Published March 3, 2023
You are entering a dimly lit room. Around you, figurines of humanoid and monstrous creatures occupy every available surface. You find a table littered with papers, but upon trying to read them you see the pages are covered in boxes filled with numbers and strange, seemingly unconnected terms. A code perhaps? Upon further investigation you spot a selection of colourful gemstones, each side embossed with numbers. Wait, not gemstones. Dice. Suddenly a figure appears at the head of the table behind a small propped up screen. It’s a Dungeon Master. Roll for initiative.
The tabletop role-playing game (TRPG) Dungeons & Dragons has been a staple of nerd culture since its advent in the 1970s, when creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax set out to combine their love for miniature wargaming and the fantasy genre — you know, so they could fight trolls instead of Nazis.
Often considered to be the height of nerdom, D&D quickly garnered a reputation as a catalyst for social suicide, played only by the most hardcore of outsiders who do math for fun. That, plus it scared the bejesus out of parents who thought their kids were getting into satanic cults, with rule books depicting witchcraft and devils. So, while popular for its gaming innovations and creative potential with players, Dungeons & Dragons was long kept on the downlow.
That is until the perfect storm of a new rulebook edition, a general rise in popularity of all things dweeb and increased internet exposure began to brew in recent years. What was once limited to household name status within circles of gamers and fantasy fans, D&D has steadily dungeon-crawled its way into the mainstream.
How the hell do you even play Dungeons & Dragons?
Looking at the starter pack of three tomes — the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook and the Monster Manual — is intimidating. They have a lot more heft than the standard brochure that comes inside a board game box.
But to boil it down: The Dungeon/Game Master creates a world and a story. The players create their characters. Those can be all kinds of fantasy races, anything from elves and dwarves to anthropomorphic animals. The characters also have a class — ranger, druid, warlock, or barbarian, to name a few — that gives them specific abilities. Vicariously through their characters, players go on adventures and end up telling a story in their DM’s world.
They fight monsters with their abilities or go on other missions where they have to roll dice to see if they succeed in their endeavours. If they roll high enough, they can pick a lock, increase their powers of persuasion or hit an enemy and then roll more dice to see how much damage they inflict. It all comes together into a magnificent table-bound improv theatre group or sorts.
Are you with me so far?
If a story goes on for multiple sessions (typically lasting three to four hours per session) it can be considered a campaign. One session of a self-contained story is called a One Shot. Apart from the officially published material of settings, gadgets and rules, players are also free to “homebrew” concepts for their games, creating something completely new with the power of their imagination. Pretty wild, right?
From Niche to Network
Iceland has always had its own community of nerds. High Fantasy is nothing new in the land of the Edda. It is unsurprising, then, that over the years Dungeons & Dragons has carved out its own corner in Reykjavík alongside comic books, video games and Sci-Fi movies.
Helgi Már Friðgeirsson has been active in the TRPG scene for 30 years, going from playing privately with his friends to chairing the first local guild of nerds and role-players to offering his services as a professional DM to those who want to try their hand at the game.
“It was maybe ten years ago that I floated the idea of running games for money and at that time I was almost shouted down by a faction of the community,” he recalls, explaining that the general attitude had been that TRPGs should be exclusively played with friends for free, because that’s how it had always been. “But what if you don’t have those friends that want to play or have the experience? It’s daunting when you’re not already in the hobby to look at the three books thinking ‘Oh I have to read all that before I start?’” Hence the idea to go pro as Dungeon/Game Master.
People playing Dungeons & Dragons professionally for an audience on sites like YouTube or Twitch is not a new concept anymore. Their efforts have gone a long way toward increasing exposure of the game and, as a result, the demand for it. Especially when you go through two years of lockdowns, desperate for long-running entertainment, things to do and ways to keep in touch with other humans.
There are several sites enabling players to meet online and role-play live, such as Roll20, StartPlaying, Fantasy Grounds, Quest Portal etc. They allow players to maintain an overview of their character stats and look at maps of the virtual game area.
