Everyone is Playing Dungeons & Dragons

At a layton junior high school, on an average Friday afternoon, tables filled with students playing Dungeons & Dragons fill up two classrooms and spill out into the hallway and across a second-story landing. Students perch in their chairs, scour their lists of spells and items and call out in dismay or triumph, as the various Dungeon Masters do their best to react to the often maddening exploits of each respective adventuring party. It truly is a sight to behold. A beautiful, nerdy sight.  

Last school year, teacher Cameron Pingree started a gaming club at North Davis Preparatory Academy (NDPA) in Layton, inviting students to come learn how to play Dungeons & Dragons. A handful of students signed up and played D&D almost every Friday for the whole year. This school year, Pingree and the club’s other teachers set about recruiting for the club, going class to class, handing out permission slips to interested students. 

“We printed about 50 permission slips, thinking that would be more than enough,” says Pingree. 

It wasn’t. By the third class, they were out of permission slips. In the end, 140 students handed in signed permission slips to join the gaming club. NDPA’s 6-9 grades combined have a few more than 350 students. More than one-third of the junior high is playing D&D almost every Friday after school…not many after-school clubs can boast that kind of attendance. 

The tabletop roleplaying game first came into existence in the 1970s, before these students’ parents were born, and now, what is arguably the most famous tabletop roleplaying game is experiencing a renaissance. Wizards of the Coast, which owns D&D, says that in 2020, an estimated 50 million people were playing the game, making it more popular than ever. And, Utah is partially to thank for that. According to a 2023 search-data analysis, Utah plays more D&D than any other state in the nation. For decades, the perception was that Dungeons & Dragons is a niche pastime reserved for a socially awkward and sunlight-averse subset of humanity. It also took a turn as a tool for the devil to corrupt the souls of innocent youngsters during the Satanic Panic. So how did this game become the chief hobby of a diverse and discerning group of middle school kids? Maybe you have to play the game to understand, or see it through
the eyes of the kids who love it.

The Dungeon Master

Will, 8th Grade

The Character: As the Dungeon Master, Will (above) has built a place of portals for his players to explore. When they enter a portal, a dice roll will determine their fate and take them to the world of an existing animated TV series. But things do not always go to plan… 

The Player: Will started playing D&D three years ago and can’t possibly be forced to choose his favorite part—after all, in D&D, you can do anything (if the dice be kind).

Erieve – Sorceress

Isabella, 8th Grade

The Character: Erieve (below) casts spells to help her adventuring companions in combat, but sometimes she’ll leave an opponent dangling out of reach of the melee fighters with her use of the Levitate spell. (What else do you expect from an Air Genasi?) 

The Player: Isabella, like many of her peers, first heard of D&D from the Netflix show Stranger Things. When she isn’t playing D&D, Isabella enjoys playing soccer. 

Like that of any recently slain monster or NPC in-game, the body of D&D work has been picked over and relieved of anything valuable time and time again. While not every D&D adaptation has been successful at bringing new players to the game (take the 1983 animated series or the 2000 live-action movie, for instance), some of the magic of D&D has been milked and bottled and sold by a handful of popular media adaptations that have helped fuel the growth of the game. 

Illustrations by Arianna Jimenez

Many of the students of NDPA’s gaming club had never heard of Dungeons & Dragons until they watched a little show called Stranger Things. In the first season of the Netflix show, the young heroes find their humdrum suburban lives upturned by events, not unlike the adventures in their weekly D&D game. Together as a party, they take down a monster dubbed the Demogorgon, after a Demon Lord from D&D lore. In the most recent season, the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) gets a name from another top-tier D&D baddie—the uber-powerful undead wizard Vecna. During many of their real-life adventures, one main character often implores, “why couldn’t we just play D&D?” The chance to play a game that creates larger-than-life adventures inspired students to join the school club and start D&D games of their own. 

Stranger Things is not the first nor the most recent popular television show to depict the magic of D&D. Some members of an older generation first started playing D&D after an episode of NBC’s Community that aired in 2011 (now hard-to-find thanks to a Drow—dark elf—cosplay that did not age well). In 2015, a crew of talented voice actors created a show called Critical Role and started live-streaming their house D&D game on Youtube and Twitch.tv. Now on their third campaign, the group is live-streaming weekly to an audience of more than one million viewers.

Critical Role also successfully launched a crowdfunding campaign to produce an animated TV series based on its first campaign, The Legend of Vox Machina, which is now in its second season on Prime Video. They have also announced the upcoming animated series adaptation of their second campaign, The Mighty Nein

NDPA teacher Cameron Pingree also points to the pandemic and lockdown for the resurgence of tabletop roleplaying. People who used to play “back in the day” picked up the hobby again in lockdown, supported by ZOOM and online tools like “D&D Beyond” that provide a digital alternative to the old-school pen-and-paper method. “D&D lets people use their imagination, like reading a book,” he says, but with some important distinctions. “Reading about a character is not as fun as being a character.” And, with D&D, unlike reading a book, you don’t do it alone. Virtual D&D sessions over video calls became one way to escape the isolation of lockdown, and, even when the world started to reopen, people kept playing, and word got out. 

