25 celebrities reveal how 'Dungeons & Dragons' shaped their lives
From Ta-Nehisi Coates to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, here's why your favorite celebs, artists, and creative geniuses love D&D.
Dungeons & Dragons has emerged from the depths of 1980s basements to triumphantly claim a place in the kingdom of pop culture. Cool kids of all ages play tabletop role-playing games in 2020, and successful creators and writers from the likes of Russo Brothers to Patton Oswalt all play as a way to nurture creativity.
Thanks to a more accessible 5th edition that was released in 2014 and the advent of streaming that allowed it to become a successful spectator sport through live-play shows and podcasts like Critical Role, HarmonQuest, and others, public opinion around D&D has shifted from Satanic panic to the purest form of interpersonal connection in an increasingly digital world.
To prove just how cool, educational, and downright useful D&D has become, Inverse has rounded up videos, podcasts, and quotes of 25 of our favorite celebrities and successful creatives explaining what the game means to them.
Pull up a chair and roll your character. The adventure begins.
25. Jon Favreau
Director of Iron Man, the live-action Lion King, and The Mandalorian on Disney+, Jon Favreau credits at least some of his creativity to his early days playing Dungeons & Dragons, telling Los Angeles Times in May 2008, "It gave me a really strong background in imagination, storytelling, (and) understanding how to create tone and a sense of balance.”
24. Ta-Nehisi Coates
Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a Black Panther and a Captain America series for Marvel Comics, but in 2019 he also published a magical realism novel called The Water Dancer. In a piece written for The Atlantic in 2011 called "The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons & Dragons," he discussed how hip hop and D&D taught him the beauty of language.
“The first things that taught me about how words were beautiful were hip-hop and Dungeons & Dragons," he said. "I can remember taking the Monster Manual and it's a list of all these mythological monsters that inhabit the world of Greyhawk of Dungeons & Dragons. And I can remember just sitting back and flipping through and looking at the words and the descriptions and it will come alive for me. And that was a beautiful thing. That was the first lesson for me about how words can take you somewhere else.”
23. Greg Grunberg
Actor Greg Grunberg took to the skies in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker as Snap Wexley. He's also had a myriad of other genre roles over the years, including a key role in NBC's Heroes as telepath Matt Parkman.
"I've been a fan and gamer since I was a kid, and to this day it consumes me,” Grunberg said in a 2014 announcement from Wizards of the Coast for Audible's The Legend of Drizzt: The Collected Stories audiobook. Grunberg narrated The Third Level, one of the D&D stories focusing on Drizzt Do'Urden, the famed drow Fighter/Ranger created by R. A. Salvatore.
“Role-playing games were the beginning of acting for me," Grunberg continued. "Games have always been a part of my life; even today I have my own channel on Twitch called SocialTronLive. So for me to be involved in this awesome project and lend my voice was a no-brainer.”
Watch a behind-the-scenes look at the recording for The Legend of Drizzt:
22. Felicia Day
Felicia Day rose to fame in the early 2000s with The Guild, a comedy web series about a group of adults who play a massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft together, and the show’s success paved the way for Day’s vibrant career in acting and nerdy content creation. In 2012, she co-founded Geek & Sundry, the multimedia production company and commercial YouTube channel that helped launch Critical Role in the early days.
Though she’s more known for playing video games, Day announced her first paper Dungeons & Dragons one her blog in May 2007.
“When I was a kid, my Mom thought if I got into Dungeons & Dragons I would become a Satanist and commit suicide. She wasn’t even religious,” Day wrote. “Well finally, in my 20’s, it’s happened. The Dungeons & Dragons part, not the Satanist or suicide.”
Day claims these kinds of collaborative experiences helped shaped her perspective on creativity. “My whole career has been a trial by fire,” she told Inverse as part of a September 2019 profile. “I wasn’t prepared or trained for any of the success or failures in my life. And yet that experience of getting back up again, after having roadblocks, has made me a better person and a better creator. Being able to jump in with vision and not knowing exactly how to actualize it, but being brave enough to try is inherent in the DIY mentality. I believe it brings out the best in people. When we’re handed success, we don’t appreciate it or feel like we’ve earned it deep down inside.”
