After a 20-year break, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons again. A group of co-workers allowed me to join their ongoing campaign and it wasn't long before those dusty, cobweb-covered wooden gears in my mind started turning again. Much like when I started drawing Neat Hobby!, I had the sensation that I should have been doing this all along.
Until just a few years ago it felt like D&D had actually contracted, remaining at the nerdy margins of culture and more underground than ever. But D&D has exploded, and I've been astounded by this new resurgence.
The prime mover is, without a doubt, social media: new generations of players posting their fan art and miniatures, livestreaming their games, creating their own materials, and generally just sharing their love for the game. As a teenager in a West Virginia high school, I was frustrated at how hard it was to communicate why this game -- a mostly improvisational game with no board and no "winning" -- was so awesome. "Show, don't tell" is an ineffective rule when people won't even look.
Today that can be resolved by attaching the #dnd and #ttrpg hashtags to your post about your half-orc bard. Whereas before you had to watch a game in-person, now you can watch any number of games streaming live on Twitch. You get to hear the in-game jokes, witness the absurd moments, and generally see players having fun. And not just "players" but a broad and diverse assortment of people, which is helping to erode away the stigma and (one hopes) some of the questionable and problematic aspects of the early game materials.
Like most things, D&D has to be experienced to really understand why people love it.
And the ecosystem! It's incredible. D&D was never a completely closed system, but player-made enhancements and material usually stayed separate and largely undiscoverable from the official source material. That changed with two things: the DM's Guild, where players can sell original works, and the System Rules Document/Open Gaming License, which is a kind of non-commercial share-alike version of the basic D&D rules that can be used to create original works.
Both options have some draconian (haha) legal stipulations, but the resulting explosion of player-authored adventures, supplemental rules, character classes and monsters has been unbelievable.
Do you want rules for roleplaying a marriage ceremony, or a guide on harvesting and crafting? Bored of the standard spells? How about 1000 new ones? Campaigns that are specific to worker's rights and the environment? Adventures based on Shakespeare? A rich sourcebook of nothing but taverns and inns? Or maybe you want to play as an alligator, or an acappella bard, or a elemental-biomechanical construct.
And if you want gear, Etsy's got you. Alternative character sheets and journals. Terrain. Some incredible-looking miniatures. So very many dice. Want to build your own terrain? Behold the crucible that is YouTube. Tips for drawing maps and painting miniatures.
It feels like too much. But it's really not, because all that's required is a group of friends rolling dice and making up stories. And although that's never not been the case, I can't imagine a better time to return to D&D.