4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed

The media keeps telling us how we, the geeks, have won popular culture. A show with dragons became prestige television, and networks keep aiming to produce  the next Game of Thrones. A minister I know boasted that she was a member of her high school Dungeons & Dragons club. The Return of the King won best picture. Fan culture is everywhere. So we forget that in the early days, when D&D burgeoned by word-of-mouth, no one had seen anything like it.

Of course, little in D&D stands as completely new, but in the 70s, unless you joined a tiny cult of miniature gamers interested in fantasy, the game defied understanding. Unless you followed a few, obscure genre authors, you would never have seen anything like it. You shared popular assumptions that D&D would explode.

1. Fantasy is for children and a few oddballs.

Forget the The Lord of the Rings, and then name a work of fantasy that was widely known before D&D. Anything you name is a fairy tale or fable—something for children. Conan? He’s a comic book character. Every grown up knows comics are for children. Now consider The Lord of the Rings. It enjoyed enough popularity to get cited by Led Zeppelin and some other long hairs, but when Hollywood tried to trade on its popularity, they added musical numbers. Hollywood did not think they could reach a big enough audience of oddballs, so they adapted for children.

In making the 1978 movie Superman, the producers needed adults to see a movie about what they saw as a children’s character. Imagine marketing a Thomas the Tank Engine film to adults. To free grown ups from the embarrassment of buying tickets, they gave a fortune to Important Actor Marlon Brando. For 15 minutes of screen time, Brando received $3.7 million up front, plus 11.75% of the film’s take, right off the top. The film’s marketing rested heavily on the actor’s performance. All so grown ups could gain an excuse to see the movie on date night.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N. A game where trolls lived in dungeons and refused to die. The original Monster Manual revealed beholders, mind flayers, chromatic dragons and countless other dreadful wonders that filled me with excitement.

The public’s unfamiliarity with fantasy contributed to the panic that surrounded D&D in the 80s. God fearing adults saw their teenagers obsessed with spells and children’s fairy tale nonsense, but darker and more violent. They settled on the only logical explanation, demon worship, because the culprit could not possibly be a really fun game.

Meanwhile, I worked to find the books named in The Dragon’s Giants in the Earth column and later in Appendix N. I found none. Admittedly, I suffered the disadvantage of shopping from a mall bookstore. I knew nothing of used book stores or inter-library loan. Nonetheless, few of Gary Gygax’s inspirations remained in print. Today, fantasy books of all stripes crowd the shelves. Then, I took years to collect the books that inspired the game.

2. Games are terrible.

In the 70s, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. The winner becomes obvious long before the end, yet they took forever to finish. Games covered prosaic subjects like Life and Payday, or financial wish-fulfillment like Monopoly or, well, Payday. Still, I liked games enough that I even played terrible ones endlessly. (Except, of course, for Monopoly, which I suspect Hasbro makes to convince millions that games are tedious. I cannot fathom their plot’s endgame.) My standards were so low that I liked the 1974 game Prize Property where you launched legal actions against your opponents to stall their building developments. Legal actions. The box claimed fun for ages 9 and up.

People suffered from narrow ideas about what a game could be. Someone wins, someone loses, the game never extends past the board and never continues after you close the box.

Before I saw D&D, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. Working from a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch, I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetSo in a mere 48 pages, the Holmes Basic D&D rule book shattered my notion of what a game could be.

Later, when I described the new game, everyone asked the same questions: “How do you win?” and then, “if you can’t win, what’s the point?” Everyone struggled to grasp the notion that you played to have fun without any chance of winning. For more, see But how do you win?

3. Only young children should roleplay.

People sometimes say that D&D did not invent the roleplaying game. Kids have always roleplayed; we just called it make believe. By spreading roleplaying beyond the playground, D&D alarmed parents, ministers, and other responsible adults.

When D&D first reached mainstream attention, reporters painted the game as a “bizarre” activity enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players.  Parents feared that playing a role in D&D would lead their children to confuse fantasy with reality. After all, wasn’t anyone old enough for such a complicated game too old for make believe? Kids talked about being a wizard or a thief and folks worried that kids believed it. See The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America.

D&D’s revolution went beyond make believe. Much of the appeal came from playing a character with stats that carried to the next session, and from the idea that characters gained experience and improved. In Playing at the World, while describing D&D’s reception, Jon Peterson shows new players and reviewers always touting the experience system. The steady reward of experience and levels forged an obsession for many players. The combination proved so compelling that just about every computer role-playing game borrows it.

4. Dungeons are just medieval jails.

Zombies and vampires appear everywhere in popular culture. Both archetypes seem medieval, but the popular conception of zombies only dates back to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.

The concept of a dungeon as an underground sprawl with monsters and treasures, is even newer.

In the fantasies that inspired the game, no character explores a sprawling dungeon. At best, you can find elements of the dungeon crawl, such as treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, traps and underground cities in a Conan yarn, and so on. Forget Indiana Jones; he came later.

Now, the dungeon adventure qualifies as a trope that appears in virtually every computer fantasy game.

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

Stone Mountain dungeon cross section from 1977 basic set

In my world before D&D, games gave the fun of launching legal action against fellow real estate developers. When I opened the basic rules, I could brave the peril and mystery of the dungeon shown in the Stone Mountain cross section. Still today, no image inspires my enthusiasm to play as much. I jumped from property law to Greyhawk.

