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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?


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

Michael Tresca

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in the end though, it has to generate more sales. A 30 second ad is reusable, can run for weeks. FoL was a one shot flash in the pan; it came, it went, it's done. I suppose if the goal was to generate some PR in the rather small TTRPG crowd, it did that. Now we'll see if anyone else tries something similar. I'm not holding my breath though...

General nerd outlets talked about it so I think it had ripples outside our community.


Rotten DM
Hmme. With all the noise Feast created. It was an EVIL CORPORATION THING. Some evil minion (who gamed) funnel some cash to his game designer friends. But to keep his X-mas bonus he made his gamer friends sign NDA's and remove their names from the credits.


So much of this reminds me of that episode of the Good Place where
they learned that no one had gotten into the Good Place in the last 500 years because of how the points system worked — that just the act of buying flowers for your sick mother netted negative points because the entire flower supply chain was not cruelty-free...

in short unless everything you do is carefully researched and you are diligent in following every issue no matter how small, you will tick someone off. Until the issue broke, it was the first I had heard of ANY of this in any news format — and I follow at least four news sources almost daily. It is mind-boggling to me how anyone who is a public persona would navigate that.

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