Is Tabletop Gaming D&D's "Sideshow"?

Recent struggles with Marvel's comics brand have made it clear that Marvel's properties are more valuable to as a multimedia franchise than the comics that spawned them. Could that happen with Hasbro and the Dungeons & Dragons brand?

Marvel's Template

Marvel's comic woes have come recently into the spotlight thanks to controversy over diverse superhero comics struggling to make sales. Asher Elbein at The Atlantic sums up the problem:

Marvel may publish good books, but without full commitment from the company, many of those books are being set up for failure—and allowing Marvel’s audience dwindle.

Elbein questions Marvel's commitment to keep these books alive in their fragile early stages:

For all of the cultural preeminence of Spider-Man or The Avengers, the superhero-comics industry remains a sideshow. The media conglomerates that own DC and Marvel use both publishers largely as intellectual-property farms, capitalizing on and adapting creators’ work for movies, television shows, licensing, and merchandise. That’s where the money is. Disney has very little incentive to invest in the future of the comic-book industry, or to attempt to help Marvel Comics reach new audiences, when they’re making millions on the latest Marvel film.

Rob Salkowitz at ICv2 sees a parallel problem with the Star Wars franchise, in which Marvel failed to capitalize on Rogue One:

Turns out that not only were there no new or existing titles in Marvel’s very limited Star Wars comics line that tied in to the franchise, we won’t even be seeing an adaptation from Marvel in stores until later this month. This is after plans for a prequel comic announced last year at C2E2 ended up falling through with scant explanation. And now, with The Last Jedi publishing strategy taking shape, Marvel once again appears to be getting crumbs from the table, not a full serving. That is unfortunate, considering what Marvel could bring to the table.


Marvel's inability to bolster comic sales tied to mega-franchises raises the question of what might happen if the upcoming D&D movie is successful.

Oh Yeah, the D&D Movie

Hasbro's closest analog to the Star Wars franchise is its success with Transformers, drawn from the toys, comics, and cartoons. The movie series has grossed more than $3.7 billion worldwide and encouraged Hasbro to follow Marvel's model of becoming directly involved in moviemaking:

As Paramount prepares to release “Transformers: The Last Knight” in June, Hasbro is already looking beyond Planet Cybertron for new cinematic universes to build. Thanks to a vast store of intellectual property, the company can afford to think big — Marvel-size big. And it is starting to take a more active role in producing and financing some of its projects.


Dungeons & Dragons' cross-media franchise potential has been a topic of discussion at Wizards of the Coast and parent Hasbro for some time. We previously covered how Hasbro, envious of Marvel's success in turning its superhero properties into a lucrative transmedia juggernaut, gave each of its brands the goal of $100 million annual sales. The problem was that each of Wizards of the Coast's brands were viewed in isolation, which left Dungeons & Dragons, "a $25-30 million business" according to then D&D Brand Manager Ryan Dancey, in dire straits. The Dungeons & Dragons team hit on the idea of using the online Dungeons & Dragons Insider (DDI) to grow the brand to $50 million and potentially $100 million. It didn't happen.

And yet there are still companies who believe the D&D brand is worth millions. The Dungeons & Dragons movie was a subject of a series of legal actions that went back and forth between two media titans lurking behind the scenes, Universal and Warner Bros, waged by their proxies through Sweetpea Entertainment and Hasbro. Warner paid $4 million for Sweetpea Entertainment's D&D rights and was willing to pay an additional $1 million in legal fees. The D&D movie is now moving forward.

A Counterargument

Is D&D "just a sideshow" for Hasbro? Perhaps it's more accurate to position D&D's tabletop success as less important to Hasbro than its overall selling potential. D&D, after all, is expressed in a wide variety of brands across video game, boards games, and tabletop -- 6 million people in total (not an hour), according to WOTC.

In short, D&D has long since outgrown its roots as exclusively a tabletop role-playing game, which means the success and failure of the game is ancillary to its value to Hasbro as a brand. That might change if the new D&D movie is successful and the tabletop game becomes a quaint reminder of years past that, at best, doesn't embarrass the larger brand. According to Salkowitz, that's already happened with Marvel's comics:

The only real explanation here, aside from office politics, is that, to Disney (and perhaps to Marvel itself), Marvel equals superheroes sold to superhero fans through comic shops, full stop. They are the legacy story platform for MCU properties and an occasional source of PR headaches, getting just a small enough slice of the Star Wars pie to avoid embarrassing questions. In this view of the world, whatever sales advantages Marvel or its retail partners could gain by more fully exploiting the Star Wars universe in comics form is not worth the potential branding muddle that it might cause as Disney grooms its carefully segmented audience on the path from cradle to grandparent.


