The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Despite the alarmists warning that things like ascending armor classes, women, or fourth edition would ruin Dungeons & Dragons, the game has only faced one serious threat. Ascending ACs are just easier, woman have been improving the game at least since Lee Gold, and fourth edition once seemed like exactly the savior D&D needed. The real threat to D&D came from the way the game combined cheap entertainment with a valuable brand.

For a sample of D&D’s potential demise, witness the fate of another successful role-playing game: Vampire: The Masquerade. In the 90s, the popularity of Vampire seemed ready to eclipse D&D.

On its introduction by White Wolf Publishing in 1991, Vampire surged in popularity, attracting a new generation of players and more women. The game spawned a franchise of World of Darkness games.

But once the player community peaked, White Wolf saw its income slow until books barely broke even.

The low cost of role playing makes selling RPGs a tough business. Players can only spend so much time at the game table, and a few purchases will fill all those hours. Even if a game master buys an adventure to run, five other people get hours of fun from the purchase. And those hours come from a slim packet of pages. A hardcover adventure will sustain a campaign for a year. A few bucks spent on dice and maybe on a core book can sustain a player for years. Role-playing gaming rates as the cheapest entertainment around. See How the End of Lonely Fun Leads to Today’s Trickle of D&D Books.

By 1998, White Wolf was canceling games in the World of Darkness franchise. The company rode the d20 boom with D&D-related supplements, but that boon went bust too.

In 2006, CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind EVE Online, acquired White Wolf just to gain rights for a potential online game. White Wolf’s tabletop publishing schedule slowed a few PDF and print-on-demand products. When CCP’s plans for an MMO fizzled, White Wolf sold to another computer game company, Paradox Interactive. Now, the White Wolf web site calls the outfit a licensing company. In an interview, Martin Elricsson, the company’s Brand Architect explained the publisher’s status. “The economic center of the company will be computer games. As things are now, tabletop publishing hardly breaks even.”

Vampire: The Masquerade now rates as an entry in an IP portfolio, a brand to license or to apply to an online game. Paradox Interactive stands as the accidental owner of a tabletop RPG. If they bother to publish it, the action will hardly affect the corporate bottom line and stockholders will call tabletop a distraction.

At two points in D&D’s history, D&D could easily have met a similar fate.

The first threat came in 1997, when TSR neared bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast, a company run by Peter Adkison, a D&D fan with big dreams for the game. A few years earlier, Adkison had asked designer Richard Garfield for a portable game suitable for passing time in a convention line. Garfield’s game, Magic the Gathering, captured lightning in the bottle, landing Wizards enough cash to buy TSR. Without this happenstance, TSRs assets could have been picked over and sold piecemeal to companies looking for intellectual property for computer games and movie licenses.

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

When Hasbro acquired WotC, they brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic and Pokémon. If D&D failed to meet those expectations, imagine a D&D product line like the one today—but without any tabletop products—just an assortment of licensed video games, a D&D-themed Monopoly game, some t-shirts, and a movie a few years out. Maybe they would license the tabletop game to third party, where, like other high-profile licenses, a barely break-even business could struggle under oppressive license fees and stifling brand oversight. For a Hasbro executive cutting such a tabletop license, the deal offers little upside. A modest success barely registers; a runaway success embarrasses the exec who let a valuable asset leave the company.

In 2000, D&D proved a temporary asset to Hasbro. The new, third edition sparked a boom in sales, mainly by inspiring the same players who found the game in the 80s.

By 2005, D&D settled into a familiar pattern for a mature edition. After a big debut, players embrace character options, creatures, and adventures. Game companies have employees to pay, and only a steady income keeps the lights on, so they publish to meet demand. Before long, even the most passionate customers own more supplements than they can play. Players stop adding to the unused volumes already on their shelves. Meanwhile, the wealth of volumes on game store shelves overwhelms and scares away newcomers. Potential new customers wonder if they need to fill a bookshelf to play. Is the Player’s Handbook 2 required or is it an updated version of the original book?

The D&D team started enduring annual, Christmas-season layoffs as management expected slowing sales in each coming fiscal year.

Hasbro’s experience in the toy business made them familiar with such booms and busts. Except for a few core toy lines, they would roll out a toy like G.I. Joe, ride a surge in sales, and then sideline the toy for 15 or so years until a new generation of children seemed ready for it. Perhaps Hasbro execs wondered if a similar strategy suited D&D. Instead of losing money between generational releases, why not just retire the tabletop product during those 15-year lulls?

Peter Adkison had left Wizards, so no guardian angel would save the game this time.

For D&D to qualify as a core game brand, the game needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for profit. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

As sales withered, the D&D team searched a way to save the tabletop game they loved. By 2008, they thought they found a way.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

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9 Responses to The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

  1. rooneg says:

    Umm, “If they bother to publish it” seems a bit harsh, the new White Wolf is literally taking preorders right now for a new version of the tabletop Vampire: The Masquerade game that’s supposed to release in August. No argument that the economics are not what they once were, but they’re showing every intention of actually shipping a line of tabletop rpg books on top of whatever they end up doing with video games, etc.

  2. Wasn’t the lackluster release of Vampire: the Requiem and the new World of Darkness what ended up killing White Wolf?
    Sales dropped in the late ’90s and, like with 4th Edition D&D, the game was relaunched with all new lore and mechanics and the players just shrugged and kept playing with the vast libraries they already owned.

    • White Wolf now do online PDF or print to order through Onyx Path Publishing, available on Drive-Thru-RPG.com. The 20th editions were all part of Kickstarter projects that received way more funding than expected allowing them to give more content and a better product. The rules are better, clearer and the free interactive character sheets are super handy.

      What “killed” White Wolf wasn’t a marketing choice it was probably more related to only needing a single book. The new dnd has new adventure books and content books that are completely optional and not always great in quality but their audience feels the books are necessary to have all the material to run a good campaign. They start at 60 and always advertise them for 20 bucks off to convince you to buy and it works.

  3. Kyraeus says:

    Also funny because in the current day the popularity of the game has never matched what it is, now that it’s transitioned to live podcasts, twitch streaming, and several movies (the gamers series, among others) and caught on to current trends in popular media entertainment.

    Basically this just outlines the path that most tiny startups with an insanely popular ‘cult’ product have to contend with moving into mainstream culture over thirty or so years.

  4. Marty says:

    Good article except the part about Hasbro. You appear to be speculating that Hasbro considered treating D&D like its toy lines, but you don’t source those thoughts. Is this inside information or just speculation?

    I’m pretty sure Hasbro knew it couldn’t treat D&D like a Transformers or G.I. Joe. while also realizing the value of the brand beyond tabletop. I think they were also paying close attention to what was about to hit theaters (i.e. – LotR and the unfortunate D&D movie).

    • ROBERT HRADEK says:

      @Marty, I think Monte Cook at one time went over how Hasbro viewed D&D, which generally jibes with what this article states.

    • David Hartlage says:

      The D&D team knew about the toy strategy. Did anyone think Hasbro would adopt the exact strategy for D&D? Surely not, but something similar could easily shape an approach for D&D. Hasbro’s top decision makers probably brought zero understanding of D&D, so no one knew how they would go. Another option would put D&D with the vast catalog of other games from acquisitions like Avalon Hill and TSR that never see print because they don’t merit the publishing or marketing costs.

      • Marty says:

        I suppose luckily for us, they let WotC take the lead on how to treat D&D. I’m honestly more surprised the OGL/d20 SRD project got out the door before Hasbro put the kibosh on it. It’s also lucky for us that the designers at the time understood what the open source model might do for TTRPGs.

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