In December 2019, Day participated in a star-studded D&D game for charity alongside author Patrick Rothfuss and Nerdist personality Amy Vorpahl.
21. Matthew Lillard
Like many tabletop gamers his age, actor Matthew Lillard (Scream, The Descendants, Scooby-Doo) played D&D as a child, but his real origin story began years later when he picked it up again by chance.
"I was an actor in NYC and my roommate, who I happened to get — luck of the draw — from school, was a DM," Lillard told Syfy in a June 2018 interview. "He'd been DMing since he was 8. When the rest of us gave it up, he kept going and doubled down. At some point in the conversation, the five guys I was friends with realized we'd all played as kids." With that group, Lillard started playing epic eight-hour sessions in the lobby of a Broadway theater that went into the early hours of the morning.
By 2018, the group launched Beadle & Grimm’s Pandemonium Warehouse, collaborating with Wizards of the Coast to offer limited edition expanded "platinum" versions of new sourcebooks that began with Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
"The point is, if you come into D&D as a 48-year-old man or an 8-year-old kid, you're gonna find an element of the game that'll be for whoever you are at that part of your life," Lillard said.
"If you come into D&D as a 48-year-old man or an 8-year-old kid, you're gonna find an element of the game that'll be for whoever you are at that part of your life."
20. Brennan Lee Mulligan
"I started playing D&D when I was 10 years old in 1998 at a point when it had dipped in the public consciousness from the heyday of the ‘80s, so I got hip to the game as a little kid," expert D&D Dungeon Master Brennan Lee Mulligan told Inverse in a July 2019 interview. "All props to my mom who thought it would be really good for me. It truly was in terms of personal joy it has brought to my life and the connections I’ve made."
Mulligan hosts and DMs College Humor's Dimension 20 live-play show, and he credits his early days in D&D as the foundation for his ongoing success in the entertainment industry. "I found my way through D&D to performance, comedy, and improv. Through Dimension 20 with College Humor, I’ve come full circle."
"There are a lot of forces in society that encourage passivity, and I think that there is an active rebellion on the part of people in our society that wants something active," Mulligan said when asked about the game's rise in popularity. "D&D is the most active you can be: it is inherently creative, expressive, and only works when you are putting yourself into it. I think something like this that really encourages exploration, both of the self and of your relationship with your friends."
19. Gerard Way
Co-founder and lead vocalist of My Chemical Romance Gerard Way — also the writer of The Umbrella Academy comic series — has been vocal about his love of Dungeons & Dragons for years.
"I always played a half-elven ranger," he said in a Time Out interview from January 2015. "I like rangers — they can track things down and use a bow. It was always hard finding clerics though: to find a friend of yours that’d want to play a guy with a mace that healed people. That was very hard."
Gerard Way talked about how D&D helped shape his creative sensibilities on Dustin Kensrue's Carry the Fire Podcast in October 2019:
"Even just from playing and Dungeon Mastering," Way explained, "I learned how to tell stories and was really into that. you learn things even about leadership if you become the party leader. If you're the DM, you learn how to keep people engaged, to keep momentum and keep things moving."
18. Jerry Holkins
In a conversation with Inverse before the release of the Acquisition Incorporated official D&D sourcebook in June 2019, Penny Arcade co-founder Jerry Holkins talked about how the way Netflix’s Stranger Things depicts the game is a reflection of how it positively impacts players.
“Seeing Dungeons & Dragons represented on a show like Stranger Things is absolutely a catalyst for conversations,” he said. “Functionally speaking, if you look at the narrative arc, the kids use the metaphors, skills, mindsets, and roles they developed in the game as a psychological tool to manage the things occurring in their lives.”
