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D&D 5E Sell Out: Hasbro and the Soul of D&D

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Well I know you can't work in indie games all your life
But don't sign that paper tonight
The lawyer said "But it's too late"


The recent announcement that D&D had been promoted within Hasbro has been met with various degrees of happiness and/or skepticism; admittedly, "D&D" itself has not been promoted, so much as Hasbro reorganizing to move D&D into one of three prominent divisions. But combined with the statement by Hasbro's CEO that WoTC's revenue increased 24% from 2019-20, and was expected to double from 2019 to 2023, along with the increasing cultural prominence of D&D as well as the impetus for the D&D movie along with rumors for possible D&D television shows, it is obvious that D&D is having its moment in the sun.

But what, exactly, does that mean? Is this a good thing for D&D in general? When thinking about this, I thought I'd try to frame this in terms of a concept that has lost currency over the last two decades- "selling out." Does it matter that D&D has gone full corporate? What, if anything, are the drawbacks?

And for those of you not among the olds, what is this "sell out" that I speak of?


Then, I don't remember what contract I read
I don't remember what Hasbro said
I guess it doesn't matter
Guess it doesn't matter anymore



What, exactly, is selling out, and why did people used to care about it so much? This is something that is perhaps a little controversial, but I'm far from the first person to point out that "selling out" has lost any opprobrium in an era wherein people regularly trade their privacy for free gmail, or make their livings "influencing" for brands. But this is a relatively new phenomenon, or, at a minimum, is a return to a status quo that did not exist for most of the late twentieth century (mid-60s to '00). This attitude is best encapsulated by the opening scene in Reality Bites-

"“And they wonder why those of us in our twenties refuse to work an 80-hour week just so we can afford to buy their BMWs. Why we aren't interested in the counterculture that they invented, as if we did not see them disembowel their revolution for a pair of running shoes?"

Watching many things from the 90s (or earlier) with people from a different generation can be an eye-opening experience. I recently saw a touring version of Rent with a group of younger acquaintances, and the universal reaction was the same- "Why don't they just pay the damn rent?" The idea of opposing "the man" (the corporation, the corporate world, the conforming society) and staying true to your authentic self or an artistic vision was simply foreign to many of them; this isn't a value judgment, so much as an acknowledgment that, to people today, the idea that art (or authenticity) and commerce are in any way opposed is bizarre. Success is not some type of integrity- after all, corporations support artistic vision, and the real sign of success is the marketplace. Right? If you are hustling to make ends meet with a number of side gigs, the idea of your endeavors becoming monetarily successful is no longer seen as "selling out," so much as finally making it!


'Cause you're gonna go online to Amazon
You're gonna give 'em all your money
Youtube plays what they want you to watch
They tell me it's cool, I just don't believe it



And what does this have to do with D&D? I would start with a brief detour in history; it's important to point out that, regardless of the many things I might otherwise state in this post, D&D has almost always been at a point of "selling out." How did it all start?

Well, let's see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. Sometime after the oil, there was a guy named Arneson, who was playing some weird new variant game based partly off of a game called Chainmail, and he thought it would be good to monetize, so he contacted the guy who made Chainmail, Gary Gygax, and the rest is the history that is all awesome and amazing. Well, maybe not amazing for the dinosaurs, but they probably should have exercised more.

Point being that while D&D has had a DIY, hobbyist core (which I will expand upon on later), it is not true that there was some golden, halcyon days of yore when D&D was untouched by corporate concerns. From the beginning, it was viewed as an attempt to make money, and as it became more successful, TSR and Gygax became embroiled in lawsuits, went about protecting their IP, and generally behaved exactly as you would expect a growing corporate entity to act- even looking to license their IP in all sorts of way, from slapping the D&D name on consumer products, to looking at media possibilities (such as the D&D cartoon series).


Sell out, with me, oh yea
Sell out, with me tonight
Hasbro is gonna give me lots of money and
Everything's gonna be alright



Going back to the issue of selling out, I was reminded of an article I saw recently-


That's right! Legendary-ish showrunner Ronald D. Moore (Ron to friends and reporters), of "Battlestar Galactica: Wait, What Was Up With Starbuck?" and "There's a Good Show on AppleTV+ That No One Watches" is helming a new show, and a new FRANCHISE of projects based on Disney's Theme Parks, for Disney+.

It's as if the word "synergy" came to life and acquired sentience and ate the word "intellectual property." In other words, this is more Disney than Mickey Mouse beating Woody the Woodpecker to death. But ... this is exactly what we should expect from the House of Mouse. They have a valuable property (theme parks), and they have a valuable property (Disney+), and it's time to breed those together and see what valuable offspring happen! In the same sense, Hasbro, while several orders of magnitude less than Disney, is in the same business. Monetizing their properties. Which brings us to the elevation of D&D.


