When Did D&D Become Popular? The Game That Almost Wasn’t

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for many years now. But the game has been around long before I got into this hobby. So when did Dungeons and Dragons become popular?

Dungeons & Dragons first became widely popular in the early 1980s when certain religious groups accused the game of Satanism and witchcraft. The negative media attention introduced D&D to a much wider audience, unintentionally adding to its popularity.

Ironically negative publicity gave D&D its first major push to fame. But that is certainly not the only reason D&D became popular.

It All Started With an Idea

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974 under a publishing title of TSR Inc (Tactical Study Rules). The first edition rule set is an extension of earlier war and strategy games which used miniatures to simulate battles.

The similarities end here, as Gygax and Arneson shifted focus from large scale battle simulation to individual character design and action. The incorporation of a fantasy setting moved D&D even further from the historical wargames that came prior. This move cemented D&D as the father of modern role-playing games. Choosing the fantasy genre proved to be a major contributing factor in its popularity. Among all tabletop RPG’s the fantasy genre is still most popular.

Today Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a mainstay role-playing game (RPG) which spawned dozens of other games, video games, films, and a genre of fantasy literature. Known for its vast array of races, classes, magic, and monsters; D&D has proven to be the foundation for generations of gamers.

It is then no surprise many opponents to D&D arose and continue a dissent based on wild claims stemming from religious fervor and fear of the other. In many ways the anti-D&D rhetoric of the 1970s and 80s continued to this day by many of the same opponents, is a real-world allegory for a greater social division between the secular and the religious.

The Satanic Panic

By 1981 D&D gained over three million players 1* and with the fame and interest came the calls to ban D&D. In the 1980s a rather devious set of attacks by religious leaders emerged in what would be deemed the Satanic Panic and Satanic Abuse hysteria.

Much of the malign insanity that revolved around this idea stemmed, not from gaming, but dozens of murders and the serialization of the macabre in the 1980s. This was an era of punk rock, goth, dime a dozen horror flicks which sensationalized witchcraft, Hollywood Satanism, and all things occult.

In many cases, authorities would jump to conclusions about Satanic Rituals being the basis of murders across the US and eventually abroad. The similarities found within the pages of AD&D and the 2nd & 3rd basic rule sets of the game, as well as the second edition of AD&D (released in 1981, 1983, and 1989 respectively), linked D&D to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Church leaders warned of the evils of D&D and how playing the game would open the doors to the Hell. But those warnings decrease D&D’s popularity?

From Controversy to Popularity

The controversy over D&D was only escalated by individuals like Patricia Pulling, who in 1983 created an anti-D&D advocacy group titled B.A.D.D. or Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, in response to her son’s suicide 2*. She believed, in earnest, that a “D&D Curse” was placed on her son and blamed the high school and its principal Robert A. Bracey III for his death, since the school had a D&D club her son attended.

Her belief that D&D was to blame for his suicide lead her to even file a wrongful death lawsuit against the school. This suit was of course thrown out, but her crusade against D&D continued and she filed suit against TSR which lead to a 60 Minutes interview that would feature Garry Gygax in opposition to Pulling.

Of course, nothing much came of BADD other than some sensationalized media and early internet rantings. Most of her work gained notoriety abroad, specifically in Australia, through the support of Christian Media and Rev. Fred Nile. Pulling’s book ‘The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan’ likened fictional literature, games like D&D, and modern religious texts to each other, and begged for police to question teens who might have been influenced by the occult.

Despite her short won success, as D&D became more popular her views on the game and the occult in general were lost to ever greater secularization.

To further add insult to injury, most major medical authorities; like the APA (American Psychology Association), the AAS (American Association of Suicidology), and the CDC all concluded there was no causal link between D&D and RPGs in general, and the slew of murders, crimes, and deaths often attributed to the occult during the 1980s3. All the negative media attention had made D&D popular. And now experts agreed that D&D was safe. Today, D&D is even used as a form of psychotherapy.

Taking the Lead and Staying Ahead

Despite a plethora of competing gaming systems garnering a foothold in the tabletop RPG market, D&D retained a massive lead in popularity and playability. By 1977 TSR published two iterations of the game; the D&D basic set 1st edition, which was easy to learn and came with pre-rolled characters, and the more complicated Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) rule set.

AD&D became the mainstay for most of the 1970s and 1980s and the gold standard for RPGs. It offered many more options for players and GMs alike, many expansions, and a plethora of campaigns settings and modular stories (modules) for players to work through. AD&D brought players into new worlds, introduced new monsters, and sparked one of the greatest protests of a fictional game in the history of gaming.

TSR which later became TSR Hobbies Inc split in 1983, with the original owners, including Gygax, parting ways. Gygax went to Hollywood with his titled company TSR Entertainment where he’d spawn various films and cartoon licenses. TSR Inc; the primary successor went on to introduce several new settings and supplements to AD&D, including the Dragonlance

Popularity and Branching Out

Even though D&D had gained popularity, by the late 80’s TSR was in financial trouble, and despite efforts by Gygax, TSR was ultimately bought out by Lorraine Williams, a financial adviser and minority owner of TSR.

