Baldur’s Gate 3 is only the latest instalment in Dungeons & Dragons’ (D&D) long legacy of role-playing games (RPG). Although, ‘role-playing game’ casts D&D in too simple a light. Since its inception in the 1970s, it has become a phenomenon—a motif, if you will—an icon that symbolises to the geeks, nerds, and goths of the world that we might find joy in this life, even if it means one through the eyes of a two-inch miniature on a hand-drawn cardboard map.
Before Baldur’s Gate 3, just one of the many video game instalments to the D&D franchise, there was Baldur’s Gate 2, Baldur’s Gate the original, and all of their spin-off games. At the same time, in the socio-cultural zeitgeist of the Millennial/Zillennial/Gen-Z generations, D&D was featured prominently in the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (2016—) television series. Before that, we had the long-running series of books in the Dragonlance series (1984—), created by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis as a part of the D&D universe; before that, we had the badly animated television show of the 80s, aptly called Dungeons & Dragons; alongside that, we had the Satanic Panic of the same decade that called for an end of the franchise and the so-called occult messaging it was instilling into our children. Way before all of that, we had the original D&D tabletop RPG, created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974.
Baldur’s Gate 3 came out earlier this year to great renown. Players have been sharing their shenanigans on TikTok, live streams, and in threads all across the internet. Not a small part of the appeal, or at least part of the hype, of Baldur’s Gate 3 are the romance options. As with any good RPG, the player is able to make and break relationships with a wide cast of characters. Akin to its spiritual predecessors in the Mass Effect (2007—) and Dragon Age (2009—) game series, Baldur’s Gate 3 allows the player to pick and choose the characters who can join their travelling party and then form relationships, including romantic ones, with them. They can then, in many instances, have more… intimate relationships with them. This brings us to the latest development in the D&D franchise: smut (otherwise called ‘spice’, ‘sauce’, or, more simply, ‘erotica’ for the uninitiated).
Now, when I say specifically the D&D franchise, I am being a bit liberal with the term. What I really mean is the fantasy genre, but I don’t think that we can accurately talk about the fantasy genre as it stands without acknowledging the role that D&D has played in crafting it. D&D is a franchise that extends far past the bounds of its initial, physical product, to inhabit books, movies, television, and games in a way that defies borders.
The humanisation of fantasy races—especially fantasy monsters—is not new. It started with vampires, first with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) and then, again, popularised with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (2005—) which expanded to include werewolves, and then faeries came onto the scene with a range of books published in the 2010s, including Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thrones and Roses (2015) and Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince (2018). These creatures are becoming more humanoid, more sympathetic, more agreeable, and more likeable as time goes on—so likeable, in fact, that many readers, watchers, writers, and players aren’t content to maintain only a platonic relationship, if you catch my meaning.
Is there something to be said about escapism? Is romance, sexuality, and intimacy perhaps the most overt example of escapism? Insofar as smut represents a pure and unadulterated pleasure inside digital and/or paper worlds—not to mention a world in which the player can craft the most ideal version of themselves. It is a fascinating space where the development of D&D, the humanisation of fantasy creatures, and smutty fae fiction overlap with one another. I think that this overlap represents the ways that we, as young consumers, are demanding for change in our media. It might sound fanciful, but the ways that we’re engaging with the trends and tropes that we like can have a very real impact on media markets and can determine what will come next.
D&D has worn a lot of hats over the years. If the 2023 version of that hat happens to be a ball gag, who are we to judge?
Hi, I’m Steph and I use she/her pronouns! I’m a current Creative Writing PhD student and contributor here at Opus. My favourite genre to write is fantasy, but I also love stretching my writerly muscles with reviews, think pieces, and horoscopes. When I’m not writing for Opus, you’ll probably find me with my nose in a book, nomming on some vegan banana bread, or farming my crops on Stardew Valley.