The Game VS the Brand

A particular issue has invaded my thoughts over the last year. That issue is the direction that the Wizards of the Coast is taking the Dungeons and Dragons brand.

I’m reluctant to write about it. I make an effort to avoid the controversy of the week as it overflows its banks, flooding the internet with stinky thinking.

I don’t need the distraction. I’m very good at distracting myself from my work without any help.

What is Dungeons and Dragons for?

For me, D&D the game is about creating fantastic worlds, imagining deeds worthy of song and legend, and experiencing memorable moments with my friends. The words in the books, the maps, the character sheets, the play at the table… That’s Dungeons and Dragons the game.

As far as WotC, Hasbro and its investors are concerned, they have a different answer to the question “What is D&D the game for?” To make money and increase the value of the D&D brand. This is their highest priority.

When it comes to large corporations, I am cynical. I am of the opinion that the ultimate decision makers at WotC don’t care about anything that does not have a direct impact on their stock options and bonuses.

The management of Wizards of the Coast doesn’t care about Dungeons and Dragons the game. Not the way you and I do. We care about it because playing the game with our friends makes us feel a certain way. WotC doesn’t care about that, as long as you buy their products.

What they do care about the how much money they can make from Dungeons and Dragons the brand.

When it comes to D&D, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast is only concerned with the value of the brand and how it contributes to their profit.

Can they turn it into multiple streams of revenue? Films? Streaming shows? Merch? Cook books?

Let’s not let TSR off the hook either. TSR made plenty of garbage purely for profit back in the old days. The difference is that TSR understood what their brand was and what is wasn’t.

What is a brand?

I think the best explanation of “brand” I’ve ever read is from Marty Neumeier in his book The Brand Gap.

A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company. It’s a GUT FEELING because we’re all emotional, intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. It’s a person’s gut feeling, because in the end the brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public. Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can’t control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make this product different than that product. When enough individuals arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand. In other words, a brand is not what you say it is. It’s what THEY say it is.

Marty Neumeier -The Brand Gap

I’m going to make a few assumptions about the marketing team at Wizards of the Coast.

  1. They are educated and experienced professionals.
  2. They have access to massive quantities of market data and the tools to analyze it.
  3. They have analyzed the market data and identified a demographic that will spend the most money on Dungeons & Dragons products.
  4. They have analyzed the market data and determined what the target demographic likes, wants, needs, fears, and loves.
  5. They have constructed ideal customer avatars/personas.

Ignore what they say. Watch what they do.

In the last few years, I haven’t commented much about Wizards of the Coast recent product releases, how they market those products, the play styles and culture they encourage through their online activities and Adventure League programs. I haven’t written about it very much but I did pay attention.

I’ve considered what I have seen and heard and come to a bottom line analysis.

Wizards of the Coast does not view me as one of their ideal customers.

If anything, they want me to go away.

I’m not the only one thinking this way. I’ve seen others come to this conclusion and openly state that they are done with WotC and the D&D brand. They are going to play OSR games and whatever WotC wants to do with the brand and the game is no longer any concern of theirs.

One blogger that I consider to be a very even keel kind of guy and not prone to fits of hyperbole or extreme positions about gaming said he felt WotC was mocking 80’s gamers by the inclusion of Thaco the Clown in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight.

Copyright Wizards of the Coast posted here for fair use purposes no infringement is intended.

I’m not going to enumerate each little thing WotC has done or the sort of culture its marketing team and community managers seem to be encouraging. You can go look at their Twitter feeds, YouTube channel, and the WotC website to see it for yourself.

When I see signals like this from the people who publish the game; I can’t help but conclude that they don’t want my money anymore.

I guess I can’t blame them. They are going to do whatever they think will appeal to the people who will spend the most money. My tribe, the old school crowd, is tiny compared to the new market WotC lucked into as a result of the new people that Critical Role brought to the brand.

I don’t think anyone anticipated that, I know I didn’t.

I wanted to like 5E. I really did.

When 5E first came out, there were a lot of OSR bloggers saying that 5E was the bridge between the new and the old. It had enough 1E in it that you could play it in a style that old schoolers could enjoy. A lot of OSR bloggers and podcasters gave it an honest attempt. They bought the books, ran campaigns, played in campaigns with their kids and friends.

The consensus after that series of experiments seemed to be that you could play the game in an old school style but there some optional rules you had to use, drop the death saves and so forth. There are a plethora of blog posts out there about this.

I bought the core books and the starter set. I read them and thought, “It’s OK, maybe someday I’ll run a game.” Given that my Swords & Wizardry games were going well, it just wasn’t something that I had a lot of desire to do. I followed the releases, read the reviews and was not excited about what I was reading.

I bought the Descent into Avernus campaign book when I saw that Justin Alexander was doing a rework of it on his blog. I thought maybe I could use his work to make it worth my time. Seeing just how much of an effort that was going to take, I passed.

As the releases have progressed, as I have watched and listened to the culture around 5E grow; I now have very little interest. If my delightful teenager didn’t play 5E, I’d have no interest at all.