That brings us to the Hollywood film adaptation released in March 2023, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. The film is not so much a cause of the recent surge in popularity as it is a result. Only time will tell if the movie will push the game to even higher heights of popularity.

Athena Lily – Ranger

Attlee, 8th Grade

The Character: Athena and her wife, Silver, are trying to set things right after killing the boyfriend of their son, Apollo, who, in turn, killed Athena’s beloved god. 

The Player: Attlee’s favorite part of D&D is roleplaying and likewise plans to audition for next year’s drama class. Attlee often cries while caught up in the moment of moving and emotionally charged D&D sessions, DMed by the teacher, “Mr. Cameron.” 

Sidon – Fighter

Drayden, 6th Grade

The Character: A noble from an underwater kingdom, Sidon has come to an academy on the surface world to fight and learn how to be a hero (which involves fighting his roommates in the arena).

The Player: Drayden wanted to play in his older brother’s D&D campaign, but they stayed up too late.. Now he’s played many campaigns and plays other games like Dice Thrones with his family.

It’s the classic opener to a D&D session for a reason. It introduces a brand new world—full of magic and monsters and colorful (read: dangerous) characters—in an otherwise low-stakes environment. Like a new party of adventurers entering a tavern, young D&D players get to gradually test the boundaries of their world. “The players get to act out and experience ‘real’ scenarios as a character, rather than as themselves. It’s almost therapeutic,” says Pingree. As teachers and Dungeon Masters, they are not trying to send students down a specific path when they play, rather, they provide the opportunity and a safe place—a whole new world—for students to explore identities and emotions as a character.

Some would argue that playing D&D can be more than just “almost” therapeutic but actually therapeutic. Dr. Megan Connell is a psychologist who literally wrote the book on the subject, Tabletop Role-Playing Therapy: A Guide for the Clinician Game Master, about how mental health professionals are using tabletop role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons, to help clients learn and practice therapy skills in a fun and safe environment through role-played situations.

Illustrations by Arianna Jimenez

Through that experience and exploration, Pingree says he has seen students grow and discover themselves. He’s had dozens of emails from parents who are realizing the positive impact playing D&D is having on their students. Pingree says the gaming club also checks off all the boxes for what an administration wants from a school club: it helps build skills in math, teamwork, language arts, socialization, creativity, and so on. So much so, that year two of the gaming club came with a much more substantial budget. And they had some help from the local gaming community. Endzone Hobby Center donated dice and supplies and offered students who visit their store half-off character miniatures. 

When we asked these kids what they liked about D&D, the answers were varied…yet similar. While they all enjoyed playing different aspects of the game—combat, roleplaying, strategizing, setting traps, making friends—almost to a student, the answer to what makes D&D unique was the same: “It can be anything you want it to be. There are no limits, except for your own imagination, and anything is possible in D&D.”

Sailormoon – Cleric

Ruby, 7th Grade

The Character: Sailor Moon is loyal to her friends and heals them when they’re hurt in combat. 

The Player: Ruby started playing D&D with her friends to improve her social skills. She’s also honing her basketball skills to become an asset to the team for next year. 

Ninja Cat – Rogue

Korben, 8th Grade

The Character: He’s a ninja. He’s a cat. Enough said.

The Player: Korben promised himself that if he ever made a sneaky character, that character could only have one name: Ninja Cat. He made good on that promise. He joined the gaming club with his friends and has made new friends because of D&D.

A Dungeons & Dragons Dictionary

Campaign: A series of individual gaming sessions connected by an overarching story or adventure. If a session is a chapter, the campaign is the whole novel. 

Critical: The success or failure of a character’s action often comes down to the roll of a 20-sided die (d20). Rolling a 20 is an automatic success or Critical Success. Rolling a one is an automatic failure or “Crit fail.” 

Dungeon Master (DM): The person who “runs” the game, helps build the world around the players’ characters, inhabits that world with quests and NPCs and makes determinations on rolls and rules.   

Homebrew: An adventure or any feature or mechanic that is not from an official sourcebook but created by the DM
or a third party. 

NPC: A non-player character (as opposed to the characters played by the players), typically controlled by the Dungeon Master

One-Shot: A single, stand-alone gaming session that is typically
not part of a broader campaign. 

Party: Also called an Adventuring Party, this is the group or band to which the players’ characters (or adventurers) belong. 

All Photos by Adam Finkle, Illustrations by Arianna Jimenez

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Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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