Throughout the 1990s TSR improved their sales and supplemented the AD&D Second Edition game and settings with other merchandise, including novels, miniatures, and dice. Unfortunately, under Williams’ direction, TSR became financially insolvent and by 1997 she’d sold TSR and D&D to Wizards of the Coast.

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) brought the silver age of D&D with their revamping of the game. D&D 3rd edition was released in 2000 followed closely by a revised version which is most commonly called 3.5. 3rd edition introduced the D20 system which significantly simplified D&D, opening it up to a much wider audience.

The Open Gaming License

The D20 system was presented as part of WotC’s Open Game License platform. Any game producer was free to use the D20 system and to make compatible gaming material with D&D 3.5. This edition of the game became the gold standard of the post TSR era of D&D, spawning several hundred companion books, both produced as official content by WotC and by third parties.

Allowing the public to add to the game proved to be a brilliant move. More game content was created than WoTC could have ever produced by themselves. And D&D’s popularity soared. From 2000 to 2008 3.5 was the go to RPG, with many of the past AD&D adventures, supplements, spells, magic items, classes, and races being revamped to fit into 3.5.

Many of the secondary titles held by TSR including the Conan the Barbarian RPG were also reintroduced by WotC under the D20 system. WotC would go on to introduce other takes on D&D 3.5 including D20 Modern, and Star Wars D20.

Since the introduction of the open gaming license many fans started selling their own creations, expanding D&D in directions that go far beyond what it’s original creators had envisioned. Here at DungeonVault we don’t sell products that use WotC’s Open Gaming License. But we do sell products that are compatible with all versions of D&D and any other RPG for that matter. Check out our webshop to see how we are trying to push the boundaries of tabletop RPGs. 

Related Article:

D&D Door Puzzles: A Designer’s Guide (With Free Puzzles)

Success Breeds Competition

In 2008 a slew of revamps happened to D&D 3.5 in the form of a new rival RPG created by Paizo called Pathfinder. As popular as D&D 3.5 was, experienced players understood the game was still very complicated despite the introduction of the D20 system. With many expansive rule sets, three Dungeon Master Guides, dozens of Monster Manuals and hundreds of books to draw from, the game could become very complex.

Many of these books had errata tacked on to address vague rules that could be exploited and game breaking, others had intrinsic contradictions across multiple supplements. Paizo set out to simplify D&D 3.5 with Pathfinder which was deemed D&D 3.75.

WotC responded to Paizo’s Pathfinder with their infamous D&D 4th edition. 4e was notorious for being very hack-n-slash by design, resembling modern video-games with its modular class system and simplified rules which for many took away from the Role Play aspect of the game. For the first time in a long time, D&D’s popularity decreased, and right at the moment Pathfinder was gaining a foothold.

The loss of variety in the game made it one of the least liked D&D editions. D&D 3.5 continued sales until 2010, especially among 3rd party developers who found it easy to make their existing content compatible with Pathfinder which ultimately cut into 4e sales.

Regaining Popularity With 5e Edition D&D

WotC, realizing players continued to play 3.5 over 4e, or had switched to Pathfinder, decided in 2012 to start development on D&D 5th Edition. By late 2013 they were play-testing 5e which resembled 3.5 while retaining some of the simplifications seen in 4e and in Pathfinder. By 2014 5th edition was released.

5e introduced optional rules found in 3.5 as the standard rule set, while nerfing various class abilities to balance the game. This retooling of 3.5 once again saw backlash, but was a marked improvement over 4e. With simplified rules, 5e is more accessible to the novice player, while allowing experienced players to delve into much of what they enjoyed with 3.5. Since the release of 5th Edition D&D, its popularity has soared. The simplified rule system has opened up D&D to a whole new generation of players. The 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide is a gem. 

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What is Next for D&D?

Having survived so many setbacks, what is next for D&D?

The future of Dungeons & Dragons depends heavily on the players, especially with multiple RPG systems in competition. However, as of right now, the future is quite bright for D&D and its many offshoots as the gaming community is larger than ever.

Role-playing games are the future of storytelling, placing players into a joint storytelling experience which can’t be found in video games and other media. So long as there are players wanting to play, there will be D&D at the forefront of that experience.


1* Stewart Alsop II (February 1, 1982). “TSR Hobbies Mixes Fact and Fantasy”.
2* La Farge, Paul (September 2006). “Destroy All Monsters”. The Believer Magazine. Archived from the original on October 4, 2008.
3* Buckman, Jenifer V. (September 19, 1997). “ANTI-OCCULT CRUSADER DIES AT PATRICIA PULLING WAS FOUNDER OF BADD”. Richmond Times – Dispatch. p. B.3. Retrieved November 28, 2012.

By K. J. Martin