vulture lists

How Dungeons & Dragons Went From Punch Line to Blockbuster in 17 Turns

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Prime Video, Paramount Pictures, Netflix, Cartoon Network

It’s easy, especially for younger fans, to take Dungeons & Dragons’ popularity for granted. After all, it’s the subject of a blockbuster movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. But, for decades, this titan of role-playing was reduced to the plaything of, well, nerds.

Far from the glamour of movie theaters, D&D got its start in a garage in 1970s Wisconsin, and the game had to fight hard to shake those humble, outsider origins. By design, the game was played in closed roomsm, with rarely more than a half-dozen people, and involved pretending you were in an invented world. It’s easy to understand why its appeal was initially limited. It’s also easy to see why people absolutely loved it.

Movie and TV portrayals of D&D initially struggled to convey the game’s appeal to anybody who wasn’t already rolling 20-sided dice. Most of D&D’s early appearances fundamentally misunderstood what the game actually was. But over the course of 40 years, pop culture leveled up its D&D depictions, and you can pretty easily track the game’s rise to mainstream popularity from the ways it’s appeared onscreen.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

D&D played a key role behind the scenes of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic: After learning that one of the child actors played the game, the director had the young cast play together as part of the audition process to observe their natural dynamics. In the film itself, Elliott’s older brother and his friends play a game that’s clearly supposed to be a stand-in for D&D. Compared to some of the later depictions of D&D in the ’80s, this is almost wholesome, yet it’s still indicative of a time when broader society didn’t yet understand the game’s appeal, as exemplified by Elliott’s mother’s asking, “How do you win?” Spielberg showed that, while it was played like any other teenage game (the kids are as interested in pizza and hanging out as they are mana points), you had to be in the in-crowd to get how special it was. This early in its tenure, there was an exclusivity to D&D that players relished.

Mazes and Monsters (1982)

The confusion about what, exactly, D&D was had dire consequences during the early ’80s, when the Satanic Panic had some American parents convinced the game was getting their poor, innocent children to perform real spells and rituals. Mazes and Monsters, a made-for-TV film, stars Tom Hanks as a student who, after being pressured to relapse into his role-playing habit, becomes unable to differentiate campaign from reality. Even though the film commits hard to the idea that the game has psychosis-inducing effects, it clearly manipulates the reality of playing it: Rather than yelling over a crowded kitchen table, our players light two dozen aromatic candles and lull themselves into a, um, sensual trance. Clueless (or perhaps exploitative) writers treated D&D’s aura of nerdy exclusivity as something dangerous; arcane or fantastical activities that traded in fantasy and the arcane outside of parents’ understanding were seen as subversive to conservative Christian values.

Dungeons & Dragons (1983–85)

While the moral panic initially drove up sales, D&D’s owners, TSR, eventually did some damage control to persuade parents the property was safe for their kids. Along with a wave of licensed action figures, the official D&D Saturday-morning cartoon was a concentrated effort to market directly to children by … removing the actual appeal of the gameplay itself. The company got to avoid the controversy surrounding its “demonic” game by showing that, look, the fantasy world is fun, exciting, and definitely kid friendly! But the show’s story (six kids fall into a fantasy realm via haunted theme-park ride) has basically no resemblance to established D&D adventures, which indicates that it wasn’t just puritanical fearmongers and non-nerds who misunderstood the game’s appeal — its owners also couldn’t figure out how to best adapt and monetize it. It seemed that no one got the game’s appeal except its players.

Shakma (1990)

This direct-to-video slasher pits a rabid baboon against a class of premeds who are playing an elaborate RPG after hours. It’s not strictly D&D but a combination of tabletop, LARP, and puzzle computer games. Still, we see here a counterpoint to Mazes and Monsters: The violence is not caused by the game or a player but by a wholly unrelated entity — and it seems like everybody’s having a fun time until the primate rampage. Shakma may not understand D&D, but it certainly doesn’t demonize it. The movie was banished to obscurity pretty much immediately on release, so its impact in shifting the confused attitude toward D&D in popular culture was limited; the low-budget schlock auteurs at Quest Entertainment were not in the business of incisive cultural commentary, instead throwing into their films whatever was popular in order to attract video rentals. The fact that the film understands the appeal of a fantasy role-playing game makes it an accidental curio rather than a defining touchstone.

