“Hello, I’m Joe Manganiello and I’m a nerd.”
So the man says in the opening line of his welcome video for this past June’s Stream of Annihilation, the Twitch-broadcasted two-day role-playing marathon where he and no shortage of other actors, writers, and comedians showed the whole of the internet (and therefore the world) their love of the tabletop game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Manganiello is far from the stereotype of the nerd I grew up with (and grew up as, too). The beefcake werewolf from True Blood and potential foil to the new Batman is part of the new brand of geekdom taking over pop culture. And it’s about time.
Because, while Dungeons & Dragons has been ingrained in the popular mentality for decades, it has been characterized, for the most part, as being patently uncool. I first learned to play Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-‘80s. I was twelve and we’d just moved back to Connecticut from West Virginia. I’d been a devoted reader and lover of all things fantasy and science fiction up til then, but never seen anything like D&D. I was instantly hooked.
D&D made sense to me. I already loved writing stories and here was a game where story telling–interacting with a narrative and a world you helped create–was the whole point. But, this was the '80s, which might as well be a world away from the pop culture landscape of today. Video games were not mainstream, and appropriate activities for kids rotated around sports, Scouts or school.
Our little group of socially awkward nerds would get harassed by jerky pricks for just trying to play a game in the back room of the public library. They’d stop by and insult us on their way to try to sneak peeks at the much hallowed copy of the Joy of Sex someone in our middle school cluster had discovered was upstairs.
(Admittedly, I did that too. In the '80s, our options for porn were really damn limited.)
Later on, back in the rural countryside playing with another small group of nerds, we had to contend with hypocritical Christian fundie teachers who, much like the general populace, associated Dungeons & Dragons with devil worshipping. Apparently, someone told the pitchfork-waving villagers that Satanists loves to role-play.
As the leader of our group (the Dungeon Master), I came in one morning to discover we’d lost our wizard. The player in question sat glumly down at our table one morning and told us he was forbidden from playing anymore, because it was against the teachings of the Bible. As it turns out, his mother and their church had made him throw all his D&D books into a bonfire during a church-organized book burning.
So, yea… that was my childhood.
But like most of the people of my cloistered role-playing generation, I eventually grew up and carried forward that sense of wonder and storytelling D&D helped bloom. It’s one reason I became a professional writer in the first place. It’s why a surprising portion of Hollywood got into movie making, TV and the general art of creating fantasy.
Those '80s kids took their love of Dungeons & Dragons into a future where (improbable to 12-year-old me) it’s actually considered not just socially acceptable to role-play, but actually–impossibly–cool. Some of us would grow up to help create Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and Adventure Time.
Other self-professed geeks aged, got ripped and became Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson. Another of our ilk would end up helping to dictate the flow of late-night television and grow into Stephen Colbert or Anderson Cooper, and still more have managed to turn that love of playing pretend into amazing successes in the new media of the internet by actually playing the game online for the viewing audience. In short, some of the coolest people in pop culture have spent countless hours sitting around a table to trudge through make-believe dungeons with their friends.
Even the people responsible for the care and maintenance of D&D were caught off guard its vast popularity in Hollywood. Take Greg Tito, the Official D&D Communications Manager at Wizards of the Coast, the owners of D&D.
“Like everybody, I had heard that Vin Diesel played when he was a kid and that Stephen Colbert was a righteous paladin, but the level to which so many currently working actors, writers, directors and TV showrunners play on a weekly basis was amazing to discover,” he said. “A bunch of comedy writers like Dan Telfer, Jared Logan and Mike Drucker who all have gigs writing for late night shows. Screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have a weekly game in which they play with showrunners from Empire and other big series.
“Joe Manganiello plays all the time, Deborah Ann Woll is an amazing Dungeon Master and said she’s killed time on the Daredevil set making characters with Charlie Cox, Emily V. Gordon took time from her post-production on The Big Sick to play D&D with us at the Egyptian Theater in L.A. last December for Force Grey. It’s almost simpler to ask who doesn’t play D&D in Hollywood at this point.”
Outside of Hollywood, a new and wondrous crop of diehard fans are proudly preaching the gospel of D&D to the world at large. Critical Role, one of the pioneers in theatrical role-playing, has over a hundred episodes and vast viewership. And they’re far from alone. Twitch’s Force Grey, the official streaming D&D game, features an array of comedians, singers, and actors just sitting there…playing. This is not the D&D that fanboys would sheepishly hide from high school cool kids. Hell, the cool kids are now joining in.
Misscliks.com offers up videos of people straight up playing together that thousands tune into regularly. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. These videos–whether just watching people playing, animated versions of someone’s game, or even cosplaying mini-movies with some semblance of production values–are frequently just as awkward as I remember my games being, strangely fascinating to watch–and bringing together potential players from across the globe.
So, it’s probably a good time for Wizards of the Coast to finally (and officially) enter the technological age with the release of D&D Beyond, an online service that offers the basic rules and tools for playing the game for free to anyone and the option to buy advanced guidebooks. As someone who used to haul around thirty pounds worth of hardback rulebooks, this is a terrific concept that is certain to prevent back injuries later in life.
Thanks to the advent of the internet, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t locked down to just one table, so anyone can find a party to fit them. With Wizards of the Coast offering up the basic rules to get you going for free via D&D Beyond, there’s never been a better–or hipper–time to indulge your gory Game of Thrones fantasy in the company of your peers. And hell, who knows, maybe you’ll end up playing with celebrities.
All artwork is courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.