For more, see How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.

By the end of the 70s, fandom had yet to dominate popular culture, but Star Wars and Superman and Dungeons & Dragons had established a beachhead. The gains would only continue.

For me, the 48 pages of the 1977 Basic Set did more than introduce the best game in the world, those pages turned some of what I understood upside down.

12 thoughts on “4 Pop-Culture Assumptions That Dungeons & Dragons Destroyed

  1. Wayne's Books

    Monopoly was our family game, with its soul-crushing gameplay. I had my parents try Gamma World, but I was a young and inexperienced GM at the time, so it didn’t go over well. The games became a generational divide between us.

  2. thegneech

    Monopoly was created by an economist as an exercise to describe how awful capitalism is; it was then stolen by a publisher and made into a boardgame that made the publisher gazillions and the economist nothing. Strangely fitting.

  3. Wormys_Queue

    I guess here in Germany we had a bit of luck regarding the 80’s satanic panic. Roleplaying didn’t become a real thing before a German system was published that borrowed heavily from early D&D. But also at that time, Heavy Metal had become huge so RPGs kinda fell under the radar of the satanic panic people. Also, what I found astounding when I heard it for the first time was that there were people not able to read Appendix N books and authors, because our town library basically had them all (in the early eighties when I kinda moved from reading Science Fiction to Fantasy), so I could read books in german translation that, at the same time, simply didn’t exist on the english-speaking market (which I found out when Paizo started their Planet Stories line).

    On the other hand, the fairy tales by Grimm, Andersen and Co., as well as the european mythologies, while often told and read to young children, were also deeply ingrained part of our culture, so I guess that fantasy had it a bit easier not to simply be shrugged off as children stuff (contrary to comics, those have still to battle that stigma, even in 2020).

  4. DM_Bill

    I played D&D in the late 70s as well, when my dad and his generation of family members played it. They rolled me up a dwarf archer and I was hooked! So, no “satanic panic” in our house, though I remember it, and definitely it was no fake controversy.

    Interestingly, two years ago, me and my family, now into middle age ourselves, brought out our books and restarted a campaign. It’s still going, but the reasons we play now are totally different.

    As kids, we played for something new and to have fun. Now we play to reconnect with each other and rediscover a lost youth.

    We didn’t even know of D&D’s resurgence. We still thought it was a niche game. So, to our kids, it’s almost like we are actually doing something that is “current”!

    Let’s keep it going! Let the middle aged bring back the middle ages!

  5. rasmusnord01

    The Experience Point system and leveling is arguably the most widespread impact.

    It is not only in all computer RPGs, it is almost in all video games today (sports, racing, shooters) and it has been transferred to mileage and levels with airlines (that frequent flyer Gold Card is quite useful, I must say), being a hotel customer, car rental, banking and countless other commercial activities where it is about customer retention and loyalty.

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  7. Shawn Hennessy

    I still have my Basic and Expert sets from the early 80s (I believe its the second printing of them) and they never fail to inspire me creatively as a DM when I look at them.

    40 plus years later I still wonder if the Wizard scrying on the Expert Box was a friend or foe to the armored dude with the spear and the spell-casting chick with the green fireball, on the Basic Box? If he was a foe, the’d be in no shape to take him on after combat with a Green Dragon.
    As always, great article David.

  8. alphastream

    Funny thing about Monopoly… I have a shelf full of amazing modern board games. My kids and their neighborhood friends are still most likely to play (and somehow enjoy) Monopoly. Sigh.

    That aside, I completely agree on what a sea-change it was, and how obtuse it was. I played at first with the Moldvay Basic Set plus action figures, plus who knows what insane rules we came up with. The rules barely made sense and seemed made up anyway, so we made up tons of rules too. (And then there were the rules that were so hard to decipher, such as the different units of measurement for indoors/outdoors which were so unclear.) It all demonstrates how that creative imaginative side was the true driver.

  9. Darryl Hunt

    I remember a very difficult experience where my friend and I tried to describe how D&D was played to our teacher and a class of 14/15 year old’s in 1976. It was met with a lot of derisive comments and disbelief, and we very quickly realised we had committed ourselves to what was rapidly becoming a dreadful mistake. We did not manage to convert one single person to thinking this was a game they might want to play, despite our love for the game: youth and a total lack of preparation meant we sank without trace.
    However it never for one moment made me stop playing and at 58 still play today. Now, far more people are open to the idea of what a role playing game might be and I have spent many hours talking to folk about the topic.
    It is heartening to see such a huge growth in role play in all its genres.
    And finally I’d like to thank you for making me think about all those years ago and consider where I am now, cheers David 🙂

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  11. AshleyRPollard

    I would contest that Conan was only known as a comic. Admittedly I did know it as a comic, but found it after reading the stories in books, but I suspect I’m slightly older, so my experience may not map onto yours.

    We certainly the share the same experience of Monopoly, but I was also introduced to Risk, which isn’t that great, but still better than Monopoly. The Dalek Invasion Earth variant being particularly fun.

    Anyway, I remember playing OD&D in the early to mid 1970s. Probably the year it came out, as a member of the local wargame group bought a copy and I played in one of the first dungeon crawls at the club.

    Good times.

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