Dexter’s Laboratory, “D & DD” (1997)

In the ’90s, channels like Cartoon Network introduced more absurdist and alternative programming than the toy-friendly fare of the ’80s. As a result, shows were valued for their idiosyncrasies, and niche styles and reference points were encouraged. That could explain why this episode of Dexter’s Laboratory may be the first depiction of D&D that actually grapples with the dynamics of playing the game. Dexter is having an ego trip during a game of Monsters and Mazes, cheating dice rolls to further his agenda as game master; his friends much prefer his sister Dee Dee’s scattershot and messy campaign as they feel they’re not being unfairly punished. It’s a stylish, charming illustration of the key conflict between players who take themselves seriously and the inherently contradictory nature of constructing a fantasy world. Cartoon Network was by no means universally watched, but still, kids here get introduced to the game without any agenda or advertisement.

Freaks and Geeks, “Discos and Dragons” (2000)

This short-lived series was lauded for its authentic portrait of outsiders on both ends of the high-school-popularity spectrum. They must have been onto something when casting their young geek actors because one of them, John Francis Daley, ended up co-directing Honor Among Thieves. In the season-one finale, bad boy Daniel (James Franco) joins a campaign and, to his surprise, loves it. With Dexter’s Laboratory before it, we’ve reached a period when writers are either working their own D&D experiences into the stories or are astute enough to understand the dramatic potential of a D&D party — people can jell while working toward a shared goal. Our players are undeniably still geeks, but their outsider status is considered less objectionable.

Dungeons & Dragons (2000)

D&D’s long-gestating cinematic adaptation (the first one) is proof that not only could the game’s owners mishandle the property — fans could too. Director Courtney Solomon had never made a film before helming this, but he had played a lot of D&D, and he spearheaded the film’s development process. Unfortunately, the studio got cold feet, and the game’s ownership changing hands led to a lot of meddling, a sharp contrast to the full control enjoyed by the D&D enthusiasts of Dexter’s Laboratory and Freaks and Geeks. The film shares a core problem with the ’80s cartoon: In a world with limitless adventures, how do you invent one to capture all the game’s thrills? By trying to boil down the game’s wonders, the film sanded all D&D’s unique qualities clean off, frustrating fans who thought the game’s brand was being exploited and creating a newfound certainty that D&D was not a mass-appeal property. The 2000 Dungeons & Dragons feels like an artifact from an era when getting a blockbuster adaptation was viewed as the best way to achieve mainstream cultural legitimacy. When the movie failed to do so, it felt like a step back for the game.

That ’70s Show, “Radio Daze” (2001)

That ’70s Show was a less sophisticated teenage throwback than Freaks and Geeks but a million times more popular. In this third-season episode, Eric is paranoid that a smooth-talking radio host is gonna hook up with his girlfriend, Donna, but thankfully the DJ is revealed to be a portly nerd who loves role-playing games. The stinger. revealing rock star Alice Cooper playing D&D, is cute, but the joke still feels like it’s at the game’s expense. By now, there’s a clear push and pull between thoughtful portrayals of D&D games and broader ones trading in stereotypes.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Chosen” (2003)

At the same time, some shows spoke to more-niche interests and genres and ended up massive successes because of their specificity. Buffy waited until its finale to introduce D&D, as our heroes wile away the night before their climactic battle with a game Giles finds pretty lowly for a Watcher. It feels like a playful nod to the fact that the writers had for seven seasons paid forward their nerdy passions by elevating fantasy and horror into a cooler, mainstream space. By its end, the show had inspired a hunger in mass audiences to embrace all sorts of genre fiction — this D&D appearance is almost a victory lap from the RPG-enthusiast writers for elevating fantastical storytelling without ever compromising its nerdiness. (Or maybe it’s just a cheeky plug for the official Buffy RPG.)

Futurama, “Bender’s Game” (2008)

Futurama proves its nerd cred every episode — one episode of the show even featured D&D creator Gary Gygax as a guest star. It’s little surprise, then, that this feature-length D&D pastiche riffs as much on previous adaptations as it lovingly spoofs the game itself. Bender becomes obsessed when the game unlocks his capacity for imagination, and after breaking out of a robot institution, he transports all his friends to a medieval fantasy world. If anyone was going to parody Mazes and Monsters and the ’80s cartoon in one film, it’s these nerds. We’ve now crossed the threshold for intertextual D&D portrayals.

