When Brands Play Games

Wendy's recent foray into tabletop gaming has been controversial, but it's not the first time a brand has ventured into our gaming space. What's changed?

wendysfeastoflegends.jpg


Tabletop gaming's popularity has increased to a point that it is now considered a viable market for big brands to advertise. With rise of role-playing games creating luxury products retailing for hundreds of dollars and crowdfunded games netting millions, it was inevitable that mainstream brands would take notice. Three examples illustrate the differences in what leads to the brand being embraced, ignored, or reviled.

Vin Diesel's Witch Hunter Class D&D 5E

The movie actor Vin Diesel has proclaimed his love for 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and how he was fond of playing a witch hunter before in his home campaign. But what was different is that Vin Diesel is both a brand and a person -- he played a D&D game with Matt Mercer, voice actor, gamer, and DM for the web series Critical Role.

This game (and the debut of Vin Diesel's D&D character in The Last Witchhunter) resulted in Mercer creating a witch hunter class for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The class was released for free but not under the Open Game License. Despite this, it was generally well-received. That reception likely had much to do with the enormous good will generated by Mercer and Vin Diesel, who are both outspoken advocates of tabletop gaming in general.

Did it succeed? Given that Mercer and Vin Diesel's fandom is enormous, the class didn't make much waves. It was well received but not particularly controversial and didn't generate nearly as much buzz as our other examples.

Old Spice's Gentleman Class for Pathfinder 1E

Old Spice -- the deodorant company -- released a class for Pathfinder 1E called the Gentleman. This class was more of a joke but it garnered enough attention that fans (and detractors) noticed that the product was not released as part of the Open Game License. Old Spice followed up on that feedback to offer a revised version.

It's important to note that Old Spice partnered with Paizo to get things right the second time, which likely helped mitigate criticism somewhat. The class also didn't take itself too seriously and it wasn't a heavy lift -- just a few pages that generated interest in the topic.

Did it succeed? Old Spice generated buzz with geeky players and reissued the class after getting feedback, so it seems the company was vested in the marketing effort's success. It certainly generated some buzz about the topic that likely wouldn't normally have happened without the class' launch.

Wendy's Feast of Legends Role-Playing Game

And then there's Wendy's. Wendy's is a chain of restaurants known for its burgers and its sarcastic social media. Wendy's has been working towards this for a while now -- I noted that Wendy's was including RPG elements in their kids meals back in 2017 -- but they went full blown geek recently with an entirely playable tabletop role-playing game, Feast of Legends.

It's a 97 page, full color PDF, complete with Wendy's-branded dice roller. There was a (very limited) print release at New York Comic Con. Gnome Stew sums up the first impressions about this effort:
This is not some low-quality meme any half-baked corporation would generate in a week tops. This took time, effort, and plenty of deliberation. They brought in industry names that have likely worked on other, top quality products. For all its flaws, there are legitimate traces of solid game design smattered throughout the meme. Chicken nuggets made of solid gold that had to have come from a creative mind.
And yet...Wendy's, like Old Spice, didn't embrace the gaming community with its launch. The credits only mentioned illustrators (Alex Lopez) and cartographers (Collin Fogel), not authors. It took Daniel D. Fox (of Zweihander fame) to explain who created it:
Here’s the skinny on #FeastOfLegends: it was marketed by @VMLYR, the agency I worked for before leaving to @AndrewsMcMeel to make #ZweihanderRPG full time. It was designed by @smugkeck, @tonymarin & several talented co-workers:
Also of note is that although the game is clearly inspired by D&D 5E, it doesn't use the Open Game License.

Was it successful? Yes -- almost too successful in fact. Feast of Legends didn't feel like a fun launch, it felt like a corporate behemoth throwing its weight around to produce a high-quality game...without crediting authors or leveraging the open game license to do so. The game's launch coincided with a play through on Critical Role:
It’s understandable if you’re unsure if this was real news or some kind of satire about the pervasive nature of advertising in everything we do. But it was all part of a partnership with Critical Role, which led to last week’s episode: a one-shot session, sponsored by Wendy’s, featuring the cast of the show, DM’d by Sam Riegel, Critical Role’s director of marketing (and an emmy winning director), who donned the traditional garb of a Wendy’s worker to run a product-placement session.
The response on the Internet was vociferous:
In the ensuing days the discussion that the Wendy’s RPG created in the community helped to illustrate how the conversation has shifted. Many fans were upset about what Wendy’s represents–they have come under fire in recent years for not treating their farm workers fairly, among other things, and this goes against the ethos that the Critical Role community espouses.
The backlash led to Critical Role donating their profits:
We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: Farmworker Justice | Empowering farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions since 1981 <3
Notably, there wasn't a peep from Wendy's on the subject.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We're at an inflection point in tabletop geekdom. The barrier to entry to create a tabletop game is low enough that a brand can, using significant marketing muscle, make a slick role-playing game and get it seen by thousands with the right sponsorships. But even as the tabletop community continues to become more diverse, the gaming community has strong enough opinions that doing so carries its own risk -- and large companies can't avoid bringing their baggage with them wherever they go.

