It's a Good Thing D&D Isn't a Toy
  • It's a Good Thing D&D Isn't a Toy


    We've previously discussed a time when Dungeons & Dragons was considered as much of a toy as it was a book. The loss of D&D in toy stores was a blow to a hobby that found its footing among a younger generation. Now things have come full circle as the bottom of the toy market fell out from under Wizards of the Coast's parent company, Hasbro.

    Toys vs. Books

    We discussed previously how D&D wasn't just classified as a toy in some markets, but produced its own toy lines as well. D&D was carried in toy stores in the early 80s. The game's success in those markets was due in part to Dr. Eric J. Holmes' Basic version of D&D, which streamlined the rules and made them more accessible to a younger audience.

    But D&D was as much of a toy as it was a book, and bookstores carried the game too...until they didn't. Unlike the toy market, the book trade often carries a return policy. Random House stopped fronting then-D&D owner TSR's loans against book sales in 1996 and returned a third of TSR's products -- several million dollars' worth. That accumulated debt sunk the company, only to be rescued by Wizards of the Coast.

    Things came full circle when Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) was purchased by Hasbro. WOTC has continued to shepherd the D&D brand, which for years labored in the shadow of WOTC's other major game brand, the much more successful Magic: The Gathering card game. That all changed in the past few years.

    Roleplaying vs. Card Games

    The tension between D&D and Magic goes back years, with several failed attempts to cross-pollinate the two brands. It's also emblematic of two different markets: Magic, with a smaller physical footprint, can be sold everywhere from book stores to the big box franchises like Target in the U.S.; Dungeons & Dragons left both the book and toy store market behind to focus on sales through hobby store and the Internet. Thanks to WOTC's new CEO, Chris Cocks, the two brands have finally managed to produce joint efforts like The Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica.

    Beyond a D&D product, Magic's digital efforts with Magic: The Gathering Arena have blazed a path for D&D esports, which Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner breathlessly reported (and then retracted). It's clear that Cocks isn't playing favorites and sees both brands as fertile intellectual property beyond the original play spaces that spawned them. That's good news for Hasbro, because the market recently bottomed out of places that carry much of their product.

    Toys Aren't Us

    Toys R Us' collapse has sent shock waves through the industry, but it was a tsunami for the two major toy producers, Hasbro and Mattel. Toys R Us accounted for 10% of Hasbro's sales. Brian Goldner explained on the Q4 investor call:

    For Hasbro, in addition to losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from Toys“R”Us, the liquidation of an additional hundreds of millions of dollars of their retail inventory sold into the market at large discounts was more impactful to 2018 than we, and industry experts, estimated. It is an unprecedented yet finite event. Prior to its initial bankruptcy filing, Toys“R”Us was our third largest customer in the U.S., and our second largest customer in Europe and Asia-Pacific. In Europe, its bankruptcy added to a market already dealing with disintermediation across retail by online and omni-channel retailers, as well as political and economic headwinds, notably in the UK. According to NPD, the European toy and game market declined 4% last year across the top six markets.

    All this added up to Hasbro revenues declining 12% to $4.6 billion, including a 13% decline in the fourth quarter. The implications for Hasbro go beyond the financial. Nerf, for example, had significant shelf space at Toys R Us, and it loses a major opportunity to showcase its brand with the loss of the toy store.

    There was one bright spot in Hasbro's Q4, and it was Dungeons & Dragons. Goldner said the brand delivered "another record year" within the gaming portfolio, and that plans continue apace to expand D&D into digital play. Goldner pointed out in the Q&A that D&D being untethered from toy stores was actually an advantage, as they weren't significantly impacted by the loss of Toys R Us.

    D&D has long since become an online brand -- at this point, there are so many resources online that it's entirely possible to play D&D for free -- that gives it an advantage in protecting the game's sales from the downturns in distribution channels. The loss of Toys R Us has put that advantage in sharp relief and Hasbro has taken notice. We'll likely see more focus on intellectual property brands like D&D in the future.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 74 Comments
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      My opinion is Hasbro wants D&D action-figures after some blockbuster, cinema or teleserie, maybe Dragonlance. If they want toys with vehicles, then they need a updated edition of Gamma World, but the d20 system isn't really ready to add firearms (a goblin with a gun is a totally challenge rating value).

