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'Dungeons and Dragons' has found something its early fans never expected: Popularity

Key Points
  • In each of the last five years, sales of "Dungeons and Dragons" merchandise has grown by double digits.
  • The massive sales boom can be attributed to the launch of the fifth edition of the game in 2014 and to "Dungeons and Dragons" shows like "Critical Role."
  • Sales of new player handbooks and starter sets have been a large portion of Wizards of the Coast's "Dungeons and Dragons" sales growth.
Source: Critical Role

The days of hiding away in a basement rolling dice and playing "Dungeons and Dragons" in darkness is over.

More than 40 years after the first edition of "Dungeons and Dragons" hit shelves, video platforms Twitch and YouTube are leading a renaissance of the fantasy roleplaying board game — and business is booming.

"DnD has been around for 45 years and it is more popular now than it has ever been," said Greg Tito, senior communications manager, at Wizards of the Coast. In each of the last five years, sales of "Dungeons and Dragons" merchandise has grown by double digits.

The company, owned by toymaker Hasbro, attributes this massive sales boom to the launch of the fifth edition of the game in 2014 and to "Critical Role," a weekly show on live streaming video platform Twitch that features voice actors from TV shows and video games playing "Dungeons and Dragons."

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"You now no longer feel alone, you now no longer feel like that outcast," said Matthew Lillard, actor and co-founder of Beadle and Grimms, a gaming company. "You are surrounded by people like you. There is a Twitch community. There is a story being told out there that is something that you love and there is no more of this fear of loving that thing out loud."

The newest edition of "Dungeons and Dragons" centers more on storytelling than previous versions, Tito said, allowing players to focus more on narrative than the technical game mechanics.

"The fifth edition is a remarkable edition that is a lot easier to engage with as a new player and it really supports changing rules," said Deborah Ann Woll, actress and dungeon master of Geek & Sundry's "Relics and Rarities," a "Dungeons and Dragons" show. "I love that they are very much like this is a guidebook and a blueprint and if you want to do something else or can't remember a rule, just make it up. I like that they aren't rigid."

The fifth edition was so well-received by fans of "Dungeons and Dragons" that sales that year grew double digits. And that growth has continued, Tito said. Wizards of the Coast doesn't disclose exact sales figures for the brand.

"When a new edition for a game like this releases, there is that flurry of activity, people get really excited about it and then, historically, that excitement has waned," he said. "The fifth edition has completely blown that model out of the water. With the release in 2014, it has grown and only continued to grow. Every kind of statistical model we've been able to to use from the history of 'Dungeons and Dragons' has been broken at this point. So, we are in uncharted territory."

Roll for initiative

But better game mechanics isn't the only reason that interest in "Dungeons and Dragons" has soared. In 2015, Geek & Sundry, a multimedia production company with shows on YouTube and Twitch, launched "Critical Role."

The show features Matthew Mercer ("Overwatch") as the dungeon master, the organizer of the game who sets quests for players to complete and describes what the players hear and see on their journeys.

The players participating in the campaign for the first season were eight fellow voice actors, Ashley Johnson ("The Last of Us"), Laura Bailey ("Rick and Morty"), Liam O'Brien ("Carmen Sandiego"), Marisha Ray ("Lego DC Super-Villains"), Sam Riegel ("Ducktales"), Taliesin Jaffe ("Injustice 2"), Travis Willingham ("Avengers Assemble"), and Orion Acaba ("Just Cause 4").

Each actor created their own character for the show with a distinct personality and unique abilities. Together, the characters would be sent on a long quest and would need to work in tandem to vanquish enemies, solve puzzles and complete each task set by the dungeon master.

The first campaign lasted 115 episodes, with each video lasting between three and six hours long. The show was so popular with fans that a second campaign was started in January 2018. This second season of the show features seven of the eight actors in the first season as all new characters and has currently aired 54 episodes.

"The way streaming has affected 'Dungeons and Dragons' is like sports," Tito said. "You didn't learn how to play basketball or baseball by reading the manual about what the rules are. You watched the games, you listened to the commentators, you found a few icons or aspirational figures that you wanted to emulate and that's what's happening with streaming."

In fact, the sale of new players handbooks and starter sets have been a large portion of Wizards of the Coast's "Dungeons and Dragons" sales growth.

Jasmine Bhullar prepares to roll during a game of "Dungeons and Dragons" on Geek & Sundry's "Relics and Rarities."
Geek & Sundry

"We are constantly meeting people at events and conventions and live shows who tell us 'I never played, I never thought that it was something that I could get into and enjoy and now I play in three campaigns,'" Mercer said. "It's been unexpectedly wild to see people engage with the game. I never expected to find such a widespread and growing audience."

"Critical Role" has become so popular that when it launched a Kickstarter last week to create an animated special based on the characters from the first campaign, it was funded within one hour.

The team behind the web series had wanted $750,000 to fund the endeavor. With 33 days remaining in the crowdfunding campaign, "Critical Role" has raised more than $7.3 million from 53,000 backers. It is now the most-funded film/video project in Kickstarter history.

"We are eternally humbled," Mercer said.

Natural 20

Expanding on its "Dungeons and Dragons" content, Geek & Sundry launched "Relics and Rarities," a shorter form show, in February.

"Relics and Rarities" consisted of only six episodes and a core cast of Julia Dennis ("Lofty Dreams"), Tommy Walker ("Daredevil"), Xander Jeanneret ("Sagas of Sundry"), and Jasmine Bhullar, a famed Twitch streamer, as well as a weekly celebrity guest.

Woll ("True Blood," "Daredevil") acted as the dungeon master for the series. She crafted each individual episode as well as the overarching storyline that tied each one together.

Deborah Ann Woll, Tommy Walker, Jasmine Bhullar and Julia Dennis play "Dungeons and Dragons" on Geek & Sundry's "Relics and Rarities."
Geek & Sundry

Guest stars included Charlie Cox ("Daredevil"), Kevin Smith ("Clerks"), Lillard ("Scream, Scooby Doo"), Janina Gavinkar ("Star Wars Battlefront II"), Simone Missick ("Luke Cage") and Sam Richardson ("Veep"), each playing a different character that aided the core group during their quests.

Four of the guest stars had never played "Dungeons and Dragons" before and this was their first introduction to the game, Woll said.

"Kevin, obviously, as soon as he stepped foot on that stage made it his own and I think he's a great example that you can go in fearlessly, even if you have zero idea what anything on your [character] sheet means," Woll said. "The [dungeon master] is going to help and the other players are going to help."

Woll's game took the characters through a number of different settings including a haunted manor, a wild forest, a submarine, an Egyptian tomb and an underground lair. In each miniature quest, the characters either had to retrieve a special item or uncover information so that they could ultimately face three all-powerful villains in the final episode.

Woll said she hopes that their playthrough of the game inspires others to play for the first time and for, those that are already playing, inspires them to create their own unique adventures.

And if Twitter users are any indication, it has.

"I grew up in the '90s and it was sort of at the end of this satanic panic that surrounded not just 'Dungeons and Dragons' but RPGs (role playing games) in general," Jeanneret, who plays Rikki Huckster on "Relics and Rarities," said in a video posted by Geek & Sundry Wednesday.

"Something was weird about kids getting together in a basement and discussing magic that kind of scared the culture as a whole and it's been cool to see this transition and acceptance both, I think, in large part to Geek & Sundry, Nerdist and Alpha and all of these programs," he said. "We're at the forefront of making it accessible to people."