It seems Wendy's got the buzz it wanted, but at no small social cost. Vin Diesel and even Old Spice knew (or quickly learned) the unspoken rules of our gaming community. Wendy's didn't, and by all accounts isn't going to apologize or otherwise alter its product. Wendy's literally created its own rules and expected us to play by them.

This is not the first time tabletop games have been part of a marketing effort, and it will certainly not be the last. The question is how much advertising the gaming community is willing to tolerate as the games get slicker and our streaming channels get more popular.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
I thought videogames would kill tabletop games, but I see I was wrong. Why? Maybe because TT players want in the board something they didn't find in the videoconsoles, like freedom for house rules, strategy or human contact. Also I guess Lord of the Ring movies, World of Warcraft and other titles helped D&D to get out of anonymity.

And TTRPGs are the perfect tool for fans who love to create their own amateur fan-art work, and players who don't want only to killing monsters to leveling up or to follow a preset script but with the option to write a new story where nobody knows what is going to happen.

---

Here in Spain D&D is still almost unknown for the no-geeks. It was only a 80s children cartoon. It is like trying to explain to a no-Spanish how was "el imperio cobra" (= the cobra empire) 80's board game by Cefa.
 

seankreynolds

Explorer
This game (and Vin Diesel's movie debut, The Last Witchhunter) resulted in Mercer creating a witch hunter class for Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Please clarify what you mean by The Last Witch Hunter being his "movie debut."
Vin Diesel has been a bunch of movies predating The Last Witch Hunter, which was released in 2015. Even back when I was working on 3E books at Wizards of the Coast in 2001, there were news stories about him being a gamer. And by then he was already known for Pitch Black (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001).
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Please clarify what you mean by The Last Witch Hunter being his "movie debut."
Vin Diesel has been a bunch of movies predating The Last Witch Hunter, which was released in 2015. Even back when I was working on 3E books at Wizards of the Coast in 2001, there were news stories about him being a gamer. And by then he was already known for Pitch Black (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001).
And legend says his Pitch Black character was inspired by a drow he played.
 

Undrave

Adventurer
I'm still waiting for Hasbro to try and sell us some of the 80s 'Hasbro-verse' properties as RPGs...

Where's Transformers? GI Joe? MASK? All the other properties they got from Kenner and Tonka like Centurions, Gobots and Steel Monsters?

Visionaries would make an awesome product! Inhumanoids too!
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
The game's launch coincided with a play through on Critical Role:

The response on the Internet was vociferous:
In the ensuing days the discussion that the Wendy’s RPG created in the community helped to illustrate how the conversation has shifted. Many fans were upset about what Wendy’s represents–they have come under fire in recent years for not treating their farm workers fairly, among other things, and this goes against the ethos that the Critical Role community espouses.

The backlash led to Critical Role donating their profits:
We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: Farmworker Justice | Empowering farmworkers to improve their living and working conditions since 1981 <3
The Critical Role community has an ethos? Or just some members who Tweet a lot? I know one thing about the Critical Role community - it supports D&D. Which is owned by Hasbro. I'd like to see how Hasbro's corporate responsibility stands up to that of Wendy's.

Also, there's a difference between profits and revenues.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
I'm still waiting for Hasbro to try and sell us some of the 80s 'Hasbro-verse' properties as RPGs...

Where's Transformers? GI Joe? MASK? All the other properties they got from Kenner and Tonka like Centurions, Gobots and Steel Monsters?

Visionaries would make an awesome product! Inhumanoids too!
I want them to buy matel so we can get a
Masters of the universe rpg
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The question is how much advertising the gaming community is willing to tolerate as the games get slicker and our streaming channels get more popular.
I know I'm old, a trad gamer that does things like play face to face and go to cons like GenCon; watching streams is on the misery index of having a tooth pulled with rusty pliers. There is a ton of adverts in indy for gencon, they love the scene, and the cons themselves with stars like Satine Phoenix are cool, whatever people like is fine by me. The tolerance level has not been met though, some parts might be saturated, but there are areas yet unfilled.
 

Undrave

Adventurer
-snip a great article for space-
My post above reminds me: would the Power Rangers Hyper Force RPG count as this? I mean, the characters created for the specific game HAVE appeared in other media. I know Hyper Force yellow is in that one mobile game and in the board game too! They're enduring.
 