The gut feeling I have about the brand.

My gut feeling about D&D the brand, as it used to be is: Wonder, adventure, mystery, danger, exhilaration, secret knowledge. I might go so far as to use the word “awe.”

In the last year my gut feeling about D&D the brand as it is today? Twee, vapid, banal

I think they are making a mistake with their current branding moves. It is quite possible, that the current state of things is a fad. At some point, something else will appeal to the current crop of D&D players and the neophiliacs will go onto whatever the next cool thing is. VR, metaverse or whatever. Unless Hasbro can take D&D into that thing, whatever it ends up being, all this is going to do is piss off the base of people who have supported and made D&D what it is today.

5E would not be what is without the OSR .

As much as it pisses some people off, the Old School Renaissance had a huge influence on the design of 5th Edition.

Zak S. and RPG Pundit were consultants for Fifth Edition. Despite the drama they create wherever they appear; They have very deep insights into D&D, why it works, how it works, and how to get the most out of it. I believe they gave Mearls sage advice, as much you might dislike that fact.

Mike Mearls ran an Original D&D game for the 5E design group and there is video of Mearls running some of the original Slave Lords adventures using 5E when it was still being called “Next.” Mearls knows what the original D&D experience is. He’s been shuffled off into the background.

It would be grossly incorrect to say it was all the OSR’s doing that 5E is a solid game mechanically. That would be taking away from Mearls and his team. I think, given their constraints and the expectations of their corporate masters; they did a good job of creating a product that would do well in the market while still capturing the feeling of D&D.

Since Mearls was removed and others are now at the wheel, that gut feeling that defines the brand has changed.

Dungeons & Dragons the brand does not seem to want us old timers any more. It has gotten what it needed from us and now it has moved on.

WotC isn’t interested in having us any more. That’s their choice. That’s fine. I can still play Dungeons and Dragons the game. Whatever they are doing with the brand isn’t going to change what I do or how I play.

It was nice to be included for a while but now we’re not.

For me, it’s the end of a long relationship with a brand that I dearly loved when I first experienced it with a Saturday morning cartoon.

19 thoughts on “The Game VS the Brand

    1. Pretty much how I feel, I have no problems with the 5E system but I find myself less and less interested in the brand with each release that comes out and—as you said—I’m clearly not the target audience. Still, it’s no great stress to me, there’s more than enough OSR stuff out there to keep me in games for many years.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Brian Rideout

    I just ranted about this topic with Aaron the Pedantic on Gonzo Up Your A$$ this week: we don’t need “Dungeons & Dragons™” because we have a hundred amazing games built on its better days.

    When we let go of the brand and stop worrying about the rest of the hobby is doing we will be better off… And they certainly don’t seem to think they need us .

    All the attention we pay to “D&D™” rather than the games is syphoning energy that we could be spending on doing what the OSR really does best: create weird, wonderful exciting content and sharing it with a community that appreciates it.

    When OSR guys spend energy on playing the game or creating it they often come up with triumphs of the Imagination.

    The more we let corporate ghouls bother us, the more we just pour poison in the wellspring. Not worth our time. Same goes for pearl-clutching faux gamers.

    When the fad vanishes and all the D&D™ trendsetters have moved on to Elder Scrolls VI, VR, and open MMOWs, we will be the strongest version of the hobby standing,… Especially if we just stop wasting our time and energy.

    And I guarantee that the vibrancy of the OSR can draw plenty of new players. More if we just stop being engaged in that which aggravates us and gets us shouting like lunatics on social media.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I haven’t gotten all the way through the video yet but I agree. This post was, more or less, a long winded way of me saying I am done engaging in discussion about 5E and it’s publisher. I don’t see the point in it anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This reflects my own view pretty well. I think the culture around 5E really started to shift when the controversy around Zak S resulted in the purging of the consultant list from the PHB. Mearls was also a casualty of that controversy. Since then D&D has been more akin to something like Second Life, an obsession with identity and impersonation. It is now tabletop LARPing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you here (and nice blog, btw.). Back when Middle Earth Roleplaying came out from ICE, I sidestepped into that, MUDs, and eventually wound up in Harn and Elric for a long time with 2 dedicated friends. We thereafter discovered White Wolf’s Vampire. The thing Vampire demonstrated something we were already realizing in every homegrown Harn session: story is more important than system. I returned to D&D sometime around 3.5, didn’t really like it after all that freedom, and defected to GURPS, where we all stayed for years. No matter what it says, a game company has to emphasize system if it wants to keep selling that system and its accessories. The wonderful DIY feeling of early D&D has been gone now for a long time. Once we got a taste of freedom and more room to tell good stories, it was hard to to fit ourselves back into the highly curated boxes WotC made to snag millennials / Zs. So I think “Twee” is the right word to use for 5e and its marketing superstructure. It seems the so-called old-school, wargame danger and 1970s occult pulp-fantasy themes which helped creat that sense of awe have been replaced by a video game sandbox mentality—i.e. don’t worry about anything that happens because this is a theme park and nothing that takes place here matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. (re-submitted without typos)
    I agree with you here (and nice blog, btw.). Back when Middle Earth Roleplaying came out from ICE, I sidestepped into that, MUDs, and eventually wound up in Harn and Elric for a long time with 2 dedicated friends. We thereafter discovered White Wolf’s Vampire. Vampire demonstrated something we were already realizing in every homegrown Harn session: story is more important than system. I returned to D&D sometime around 3.5, didn’t really like it after all that freedom, and defected to GURPS, where we all stayed for years. No matter what it says, a game company has to emphasize system if it wants to keep selling that system and its accessories. The wonderful DIY feeling of early D&D has been gone now for a long time. Once we got a taste of freedom and more room to tell good stories, it was hard to fit ourselves back into the highly curated boxes WotC made to snag millennials / Zs. So I think “Twee” is the right word to use for 5e and its marketing superstructure. It seems the so-called old-school, wargame danger and 1970s occult pulp-fantasy themes which helped create that sense of awe have been replaced by a video game sandbox mentality—i.e. don’t worry about anything that happens because this is a theme park and nothing that takes place here matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. anaris