      I would bet there is plans about Dragonlance, but a "reboot" may be very dangerous.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I agree a big budget movie would be the next logical step. They have also failed to produce a decent D&D video game for many years, which is another area that could generate substantial income. Given the development time for both those projects, they better get something started soon or it may be too late to hit the peak of popularity.
    1. Obvious_Ninja's Avatar
      Obvious_Ninja -
      They, meaning Hasbro was supposed to be developing a movie through their Allspark picture line. That was announced roughly a year ago but since then it's been radio silence. So I have no idea if this is dead or just stuck in development hell as per usual for Hollywood. As far as video game development, I'd really love to see one of these two.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      I think movies are the wrong place to take the brand. It's never succeeded in the past and there isn't a big market for it.

      The obvious move right now would be to cash in on the post Avatar the Last Airbender animation renaissance and start looking for someone like Netflix that would be willing to do a faithful reboot of The Dungeon & Dragons cartoon, with an eye toward say a 60 episode run with a preplanned story arc. (And if this happens, I want to be a writer on the project. Not that I have the credentials to get hired, but one can dream...I've been dreaming of writing the reboot with an expanded story arc and greater exploration of the character since the original was canceled.) A reboot here would allow them to avoid many of the problems that killed the original on network TV, and I think the project would have good cross-over between a younger audience looking for slightly edgy content and the older nostalgia crowd.

      Rebooting the show would allow them to dabble in rebooting the toy line if the show had a successful run.

      One advantage here is that a lot of the writing/character concepting/story boarding is already done. Many of the old scripts largely stand the test of time, and while the original art is all over the place, the best of it is as good as anything Netflix has been offering lately. You wouldn't have to sell anyone on this new concept either. It's easy to point at the old show and say, "This was #1 in its time slot back in the day, it was just way ahead of its time. It's got a built in audience in the same groups that helped promote shows like Stranger Things and Ready Player One."

      Seriously I can't see how this isn't already a thing.

      (Hire me as a scriptwriter please.)
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Toys R Us didn't merely file for bankruptcy, the capital organizations that acquired Toys R Us then saddled it with the debt for acquiring it in the first place, crippling it, and looted its IP. I would love it if Hasbro and Mattel were able to sue them for the damages they inflicted.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Please, not a rehash of the old D&D cartoon. Especially since the cartoon is exactly what D&D is not. Do something original. There are Millions of D&D stories and thousands of books. Adapt or write something fresh. How hard would it be to do this. (I'm guessing adapting dragonlance or Drizzt to the cartoon realm would cost a lot in terms of rights ownership. But surely someone could invent new characters and run them through an "adventure path" and adapt that to the small screen.)
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      I know I bought my copy of the Red Box and a bunch of other D&D books at toy stores when I was a kid.

      While D&D isn’t a toy as traditionally defined, it holds a place in the Toy Hall of Fame, and it’s super-easy to make toys from it. The weird monsters just call for it. Just look at the old LJN line, which had Grell, Roper, and Carrion Crawler bendy toys.

      One thing I’d also like to point out is that the collapse of two of the dedicated toy sellers can be traced in part to one company, Bain Capital. They did the same to KayBee Toys years earlier.

      https://nypost.com/2017/09/21/bain-c...to-bankruptcy/
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      In many homes the tablets and videconsoles have replaced toys. Sometimes children inherit their parents' (and uncle) toys.

      Baldruc Gate and Newerwinter Nights gave a lot of fame to Forgotten Realms, but other titles failed and fallen in the olvidion. And many videogame studios would rather to start from zero creating their own franchise/Intellectual Property, for example Dragon Age by Bioware, or Warcraft by Blizzard.

      Other option is asymmetric multiplayer games where a player is the Game Master and create dungeons and summon monsters, and with the option to create your own modules or adventures, like the Foundry by Newerwinters Online. I thought the future of videogames would be the toys-to-life (Spyrou skylanders, Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions) but now I am not sure.

      I dare to say we could be a D&D cartoon in Netflix.
    1. billd91's Avatar
      billd91 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      I know I bought my copy of the Red Box and a bunch of other D&D books at toy stores when I was a kid.

      While D&D isn’t a toy as traditionally defined, it holds a place in the Toy Hall of Fame, and it’s super-easy to make toys from it. The weird monsters just call for it. Just look at the old LJN line, which had Grell, Roper, and Carrion Crawler bendy toys.

      One thing I’d also like to point out is that the collapse of two of the dedicated toy sellers can be traced in part to one company, Bain Capital. They did the same to KayBee Toys years earlier.

      https://nypost.com/2017/09/21/bain-c...to-bankruptcy/
      It should be spelled Bane Capital. And it should be ripped to shreds and buried very, very deeply.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      Please, not a rehash of the old D&D cartoon. Especially since the cartoon is exactly what D&D is not.
      But exactly what D&D is does not translate to the screen well. The average game of D&D has almost no story or plot, and what plot it does have is greatly outweighed by the amount of time it spends on its main aesthetics of play - tactical skirmishes, loot boxes, character advancement as a mini-game. None of that translates well to non-interactive mediums, and attempts to write D&D as if it was a story invariably create adventures that are bad RPG elements.

