I collect RPGs. There are more books in my collection than I could reasonable expect would be used at the table, but I’ve got them anyway just because I like reading them. Being so familiar with the breadth and depth of games out there, it’s easy to forget that they’re all in the shadow of the mountain that is Dungeons & Dragons. Of course I didn’t forget about D&D entirely, but recently I stood at its base and admired just how damn big it really is.
Taking a look at the ICv2 report reveals, well, nothing surprising. D&D is the top-selling RPG, but we already knew that. Luckily, Roll20, the online tabletop RPG platform, releases reports on what games are being played. Not only is the top game the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, it along makes up 54.93% of all games played! Looking at the extended list, 63.08% of games were an official version of D&D, and Pathfinder, based on third edition D&D, accounts for another 13.06%. Taken together, that means over three quarters of all games played on Roll20, 76.14%, are Dungeons & Dragons or a variation thereof, and that’s before including a small number of D&D clones, and a rather larger number of games that are heavily inspired by it.
(Fun fact: this roughly lines up with the number of subscribers to certain communities on reddit. /r/DnD has just over 400,000 subscribers, which is nearly three times as much as /r/rpg.)
To say that D&D is synonymous with RPGs isn’t hyperbole; it’s a fairly decent approximation. As much as I love the vast field of games out there, and hate to think of them as a rounding error, I have to say—I get it. And D&D kind of deserves it.
It’s familiar. And not just because it’s played so much more often. Lots of RPG players will know other games are out there, if only because there were other games on the shelf when they bought it at the shop, or found while looking things up online. An outsider to RPGs will probably only know D&D by name, if they even know that it’s got competitors at all. It’s the game they saw on Stranger Things, or that episode of Community, or heard on The Adventure Zone. Media like that are often the reason people want to try out D&D specifically, and even if they’re not, they’d still focus on the popular game they’ve actually heard about before.
It’s everywhere. I’ve seen healthy inventory of D&D products in regular bookshops, and of all the RPGs out there, it’s one of very few I’m confident that any tabletop game shop will carry. (If they don’t, they’re either snobs or a criminal front that doesn’t really want customers.) Customers are more likely to buy, and subsequently play, a game that’s easily available. On a similar note, it’s also easier to find games of D&D to start up or join. Besides its ubiquity, open gaming tables are supported by the publisher’s Adventurers League program. If I want to run a little-known RPG, I pretty much need to take initiative to make it happen; if I or anyone want to just play D&D, it’s almost trivial to find a local group in a shop, online via social media, or via some friend-of-a-friend.
It’s accessible, in that it’s easy enough to learn. There are certainly more beginner-friendly games out there, but D&D, at least in recent editions, has lowered the barrier to entry. There’s a simple core mechanism (roll a twenty-sided die, add some numbers, and if the total hits a target number, you succeed); internal consistency (higher numbers are always better for the person who has them); and there are quick-start rules available both for free online and as part of the Starter Set. Further, it eases players into more complicated rules; low-lever characters are fairly simple, but gain new abilities as the develop, and specialize usually only after a few levels for the player to get the hang of things.
It’s actually very good. The original version of D&D hit on an idea and a style of play that grabbed people’s attention, and it was honed and evolved over decades since then. The latest edition is popular among old and new players alike, generally speaking. Even most critics, in my experience, seemed to be cool to it rather than hostile, offering faint praise instead of outright derision. With exceptions, of course, it seems to be almost everyone’s first or second favorite edition of D&D they’ve played. Suffice it to say that people getting into D&D will find a polished, effective engine to run their game and will be happy to stick with it for a long time coming.
I’m not going to be a snob and look down my nose at D&D and it’s players because it’s popular. Heck, I’m a D&D player, and quite happy to be in two games of it. Its success, in the end, is the reason I get to enjoy all those other RPGs, too. Not only did it create the whole hobby, but it’s a perfect vector into that wider world. D&D is a de facto ambassador to the hobby it created decades ago, and I’m glad it’s doing a damn fine job.