    As an old school gamer who dislikes 5e, I still have no idea what your issue with it is – you forgot to say. And thac0 was an absolute joke of a mechanic, and definitely is for clowns.

    Like

  6. Vince Snetterton

    To witness the echo chamber of the twitteratzi and woke, and the damage they are doing to the game, go no further than the EN World and D&D Beyond forums. They form an incredible echo chamber for the woke. I know of many posters banned from those sites because they voiced opposition to the direction WOTC is driving D&D.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What irks me a lot is seeing people using D&D as a synonym of RPG, even some people who definitely know better (to boost visibility?).

    When I started playing in the early ’90s, for my circle of friends D&D was just one of the available RPGs. Right from the beginning, we were playing many others: CoC, WFRP, MERP, Cyberpunk, some I don’t even remember the name of, as well as RPG-adjacent boardgames.

    In retrospect, I never really cared much for D&D. I bought the BE part of BECMI, played some 2e, never liked 3e. Coming back after a long hiatus, I found hundreds of vastly more interesting games, branching in all sorts of directions: OSR, PbtA, storygames, FKR, GM-less, ….

    D&D the brand made and will make their own decisions. Whatever. There’s so much more than them in the hobby. They obviously have the vast majority of players and visibility, but in terms of what’s available to play, D&D is just a drop in an ocean of creativity, and we can swim wherever we like.

    As an aside, as someone who works with marketing people and brand managers on a regular basis, I’m not sure how safely we can take the assumption #1 for granted. Over the course of the last several years, I’ve seen their professional education and competence plummet.

    That said, I don’t think that from a business point of view D&D the brand is making bad decisions. After all, their job is to make profit. They made it into the mainstream, and now they are flowing with it. The old fans lost are just a tiny collateral damage in comparison.

    One last thought: some people lament the fact that D&D is leaning into themes of identity, inclusivity, etc.. Regardless of ANY personal opinion on the matter, it’s a fact that the mainstream culture is moving that way. D&D is mainstream now, they have a great power but also a great responsibility over the relationship between RPGs and the mainstream culture. They have two choices, really: move with the flow, or resist. The cost of resisting here could be a sort of “nazi panic” (remember the “satanic panic”?), which could affect the entire RPG hobby. I wouldn’t want any of that shit (and being myself quite heavily left-leaning, I would find it especially awkward). If you think that I’m exaggerating, well, I really hope so!, but just the other day I’ve seen a blog review of a game labelling it as “OSR-yet-not-fucking-nazi” (I criticized that in a comment, by the way, but they didn’t publish it).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Daniel

    People thought Thaco the clown was mocking 80s gamers? Hahahahahahahaha that is hilarious! I am an 80s gamer and that character cracked me up. I imagine him sitting around and bitterly clinging to an outdated system, that was never good to begin with, complaining about the kids today, who don’t know how to do fun right, ruining the game.

    Ah. I see it now. Oops. I’ll see myself out.

    Like

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  11. I agree with You, Travis, and seeing your Twitter and also blog, I think this must have really irritated you something fierce – otherwise, you would not have put pen to paper to engage.

    I was absent from the roleplaying scene for about a decade and rejoined shortly after 5e started. I DMd, I played, and I run 2 long campaigns spanning a couple of years and one shorter one (15 sessions), which was Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. I still play in a friend’s campaign, but once that is over, I won’t DM or play 5e again.

    The world would be a better place if I had never known about WotC at all. Ignorance is bliss, right? Sometimes, in my weak moments, I wish I knew absolutely nothing about Wizards. 5e is nowhere near perfect, but my main aim with RPGs was playing with friends, creating things; letting out my creative bursts. However, how I feel about WotC as a company tainted how I see 5E as a system. I cannot detach now these two in my head anymore, try as I might – these two things fused together.

    I turned to OSR and will probably stay here, facing the past and sometimes looking to the side, when good things creep forward from the 70s and 80s to our present that I can once again enjoy (OSRIC and S&W stuff delight me the most).

    Liked by 1 person

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