Holkins mentioned Critical Core, a tabletop role-playing game similar to D&D designed to help kids on the autism spectrum develop social and problem-solving skills. “It’s recognizing that this type of game has echoes and after-images that can follow us into the real world," he said. "We can take confidence built inside this framework and bring it out. That’s legitimately profound.”
17. Dan Harmon
Rick and Morty parodied D&D-inspired fantasy stories in a Season 4 episode about horny dragons and an abusive wizard, but since long before that, the show's co-creator Dan Harmon played Pathfinder (a riff on D&D's 3rd edition) as part of HarmonQuest, a half live-play, half animated series. In an Entertainment Weekly interview ahead of HarmonQuest's 2016 debut, Harmon spoke at length about how tabletop role-playing games are a fruitful way for creative people to learn how to tell stories.
"I just like the invitation to create your own world."
"The most valuable thing about it is its incentivization of collaborative, spontaneous storytelling," Harmon said. "It really blurs the lines between reality and fantasy in your mind in the way a video game being realistic simply can’t do. When you’re with your friends, or even just other human beings, and you’re talking about what’s going on, and a qualified game master is keeping track of what’s going on and allowing you to collectively participate in an imaginary event, it really takes the pressure off being in the line at the bank the next day. You start to realize this is a collective story too, there’s just more evidence we should take this seriously. But if we can’t make our own happiness, where’s it going to come from? I just like the invitation to create your own world."
16. David Benioff
In a 2016 feature from The Hollywood Reporter about the resurgence of D&D, the Game of Thrones co-showrunner David Benioff described how his teenage years playing Dungeons and Dragons gave him the storytelling skills he uses today.
“I had a regular game with the Feinberg brothers," he said. "The whole campaign must have lasted four years. If the scenarios didn’t work and the Feinbergs got bored, I’d need to recalibrate.” (Even a novice Dungeon Master can tell when players aren't engaged, a telltale sign that they may need to do something different.)
15. D.B. Weiss
“I played compulsively for years," Benioff's creative partner D.B. Weiss said in the same THR piece. "It was my first experience with world-building. You’d see hundreds of ‘what if’ scenarios play out in real time as players attempted to achieve their various goals — and those goals often involved having sex with imaginary women.”
14. Junot Diaz
A New York Times feature from 2014 called "A Game as Literary Tutorial" explores how games — and D&D, in particular — have fueled the imaginations of an entire generation of authors. Author Junot Diaz, who wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, calls D&D a "a sort of storytelling apprenticeship" for him and his friends in their youth. He even credits a portion of his success as a writer to his “early years profoundly embedded and invested in fantastic narratives" through which he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play.”
“I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been for gaming.”
“It’s been a formative narrative media for all sorts of writers," Diaz said. This list makes it seem like he may have been correct. “I’m not sure I would have been able to transition from reader to writer so easily if it had not been for gaming.”
13. Sharyn McCrumb
Another writer interviewed in the same NYT piece is the bestselling author of the Ballad novels set in Appalachia, Sharyn McCrumb.
“I always, always wanted to be the Dungeon Master because that’s where the creativity lies — in thinking up places, characters, and situations,” she said. “If done well, a game can be a novel in itself.”
12. David Lindsay-Abaire
Author and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole, which was later adapted into a film of the same name that he also wrote. In his mind, D&D "harkens back to an incredibly primitive mode of storytelling" that is both “immersive and interactive,” and the stories he created within the game in his youth were the first writing he did.
“It’s a live, communal event, where anything can happen in the moment," he told NYT, also arguing that the Dungeon Master is essentially “the tribal storyteller who gathers everyone around the fire to tell stories about heroes and gods and monsters." What can be more fundamental than that?
11. Pendleton Ward
“I like how monsters in D&D are fully realized, with instincts and natural habitats and cultures,” Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, said as part of a 2016 Hollywood Reporter feature on the rise of D&D. Adventure Time is an oddball post-apocalyptic animated fantasy series of a young adventurer and his talking dog, so it's no surprise its creator has some experience in storytelling adventures.
"When I'm writing an episode it feels like I'm playing D&D with the characters."
