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What is Dungeons & Dragons? How the fantasy roleplaying game took over the world

From role-playing boardgame to big-screen adventure

Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis and Chris Pine in Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves
Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis and Chris Pine in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. (Paramount Pictures)

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Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves rolls the dice on a new big-screen take on a hugely popular table-top gaming experience, with Star Trek’s Chris Pine leading the cast.

What’s more, it didn't even need magical spells to conjure up a good story, with movie review site Rotten Tomatoes already singing the film’s praises with a 91% fresh rating just in time for the film to hit streaming services like NOW, Sky and Paramount+.

But what's the story behind this incredibly popular role-playing adventure that managed to capture the imagination of players across the world? You don’t have to roll the right number to find out — we’ll tell you.

Here’s everything you need to know about Dungeons & Dragons' rise to fame.

How do you play Dungeons & Dragons?

Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine in Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves
Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine lead the all-star cast. (Paramount Pictures)

Dungeons & Dragons is widely regarded as one of the first modern role-playing games. In a nutshell, it’s an open-ended tabletop game where players are invited to make decisions that impact and direct the fate of their chosen characters.

Typically seated around a table, one player will assign themselves as the all-powerful Dungeon Master and oversee the subsequent adventure and all of its various twists and turns. Meanwhile, other participants will adopt the guise of their own fictional characters. These are usually warriors with their own unique abilities that exist in an equally-fictional world.

Using logic, skills, brains and a heady dose of creative imagination, players take turns to dream up instructions for their characters, often portraying them physically with voices and personas. As the game — or campaign — gets underway, the Dungeon Master will oversee, allow or deny these creative choices, using the game’s official rulebook as their guide.

Hugh Grant and Chloe Coleman in Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves
Hugh Grant and Chloe Coleman also appear in the fantasy epic. (Paramount Pictures)

Spells, battles and surprises ensue, with multi-sided dice and character sheets providing a loose framework for the action. That said, the Dungeon Master is also allowed to deviate and make up their own rules, just to keep players on their toes.

How did Dungeons & Dragons start?

Stock image of Dungeons & Dragons game on table
D&D has become one of the most popular games of all time. (Getty)

Strap in — because Dungeons & Dragons has a long and storied history that starts with a humble beginning and ends with it becoming one of the most popular games of all time.

The game was originally birthed out of the popularity of miniature tabletop wargames, bringing this small-scale action into a fantasy realm. The original Dungeons & Dragons first appeared in 1974 via a series of game booklets written by creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and released with a budget of just $2000.

Their initial concept blended sword and sorcery themes with fantasy elements and was published under Tactical Studies Rules Inc or TSR for short. It wasn’t long before it had caught the attention of war game fans and soon it had spread through high schools and college campuses too, gathering new players as it went.

By 1975, Dungeons & Dragons was appearing in magazines and TSR’s own fanzines which eventually led to two different gaming sets that ultimately divided players for years.

The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set provided a boxed edition of the game which contained everything a newcomer would need to get started with their own campaigns. Meanwhile, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was aimed at more die-hard players and claimed to offer a definitive and detailed D&D experience.

Watch a trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves

This divided approach came with controversies, many of which revolved around rules in the basic edition that contradicted those in the advanced release. This was further exasperated following the debut of even more rulebooks throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Regardless of these issues, the game’s fanbase continued to grow and by 1981, it was believed to have around three million players worldwide.

Further rulebooks and game revisions followed throughout the 1980s as the game’s success expanded. Game designer Tom Moldvay was brought aboard to make the game even more user-friendly and by 1991, many of these changes were compiled into one unified book, the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia.

By this time, the game was available in 14 different languages and had sold more than two million copies in 44 different countries.

Read more: Why have Ant-Man and Shazam struggled at the box office?

The arrival of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ second edition removed some elements while leaning into a more medieval flavour, adding better categorisation systems for magic and spells and branching out into other whimsical subgenres like horror and science fiction.

A third D&D edition streamlined things further in 1997 before 2005’s fourth edition brought onboard player feedback to make the game faster and more dynamic. By 2004, it was reported that the Dungeons & Dragons brand had earned a massive $1 billion and its impact on pop culture was clearly apparent via mentions in different TV shows and movies.

By 2012, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons had arrived to serve the now-millions of players worldwide.

How many Dungeons & Dragons movies are there?

Joseph Quinn as Eddie Munson in Stranger Things
Joseph Quinn plays dungeon master Eddie Munson in Stranger Things. (Netflix)

Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons has made its way into a number of popular television shows and movies, further expanding its fanbase in the process.

Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Freaks and Geeks and The Big Bang Theory have boasted D&D scenes, with Dan Harmon’s cult comedy series Community even dedicating two entire episodes to its own Dungeons & Dragons adventures.

Of course, more recent fans will be aware of the game thanks to its inclusion in Stranger Things. However, the game has also appeared on the big screen too, with the Dungeons & Dragons movie, starring Jeremy Irons and Thora Birch, released in 2000.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves is streaming now on Sky, NOW and Paramount+.

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