D&D should learn a key lesson from its past

Dungeons & Dragons has always had an uneasy relationship between its players and corporate owners

D&D should learn a key lesson from its past
Image: Andrew Liptak 

Dungeons & Dragons and the company that owns it, Wizards of the Coast, have been riding high for a couple of years. The game has enjoyed unheard of popularity over the last decade, thanks to the rise of streamed games, appearances in places like Stranger Things, Community, and The Big Bang Theory, and there's a major film coming at the end of March, and a TV show on the way.

But earlier this month, Wizards of the Coast accidentally ignited a firestorm when io9's Linda Codega revealed details of a leaked draft of proposed updates to its Open Game License. Since 2000, the company has used this license to permit other makers to build their own products using the same rules and mechanics as its flagship roleplaying game. I've long felt that this sort of open license has helped boost D&D's longevity and popularity, and while there have been changes to how Wizards licenses out its content, it's remained a popular tool.

The new restrictions and changes take aim at a couple of things: new techologies like the Blockchain and works to stamp out people using the license to create racist or phobic content, but also essentially retracts the original OGL and would limit what people can do with the content: it looked as though creating a podcast or video series based on your gaming sessions could violate the agreement, there'd be some royalty requirements for companies pulling in a lot of money, and some registration requirements.

Fans and publishers have pushed back hard against these proposed updates, prompting Wizards of the Coast to backtrack, apologize, saying that its "language and requirements in the draft OGL were disruptive to creators and not in support of our core goals of protecting and cultivating an inclusive play environment." The company has also begin working on a new version, utilizing an open creative commons license, one that seems like it'll address some of those bigger issues that fans and publishers took issue with, provided they haven't permanently killed off trust between themselves and the people who they need to buy the game and the constellation of additional tie-in merchandise, supplements, and core gaming manuals.  

While watching this unfold over the last couple of weeks, I couldn't help but think about a book that I picked up last year that specifically explores the history of Dungeons & Dragons not as a game, but as a product: Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs.

There are a ton of histories out there about how Dungeons & Dragons – and the entire roleplaying game industry – came about.

These books chart the twists and turns behind how Gary Gygax and a couple of friends took their obsession with games and storytelling and ended up building one of the fastest-growing companies in the country and impacted popular culture in enormous ways.

Riggs takes a slightly different approach to this history: rather than retread over that well-worn path, he takes a look at the corporate history of the game and explores a central question: what accounted for TSR's explosive growth as a company and how did that lead to its eventual acquisition by Wizards of the Coast in 1997? In many ways, Slaying the Dragon feels a bit like a business book dressed up as a history of the game, but it's a fascinating angle that holds some lessons for the present moment.

After experimenting with what would eventually become Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax (who developed the game along with Dave Arneson) worked with Don Kaye to set up a company that would publish the rules in 1973. Kaye died a couple of years later, and to keep the company afloat, Gygax brought in Brian Blume as an investor. The coming years would be enormously profitable for the company: TSR quickly sold out of its first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and realized that they had a product that neatly locked in its players for more adventures. They began releasing a flood of additional products that tied in with the game: campaign settings, additional rulebooks, tie-in novels, and more, each of which sold pretty well, and kept players engaged.

Dragonlance changed how we read fantasy
The franchise’s original creators have sued Wizards of the Coast for breach of contract over a new book trilogy

Along the way, there was a bit of court drama on the corporate side: while TSR fostered a free-wheeling workplace of young artists and game designers, its board was split over the direction of the product: the Blumes were frustrated by Gygax's conservative approach, and ended up ousting him by bringing then-VP Lorraine Williams to the board through a deal engineered to get them a majority on the comnpany's board of directors. (Ironically, Gygax was the one who hired her.)

This is where Riggs' exploration of the company is really enlightening: he looks at how TSR's business practices to its downfall. The company relied heavily on selling an ever-increasing amount of content to gamers, and used some questionable financial calculations involving loans and returns from a publishing partner to keep afloat. Ultimately, the entire scheme unraveled, and Williams ended up selling the company to Wizards of the Coast, a then-rival upstart that had pioneered another fantasy game, Magic: The Gathering.

One of the things that stuck with me with Riggs' book is the level to which there was a disconnect between Dungeons & Dragons's corporate owners and the people who played the game: the executives in charge (and Riggs outlines that Williams was generally not a fan of D&D nor of its players) saw that they had success selling an ever-growing pile of content to fans, and assumed that if you increased content output you'd increase the amount of profit that you'd rake in. That wasn't really the case: the company plateaued and as returns for un-sold merchandise piled up, they found themselves burdened with an unsustainable pile of debt that threatened to destroy the company. TSR ended up under the control of Wizards of the Coast, and has continued on its way, finding newfound buyers and fans.

