The pilot episode of “Stranger Things” begins with four young kids sitting around a table, rolling dice and planning monster fights, a scene that introduced an already popular game to a mainstream audience — that game was Dungeons & Dragons, a fantasy tabletop role-playing game that was first released in 1974 and created by Gary Gygax alongside his friends.
Frequently referred to as D&D, the game requires at least two people to play and a set of dice. One player acts as the Dungeon Master (DM) while the other players create their own characters. The DM and the players collaborate to create a story; the players then act as the main characters while the Dungeon Master controls the narrative and non-player characters, otherwise known as NPCs. Dice are rolled to determine the accuracy and severity of the actions made over the course of the story. Although games are typically set in a fantasy world, players are allowed to use any historical period.
Now, all of this might sound really boring, and for a long time, the concept of this game did not appeal to a mass audience. For most of its existence, Dungeons & Dragons has been avoided because of the “nerdy” nature of its fantasy-set source material. Pretending to use magic and rolling dice is not for everyone.
However, in recent years, the stigma surrounding the game has faded away due to the influence of the internet. Coinciding with the rise of livestream platforms like Twitch, Dungeons & Dragons gained popularity from streamers playing the game, which allowed newcomers to see that the game’s concepts were relatively easy to learn. Furthermore, later editions of Dungeons & Dragons did away with heavy statistics and emphasized the narrative over rules.
In the age of the internet, starting your own D&D game is easier than ever. In fact, the company has a free PDF of the basic rule set because they want as many people as possible to play. Podcasts have also given Dungeons & Dragons a unique way to reach a new audience. In recent years, nerds and comedians alike have started playing, recording and posting footage of their D&D games, something that shows people how goofy the game can be at times and that Dungeons & Dragons is not meant to be taken seriously — it’s meant to be fun.
As such, these podcasts function as the perfect example of what it feels like to play D&D with your friends. There are plenty of jokes and goofing off, but they also have intriguing stories and wonderful characters.
1. Not Another D&D Podcast
In “Not Another D&D Podcast,” Dungeon Master Brian Murphy leads a three-person party, composed of Emily Axford, Caldwell Tanner and Jake Hurwitz, though the fantasy world of Bahumia.
Axford plays a wood elf druid named Moonshine and, in a surprising turn of events, decided to deviate away from the traditional arrogant elf personality and has made her character a hospitable redneck that wants to help as many people as possible. Beverly Toegold V, who is played by Tanner, is a hobbit-like creature called a halfling; his character starts off as a member of “The Green Teens,” a group of kids learning how to safely adventure in this fantasy setting. Last in the party is Hurwitz’s character Hardwon Surefoot, a human raised by Dwarves trying to find his place in the world.
The podcast, which is commonly shortened to “NADDPOD,” follows the three adventurers — who have dubbed themselves “The Band of Boobs” — as they uncover the secrets of their world. “NADDPOD” has consistently provided a blend of hilarious juvenile humor, exciting action, a naturally flowing story and character development that is so good you’ll be surprised when you remember that the podcast is simply four friends sitting around a table.
In addition to the main storyline, “NADDPOD” releases a monthly bonus episode with Tanner serving as DM. These bonus episodes exist in their own continuity called “Trinyvale,” which is an equally goofy, entertaining experience.
2. The Adventure Zone
Before Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy stepped into the world of D&D with “The Adventure Zone,” the brothers started with “My Brother, My Brother and Me” in 2010, a weekly comedic advice podcast that quickly rose in popularity; notably, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a guest on their show before his “Hamilton” fame. The three brothers have become royalty in the podcast world, with each of them having several side projects. In 2014, the brothers, along with their father, started a Dungeons & Dragons podcast called “The Adventure Zone.”
If you do not know anything about the McElroys, you should be aware that the only way to describe them is “silly.” There is seldom a moment of seriousness between them, and if the joke does not make you laugh, their contagious giggles will.
Since its debut in 2014, “The Adventure Zone” has undergone several different storylines. It started off with an unconventional fantasy setting with Griffin serving as the DM, which ran for 69 episodes and was dubbed “The Balance Arc.” From there, the brothers played in different settings — this included modern-day and a Wild West throwback — and took turns as players and DMs. On Halloween, the McElroy brothers started their newest game, which settled back in a traditional fantasy setting.
3. Critical Role
Even though “Critical Role” might be difficult to suggest, its greatness cannot be ignored. The podcast’s first season ran for 115 episodes, with each episode’s duration falling somewhere between two to four hours. Matthew Mercer serves as DM for this complex series, and the entire cast, which encompasses eight players, is made up of professional voice actors.
Due to its lengthy installments, expansive number of episodes and commitment of its players’ creative voices, it’s easy to get immersed in “Critical Role.” The players genuinely care about their characters, and while there is goofy fun to be had, the series also boasts some incredibly emotional peaks that build up for dozens of hours.
The history of Dungeons & Dragons is rather fascinating. At one point, the game was so misunderstood by the mass media that it was associated with the perceived rise in Satanism during the 1980s. Nevertheless, D&D offers players a way to access their imagination and share in an unforgettable experience with their friends.