Paragon Lost

Explorer
Please clarify what you mean by The Last Witch Hunter being his "movie debut."
Vin Diesel has been a bunch of movies predating The Last Witch Hunter, which was released in 2015. Even back when I was working on 3E books at Wizards of the Coast in 2001, there were news stories about him being a gamer. And by then he was already known for Pitch Black (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001).
Yup, that section confused me as well. I was thinking, what about Pitch Black, The Fast and the Furious, hell what about Saving Private Ryan and Knockaround Guys?
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
The Critical Role community has an ethos? Or just some members who Tweet a lot? I know one thing about the Critical Role community - it supports D&D. Which is owned by Hasbro. I'd like to see how Hasbro's corporate responsibility stands up to that of Wendy's.
So, it's common to say, "Why should you care about this problem, when there's this other problem you can care about?"

But that's kind of an obnoxious way to look at life; the perfect is the enemy of the good, and just because you can't possibly care about all that is wrong in the world doesn't mean you can't about something.

Wendy's has been under fire for very specific reasons; if you are unfamiliar, Google is your friend. It's part of a specific issue that can impact numerous lives and that is familiar to many people (especially many people in the core critical role demographic). Changing Wendy's behavior in this area won't make the world utopia, but it can make a beneficial impact.

And this is important because we are often told that people can "influence" corporations with their choices in purchases; yet, when people attempt to meaningfully do this, they get pushback (don't you know that it's stupid to do so? isn't it hypocritical to do anything when you are a part of the modern world???).

If you like your Wendy's, that's great. But it is unsurprising that Critical Role received a little pushback on this. We may no longer have approbation on "selling out" but you still have to be choosy which corporate partners you invite to dance with you.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
Please clarify what you mean by The Last Witch Hunter being his "movie debut."
Vin Diesel has been a bunch of movies predating The Last Witch Hunter, which was released in 2015. Even back when I was working on 3E books at Wizards of the Coast in 2001, there were news stories about him being a gamer. And by then he was already known for Pitch Black (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001).
Yup, that section confused me as well. I was thinking, what about Pitch Black, The Fast and the Furious, hell what about Saving Private Ryan and Knockaround Guys?
The sentence is correct if a bit confusing since it can be interpreted another way; it was the debut of Vin Diesel's movie The Last Witch Hunter.

Isn't English fun!
 

Bardic Dave

Explorer
The sentence is correct if a bit confusing since it can be interpreted another way; it was the debut of Vin Diesel's movie The Last Witch Hunter.

Isn't English fun!
That interpretation is a real stretch, given the syntax of the sentence and the normal meaning of the term "movie debut" when it's used with reference to a specific person. For instance, the first screening of "Titanic" would never be referred to as "James Cameron's movie debut". Instead, you might see something like "The debut of Titanic" or even "Titanic's debut". You'd have to really stretch the generally accepted meaning of "movie debut" to read it the way you're suggesting.

If you wanted to modify the sentence to be more in line with what you're suggesting, you could write it as "Vin Diesel's movie's debut" (adding one more apostrophe), which would still be pretty awkward, but at least the syntax would be in line with the intended meaning.

And yes, English is fun!
 
Last edited:

Sunsword

Explorer
If you like your Wendy's, that's great. But it is unsurprising that Critical Role received a little pushback on this. We may no longer have approbation on "selling out" but you still have to be choosy which corporate partners you invite to dance with you.
And from my POV it is unsurprising because no matter what occurs someone on the internet seems to gain a thrill from attacking everything.

A national food chain wanted to support possibly the leading marketer for D&D and do something fun. Wendy's Twitter account, for instance, has been well known for it's clever social media. Critical Role shouldn't be so choosy, they are committed to expanding the hobby and are champions of inclusion. IMO, those who came out against this issue were gatekeeping.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Please clarify what you mean by The Last Witch Hunter being his "movie debut."
Vin Diesel has been a bunch of movies predating The Last Witch Hunter, which was released in 2015. Even back when I was working on 3E books at Wizards of the Coast in 2001, there were news stories about him being a gamer. And by then he was already known for Pitch Black (2000) and The Fast and the Furious (2001).
That was a typo, I meant the debut of his D&D character in a movie. Vin Diesel definitely made plenty of movies before that, to your point -- but had talked about his witch hunter character at length before finally bring him to the screen.

Thanks for the catch, I've updated the reference to clarify!
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
And from my POV it is unsurprising because no matter what occurs someone on the internet seems to gain a thrill from attacking everything.
Attacking everything?

There is a very well-known boycott of Wendy's. That's hardly "attacking everything."

A national food chain wanted to support possibly the leading marketer for D&D and do something fun. Wendy's Twitter account, for instance, has been well known for it's clever social media. Critical Role shouldn't be so choosy, they are committed to expanding the hobby and are champions of inclusion. IMO, those who came out against this issue were gatekeeping.
I'm not sure what you are going on about? Do you even know? Since I don't want to derail the thread, I really suggest googling it.

I'm sorry if you think that having a "clever social media account" means that people aren't allowed to criticize. Others feel differently.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
GI Joe would make a good modern setting to be based on d&d Ruleset. Maybe rework the class and replace the wizard and magic with a high tech Gadgeteer. Although there was some magic in the cartoon here and there.
 

In Our Store!

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top