"When I'm writing an episode it feels like I'm playing D&D with the characters," Pendleton said in a 2011 interview with D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast. "The last episode I wrote was called "Rainy Day Daydream." I was drawing Finn crawling into this room where he kept a load of magical items, armor and weapons from past adventures — and because I was just winging it at that point in the story, it had the same feeling as playing D&D and stumbling upon a treasure room full of the craziest loot. I was in control of which weapons Finn could pick up, it was fun. I started by drawing Finn picking up a missile, and then I drew Finn and Jake bickering about which magic gauntlet they should choose, until they were attacked by an invisible troll and the troll's invisible wife."
10. Anderson Cooper
“I was obsessed," journalist and TV personality Anderson Cooper said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in August 2015. "When my character died in D&D I literally went into mourning."
9. Martin Starr
“There’s a huge resurgence of nerd culture, especially with the tech boom," Silicon Valley star Martin Starr said as part of a 2016 Hollywood Reporter story about D&D. "If nerds were still poor and living at their mothers’, nobody would be paying any attention to Dungeons & Dragons. But nerds rule the world, and D&D is making a big comeback — and I’m excited about it."
8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
“These games really impacted all of my creative sensibilities," actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt admitted in a Geek & Sundry interview about D&D and Magic: The Gathering, noting that these role-playing games partially inspired his creation of HitRecord, an online collaborative media platform.
"I bet I wouldn’t have made HitRECORD if it wasn’t for playing D&D and Magic.”
7. Patrick Rothfuss
"If you’ve played a character, you are ten steps further towards being a writer than anyone else," The Kingkiller Chronicle author Patrick Rothfuss once said, as reported on The Writing Cooperative. "You’ve made a character, you have a backstory, and you’ve engaged in narrative, just playing a character in a game. If you’ve DMed, you’re thirty steps farther towards being a writer of a novel or a story; you’re an active storyteller."
"If you’ve DMed, you’re thirty steps farther towards being a writer of a novel or a story."
6. Brett Gelman
Actor Brett Gelman seems to have a role in just about everything these days from Stranger Things to Fleabag. In a July 2019 interview with Inverse, Gelman admitted to playing D&D when he was younger. But not anymore.
"My cousin Lucas was the DM and then it would be me and his brother Mikey. We played all the time," Gelman said. "We were really addicted to it. I don't know how much Lucas was following the rules, but I loved playing that game as a kid. To me now the world of dating is Dungeons & Dragons enough. I engage in that. But I think it's a great way for kids to develop their imagination too."
But would he play now?
"No, no, no, no — I wouldn't," he said. "I mean, maybe like on a fluke."
5. Deborah Ann Woll
Star of True Blood and Daredevil Deborah Ann Woll didn't play Dungeons & Dragons as a child. She began playing circa 2011 when she was introduced to the game by her manager. These days, she's one of the most prominent actors with a passion for D&D. She's played as part of Force Grey, the Stream of Many Eyes, and even on Critical Role.
"It changed my life," she said in a 2018 interview with D&D Beyond (included above) about the game. "It's just about imagination and solving problems creatively."
In a piece from The Hollywood Reporter, she spoke further about how much she loves the game.
“The adventures I’ve had in Dungeons & Dragons will always be more exciting than anything they could put on a screen."
“The adventures I’ve had in Dungeons & Dragons will always be more exciting than anything they could put on a screen because it was me and I lived it, and it was spontaneous," she said. "That’s just always going to be more exciting.”
4. Vin Diesel
Vin Diesel plays the central action hero of the Fast & Furious film franchise and also voices Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in the nerdy realms of Dungeons & Dragons, he's one of the longest-running celebrity proponents of the game. When 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons was published in 2004 by Wizards of the Coast, chronicling three decades worth of behind-the-scenes history, it includes a variety of personal essays from celebrities like Stephen Colbert, but Diesel had the privilege of writing the foreword.
"My D&D journey paralleled my search for identity in those growing years."