By most accounts, Fifth Edition revived the Dungeons & Dragons brand as a tabletop game. Although WOTC has sharply scaled back its development team for D&D, it has a new CEO who is openly supportive of the tabletop game. D&D even got a shout-out during a recent investor call, a rare occurrence.

It might not even matter. The D&D tabletop game will live in perpetuity thanks to Pathfinder, the Old School Renaissance, and the fact that gamers have enough material on the Internet that they can play entire campaigns for free without purchasing a single book.

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.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

M.T. Black

Explorer
I think we are a long way from the RPG becoming D&D's "sideshow". I don't have any figures, of course, but I don't think anyone would argue that the other franchise properties (board games, video games & novels) would bring in as much money as the RPG itself.

In any event, all the evidence suggests that 5e is doing very well. Mike Mearls has mentioned that it has now sold better than 4e and 3e, and I imagine it is closing in on 2e. Anecdotal evidence suggests the hobby is adding new people all the time (I'm seeing that myself in my own small circles - a number of friends now have kids who play D&D, for example). Hasbro continued to invest in D&D even during the difficult days of 4e. It's hard to believe they would stop now that they have a hit on their hands.

Returning to your original question, the only properties that could conceivably outperform the RPG would be a movie and/or tv show. Personally, I'd love to see a highly profitable movie or tv series released. I suspect this would encourage Hasbro to invest more in the RPG rather than less since it would be, as you suggest, the intellectual-property farm. But it also provides a ready made fan base, with a strong social media presence. Such things are worth gold in the modern media world.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I think we are a long way from the RPG becoming D&D's "sideshow". I don't have any figures, of course, but I don't think anyone would argue that the other franchise properties (board games, video games & novels) would bring in as much money as the RPG itself.

In any event, all the evidence suggests that 5e is doing very well. Mike Mearls has mentioned that it has now sold better than 4e and 3e, and I imagine it is closing in on 2e. Anecdotal evidence suggests the hobby is adding new people all the time (I'm seeing that myself in my own small circles - a number of friends now have kids who play D&D, for example). Hasbro continued to invest in D&D even during the difficult days of 4e. It's hard to believe they would stop now that they have a hit on their hands.

Returning to your original question, the only properties that could conceivably outperform the RPG would be a movie and/or tv show. Personally, I'd love to see a highly profitable movie or tv series released. I suspect this would encourage Hasbro to invest more in the RPG rather than less since it would be, as you suggest, the intellectual-property farm. But it also provides a ready made fan base, with a strong social media presence. Such things are worth gold in the modern media world.
Are you serious? The RPG itself is absolutely small fry in terms of the value of the D&D brand. The game remains profitable largely because they've managed to keep their overheads down, but few RPGs are big enough to sustain an 'industry' these days. Models, novels, IP licenses all have greater profit margins by some distance.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
Trippy, which *current properties* do you think are making more money than the RPG? The only options at the moment are the board games, the video games or the novels.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Trippy, which *current properties* do you think are making more money than the RPG? The only options at the moment are the board games, the video games or the novels.
Videogames, movies and TV shows take longer to market and produce - largely because there is more revenue at stake. I'd still wager that accessories like miniatures and cards and dice have a higher profit margin than the books themselves though. Same with the boxset boardgames - which sell more to casual gamers (you'll note a boardgames release with pretty much every campaign these days). Publishing books isn't cheap, and the risk of online piracy is high too. The basic output of official D&D books has been kept deliberately low as they have carefully rebuilt the brand since the difficulties they had under 4E.
 

M.T. Black

Explorer
If we are talking total profit vs profit margin, I'd be very surprised if the minis were bringing in more money than the RPG itself. We don't know the figures, though we do know the PHB was an Amazon #1 for a while.
 

AriochQ

Explorer
Personally, I would love if D&D had the problem that the movies made from the IP were outperforming the RPG! So far, we have had the exact opposite problem. The movies have been abysmal and drawn very little from the existing and incredibly rich IP.

I also don't think we need to worry about multimedia success hurting the RPG. D&D is a different animal from comic books. Comics are a solitary activity, so in some ways going to see a movie allows you to share your passion with others of your ilk. D&D is a group social activity. IMHO a successful franchise would have the effect of drawing even more people to the RPG by exposing it to more people, who then want to share their enthusiasm with others by playing the RPG.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
If we are talking total profit vs profit margin, I'd be very surprised if the minis were bringing in more money than the RPG itself. We don't know the figures, though we do know the PHB was an Amazon #1 for a while.
Plastic minis are a lot more profitable than full colour books in terms of the costs to produce them. Games Workshop based much of their business on this very point.
 

