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.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments

Undrave

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.
Classes could be replaced by specializations, since all the Joe's had their own specialties.

And since red and blue laser never hit anyone the abstract rules of HP work well for it :p
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Classes could be replaced by specializations, since all the Joe's had their own specialties.

And since red and blue laser never hit anyone the abstract rules of HP work well for it :p
True, but I recall the comics actually killing COBRA goons.

I've always though that D20 Modern was a good chasis for GI Joe. Destro has levels of Charismatic Hero, Snake Eyes obviously has Fast Hero levels, and Roadblock has levels in Strong Hero.
 
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Von Ether

Explorer
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.
That's why the big video game companies tried real hard to get such games, called Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) back in the day to drop the "C" from the CRPGs. Fans were constantly reminding them that the game back then were more like combat dungeon simulators.

But eventually they, and lazy video game journalists, did drop the "C" to the the point that on the Internet many assume that RPG means (Computer)RPG.

So, ironically, we now add the "TT*" so people know we are talking about the original hobby that started it all but I'm all for dropping that and putting the C back where it belongs, thankyouverymuch.

* When did that TT thing even start?! I only found about it last year. And how do we kill it?
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
That's why the big video game companies tried real hard to get such games, called Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) back in the day to drop the "C" from the CRPGs. Fans were constantly reminding them that the game back then were more like combat dungeon simulators.

But eventually they, and lazy video game journalists, did drop the "C" to the the point that on the Internet many assume that RPG means (Computer)RPG.

So, ironically, we now add the "TT*" so people know we are talking about the original hobby that started it all but I'm all for dropping that and putting the C back where it belongs, thankyouverymuch.

* When did that TT thing even start?! I only found about it last year. And how do we kill it?
That really ticks me off too.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
There is also the frustration of a corporation coming in and throwing around money that it considers chump change to make a beautiful product that it will forget about next year.

Meanwhile sincere creatives can't rub together two nickels together for an art and editing budget.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
If there is a G.I.Joe d20 somebody will want the Cobra-la alien empire as antagonists (at least because to use fantasy villains are more politically correct than creating enemies inspired in terrorist groups from the real life).



, or a campaign set in the "parallel universe" where Cobra is the dictatorship who rule all and G.I.Joe are the resistance against this dystopian regime. This could be a videogame as Homefront: Revolution or the reboot of Wolfenstein.



We can use the d20 system for sci-fi or other genres, not only for sword & sorcery, but the d20 is not ready for true crossovers with different genres, magic vs technology. Let's imagine the island of Jakandor with two "primitive" civilizations, and then the two alien races, the raels and the overseers from "Odyssey: tale of the comet" and with the "gadgets" of d20 Future arrive on the island. You could notice the level of power would be broken. The natives couldn't survive the attacks by the hostile overseers without the help by the raels.
 

Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
Use of "virtue signalling" to dismiss folks is not acceptable.
All the brouhaha over Wendy's sponsorship of a CR session proved is this simple fact: Twitter is cancer.

The self-described communicator said this: "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 authors weren't credited because that's how advertising companies operate. Fun launch vs corporate behemoth throwing its weight around? I think anyone who chooses to self-describe as a communicator needs to put a little bit of effort into accurate, honest descriptions and not employ mindless rhetoric which is, at best, virtue signalling (yeah, I had to say it) - it's just pandering to the Twatterati and their ilk.

I look forward to the self-described communicator's description of the next big D&D launch party as a corporate behemoth throwing its weight around. Actually, it's an all-purpose phrase: Perhaps he could just employ it every time he communicates to us about any product produced by more than one person? Of course, as a self-described communicator, we know nothing he will ever do will be described by that phrase....
 

talien

Community Supporter
All the brouhaha over Wendy's sponsorship of a CR session proved is this simple fact: Twitter is cancer.

The self-described communicator said this: "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 authors weren't credited because that's how advertising companies operate. Fun launch vs corporate behemoth throwing its weight around? I think anyone who chooses to self-describe as a communicator needs to put a little bit of effort into accurate, honest descriptions and not employ mindless rhetoric which is, at best, virtue signalling (yeah, I had to say it) - it's just pandering to the Twatterati and their ilk.

I look forward to the self-described communicator's description of the next big D&D launch party as a corporate behemoth throwing its weight around. Actually, it's an all-purpose phrase: Perhaps he could just employ it every time he communicates to us about any product produced by more than one person? Of course, as a self-described communicator, we know nothing he will ever do will be described by that phrase....
You seem to be personally attacking me. Are you okay?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think anyone who chooses to self-describe as a communicator needs to put a little bit of effort into accurate, honest descriptions and not employ mindless rhetoric which is, at best, virtue signalling (yeah, I had to say it)
Mod Note:
No, you didn't "have to say it."

Please go check the section of the Terms and Rules under "Keep it inclusive." What you are doing here is a problem.

Moreover, you are making the argument about the speaker, rather than about the points being made. It is unclear how someone who is busy talking about good communication would expect the passive jabs to go unnoticed.

So, you're done in this thread. Please find a topic that doesn't lead you to such behavior.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Mod Note:

For those who have forgotten, arguing with moderation in-thread is against the site rules. If you have an issue with moderation, please take to PM.

Please, before you respond, folks, review what's considered acceptable. At least then, you'll be making an informed choice to get yourself booted.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There is also the frustration of a corporation coming in and throwing around money that it considers chump change to make a beautiful product that it will forget about next year.

Meanwhile sincere creatives can't rub together two nickels together for an art and editing budget.
There's a bit of a logic failure there - because the corporations paid creative people for their services to make the product. For example, Mr. Lopez seems to be an independent illustrator and artist. He's even done work for Paizo. I am sure he got paid for the gig, just like if he'd been workign for Paizo, and likely more than if he were working for one of those guys who cant' rub to nickels together. It is frustrating that large companies sometimes add money into the ring that will help support such artists?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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.
Itself a pretty pernicious marketing ploy to make people think of the brand as a clever, funny person rather than a soulless megacorporation.

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.
Then you misunderstand the nature of the backlash.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
There is also the frustration of a corporation coming in and throwing around money that it considers chump change to make a beautiful product that it will forget about next year.
Late stage capitalism. It's also a tax write off, so it is paid for by we the taxpayer. Nevermind the food is poison.

Money property assets before lives
Green gestures of a dying planet
An endless debate only too late
An appetite for gluttony
-Killing Joke, "Age of Greed"
 

Undrave

Adventurer
Late stage capitalism. It's also a tax write off, so it is paid for by we the taxpayer. Nevermind the food is poison.

Money property assets before lives
Green gestures of a dying planet
An endless debate only too late
An appetite for gluttony
-Killing Joke, "Age of Greed"
It's a tax write off?? How?
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Late stage capitalism. It's also a tax write off, so it is paid for by we the taxpayer. Nevermind the food is poison.

Money property assets before lives
Green gestures of a dying planet
An endless debate only too late
An appetite for gluttony
-Killing Joke, "Age of Greed"
People lie.

Corporations protect their interests.

It's different.
 

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