|1983 - When D&D Still Called the Tune|
But while I had little luck in finding tabletop roleplayers among my high school classmates, I had no problem in finding fans of computer games like those in the Wizardry series, which clearly -- and unashamedly -- took their cues from Dungeons & Dragons. Looking back on those days, it's fascinating to remember how often my friends would describe Wizardry and similar games as "like Dungeons & Dragons but on the computer." Many of these guys had never played D&D (or so they claimed, at any rate) and yet they regularly described computer games by making reference to it. This only makes sense, given that D&D provided not just the basic premise -- exploration and combat in a monster-filled maze -- but also the very rules terminology -- character classes, hit points, experience points -- on which their electronic imitators depended.
I've argued before that the immense popularity of D&D in the late 70s and early 80s was a fluke never to be replicated again. The more I reflect on it, the more I recognize that D&D appeared during that brief period when interest in both fantasy and interactive entertainments was on the rise but before home computers were both cheap and powerful enough to satisfy these interests. Consequently, the hobby swelled with many people who were became involved in it only because there was no viable alternative yet available. Tabletop roleplaying was the best thing on offer at the time. The advent of games like Wizardry peeled a lot of people away from the hobby and, I suspect, provided a better form of entertainment for many others who might have picked up gaming as a second best choice in a world that had not yet invented something they would have actually preferred.
Even if I'm right, D&D nevertheless retained a powerful hold on the public imagination, with "Dungeons & Dragons" and "D&D" being shorthand for a certain type of fantasy game, regardless of whether it was played on the tabletop with dice and graph paper or (increasingly) on a computer screen. Even into the 1990s, long after the RPG fad had faded and when electronic "roleplaying games" were sophisticated and creative enough that some refer to this decade as the medium's own Golden Age, I could make references to "D&D" as a stand-in for a fantastic adventure game and most people, even those who had no direct experience with the game would know what I meant by it.
That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I don't hear vide game players talking much about "D&D" anymore, even in a context where doing so would make sense. "World of Warcraft" seems to be the new shorthand for the kind of game that "Dungeons & Dragons" once used to represent. And just as many of D&D's peculiar tropes and interpretations of mythology and legend made their way into the DNA of modern fantasy, so too have WoW's own spins on them become pervasive. Indeed, the same could be said of the vocabulary used in contemporary rules discussion, both within the video game hobby and without it. Once upon a time, D&D called the tune; now, it sits against the wall, with only a member of the chess club to keep it company.
I say all this not as a whine or lament. I genuinely don't care that Dungeons & Dragons -- and tabletop RPGs more generally -- aren't as wildly popular as they were in the days of my youth. I do get the sense, though, that many gamers do care and that they've never quite accepted the fact that, in the wider world, our hobby is largely irrelevant, used primarily as the butt of jokes by middle-aged folks who remember its near-ubiquity in the past. I suspect the name "Dungeons & Dragons" still triggers a moment of recognition for a lot of people, sort of like mentioning the name of some sitcom from the 1980s, but comprehension? I doubt it. As I said, D&D's role as a pop cultural signifier of "fantasy adventure" was long ago usurped by others and that's not going to change.
I rather suspect that many of the trials and tribulations of the D&D "brand" in recent years can be attributed to a perceived gap between how well known and influential it was in the past and how well known and influential it is now. D&D was king of the hill for so long, it's hard for many of us -- including multi-billion dollar corporation -- to square contemporary reality with what we think should be the case based on a recollection of past glories. Like it or not, D&D is no longer the standard bearer of culture-changing hobby. It's Bridge. It's CB radio. It's slotcar racing. In short, it's irrelevant to most of the wider world -- and I don't give a damn.