No more working in the gig economy driving cars, you know
I don't want that no more
And I didn't ask when we'd get paid
I quit my side hustles anyway
I guess it doesn't matter
Guess it doesn't matter anymore


Hasbro might not have the size, or skill, of Disney when it comes to its intellectual property. But it does try! They have the Transformers series, and the GI Joe series, but the whole "Hasbroverse" (emphasis on Bro .... Go, Joe!) has fizzled out, with the announcements of Micronauts, and ROM, and M.A.S.K., and Visionaries, and a shared universe dying even more quickly than Universal's "Dark Universe."

But they still want those sweet, sweet dollar that come from mining the IP. Which brings us to ... D&D. Does anyone remember the last time that D&D was supposed to make a lot of money for Hasbro? With subscriptions? A game that was designed to have rules and math that made it easier to use for computer games as well? And a massive staff behind it?

Yeah. That didn't end up working so well. Expectations and requirements are a heckuva thing.

The success of Dungeons & Dragons over the last few years has many factors behind it- from the increased prevalence of streaming and social media, to the popularity of certain podcasts and videos, to a resurgence of the boardgame/tablegame play. Heck, I'm sure that all sorts of factors I'm not even thinking about, like increased interest in cosplay, has had a role. But for the most part, it has benefitted from being relatively under the radar; 5e started with a very lean staff, and a very lean publication schedule. And while I don't have any particular information on this, I would assume that given how small the resources going into D&D were, there were few expectations or demands in terms of the the revenue, especially at first- just, you know, don't lose money.


And I don't think it'll be so bad
And I know it won't be so bad
'Cause Hasbro said "That's the way it is"
And Hasbro said "It don't get better than this"
No, no, no



So, D&D has succeeded! That's a good thing! That's a .... GREAT THING! Right? Well ... with great revenue comes great responsibilities. That's Uncle Ben. Or Ben's Original. .... Let's just say Spider Man. Another way to put it is that, "A tall tree attracts the wind."

D&D is now a major component of the HASBRO SUCCESS STORY. That's right- it will need to be "managed" as an important part of the brand. Hasbro will need to ensure that D&D lives up to the corporate brand, and, just as importantly, that no source of revenue in terms of D&D is left untapped. I'm not just talking about a movie (or a movie franchise), and TV shows; do you know all those versions of Monopoly that you see? Well, what about D&D? After all, don't you need to own the YOUR CITY HERE D&D boxed set? What about YOUR ALMA MATER D&D Boxed Set? No?

Then cross license! We've seen Rick & Morty and Stranger Things .... how about Buffy (when the reboot comes out)? The Expanse? At some point, we're going full Disney/Ouroboros - "The D&D Movie D&D Starter Set, with Chris Pine Action Figure!"

And for many of us, this is a good thing. More D&D, in all capacities, is always good.


So I signed on to the giant toy company
They say they're gonna give me lots of money
If I write what they want you to play
Tell me it's cool, and I'll sure believe it



So why did I write all of this? Who cares about selling out? Hasbro has this covered, right? Well, maybe not. Whether you think about the protest against selling out in terms of 90s slackers, or 70s punks, or 60s beatniks, or some other tired trope, the point is that D&D is somewhat unlike many of the other products that get sold, in that it is, at its heart, a hobbyist product. A product for people to use, change, modify, and play on their own. The experience at the table, whether that table is a group with friends in person, or virtually, will always be variable. The presence and existence of rulings (not rules), homebrew, and a vibrant 3PP market ensures that the D&D game of one table will not be the same as the game played at another table.

Even basic modes of play (ToTM or Grid, more narrative or simulationist) are easily within the tent of D&D. Variability, however, is often anathema to the corporation. The standardization of experience so that it can be marketed - or, more likely, the illusion of variability, is what the corporation prefers.

As D&D continues it rise to prominence, it is likely to continue to face issues that are endemic to products that "matter." Homogenization - the more mass market a product becomes (the less niche), the more it has to appeal to everyone. Standardization - options or variants will continue to be acceptable so long as they fundamentally don't matter. And finally, expectations - products (whether they are the books that we love, are spinoffs like the upcoming videogames or movies) will not be judged by the older metrics, but instead by the increased visibility of D&D as a product and brand.