TerraDave

5ever
D&D as books is bigger then it has been in many years.

The next most successful part is the board games. Not surprised to see a new one coming out.

They have pushed into other media for decades. Its an old story. Gygax had an office in LA and the cartoon he helped launch remains, by far, the most successful of these efforts. D&D's best video games where made many years ago, with their slight upgrades being the best on offer today.

Given how well hobby games are doing, and how poor so many of the novels, games, movies, e-efforts have been, especially in the last 10-15 years or so, they should probably keep their focus on what they are actually good at.
 

chibi graz'zt

Villager
this whole article is speculative, DDI failed because 4e was crap.
D&D is on a resurgence now, and more people are playing D&D than in any previous edition.

But why am I still waiting for a reboot of the D&D cartoon?!?!?
 

Jester David

Adventurer
I LOVE D&D. Again. (finally...) And RPGs. But tabletop gaming IS a sideshow. Not just compared to movies and action figures, but to hobby gaming in general:

View attachment 84879

That thin little small sliver... that's ALL of TTRPGS. D&D, Pathfinder, Star Wars, Shadow of the Demon Lord, etc. While the Dancey quote says "Dungeons & Dragons, [is a] "a $25-30 million business" it turns out the entire TTRPG buisness is a $35 million dollar business... on a good year after growth.
So, yes, D&D the TTRPG is a sideshow compared to the potential money of a D&D board game or collectable card game... let alone a movie.

Now, that entire par chart is a 1.2 billion dollars in sales. Which is equal to a single successful Hollywood blockbuster. Several of the terrible, terrible Michael Bay Transformer films have grossed more than the entire sales of all hobby gaming.
So not only is D&D the TTRPG a sideshow compared to a potential D&D film franchise, all of hobby gaming is less lucrative.

Plus.... a successful film means Hasbro can launch into toys and other products they excel at, generating even more money.
 
The article discussed here keeps referring to Marvel's inability to capitalize on Star Wars as a comic book property. That's a very different scenario compared to the Superhero side of things and to the D&D parallel: Star Wars did not spring from a comic book. It was a big, popular movie first. Comics are not a "expansion" for something like this - they are an ancillary channel, almost like a licensee, to generate some additional easy revenue. The comics are also not an original source of ideas as the movies used none of the comic material. Short version: The Star Wars movies drove the comics from Day 1, not the other way around.

The better (potential) comparison for D&D is the Superhero business of Marvel: A long history in one medium that can be mined as a rich source of creative inspiration for another, more profitiable, channel. The comics fuel the movies. There's even a built-in marketing assist as comics fans jump in to applaud/criticize/speculate that the next movie is going to cover storyline "X" from comic book "Y".

D&D is not there yet but it's clearly the model. There's a rich history of tabletop adventures, fantasy settings, and novels to mine. Video games and board games are an easy expansion from the RPG though nowhere near as lucrative. You start there, get some success under your belt, and start looking at the grand prize of a movie franchise. Based on where things stand now D&D is a lesser power to WOTC/Hasbro than MtG but I don't think it's quite to the comic books to movies ratio just yet. If they can put together a decent movie franchise based on it then I see that as a big gain for D&D as a whole, a step up to the level of "major brand" and not just "one of our brands" inside Hasbro, and that means D&D is "safe", as much as it can be" for a long time.
 

Pauper

Villager
I think the better analogy to make between D&D and Marvel's comic publishing business is the use of existing stories; for all the discussion of Marvel using their publishing business as 'R&D' for their next film franchise/story, it's hard to actually find evidence that recent stories and characters are making it into the films. The most recent storyline to even be referenced in the Marvel films was Civil War -- a crossover event from 2006 -- and the way it was presented in the film really didn't owe much of anything other than the most basic inspiration (what if Iron Man and Captain America became enemies?) to the original published story. Marvel seems content to mine its huge back catalog of stories and characters, updating them for current audiences as needed.

And that's exactly where WotC is with the D&D brand currently -- WotC strongly promoted a 'collaboration' with Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time fame, but the coming adventure, Tomb of Annihilation, doesn't seem to have much to do with Ward's particular sensibility. Chris Perkins has Tweeted that the upcoming adventure borrows heavily from the classic D&D adventures X1 Isle of Dread and I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Storm King's Thunder was directly inspired by a classic Dungeon magazine adventure, but owes a good deal of its appeal to its mixing of giant types as in the old G-series. Curse of Strahd was explicitly a 'love letter' to I6 Ravenloft and its authors.

