Dungeons & Dragons Abandons Community as It Pushes to Become Big Name Brand

The recent controversy over the Open Gaming License showcases the internal battle that the caretakers of Dungeons & Dragons seemingly face – the choice between brand and community. On Friday, Wizards of the Coast announced updates to its plans to roll out a new Open Gaming License, which provides the legal framework for third-party creators and publishers to make game material compatible with Dungeons & Dragons. Notably, Wizards of the Coast announced that the new OGL (which has yet to be posted for public viewing) would not contain a royalty structure nor would it contain "license back" language that granted Wizards a royalty-free license for anything published under the new OGL. These promised changes were the result of an effective grassroots campaign organized by members of both dedicated Dungeons & Dragons fans and the wider TTRPG changes to challenge what many perceived as gross corporate overreach and a betrayal of promises made by Wizards over 20 years ago and upheld until the recent controversy. 

The ongoing OGL controversy is just the latest sign of a recent shift of how Wizards of the Coast treats Dungeons & Dragons and the community that surrounds it. While Wizards had up until recently worked to build the D&D community, the company has taken steps in the past year to grow the Dungeons & Dragons brand in part by minimizing its focus on that same community. But by taking steps to build and protect the brand, the game's caretakers have discovered that they have alienated many fans and are now at a crucial inflection point when determining the future for the game.

Many have referred to Dungeons & Dragons as rooted in folk tradition – at its heart, the game is about a small group of people gathering together to tell a story with the game mechanics serving as a tool for dictating the pace and the action. In some ways, Dungeons & Dragons is an extension of the oral tradition and collaboration that have enabled storytelling since stories first existed. Tabletop roleplaying games differ from any other kind of game, even multiplayer ones, in that the community aspect is crucial to the heart of the game. Community is the engine that powers Dungeons & Dragons, the game mechanics and rules are simply the parts that helps the game runs. 

The owners of Dungeons & Dragons have always had a somewhat complicated relationship with the community that surrounds it. Original owner TSR published Dragon Magazine to promote and support not only Dungeons & Dragons but other tabletop roleplaying games as well. Early Dragon magazines were filled with contributors and readers sharing their own D&D ideas and homebrew material. TSR also originally owned Gen Con, a gaming convention that served (and continues to serve) as a massive hub for any kind of tabletop game. But while TSR recognized the value of a thriving D&D community, they were also overly litigious when it came to protecting their perceived rights. As TSR approached bankruptcy in the late 1990s, it was jokingly known as "They Sue Regularly" amongst other publishers, a reference to the company suing those who made unauthorized D&D material. 

The community surrounding Dungeons & Dragons shifted with the creation of the Open Gaming License which provided a legal framework for creating third-party material for Dungeons & Dragons. The OGL was mutually beneficial for Wizards of the Coast (who purchased TSR in 1997) and other creators – any publisher could make material for D&D or games that used D&D as a framework provided they remained within the rules set forth in the System Reference Document, while Wizards of the Coast benefitted from players staying within the D&D system for longer instead of switching to a new game and had a wider group of designers working to approve the game. The OGL helped keep D&D relevant even when the less popular 4th Edition (which ironically was not supported by the OGL, as Wizards used a separate and more restrictive license for third-party material) was released. Under the OGL, D&D went from the biggest tabletop roleplaying game in a crowded field to the dominant one, all but crowding out competitors due to the sheer plethora of official and OGL-enabled material available on the market.

When Wizards of the Coast launched the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2014, Wizards made a conscious effort to grow the D&D community by sponsoring Actual Play shows, bringing in third-party creators to work on "official" D&D material, and cultivating influencers to rep the game. It even seemed to promote the third-party ecosystem that surrounded Dungeons & Dragons, hosting streams of Critical Role on Twitch and bringing on prominent third-party creators onto the official Dragon Talk podcast to talk about their releases and the D&D game. D&D's Twitch stream regularly featured interactive shows in which Wizards employees spoke with D&D fans about their upcoming plans for the games, making the development of the game feel more conversational in nature. By engaging and actively promoting, Wizards was cultivating both the D&D "fanbase" and showcasing the many kinds of community that forms around the game itself. 

Wizards of the Coast even held several showcases of the D&D community in the form of several annual weekend-long streams that took place in the late spring, designed to announce the upcoming D&D campaign published by Wizards of the Coast later that year. The Stream of Many Eyes in 2018 had much of its programming focused on Wizards-sponsored Actual Play shows like Rivals of Waterdeep, Girls, Guts & Glory, and Dice, Camera, Action, with a small group of wider community members invited to either participate in an live-streamed Escape Room-like experience or simply enjoy the festivities as fans. 

Attending the Stream of Many Eyes in 2018 as a fan, I was struck by how organic and close-knit the D&D community surrounding Wizards of the Coast felt. The handful of celebrities who attended the event were incredibly approachable, the Wizards staff were surprisingly responsive to questions, and the organizers brought in members of the Actual Play shows for interviews about the D&D community and their relationship to the game. D&D regularly went out of its way to organize community events, ranging from wide-ranging podcast crossovers designed to showcase new Wizards-produced books and various podcasts, to unsolicited shoutouts of D&D community members and projects by official Wizards accounts.