Community, “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” (2011)

One of the sharpest send-ups of how heartfelt and janky D&D can be came in perhaps the best episode of Community, though this half-hour is hard to watch because it’s been wiped from streaming services due to a joke in which Ken Jeong wears blackface in a misguided attempt to cosplay as a dark elf. There are no animated renditions of the study group’s quest; fantasy music, sound effects, and self-serious voice-over are all we need to convey just how exhilarating sitting around a table with pen and paper can feel. In this and its sequel, “Advanced Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” our characters’ ignorance of the game’s mechanics is the butt of the joke — non-players are starting to be framed as the outsiders.

The Big Bang Theory, “The Wiggly Finger Catalyst” (2011), “The Santa Simulation” (2012), “The Love Spell Potential” (2013), “The D&D Vortex” (2019)

How did The Big Bang Theory feel about nerds? Frequently, the show filtered jokes at nerds’ expense through the mouthpieces of other nerds so that the audience could feel better about making fun of them. The same approach applies to the episodes in which D&D makes an appearance; there’s fine detailing about interplayer dynamics and gameplay (e.g., Sheldon, the maniac, decides to use his d20 for all decision-making), but it fails to represent, by this point, how widely played D&D was regardless of gender or degree of nerdiness. It continues to integrate nerdiness into broader pop culture, but it feels disingenuous — Big Bang just lifts D&D’s most commonly recognized elements to curry favor with an audience wholly disinterested in playing it, doubling down on outdated characterizations rather than introducing anything new to the mainstream appreciation of the game.

Gravity Falls, “Dungeons, Dungeons, and More Dungeons” (2015) and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, “Dungeons & Discord” (2016)

The 2010s saw a wave of animation that distinguished itself with more sensitive emotional storytelling, and the writers felt more comfortable embracing everything outlandish and detailed about the fantasy stories they admired when younger. (You can tell from Adventure Time’s title card that D&D is a foundational influence.) Both Gravity Falls and Friendship Is Magic have episodes in which characters play a D&D-like game — a clear evolution from the ’80s series, which struggled to try to sell kids on the general fantasy world. Now cartoons are showcasing the social and creative merits of the RPG experience, and today’s children are more receptive to seeing what was once shunned as something mainstream.

Stranger Things (2016–Present)

D&D recently cemented a popularity that is unlikely to wane any time soon — in large part due to this megahit genre mash. A band of nerdy boys find their game sessions brought to life in the form of nether-dimensional monsters; its creators, the Duffer brothers, saw D&D’s language and characters as a way to introduce young audiences to the sci-fi and body horror that ’80s parents were scared of their children engaging with. The Duffers didn’t just lionize their own memories, they also replicated the same crossing-the-threshold experience into dark, dangerous (and exciting) fiction.

Stranger Things was a boon for D&D. Putting the game in a starring role in an exciting new streaming service’s flagship show helped reset the complicated history of previous depictions and cemented the game as something irrefutably iconic for fresh-faced fans.

The Legend of Vox Machina (2022–Present)

With legions of new fans hungry for RPG play, the popularity of “actual play” entertainment (streamed or recorded game sessions) skyrocketed. The success of Critical Role, Dimension 20, and The Adventure Zone proved audiences were eager for D&D media that retained all the hallmarks of gameplay: personality, improv, heightened performances, and plenty of room for mistakes. The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated version of Critical Role’s first campaign, is the next evolution of this trend as it strips away the gameplay and dramatizes the fantastical story as if it hadn’t originated in a tabletop campaign. Vox Machina didn’t invent “actual play” animation — HarmonQuest animated its unrehearsed gameplay in 2016, and the anime Record of Lodoss War predates both by two decades — but now original stories told using D&D could become independent brands themselves, enjoying more success and acclaim than official D&D media. Vox Machina showed that audiences would reward big stories that had tangible connective tissue to the experience of playing the game.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023)

Even though the game had been legitimized not just as nerd stuff but as a totem of the broader culture, Honor Among Thieves wasn’t necessarily a sure bet — $150 million is a lot of money, and there’s still no guarantee that watching an original D&D story could be exciting without something of the game experience remaining intact. Because of this, Honor Among Thieves works overtime to heighten the shared language of dramatic storytelling and role playing: a full-bodied embrace of spontaneity, the thrill of convoluted puzzle solutions, the clashing between boldly defined characters, and one fist-pumping, glorious moment of turn-based combat. It feels like, if you looked just off-screen, you could see a group of people bickering over a table and improvising their way into bigger, messier problems.

Honor Among Thieves isn’t a perfect movie, but in many ways it’s almost a perfect encapsulation of what makes D&D work onscreen: You need to embrace chaos and earnestness and, above everything else, remember it’s all play.

How Dungeons & Dragons Went From Punch Line to Blockbuster