While mining this rich vein of nostalgia looks like a good decision at the moment, and leads to a game that folks who've played since their adolescence can continue to enjoy through their retirement, it's not necessarily the best path forward -- the great new adventures (and associated IP) are coming from Paizo and third-party publishers, from the Age of Worms adventure path through Kingmaker and even settings like the one created by Matt Mercer for his Critical Role web series. Sure, they might still count as D&D, just as the new Wonder Woman movie counts as a 'superhero movie', but just as Marvel isn't seeing a dime of Wonder Woman's well-deserved success, WotC might well find themselves gazing longingly at an industry that one day simply leaves them behind.

--
Pauper
 

discosoc

Villager
D&D doesn't have a solid "brand." It's a rules system that's attributed to a lot of different settings and games, but there's very little brand value for it in multimedia. There *could* be, but that would require WotC to actually embrace digital trends for once rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the existing publishing model.

Take the 2000-era D&D movie as an example. It was marketed as being a D&D experience, but in reality it was just another generic fantasy movie with b-list actors and cheap special effects. They weren't translating a great adventure onto the big screen or anything, and they certainly weren't trying to bring to life any of their well-known and exciting settings. So we ended up with a cheap Dragonheart wannabe who was 100-upped by LotR the very next year.

So I guess my take-away here is that D&D is never going to be a brand that stands on it's own, unless it really starts to focus on associating more than just rules with the name. But if it does that (perhaps by making FR the official setting, and everything else is to be a subtitle of D&D), then it devalues the role it currently plays in gaming -- that of a rules system that supports a lot of stuff.
 

Rygar

Explorer
This article seems to leave a fair bit out.

First, Marvel's comic woes aren't because of "Diversity", they're because of a completely different problem. Marvel didn't create a diverse portfolio, they took all of their established characters and replaced them with some form of minority or political activism. From what I've read they then printed comics making the original characters fill the roles of political targets. So the comics primary problem isn't that its diverse, it's that it is being used as a political platform. It really shouldn't be a surprise that your customer base drops when you stop focusing on making great stories and start focusing on political agendas.

Second, why would Disney/Marvel focus attention on comics in that state? Making their movies and other media a political vehicle is highly likely to tank their brand ala Ghostbusters. At this point, making your property a vehicle for politics is pretty much going to immediately remove a fair portion of your potential customer base.

Third, D&D is potentially worth millions, its potentially worth hundreds of millions, and conceivably worth billions. Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms have core stories that have the potential to breakout like Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Lord of the Rings. Ravenloft has a theme that could also break out. The right people behind those properties can turn Hasbro into a major concern really quickly.

Finally, Hasbro and WOTC have no idea what to do or how to manage and grow D&D. The Playtest showed that pretty clearly, and the mismanagement of the product line after release continues to show that. Going back to the same few 1st edition adventures over and over, doing Forgotten Realms only, ignoring the novel lines, sitting on the video game rights, they don't know what to do with it. They're failing to even try to capitalize on the product line, and from what I've seen from them, it's because they can't figure out how to market products to anyone but very well established fans.

Not really a surprise, honestly, WOTC has failed to capitalize on its products since the early 00's. They're lucky with Magic the Gathering in that they can sell their customer base the same cards over and over with different names and they keep buying them, if/when that doesn't work anymore I firmly believe we'll see WOTC completely paralyzed and unable to right the ship. They've been trying to figure out how to make a digital version of Magic the Gathering for around 15 years now and come up with something worse with each iteration.

Despite the fact that they have probably the world's largest board gaming company as a parent, they still haven't figured out they can turn a touch screen LCD horizontal, put a raspberry pie in it, and make money hand over first selling digital board games and a holy grail of RPGs where you can have a digital tabletop.

Don't even get me started on Transformers, they're still selling the same toys they were 30 years ago, how many different Optimus Prime's do you need? They can't come up with anything new in 30 years?

It's not that D&D is a sideshow, it's that the company seriously cannot innovate or capitalize on their products.
 

marroon69

Explorer
They pretty much stated that a while ago, D&D the game was a stepping stone to a branding strategy. why would anyone be surprised by this.
 

Darkness

Hand and Eye of Piratecat [Moderator]
... 4e was crap. ...
No edition warring on these boards, please. It's fine to express that you prefer the 2e Ranger to the 3.0 Ranger or 5e point-buy to 3.x point-buy or some such, but casually slamming an entire edition is just going to spark fights.
 

Hallowed

Villager
Why don't they get well known actors to voice an animated Dragonlance movie? It would be a hit! With good voice acting and a decent script, all they would have to get right is the animation, which would be impossible to mess up.
 

Roger

Villager
I don't have any data to back this up, but I would suspect Salvatore's novels alone have far outgrossed all the "real" RPG D&D products. But I'm happy to be proven wrong!
 

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