And that’s not even going into the social media corner D&D has carved out for itself, where millions of people share anecdotes of their fantasy adventures as well as original characters or self-made dice, sets and minis online. It has even spawned a treasure trove of memes about all the queer potential of Tieflings and those slutty, slutty bards.
Fans being allowed out of their dungeons and towers again as the pandemic abated has naturally led to them going on quests to experience the fantasy in real life, and to Game Masters expanding their circles and organising events.
“It was maybe ten years ago that I floated the idea of running games for money and at that time I was almost shouted down by a faction of the community.”
Gísli Gunnar Didriksen Guðmundsson, aka DMDidriksen, is one of those pro GMs in the scene, having started promoting his skills online a few years ago.
“The process wasn’t complicated,” he explains. “I got a friend of mine to take really nice pictures and then I made a Facebook page and then I was off. I did a few trial runs with groups of friends who I knew hadn’t played before and acquaintances I didn’t know, just to try my hand at running the game for absolute beginners. It went really well, so I put it out there and it’s just been growing ever since.”
He has since hosted events, for example at Spilavinir (Spunaspilavinir which takes place once a month) or D&D nights at the bar Gaukurinn, where people can book a seat at one of the game tables and try out the game in a One Shot. No preparation is required of the player’s side; materials and even characters for the night are all provided.
Inga Morrison also became one of the local GMs offering their expertise after being asked by Gísli to join in. “One day he just messaged and asked if I wanted to hop in and join — mostly, I think, to be a token female DM to shake it up a little bit” she recalls with laughter. “Typically, it’s just guys DM-ing, but there’s no lack of girls in this scene.” In fact, the pool of players has become more diverse over the years, which in turn has shaped the gameplay. (The game certainly has come a long way from some of its more *ahem* questionable depictions of women and other races in the 70s — though there’s always room for improvement.)
Dungeon Master Þorsteinn Mar Gunnlaugsson started out playing as a teenager and has since expanded his circle of D&D players over the last 20 or so years. He’s incorporated tabletop role-playing games in his work as a teacher and has published material for the fifth edition of D&D as well as for Scandinavian TRPG systems (Trudvang; Ruin Masters). He too sees a lot of merit in more diverse player groups, be that in varying levels of playing experience or people coming from different backgrounds.
“When the group is more diverse, when you have, for instance, nonbinary players or female players you get different solutions,” he explains. “For us older Game Masters, that’s probably been a bit of a challenge. We also like to think that the problems we pose should be solved in the more violent and direct manner, typically, whereas when we have more diverse groups you have to pose problems that can be solved in different ways because the approach will be different.”
Þorsteinn says he continuously wants to broaden his horizon as a Game Master and that the fifth edition of the game, with its sleeker and more easily comprehensible design, has made that a lot easier. The biggest downside is that, with more players wanting to try the game, there’a a need for more Dungeon Masters to lead adventures. That’s been a bit harder to come by.
Masters of the Universe
As entertaining as TRPG streams and pre-recorded shows can be, they can be a bit intimidating to newcomers. Seeing Game Masters with professional acting backgrounds step onto a prepared set and play with other experienced entertainers is often as inspiring as it is terrifying to people wanting to do the same for their friends (or strangers at a game store). As Helgi put it, “I had the opportunity to suck as a DM and then get better by failing. That’s how we learn. Also, my players had nowhere else to go.”
With the ultimate goal of the game — at least most of the time — being to have fun and try out different roles, Helgi emphasises the potential of role-playing games to encouraging empathy and social skills. “Roleplaying can also be used to explore stories and feelings and situations where you get prepared for situations that are harder in real life” he says. “Being together, playing together. Getting to put on other hats. Getting to be other people. That’s at least the main draw for me. It doesn’t hurt when I get to crit somebody to their face, but ultimately it’s empathy through learning.”
“One day he just messaged and asked if I wanted to hop in and join — mostly, I think, to be a token female DM to shake it up a little bit.”
Inga also underscores the social and creative potential of the game, from both the creative aspect of painting minis or building props, to imagining characters and even an entire world. “You get to lead your friends into a wild ride and that’s the biggest appeal of DM-ing for me,” she says. “You also get to know all the secrets. I think that’s also what helps people to keep going.”
