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I sat down with Dan Barrett, Senior Brand Manager at Wizards of the Coast, to discuss why Dungeons & Dragons is bigger and better than ever.

Earlier in 2020, Wizards of the Coast shared the fabulous news that 2019 was D&D’s most successful year (not just financially, but across a range of measures).

I asked Dan what he thought the contributing factors to this shift were. “There’s been a major shift over the last few decades, and fantasy and science-fiction stories, tabletop and videogames are now a part of mainstream popular culture,” he said. “All these genres of storytelling and types of media are now widely celebrated, and it’s great that D&D has been a part of that change.”

“As for D&D specifically, we’ve seen huge growth since the release of 5th edition in 2014, and there have been three core drivers of that success: Firstly the ruleset really highlights story and character, making the game more fun to play. Secondly, it’s also more fun to watch, and liveplay D&D shows on YouTube and Twitch have introduced many new players to the game. Thirdly, D&D’s status as a pop-culture staple has seen it featured in a wide variety of TV shows and films, making new people aware of the game and giving them the desire to learn more.”

My mind immediately went to the Dungeons & Dragons episode of Community, considered by many to be one of the best Community episodes of all time. I wasn’t sure whether Dan had seen it, but for me it captured the essence of D&D and the power of that collaborative storytelling beautifully. D&D has also appeared in Stranger Things and Rick & Morty, to name just two mega-hit shows.

“We’re very proud that D&D has been featured in so many prominent TV shows and films,” Dan said, “and of our ever-growing ranks of celebrity fans. A great thing about having become such a pop-culture touchstone is how these inclusions in other media make the game known to new people, and shows how fun the game is to play.”

I wondered what was the funnest and best part of D&D for him personally.

“To me, Dungeons & Dragons is all about having a great time creating a fantasy adventure story with friends. I love the social element of it, how the game really brings people together. That can be around a kitchen table at home, on a video call (often the case right now), or in chat on Twitch as you’re watching a new chapter unfold in your favourite live-streamed D&D show. It’s also a game that offers players a lot of freedom – from character creation, to the setting you play in, the tone of adventure you want to play, and whether you focus more on roleplaying or combat. In many ways it’s the ultimate toolbox for creating the kind of game you most want to play.”

I observed that our changing culture has influenced Dungeons & Dragons, but Dungeons & Dragons has influenced our culture too. Dan seemed to agree: “[It] has certainly been a part of bringing fantasy entertainment into popular culture, through the TRPG itself and other entertainment, such as novels or the animated series I watched as a kid. It’s also had a significant impact on the digital games we play. D&D established many of the concepts and ideas later translated to computer and console RPG games, so whenever you hear someone talk about “levelling up”, you know where this comes from. That’s why we’re so excited to be heading back to digital games in a big way, with multiple titles in development for release over the coming years.”

I asked him a little more about the digital future of Dungeons & Dragons: “One of Dungeons & Dragons’ core strengths is the social connection it offers players,” Dan explained, “and that exists irrespective of how you’re choosing to play the game. Whether you play in person or online, with paper character sheets and physical dice or digital tools on your phone or tablet, the game delivers a shared storytelling experience for you and the rest of your party. There are certainly some fans who look to it for some “screens down” time though, and the tactile experience of rolling physical dice and leafing through paper character sheets and notes is a part of that.”

Despite being someone who does like some “screens down” time, we recently saw the announcement of Baldur’s Gate 3; as a long-time Baldur’s Gate fan I rejoiced at the news. It looks incredibly ambitious, with lots of choice-driven narrative. Larian Studios, the developer, has worked on many big RPG IPs such as Divinity. There is a lot of expectation on Baldur’s Gate 3 and indeed future D&D releases. I wondered whether operating with such massive expectations brought up unique challenges.

“Working on a much-loved brand with a long history, there are certainly many expectations from fans. This includes being true to the feelings Dungeons & Dragons has offered them in the past, while also exciting them with fresh takes on classics and brand new content. And if there’s a high bar for us to exceed with each subsequent release, that’s of our own making! How that relates to the business side of things is quite simple – when we make great products that meet the wants and needs of our fans, these tend to sell excellently. So we make sure to understand our fans very well, then create the books/starter boxes/accessories they’re looking for. It helps that we are fans of our own game first and foremost: If the team are thrilled to be working on something, it’s likely our players are going to love it when it’s ready too.”

I asked him what he would say to those who were still sceptical about the wonders of D&D.

“Even if you’ve not yet sat down to play Dungeons & Dragons, you probably have already enjoyed elements of it elsewhere: if you’ve ever watched an unlikely group of heroes come together to overcome a nearly-insurmountable task, that’s D&D. Or if you’ve customised a character’s stats, items, and spells in a videogame, that’s D&D. Take those and the best parts of your regular game night with friends, and it’s a recipe for a critical hit. We’re expanding into other forms of entertainment including digital games, so there will be even more ways to discover and enjoy the world, stories, characters, and monsters of Dungeons & Dragons in the future. Whether you want to sit at the table or couch, PC or console, we’ll have some great fantasy storytelling for you.”

Thanks to Dan Barrett for taking the time to answer our questions!

Joseph Sale is a novelist, creator of dark twines and a gamer. He loves RPGs, open worlds and survival horrors (the latter of which he used to play in an old shed in his back garden - because apparently Resident Evil wasn't atmospheric enough). He looks out for games with a strong narrative; he's a great believer the very best games long outlive their console, and those are the classics he holds on to.