Have you noticed there’s a lot of people doing geek shit now? It’s undeniably popular and dare I say cool to be nerd.
Dungeons & Dragons is in a renaissance period. The RPG market grew from $880 million to $1.2 billion in 2016 following the release of 5E D&D. 35,000 people regularly play D&D just online. A large homebrew community has sprung alongside the game and indie RPG’s are booming too. Critical Role regularly streams D&D live to 35,000 viewers, with each episode getting hundreds and thousands of views beyond the live showing. This is literally just people watching a bunch of people play D&D, albeit an incredibly talented group of professional actors, but none the less the premise is they play a straight game of D&D.
That’s just to focus in on RPG’s but nerd culture has spread to every facet of the media culture we consume. Game of Thrones, a gritty medieval fantasy epic grounded in history, is one of the most popular shows on television. Even my mum watches it. The Marvel cinematic universe are some of the most popular high grossing films ever made. Yet the video game industry now dwarfs the film industry in size. Board gaming has grown in popularity with boardgame cafes and groups popping up everywhere as people find ways to connect in person with one another in our technological age.
So what’s happened?
I fondly remember the days of sitting in maths class at lunchtime and playing Magic the Gathering. People from my class would tap on the windows and enquire why I was in detention. Then when they found out I had voluntarily decided to stay indoors to play ‘pokemon cards’ the social ostracisation began.
Inevitably there’s been a backlash against this influx of new people by a core group of people within the community. Many of which congregate around sites like 4chan. This begun when people clocked that women were actually interested in things like video games, tabletop gaming, comic books and various other nerdy pastimes. With the advent of the internet, women were able to openly express their interest in aforementioned stuff in a relatively free space. The boys club mentality still persisted however and demands were made that they prove that they were really interested in it and not just doing it for the prized currency of ‘attention.’
In recent years this form of aggressive gatekeeping has shifted to encompass anyone newly interested in nerdy past times. In respects to Dungeons & Dragons, this new wave of players are blamed for dumbing down the game, not playing pretend properly and most egregiously only doing it because it’s popular now. The ‘normies’ have truly arrived.
I do understand the feeling. I was bullied in part because my nerdy interests singled me out. I brought my Warhammer to school to play, they were thrown to the floor by other kids and smashed to bits for shits and giggles. Partly because kids can be awful, but partly because I was doing something weird and out of ordinary. This meant that I ended up forming a lot of my identity through this idea that I was part of a counter-culture. That I was into competing at Starcraft, not football, watching Magic the Gathering tournaments, not reality television and reading fantasy and science fiction novels instead of Nuts magazine. I was better than *them* and within my nerdy realm I was safe and had a semblance of agency, control and of course massive amounts of beautiful escapism.
I’ve made jokes even now about the ‘normies’ invading. The feeling of frustration is real. That these people couldn’t understand. That they didn’t suffer. They’re invading my space. How dare they. This is my game, I clearly own, they don’t deserve it.
It’s a poisonous train of thought born out of a lingering self-hatred that I’ve had to work to shed.
On a surface level accusations such as D&D being dumbed down in its latest iteration to cater for the ‘normies’ can be seen as true. 5E D&D is far simpler to pick up and play than any other edition, it’s use of bounded accuracy alongside the advantage/disadvantage mechanics make the game more simple. Its skill system is far more reduced and focused and the feat chains of the past have been reduced. This all makes the core part of creating a character a quicker and easier experience and allows for far more streamlined gameplay. I still shudder at the memory of a Pathfinder session with new players that took us a painful 5 hours just to get through character creation, by which time everyone was exhausted and put off to actually play.
New players can also bring their own prejudices to a game, they are often influenced far more by the likes of video games than pulp fantasy and sci-fi literature that inspired the roots of D&D. Many players are also coming to the game after watching shows like Critical Role and other gaming podcasts and with this comes a warped impression of what a game is actually like.
However new players also bring their own creativity, ingenuity and innovation to the game. More people becoming interested in a thing doesn’t degrade it, rather the opposite it means more time, money and creative energy is pumped into it. This allows games to expand rather than stagnate.
We see this with D&D 5th edition which despite a relatively small design team and a modest release schedule has managed to outsell 4th, 3.5 and 3.0 edition D&D combined. Mike Mearls, the lead designer on 5E, cites a design focus on the shared community of the game as the key to this success.
It’s now far easier to find a game than ever before, there are multiple groups you can find on local meetups and dotted around. You can also just pick up the books and run a game, even if you have never been a Dungeon Master before, due to their accessibility. If you can’t find a group in person there’s a massive community online too and technology has reached the point where you can sit with people from all over the world and see and hear them almost as though they were in your living room.
Parts of our community really do need to grow up and I include myself in that as I’ve clocked onto the roots of where the reaction I get to the influx of new players into the game and reject its hateful premise. It’s truly now one of the best times to be playing tabletop RPG’s and it’s thanks to the influx of all the ‘normies.’