When you hear the words Dungeons & Dragons, you may think of hit TV shows like “Stranger Things” or “The Big Bang Theory.” Maybe you played yourself as a kid, or play now as an adult. Or maybe you’ve never played, but listen or watch one of the hundreds of D&D podcasts or live streams featuring both celebrities and everyday players.
The fantasy role-playing game was co-created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, and based loosely on a form of miniature wargaming that had become more popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Knowing he had a hit on his hands, Gygax took the idea for Dragons to Avalon Hill, the largest publisher of wargames and strategic board games at the time. But the company wasn’t interested, not being able to understand a game that had no winners or losers. So Gygax instead formed a company called Tactical Studies Rules to self-publish the game in 1974.
For years, the game sat somewhere on the fringes of pop culture, but in the late 80′s and early 90′s, the so-called “moral panic” helped fuel conspiracies that linked the game to everything from witchcraft to suicides to Satanism. By the mid-90′s, the controversies had manifested into rising sales of the game and Renton, Washington-based Wizards of the Coast started to take note. As the creators of Magic: The Gathering, the game publisher saw the potential for a cross-over audience and purchased TSR, Inc. in 1997.
Profits grew steadily over the next decade, but in the last five years revenue has nearly doubled.
“We’ve gone from about 480-ish million the first year I joined to last year, we were in the 820 million range is where we ended 2020,” said Chris Cocks, president of Wizards of the Coast.
And growth at Wizards of the Coast has continued into 2021. Operating profit and net revenues each grew 15% from the same quarter last year, with net revenue up more than $30 million dollars.
Cocks has been with the company since 2016 and came to the game publisher after more than a decade at Microsoft. But his introduction to D&D came long before that.
“I’ve been a fan of D&D and playing since I was a tween,” Cocks said.
“I went to my best friend’s house, Hans Schroeder, and his brother Thad introduced me to this really cool new game called Dungeons & Dragons,” he said. “I saw these old lead figures of wizards and fighters and dragons on his shelf. And he took me through my first game. I was able to roll up my first character, and from then on, I was in.”
More story than game
With most games, the first question you’d probably ask is “How do you win?” But that’s not really applicable with Dungeons & Dragons since the game has no real end. When one quest wraps up, another one can start right away. This series of events creates an ongoing story called a “campaign.”
“This is going to be better if we think about this less as a game, like Monopoly say, where we’re each waiting to take our turn, and more as a story that we are all telling to each other,” said Blake Hooper, host and Dungeon Master for the D&D podcast Dice Boyz.
Hooper played only a handful of times as a kid, but it was enough to leave an impression.
“I still remember somebody trying to pull my character up on a rope. We were trying to scale this cliff, and the Dungeon Master had them roll the dice to see if they were able to see if they were strong enough to pull me up,” he said. “And they rolled a natural 20, which is the best thing that you can roll in the game.”
A natural 20, or “nat 20” for those in the know, is the highest roll on a 20-sided dice. Dungeons & Dragons uses various dice rolls to move the story forward and determine if an action succeeds or fails. The Dungeon Master is the game’s lead storyteller and referee, and a player’s dice rolls can determine everything from how charming their character can be to if they are strong enough to win in a confrontation.
D&D wasn’t really on Hooper’s radar again until it came up a few years ago during a monthly board game night with friends. By that point, Hooper was in his 30s and a new rule-set had been introduced for the game. These guidelines for the game cover everything from character customization to methods of play to philosophies of the game.
Past versions of Dungeons & Dragons were more board-game-centric, whereas the Fifth Edition ruleset relies more on the theater of the mind. Wizards of the Coast has also streamlined gameplay and created more opportunities for players to get creative.
Cocks described the Fifth Edition ruleset as “people forward, rules in the back.”
“I think the magic of the Fifth Edition is that the rules have basically been pushed way into the background and all you have to do is come to the table with a willingness to storytell with people and be a little silly,” he said. “And that’s a much smaller speed bump for people.”
From the outside, the game can seem intimidating with 300-page player handbooks, elaborate dice sets, and players who write their own campaigns from scratch (something people in the D&D world call “homebrew”). But you don’t actually need any of that to start a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
“There’s a wide variety of digital tools that effectively make it free for you to roll up a character and start playing,” Cocks said.
And Cocks says the company has tried to make it as easy as possible for people to take up D&D.
“Things like the ‘Essentials Kit’ make it easier to learn how to DM and also easier to play with smaller groups of people, because not everyone can find like four or five people to be able to play with,” he said. “Sometimes you might have a mother and a son who want to play and pick something up. And how do you make that player experience fun, too?”
Released in 2019, the “Essentials Kit’’ has everything a new player would need to start at a price point of around $25. Last year, sales of the kit skyrocketed 300%. Add nostalgia for the game from older Millennials and Gen-Xers now with kids of their own, and a pandemic forcing people away from bars, movie theaters and other outside-the-home activities, and last year was Wizards of the Coast’s best year ever.
Playing the game and watching the game
The growth of Dungeons & Dragons also comes at a time when consumers seem hungrier than ever for content. The explosion of digital platforms, social media and streaming services make for the perfect vehicle for a game that’s less about winning or losing — and more about sharing a story.
Blake Hooper has been playing D&D for the last five years, becoming a dungeon master out of necessity to play with friends who were also newer to the game. But for the last three years, his group has also been recording their campaigns for the Dice Boyz podcast thanks, in part, to a Passion Project Grant from his former employer that went to purchasing recording equipment.
“Not only is [Dungeons & Dragons] a game that people play, it’s also a game that people listen to people playing, and it’s a game that people watch people playing,” Hooper said.
And just as in competitive eSports, podcasts and streaming can hold a major cachet when the people playing are celebrities, something Wizards of the Coast tapped into for their annual charity event called D & D LIVE.
This year, the company partnered with…
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