Image: Andrew Liptak

I can't help but see some parallels from the company's history to the environment that we're in now: a hit, beloved product that's under the control of a much larger corporate entity that's eager to squeeze it for ever-greater short-term gains, even if it could potentially mean a diminished future.

By all accounts, Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a hayday in the last decade: I mentioned some big product placements, but in a world that's increasingly defined by our virtual interactions, there's an enormous demand for a game that brings out one's creativity in a group setting. When I started playing back in 2000 with friends, it was a taboo thing, something only the weirdo kids did. Years later, it's an enormously popular vocation, with podcasts, streamed gaming shows, the aforementioned movies / TV projects, and more. Along the way, Wizards of the Coast has been more than happy to supply a whole lot of additional content for fans who've made it a defining feature of their lives and personalities. You can buy the usual things like starter kits and campaign manuals, but also things like Heroes' Feast: The Official D&D Cookbook, 123s of D&D (a kid's counting book), mugs, card games, branded apparel, and lots more.

This isn't to say that the existence of these products are bad in and of themselves. Growing up with my formative years in a place where geek-related interests were deeply uncool, seeing this widespread acceptance of this type of gaming and general interests is wonderful to see. My kid has enjoyed playing D&D with friends and family, and it's proven to be a wonderful bonding experience.

But while D&D remains popular, Wizards runs the risk of doing what TSR did: saturating its market. Products in and of themselves aren't bad: TSR had the right idea plenty of times over the years: overhauling its initial set of rules and released Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s to appeal to new gamers was a huge step in that direction. Indeed, Wizards of the Coast's D&D 3.0 rules set was probably responsible for laying the groundwork for the current boom that we have now.

But when companies drift away from what makes those original products great by taking their attention away from making and maintaining those core products. You see this all over the place: Barnes & Noble has famously seen some declines in booksales over the years (same with Borders, RIP), and has only begun to right the ship after getting back to its core mission: selling books. TSR found this out the hard way as it spread itself too thin: its tie-in novels were more profitable to the company than its gaming products, and Riggs points to another fantastic example, when "Vice President Rick Behling explained that D&D should be by holding up a copy of Parker Brothers' Monopoly. John Rateliff related that Behling said the game needed to take Monopoly as a model. It should be in the toy aisle, aimed for an audience of eight to ten years old, and have rules that could 'be printed on the inside of the box top.'"

Long-time players of the game might recoil from that destription, because that attitude completely misses the games's entire appeal! Another product idea was an interactive VHS D&D game called DragonStrike that Riggs holds up as an illustrative example of how TSR's downfall came from poor management and decisionmaking.

Fast forward to today, and you see these same types of simplified games like Dragon Scrawlers (which is fun), where you race against your fellow players with a dry-erase marker through a dungeon, earning points as you do so, or a simplified game called Dungeon Mayhem. These games use the iconic imagery of D&D, but really don't have the same appeal or mechanics as that original game brings out in players.

Magical supply & demand
A newsletter about science fiction, reading, and the future

Couple that with a headline that crossed my feeds last month, when Wizards of the Coast president Cynthia Williams told investors that D&D is a franchise with a similar level of recognizability as other big names, but that despite that, "the brand is really under-monetized." The signal is there that the company is keen to find other points for which players would spend, and that strikes me as a worrying trend, especially given that the video game industry has found ever-increasing ways for players to spend in order to get ahead, rather than just playing the game.

That intent seems like it's behind that original upgrade to the open gaming license: how do you balance the desire to keep players engaged with your products, while capturing some of the money flowing into the industry through it? This feels very much like an MBA graduate's approach to ensuring that Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast aren't leaving money on the table, and that sort of gets to the crux of this entire argument: when a C-Suite is running the show, the long-term health of the community and products that underpin it seem like they always take a backseat to the short-term demands.

That has a long-term, detrimental effect on the gamers and the trust that they have with the company to continue to produce the quality products that they've been consuming. The immediate, intense backlash to Wizards of the Coast's plans to change those open licensing agreements should be (and seems to be, at least partially) a wakeup call that ignoring what gamers really want (and they're a population that the company has trained to pay attention to rules and regulations for decades) will only hasten that fall.

That's all for today, thanks as always for reading. I've got some other pieces brewing for next week, energy/recovery-depending.

As a reminder, Transfer Orbit is reader-supported: huge thanks those supporting members. You can find details about how to join here. It's greatly appreciated.

Have a good rest of the weekend,