The role-playing game that once defined geek suddenly is oh-so-chic, as everyone from Dwayne Johnson to Drew Barrymore roll multisided dice while pretending to be dwarves and wizards. Says 'Silicon Valley's' Martin Starr: "There's a huge resurgence of nerd culture, and I'm excited about it."
Vin Diesel plays it. So do Dwayne Johnson, Drew Barrymore, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers and Jon Favreau, among other bold-face names. Some even built their careers by playing it.
“I played compulsively for years,” admits D.B. Weiss, the 45-year-old Game of Thrones showrunner, who says infatuation with Dungeons & Dragons during his teenage years in Chicago was the perfect preparation for his current job. “It was my first experience with world-building,” he explains. “You’d see hundreds of ‘what if’ scenarios play out in real time as players attempted to achieve their various goals — and those goals often involved having sex with imaginary women.”
For years it was the game whose players dared not speak its name, as blatant an emblem of nerdishness as pocket protectors and broken eyewear. Not anymore: The decades-old role-playing game — in which participants roll multisided dice while pretending to be mystical creatures such as elves and dwarves — finally is coming out of the closet (or, in this case, Mom’s basement). “There’s a huge resurgence of nerd culture, especially with the tech boom,” says Silicon Valley’s Martin Starr, a longtime D&D enthusiast. “If nerds were still poor and living at their mothers’, nobody would be paying any attention to Dungeons & Dragons. But nerds rule the world, and D&D is making a big comeback — and I’m excited about it.”
CBS’ 1980s animated series based on the game.
It’s easy to see the game’s appeal for Hollywood’s creative class. What is acting, after all, if not a highly tuned form of role-playing? And lots of writers and directors honed their craft as youngsters by pretending to rescue half-naked fairy princesses from the clutches of evil wizards. Pendleton Ward, 34, says D&D was a huge influence in creating Adventure Time, his trippy Cartoon Network fantasy set in the postapocalyptic Land of Ooo (“I like how monsters in D&D are fully realized, with instincts and natural habitats and cultures,” he says). The same goes for David Benioff, 45, Weiss’ fellow Game of Thrones showrunner, who acknowledges how much his teenage D&D adventures taught him about basic storytelling. “I had a regular game with the Feinberg brothers,” he recalls of his adolescence in New York. “The whole campaign must have lasted four years.” During those marathon get-togethers, Benioff developed an ear for hooking audiences. “If the scenarios didn’t work and the Feinbergs got bored, I’d need to recalibrate.”
These days Weiss and Benioff are too busy to play games — besides, they have a Westeros-size D&D set on their HBO series, which just picked up 23 Emmy nominations — but plenty of grown-up celebrities still partake. Community creator Dan Harmon, 43, has a regular game with such friends as Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Paul F. Tompkins (Mr. Show With Bob and David). In fact, Harmon recently began streaming an animated version of his games on Seeso, NBCUniversal’s digital network. The notion that D&D gameplay can draw an audience is being tested increasingly these days, with games being played on podcasts like Nerd Poker and YouTube channels including Nerdist, where Chris Hardwick, Hollywood’s geek laureate, has been previewing Storm King’s Thunder, the latest prewritten campaign from D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast. “It’s become a kind-of spectator sport,” says Hardwick. “It hits every part of the nerdsphere you could want.”
Hardwick and Nerd Poker host Brian Posehn used to be part of a tight D&D circle that included Patton Oswalt. It broke up around 2004 when Oswalt got too busy. Sadly there were no spectators. “Patton played this drunken dwarf character named Stumphammer who would make up beer-hall songs about all the characters in the game,” recalls Posehn. Adds Hardwick, “Playing with comedians is such a gift.” Mike Drucker, a 32-year-old writer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, plays D&D almost exclusively with other comedy writers and says comics tend to be attracted to the game “because you have to think on your feet and commit.” When a comic loses a game, he adds, it’s like watching them “bomb at a comedy club.”
Tom Hanks (right) in Mazes and Monsters, a 1982 TV movie about a college RPG gone wrong.
With so many creatives into the game, it is no surprise it has bubbled up in entertainment in other ways. Netflix’s buzzy new supernatural drama Stranger Things, for instance, opened with a game of D&D. In 2011, Harmon devoted an episode of Community to the game, much to the chagrin of studio executives. “After the table read, the Sony suits wanted to meet me in my office about the script,” he says. “They actually said to me: ‘We wish you had turned this in earlier so we could have thrown it in the garbage. You just can’t say the word “goblin” this many times per page.’ ” Harmon got the last laugh, though: “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons” became one of the most popular Community episodes.
Hollywood has, from time to time, attempted to adapt Dungeons & Dragons for the screen — the 1982 TV movie Mazes and Monsters starred Tom Hanks as a college student who suffers a psychotic break while playing the game — but such efforts usually end poorly. The most recent official Dungeons & Dragons theatrical release, a 2000 film with that title starring Jeremy Irons, was a critical and box-office flop. Undeterred, Warner Bros. is taking another stab at a big-screen version, based on a script by David Leslie Johnson (The Conjuring 2), with Goosebumps’ Rob Letterman attached to direct. Expect it in theaters when the half-moon rises over the elf patch — in other words, sometime in 2018. “We start shooting next year,” says Greg Silverman, 43, president of creative development and worldwide production at Warner Bros., himself a lifelong D&D fan who has passed the RPG gene to his 13-year-old son Cooper. “The movie should be really, really fun.”
Still, even among D&D’s most hard-core fans — including 31-year-old Deborah Ann Woll, star of Netflix’s Daredevil and a seasoned Dungeon Master who has spent hours drafting maps from scratch and devising intricate strategies — there is deep skepticism that any film version can capture the essence of what makes the game so beloved. “The adventures I’ve had in Dungeons & Dragons will always be more exciting than anything they could put on a screen,” she says, “because it was me and I lived it, and it was spontaneous. That’s just always going to be more exciting.”
The D&D episode of Community.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.