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Popular Perception Check

For almost as long as we’ve had tabletop games, they’ve been depicted in various media, from movies and TV shows to news and print. Arguably, at least until the most recent gaming renaissance we’ve entered, that portrayal in mainstream media has mostly been negative. If you lived through the Satanic Panic like the two of us at Never Say Dice did, you’re likely to understand what we’re talking about. For those newer to the hobby, tabletop game fans were depicted as socially-inept, sloppy nerds at best, and Satan-worshiping murder cultists and at worst. (Can’t we just be both in peace!?!) Perhaps as the hobby, and those who partake of it, have matured, these portrayals have softened a bit. Or perhaps positive representations in streaming media have made a significant change. Maybe it's both. This week, we thought we'd talk about how we've seen these depictions change, and how has they've affected our shared hobby and the preconceptions newcomers bring to it?  - A

A: Calling gamers "Satan-worshiping murder cultists may" be a bit of an extreme from back in the height of the Satanic Panic. However, I've seen numerous depictions of the hobby play to a different extreme: as caricatures of nerdliness. You mean D&D players aren’t all greasy, mouth breathing, Dorito-fingered four-eyed dudes getting stoned in somebody’s basement? No. Only some of us. And it was Cheetos, not Doritos! Plenty of people who have entered the hobby are likely shocked that this isn’t the norm, and never really was. Luckily, this depiction has been slowly changing, not just through streamers online, but in mainstream media as well. Sessions of D&D appearing in Stranger Things, and the LARPing in Hawkeye are a big improvement over the portrayals of yesteryear - even if they get some of the finer points and details wrong. I, for one, am happy to notice the tiny mistakes when the overall picture is more pleasing than ever before.

How has this changed the perceptions of people entering the hobby? I think time will tell on that one, but overall, it seems to be a positive-trending improvement. If you bring up the topic of Dungeons and Dragons or another tabletop game, people seem to either have never heard of it or are instantly interested in playing. We’ve talked about finding shared media as a background and gateway before, and that will be more and more important as time goes on. People don’t seem to see this pastime as just a hobby for nerds anymore, it's for anyone and everyone. The average player is simply just that, any average person you may see on the street. Bugsy, how do you feel things have changed both in depiction and the perceptions that media brings?

B: Cheetos, Doritos.... I don't care what they are, my players don't get to touch them until they reach ORANGE clearance! (And as for Cool Ranch flavor, fuhgetabboutit...) I think, for me, one of the most fascinating (and potentially frustrating) things is the sheer dominance one particular game has in popular culture: by which I mean, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. Like the way that "Coke" is a general term for soft drinks in part of the South and all vacuum cleaners are "Hoovers" in the UK, tabletop roleplaying games are often referred to as "D&D," regardless of what the actual game (or even genre) is. It's pretty easy to see why this is the case, Dungeons & Dragons remains the most-popular TTRPG of all time and has largely determined the very structure, standards, and terminology of the medium. If a work of media is going to pick one game to show, D&D is the one most audiences will recognize, or at least have heard of. (Interestingly, World of Darkness games still fill a similar cultural role for LARPs, despite being a tabletop series first and foremost.) I got my first D&D books (I forget whether this was before or after I had been given the West End Star Wars books) because my mother recognized the game from the movie E.T. D&D is both the wellspring from which all other games emerged and the beachhead for widespread recognition and representation.

Which puts those of us who primarily run other games in an complicated position. If a potential player knows anything about TTRPGs, D&D and its associated tropes are what comes to mind - and those may not even be accurate about that particular game! (Examples of play are generally visualized as combat or searching a room for traps, and, while these are both important and recognizable activities, they represent only a small percentage of even the most crunchy old-school dungeon crawl sessions.) Prospective players may be scared off if they're uninterested in sword-and-sorcery style fantasy, or at least burned out on it (which, despite my passion for the genre as a teenager, largely describes my own situation... but that's almost certainly a topic for a therapy session future co-post). I'm sure many of us have lost count of how often we've described the games we run (or are planning to) as "like D&D, but [horror/sci-fi/mystery/crime/espionage/non-European/etc.]." And, again, the preconceptions aren't necessarily Dungeons & Dragons as played and enjoyed by people around the world, but what the popular conception of that one game is, which often leaves out the swashbuckling, intrigue, romance, and sheer range of storytelling RPGs can provide. Thankfully, most people nowadays don't all start as newbies... and one doesn't stay a newbie for long, especially if given the opportunity to experience the breadth of roleplaying with different groups, tones, and systems.

Speaking of systems, there's a been an interesting twist in the way RPG systems are presented to players - by which I refer to the modern style of Charity Bundle. The idea of digital content sold at massive discount, with the proceeds going to charity, goes back to the very first Humble Bundle in 2010, if not earlier.  Bundle of Holding, a tabletop RPG equivalent, came along in 2013 with a similar approach, occasionally offering materials that had been long out of print and/or unavailable digitally. All of the collections on these sites were specific: electronic games for a particular platform, a specific edition of a TTRPG and supplemental material, e-books and comics, etc. This all changed with the now-legendary "Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality" offered by indie distribution service itch.io, which included over 1,700 games across the full variety of platforms itch.io offers, all for a single donation: Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, HTML, and... tabletop RPGs (about 450, to be precise). This meant that people who purchased the bundle for electronic games suddenly had immediate access to a wide range of original, independent tabletop games to sample and explore, with titles, thumbnail images, and short descriptions. Simply scrolling through, one can see the many, many potential kinds of games available, giving potential new players any number of starting points. Since then, there have been a number of these types of bundles, to the point where there even sites to help keep track of what the heck you've even been getting. Thanks to that service, I can see that I've acquired 1,483 TTRPGs and pieces of related media through itch.io bundles. There's plenty in there still for me to discover, and I can only imagine how it blows the minds of people who suddenly find out they have access to these titles. 

Ultimately, as long as we play games, we'll be trying to find new players. Sometimes, the popular media will attempt to portray the hobby, and different depictions will be accurate to different degrees - but they'll always be there to serve some aspect of another story. And even a perfect portrayal can only show one possibility of how one game might work out with one group of players. But whenever we play, and talk about what we play, and find new players, awareness of what we do grows. It's one reason we started this blog, and we hope you all take your own opportunities to share the things you love -  along with why you love them. That's what we've all been doing since the very beginning, and what we'll keep doing as long as there are stories to tell and people like you to share them with.

Send comments and questions to neversaydice20@gmail.com or Tweet them @neversaydice2.

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