      Simply put, there is no D&D adventure path that makes a great story, and to the extent that there might be, Hasbro/WotC doesn't own many of them. Further, the vast majority of obvious IP to try to adapt to a non-interactive medium would strike the majority of viewers as being simultaneously derivative and yet at the same time requiring far too much exposition to get into the story.

      The two you cite are notable in that for the most part they aren't what D&D is either.

      The best chance of getting enough money put into something like Dragonlance so that it is going to be worthwhile (never mind that the audience has just seen a fantasy show featuring people riding on dragons) is to show that the brand isn't toxic. Consider for example that one of D&D's biggest exposures lately was 'Ready Player One' and neither the author of the novel nor the director of the movie saw fit to put any bit of what D&D actually is into the text of their work. The novel hand waves away the exploration of the dungeon completely, and the movie drops the entire concept. I think you vastly underestimate the amount of work of genius that would be required to adapt what D&D is to a non-interactive medium.

      I personally am the kind of guy that enjoys watching live streams of people playing video games, and yet despite 30 years playing and obsessing over RPGs, I find watching someone else play an RPG too boring to endure. If you can't hook me on the idea of making an episodic TV series that reflects what D&D is then I'm not sure there is actually a market for that big enough to cover the expenses of producing what would be simply put the most expensive TV series of all time - vastly more expensive than even 'Game of Thrones'.
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by billd91 View Post
      It should be spelled Bane Capital. And it should be ripped to shreds and buried very, very deeply.
      I completely agree.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      @Celebrim, I respectfully disagree with your statement. But I doubt either of us will be moved by further discussion.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by jmucchiello View Post
      @Celebrim, I respectfully disagree with your statement. But I doubt either of us will be moved by further discussion.


      Well, that's no fun. How am I supposed to have a pointless nerd argument if you don't cooperate?

      Well, at anyone else in the thread who thinks otherwise, what IP do you think WotC owns which does not require a staggering work of genius to translate into a compelling story arc? Bonus points if it's suitable for compelling animation, because live action production costs of a D&D TV series are out of the question. Nothing is more likely to sink a brand, and D&D has self-inflicted harm on its brand time and time again already, than deciding to make a movie because the brand needs it, and then thinking you can invent the script, compared to waiting to having a script that absolutely demands to be made.

      (See Star Wars for how to slit a brand's throat by trying to milk it for money.)
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      I personally am the kind of guy that enjoys watching live streams of people playing video games, and yet despite 30 years playing and obsessing over RPGs, I find watching someone else play an RPG too boring to endure. If you can't hook me on the idea of making an episodic TV series that reflects what D&D is then I'm not sure there is actually a market for that big enough to cover the expenses of producing what would be simply put the most expensive TV series of all time - vastly more expensive than even 'Game of Thrones'.
      Considering the popularity of live streams, with audiences of tens if not hundreds of thousands, I'd say that your POV is not the popular one.
    1. Salamandyr -
      Live action television would work...Xena and Hercules made it work two decades ago. They're not even a bad formula to use. A couple adventurers wander around and help people in trouble. Each week they team up with a local somebody who points them in the proper direction, they solve a problem and defeat a monster. Sometimes two or three episodes make an arc.
    1. lowkey13's Avatar
      lowkey13 -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post


      Well, that's no fun. How am I supposed to have a pointless nerd argument if you don't cooperate?

      Well, at anyone else in the thread who thinks otherwise, what IP do you think WotC owns which does not require a staggering work of genius to translate into a compelling story arc? Bonus points if it's suitable for compelling animation, because live action production costs of a D&D TV series are out of the question. Nothing is more likely to sink a brand, and D&D has self-inflicted harm on its brand time and time again already, than deciding to make a movie because the brand needs it, and then thinking you can invent the script, compared to waiting to having a script that absolutely demands to be made.

      (See Star Wars for how to slit a brand's throat by trying to milk it for money.)
      So .... let's see what we have recently, currently, and on-tap:

      Umbrella Academy shows what you can do with an even decent budget.

      Famously, Amazon is doing a Lord of the Rings series.

      HBO is doing Game of Thrones, and is committed to doing some spinoffs (at least one, probably more) when it ends.