In the end, worrying about the success of D&D is like worrying about selling out- it's a much better problem to have than the problem of failure. But it doesn't mean that success is without pitfalls. It's good to see D&D become so successful. But that also means that, most likely, the product we love will have increased scrutiny and will be changing over the next few years.


Yeah, yeah yeah, yeah yeah
The giant toy company is gonna make everything alright
"Baby, don't you sign that paper tonight" the lawyer said
"But I can't work driving ubers all my life"
 

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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
TBH, my eyes kind of glazed over after the first few paragraphs, sorry.

But ... I don't buy the premise. The band you liked is still the same band even after they "Sold out and became popular". D&D is still just a goofy game I play to socialize and have a few laughs.

Growing popularity just means a wider audience, I don't see why it hurts. The games I run won't really change, with a larger audience there will be plenty of room for niches.
 



prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I'm not sure the best comparison for D&D is the alt.rock-ish bands of the 1990s, after the major labels gave the bands they were signing more say over their output (giving up their right to insist on commercial viability or whatever the term of art is--it's been decades since I read about this).

Seems to me a better comparison is to a band that had a few big hits in the early 1980s, then fell out of favor, but never stopped gigging out and recording, kept something of their fan base, and now they're having another big moment as fashions and trends have come back around. I guess it's better than being the butt of a joke in a GEICO commercial ...
 

Stormonu

Legend
Yeah, opening post could be a lot more succinct.

D&D sold out back in the 80’s. As long as they’re still making game books I enjoy, I don’t care. Even if they change, I still have a lifetime of material to use.

Just wish I’d kept my D&D figures of Zarak and the like.
 

If you ever end up hating D&D because it went too mainstream, the old D&D you knew and loved is...on DMs Guild. It's increasingly offered via Print-On-Demand. And what's even better is that they can't ever take back the SRD, so except for 4e, people are still making content for that old-tymie game.
 



Scribe

Hero
If you ever end up hating D&D because it went too mainstream, the old D&D you knew and loved is...on DMs Guild. It's increasingly offered via Print-On-Demand. And what's even better is that they can't ever take back the SRD, so except for 4e, people are still making content for that old-tymie game.

Yeah this is huge. The 'doing it for the art' is still very strong because of this. D&D itself may (will) shift and distort itself to make sure it doesnt run afoul of anything that could limit its customer base, but people still have the framework to build upon.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I knew it was over when they started selling D&D action figures.

Wait. That was TSR not Hasbro.

From the OP:

Well, let's see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. Sometime after the oil, there was a guy named Arneson, who was playing some weird new variant game based partly off of a game called Chainmail, and he thought it would be good to monetize, so he contacted the guy who made Chainmail, Gary Gygax, and the rest is the history that is all awesome and amazing. Well, maybe not amazing for the dinosaurs, but they probably should have exercised more.

Point being that while D&D has had a DIY, hobbyist core (which I will expand upon on later), it is not true that there was some golden, halcyon days of yore when D&D was untouched by corporate concerns. From the beginning, it was viewed as an attempt to make money, and as it became more successful, TSR and Gygax became embroiled in lawsuits, went about protecting their IP, and generally behaved exactly as you would expect a growing corporate entity to act-
even looking to license their IP in all sorts of way, from slapping the D&D name on consumer products, to looking at media possibilities (such as the D&D cartoon series).


It's almost like there's a whole post about these things.

I used to write disclaimers on these, saying, "Hey, I know people don't read bother reading more than the title before making their snarky comment, but please try ..." but I long ago gave that up.

Because literacy < snark. I guess. :)
 




Scribe

Hero
Thanks! Unfortunately, as I suspected, 99% of the people aren't going to bother reading it before commenting.

Which, in fairness, is only about 10% more than average.
I read it. I think you hit on it though, its a generational thing. I've been amused for years, that those who would simply be derided as Shills before, are now promoted as 'Influencers', and it happens in every market, but is especially notable in gaming with streamers.

Its the way the world turns now.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I read it. I think you hit on it though, its a generational thing. I've been amused for years, that those who would simply be derided as Shills before, are now promoted as 'Influencers', and it happens in every market, but is especially notable in gaming with streamers.

Its the way the world turns now.
That's why I suggested that a better comparison was to something roughly contemporaneous to at least 1E--as it turns out, from about the time I first got into the hobby (though I don't really consider my own history relevant for the purposes here).
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Seems to me a better comparison is to a band that had a few big hits in the early 1980s, then fell out of favor, but never stopped gigging out and recording, kept something of their fan base, and now they're having another big moment as fashions and trends have come back around. I guess it's better than being the butt of a joke in a GEICO commercial ...

....I know this!

WEIRD AL!

You're welcome.
 


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