(Photo: Cast members at D&D Live 2019)

As Dungeons & Dragons grew in popularity, buoyed by the likes of Stranger Things and a more open appreciation of the game within Hollywood, there was a noticeable shift in how Wizards treated Dungeons & Dragons and more importantly how they treated the D&D community. The D&D community slowly became less of a highlight for Wizards of the Coast, with Wizards sponsoring fewer Actual Play shows and hosting fewer shows that celebrated the D&D community. When D&D hosted its re-branded D&D Live 2019: The Descent, the "main programming" featured celebrity-heavy shows, although those celebrities were all long-time fans of the game. The community-based Actual Play shows were still invited to D&D Live and given space to record new episodes, although attendees of the event couldn't actually watch or listen to the shows live. 

By the time D&D Live 2020 rolled around (forced entirely online due to the COVID pandemic), the event was almost entirely celebrity focused, with few non-Hollywood community members invited to attend. Some of this was a logistical opportunity – Hollywood actors and celebrities were stuck at home due to the pandemic, so they could attend a live-streamed game, but part of it was a conscious shift in how the game was promoted. D&D Live 2021 was even more celebrity focused, while a D&D Live never happened in 2022. In fact, while Wizards of the Coast previously promoted its various campaign book releases with new Actual Play shows, it barely promoted the December 2022 release of Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen with any sort of live play show save for a single one-shot hosted at PAX Unplugged.  

In fact, Wizards of the Coast has almost entirely cut off its support of the D&D community. The once-thriving Dungeons & Dragons Twitch channel has been mostly offline for months, with Wizards' few sponsored shows wrapping up their campaigns last year or continuing on without Wizards' support. There are occasional vestiges of support – D&D Beyond sponsored and hosted an Actual Play event last month that highlighted disabled players within the D&D community and Wizards still regularly sends out Starter Kits for free to schools and libraries – but these community-focused events are growing further and farther between, often with low visibility.  

As new management shuffled into Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro placed a greater emphasis on its Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, much of Wizards' energy focused on promoting Dungeons & Dragons as a brand instead of as a community. Last year, new Wizards of the Coast president Cynthia Williams told investors that Dungeons & Dragons was "under-monetized" as a brand. While it had much higher brand awareness than Wizards' card game and billion dollar franchise Magic: The Gathering, it didn't generate nearly as much revenue. In part, that's because of the very nature of Dungeons & Dragons – a D&D table doesn't require a substantial monetary commitment from every player as rulebooks and even dice can be shared between everyone. And while many are worried that Williams will usher in a micro-transaction based system using the upcoming One D&D edition and D&D Beyond, its more likely that building the brand will come from more heavily leaning on the IP that supports D&D – the characters and worlds from the novels and adventures meant to inspire Dungeons & Dragons players into playing the game. While the Dungeons & Dragons IP was created to support the Dungeons & Dragons game, Hasbro has shifted emphasis to that IP in recent months. Even the recent OGL controversy was driven in part by Wizards' desire to protect the D&D IP as opposed to profiting off of the work of those building a career off the game. 

Meanwhile, the D&D brand grows even bigger – a new movie is coming out in just a few months, which will likely be accompanied by even more merchandise and a push to get players to join the D&D "lifestyle" of sitting around a table to play D&D with friends. However, the community itself seems to not be a factor in Wizards' plans for D&D – we haven't seen any organized plans to help game stores the glut of new players, nor have we seen any sort of cross-promotion between the folks who made the movie and the folks who play the game. It's still early in the D&D movie's marketing cycle, but the lack of any sort of promotion of the D&D game (to the point that Wizards has not announced any kind of tie-in game material) is surprising. One would think that a Dungeons & Dragons movie would come with a plethora of game material attached with it, Player's Handbooks with Chris Pine's face on it, a new rules supplement allowing druids to transform into owlbears and the like, but either the D&D design team was so far removed from the movie that it couldn't prepare any tie-in material in a timely fashion or Hasbro executives simply didn't believe that the movie would meaningfully move any new D&D game material. 

Although the company Wizards of the Coast has seemingly stopped focusing on the Dungeons & Dragons community, it's clear that there are many who work for the company who still understand the power and importance of the community. Even the recent grassroots campaign to protest the OGL was catalyzed by an email from an anonymous Wizards of the Coast employee who told several prominent community members that Wizards was focused only on D&D Beyond subscriptions. Fans rallied around cancelling their D&D Beyond subscriptions, leading to visible pressure to Wizards' bottom line that seemingly caused them to change course. Many of the Wizards of the Coast employees who work on Dungeons & Dragons remain some of the biggest supporters and members of the D&D community to this day.

In the next few months, Dungeons & Dragons will be the focus of Hollywood once again as its long-awaited blockbuster movie comes out. And with that movie comes more toys, more apparel, and more mainstream appeal. And with that movie should come a wave of new interest in the game. On some level, it appears that Wizards of the Coast wants these new and casual fans to buy into the D&D lifestyle – the shirts, the official dice, and the cutesy owlbear plushies – but doesn't seem inclined to direct them towards the more connected, more passionate, and (as we saw last week) less controllable community. 

However, Dungeons & Dragons is ultimately a game built around a community – without community, Dungeons & Dragons is nothing more than rules in books and some IP. Hopefully, Wizards of the Coast and its parent company Hasbro sees the true value of Dungeons & Dragons - namely, the community building that it garners – before it does even more damage to the people and relationships that makes the game so magical.