Being a Dungeon/Game Master takes a lot of effort and organising a group of people together that have lives and responsibilities is no easy feat. Ultimately, though, the potential for a bottomless creative outlet keeps the DMs in the game.
Once you’ve gotten a taste of the creative freedom role-playing games can provide, there’s a risk of uncovering an unquenchable thirst for creating universes, settings, characters and combat scenarios. We haven’t even touched on all the different genres outside of fantasy that TRPGs can take place in.
Looking for some Lovecraftian horror? Done. Science Fiction? There. Mad Max style racing concepts? If you can think it, you can make it. Warning: Game Mastering may come with a god complex. Player discretion advised.
The Wizard in the Room
The role-playing scene here in Reykjavík is still pretty proportional to the population, at least in real life. The Facebook group Roleplayers á Íslandi boasts nearly 2,700 members and there is an established rotating cast of GMs these days for events like Spunaspilavinir or Gaukurinn’s D&D nights.
There are ideas floating around among some of the role-players and GMs specifically to form a more structured group, for example via the role-playing organisation Hlutkesti. The last attempts at getting people together were unsuccessful, though, and concepts like paid memberships for booking rooms to run specific games or get a seat as a player regularly are a bit up in the air right now.
And then there’s the wizard in the room.
For the uninitiated, the rights to the game system Dungeons & Dragons are owned by a company called Wizards of the Coast, which releases all the official published material around the game (such as the different rule book editions). Since 2000, the game has been published under an Open Game License (OGL), meaning that third parties are allowed to create written products (adventure modules, monsters, rules etc.) using the D&D system for sharing.
This has enabled countless creations within and around the scene, with many people even building their livelihoods around them. Earlier this year, however, Wizards of the Coast came under heavy fire after a draft revision of the OGL was leaked. This revision would have invalidated the original model, claimed the right to all content released under the OGL — seemingly making a grab for a bunch of intellectual property to use as their own — and demanded notification about any income surrounding the material as well as royalty fees upon reaching a certain income level.
This was widely panned as a bad move. In short, the community made itself heard, signed open letters and cancelled subscriptions. Even industry figures spoke out against the revisions and questions arose about the legality of the potential deauthorization of the OGL. Until Wizards of the Coast seemingly succumbed to all these critical hits and announced that it would not only leave the OGL in place but take steps to irrevocably make the D&D core rules openly accessible under the Creative Commons.
We love to see a dark tower fall. Or at least get taken down a peg.
How do you want to do this?
Despite the community’s success in keeping the game openly accessible to everyone, trust in the wizard company has definitely been shaken. Even locally there are aftershocks, but most people see this as an opportunity to move beyond the big brand name that is Dungeons & Dragons to try out other systems. This also goes for Spunaspilavinir.
“I think we’re going to do about 50/50 going forward,” Helgi says. “Have maybe two or three D&D tables and then two non-D&D tables. Role-playing shouldn’t be a monolith with just D&D and nothing else. It really depends on what you want to do in terms of what the best game system is, because like movies, role-playing has genres. I run a lot of horror genres, more personally than professionally, but horror games are probably the next big thing below traditional D&D.”
Playing tabletop role-playing games is still a pretty niche hobby. But it is not as niche as it used to be. It’s less secretive now, people talk more openly about their gaming experiences — or at least their piqued interest — and it seems to fill a specific need for social activity. Gísli also points out how the shared experience can be super gratifying even if no actual dragons are slain during a session. “I want to encourage anyone to try it, at home or with a hired professional, because it’s such a rewarding experience. You make a world together and effect that world, see the consequences of your actions, it’s such an insane thing. You experience something at the table that is not real, but your internal experience, the emotion is, your memories of it are real.”
Luckily, the public panic around D&D and Satanism has diminished since the 80s. And while the original system can still be seen as the flagship of TRPGs, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creation.
Just be careful not to become addicted to collecting dice. It’s a whole thing.
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