- who hosted the game sessions -- for placing a "real" demonic curse on her son, or, as a reporter detailed in a startlingly matter-of-fact news item: "The parent saw their child summon a Dungeons & Dragons demon into his room before he committed suicide."

While the case was dropped, Pulling's crusade against the game didn't wane, spiraling the issue into a hot-button talking point in the media, and the production of a cringeworthy, made-for-TV movie (Mazes & Monsters) that Tom Hanks would probably prefer we all forgot him starring in.

Fandom Uncovered Dungeons & Dragons

Ironically, alarmist news pundits and Hanks' early career missteps put more stock in the power of the game than enough of its adopters did, leading to a sharp decline in popularity in the following decade. D&D was dying. Today, however, the game has doubled both its player numbers and merchandise sales around the world in the space of just a few years, from 20 million in 2004 to over 40 million as of this year, according to its publisher, Wizards of the Coast.

This miraculous comeback has been conjured up through a combination of magical components: the growing mainstream credibility of geek culture; the popularity of streaming games online and, internally, the release of the 5th edition of the game in 2014. This version shifts the gameplay to focus more on story and character development than ever before, giving newcomers an easier in-road. The inclusion of more diverse and sensitively-crafted races and character archetypes also nurtured the growth of a far more inclusive community around the game, as well as giving validation to existing players who'd often felt ostracized within an already ostracized fandom.

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Fandom Uncovered Dungeons & Dragons

Things like gatekeeping and geek-shaming are foreign concepts to people intimidating enough to play the DCEU's Deathstroke. "No one ever made fun of me for liking D&D without getting punched," actor Joe Manganiello laughs to Cornet. Manganiello, along with other celebrity D&D players, makes up the fourth ingredient powering the game's unlikely revival. Whether they're old hats like Scooby-Doo's Matthew Lilliard or recent inductees like Daredevil's Deborah Ann Wool -- who speak to their respective long and newfound love of the game in the short -- the added star power has given D&D recognizable figureheads beyond its mythic architects like Gygax.

It's also helped create them, too. The members of live streaming collective, Critical Role, have rockstar status within the fandom. The group's recent crowdfunding campaign to fund an animated series based on their fictional adventures broke Kickstarter's record for the highest-funded television or film project.

The project won't be the first time D&D has been transported into a non-interactive medium. A Dungeons & Dragons cartoon aired during the game's heyday in the '80s, while a far less fondly remembered live-action film was released in 2000. There's also HarmonQuest, a hybrid of real gameplay and animation from Community and Rick & Morty creator, Dan Harmon.

Fandom Uncovered Dungeons & Dragons Joe Manganiello

And, for those not paying close enough attention, these direct adaptations of the game are the only avenues in which it has been able to reach a non-gaming audience. But, D&D has secretly -- and, sometimes, not so secretly -- been weaving its way into some of pop culture's best-loved creations of recent years.

"Guardians of the Galaxy, they're a D&D party," actor Xander Jeanerett points out to Cornet. "They're different classes of different people thrown together in a situation, and they bumble through it." The Guardians have, of course, existed in Marvel Comics before the creation of D&D, but hearing director James Gunn's name being dropped by Manganiello on a list of high profile players he's shared tabletop adventures with makes one wonder how much a childhood interest in a game that thrives on turning dysfunction and danger into creativity and co-operation manifests itself into their own work later in life. (Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films certainly seem to have a far better grasp on what makes a rag-tag team-up work than, say, 2016's Suicide Squad did.)

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The aforementioned Community -- a sitcom that aired on a major television network -- dedicated two entire episodes to Harmon's love of D&D, which went on to inspire the RPG-loving team behind Netflix's Voltron: Legendary Defender to do the same thing years later. D&D also plays a starring role in the '80s set-Stranger Things, not only as a physical piece of its young heroes' childhoods but also as a conduit for them to understand the interdimensional creatures that plague their town. (The Mindflayer and Demogorgon are ripped right from the pages of D&D's Monster Manual.)

And even if the game isn't directly referenced, the list of players-turned-creators (and vice versa) goes on and on: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power creator, Noelle Stevenson, has made several guest appearances on Critical Role; both Game of Thrones' author, George R.R. Martin, and the HBO series' creators are former Dungeon Masters; Vin Deisel claims that the game's influence is all over the Fast & Furious franchise, while Adventure Time's creator, Pendleton Ward, one of the most revered names in animation, told Wizards of the Coast that "when I'm writing an episode, it feels like I'm playing D&D with the characters."

Rather than summoning (real) demons through dice rolls, it appears that kids of the '70s and '80s were actually using the game as a healthy escape, which many of Cornet's interviewees credit it for, and, in the case of its increasingly vocal celebrity players, firing up imaginations to give future generations their own escapist adventures.

The latest episode of Fandom Uncovered, "Defeat Your Demons With Dungeons & Dragons," is available to watch on YouTube now.

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