      Special effects costs have gone down a great deal, and the need for content has gone up. Those aren't real issues, IMO.

      The bigger issue is whether they could get something good. There have been a lot of books published in the greater D&D universe; I am not familiar enough with them to say if there's something there, but surely amidst all of that there is some plot they can use.


      EDIT- to be clear, I am not saying that a TV series is the best use of money, or that licensing the D&D IP is the way to go; just that this would be doable.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Salamandyr View Post
      Live action television would work...Xena and Hercules made it work two decades ago. They're not even a bad formula to use. A couple adventurers wander around and help people in trouble. Each week they team up with a local somebody who points them in the proper direction, they solve a problem and defeat a monster. Sometimes two or three episodes make an arc.
      Exactly!

      And even more importantly, Xena and Hercules as shows didn't take themselves seriously most of the time. Lots of camp, lots of humour, everything just a bit over the top; and when things did go serious it was a novelty and thus captured the attention.

      The only other thing it would need would be some consistently-reappearing supporting characters similar to Autolycus* or Callisto in X-H. In D&D terms these could be occasional adventuring companions, brought in for specific missions (i.e. episodes) where their skill sets would help out.

      * - Autolycus could be directly ported over as-is, as a Thief-class character who thinks he's better than he really is.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      But exactly what D&D is does not translate to the screen well. The average game of D&D has almost no story or plot, and what plot it does have is greatly outweighed by the amount of time it spends on its main aesthetics of play - tactical skirmishes, loot boxes, character advancement as a mini-game. None of that translates well to non-interactive mediums, and attempts to write D&D as if it was a story invariably create adventures that are bad RPG elements.

      Simply put, there is no D&D adventure path that makes a great story, and to the extent that there might be, Hasbro/WotC doesn't own many of them. Further, the vast majority of obvious IP to try to adapt to a non-interactive medium would strike the majority of viewers as being simultaneously derivative and yet at the same time requiring far too much exposition to get into the story.

      The two you site are notable in that for the most part they aren't what D&D is either.

      The best chance of getting enough money put into something like Dragonlance so that it is going to be worthwhile (never mind that the audience has just seen a fantasy show featuring people riding on dragons) is to show that the brand isn't toxic. Consider for example that one of D&D's biggest exposures lately was 'Ready Player One' and neither the author of the novel nor the director of the movie saw fit to put any bit of what D&D actually is into the text of their work. The novel hand waves away the exploration of the dungeon completely, and the movie drops the entire concept. I think you vastly underestimate the amount of work of genius that would be required to adapt what D&D is to a non-interactive medium.

      I personally am the kind of guy that enjoys watching live streams of people playing video games, and yet despite 30 years playing and obsessing over RPGs, I find watching someone else play an RPG too boring to endure. If you can't hook me on the idea of making an episodic TV series that reflects what D&D is then I'm not sure there is actually a market for that big enough to cover the expenses of producing what would be simply put the most expensive TV series of all time - vastly more expensive than even 'Game of Thrones'.
      Critical Role makes you the exception, not the rule.
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      The average game of D&D has almost no story or plot, and what plot it does have is greatly outweighed by the amount of time it spends on its main aesthetics of play - tactical skirmishes, loot boxes, character advancement as a mini-game.... If you can't hook me on the idea of making an episodic TV series that reflects what D&D is then I'm not sure there is actually a market for that big enough to cover the expenses of producing what would be simply put the most expensive TV series of all time - vastly more expensive than even 'Game of Thrones'.
      Y'know a show that does remind me of 'what D&D is?' RWBY.
      I know, it's much more video-game & anime-inspired, but D&D has heavily influenced video games, which consequently include those tactical skirmishes, loot boxes, and character advancement elements.
    1. pauldanieljohnson's Avatar
      pauldanieljohnson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      Exactly!

      And even more importantly, Xena and Hercules as shows didn't take themselves seriously most of the time. Lots of camp, lots of humour, everything just a bit over the top; and when things did go serious it was a novelty and thus captured the attention.

      The only other thing it would need would be some consistently-reappearing supporting characters similar to Autolycus* or Callisto in X-H. In D&D terms these could be occasional adventuring companions, brought in for specific missions (i.e. episodes) where their skill sets would help out.

      * - Autolycus could be directly ported over as-is, as a Thief-class character who thinks he's better than he really is.
      I wish I could find it, but the interview I read with some of the people developing the new film is that it's going to be inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy more so than any past D&D stories or other fantasy properties. I see that as a good thing - if everything you've tried already has failed, it's time to try something new.
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