“Playing D&D was a training ground for our imaginations and an opportunity to explore our own identities," Diesel wrote. "I started acting when I was seven, and this game was a constant exercise in developing voices and characters. I believe now, but probably did not realize then, that I was attracted to the artistic outlet the game provided. My D&D journey paralleled my search for identity in those growing years.”
3. Matthew Mercer
In many ways the modern face of Dungeons & Dragons, Matthew Mercer is an actor who found great success voicing characters in anime and video games before becoming a worldwide sensation as the Dungeons Master of Critical Role, the most popular D&D live-play web series and podcast. Now that Critical Role has evolved into a multimedia empire in its own right, Mercer serves as the Chief Creative Officer. The first official D&D sourcebook due out from Wizards of the Coast in 2020, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, adapts the story written by Mercer that was used in the second season of Critical Role.
Mercer first encountered D&D as a child when his mother bought several of the books at a garage sale on a whim. "I loved all the creature designs, and I loved all the artwork," he told Forbes in April 2017. He finally played his freshman year of high school. "That was where it all started and the addiction and love affair has continued nonstop pretty much ever since." After leaving a career in game development in 2008, he pursued voice acting full-time and eventually made his way to Critical Role by 2012. Now, he's one of the biggest names in the tabletop role-playing community.
"People who generally lean towards theater and the performing arts, it's just a natural place for you to play with the narrative, and storytelling, and character interaction, and character flaw," Mercer said. "A lot of the groundwork for me as a performer really began at my at-home role-playing games."
2. Stephen Colbert
Comedian and late-night TV host Stephen Colbert is famous for being a nerdy scholar of all things Lord of the Rings, but he's also been a lifelong fan of Dungeons & Dragons.
"I was in high school, and I was pretty much an outsider, a nerd, and not really accepted by my peers," Colbert admitted in a 2007 appearance on NPR's Fresh Air when asked about his background in theater. "I played a lot of D&D. There's a fantasy role-playing aspect to that. I found out I could tell stories in an improvisational way. I started hanging out with a couple of the cooler kids who liked having me around because I told jokes and was silly."
Based on those experiences, he thought he'd be a comedian as an adult but thought about more dramatic acting in college. As we all know by now, he eventually made his way back to comedy — and to D&D.
In the video above, see Colbert play a D&D session for charity with Matthew Mercer as his Dungeon Master.
1. Joe Manganiello
In terms of celebrities who play Dungeons & Dragons, True Blood and Magic Mike actor is nothing short of an icon. He famously wrote a script for a D&D movie and more recently consulted on the development of the Descent Into Avernus sourcebook released last year, which included his own dragonborn paladin/barbarian Arkhan as an official character.
“To get to collaborate and tell a story in this medium that was instrumental in my development as a storyteller, to be able to moonlight just for a brief period of time the job I wish I had was amazing,” Manganiello told Inverse earlier this summer at D&D Live. “I put everything I had in it.”
Manganiello also launched his own fantasy/heavy metal clothing line, Death Saves, in 2019. To further legitimize his cred as a D&D buff, the ongoing campaign that he DMs includes Game of Thrones creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, along with the likes of Vince Vaughn and the Big Show.
“Call it nostalgia, a return to analog or way to connect with your friends. More people are playing and loving the game of my childhood,” actor Joe Manganiello wrote in a think piece for NBC News. “For me personally, I was a really math-oriented kid growing up who was also very heavily into the arts, and was an artist; Dungeons & Dragons just lights up both sides of my brain.”
"I realized all of those muscles I developed from game mastering as a kid."
“I didn’t play D&D and go, I wanna be an actor,” Manganiello told Inverse in the May 2019 interview. “That happened independently. I made films and that’s how I got into acting, but unbeknownst to me, especially when I started producing and breaking stories for pitches and scripts, I realized all of those muscles I developed from game mastering as a kid. So in hindsight, it was absolutely instrumental in my development as an artist."
He continued, “It was a way for me to work it out, in a way I understood, creating characters and stories could be something I could do for a living.”