Ben Riggs is a D&D historian and author of the book Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons.
Dear Wizards of the Coast,
Hi! I wrote a history of your company back when it was called TSR. I also teach 7th and 8th grade, so for the past 15 years, I have watched year after year as kids discover, and go ga-ga for, D&D.
I’m writing this letter because I want you to succeed. Frankly, I think all true-hearted D&D fans want to see your company do well and produce fantastic products that are profitable. So I eagerly watched your media events these past few weeks, namely D&D Direct and the content creator summit. There are some good ideas there, but I want to be honest with you. In general, I would rate them as meh. I think D&D has room for exponential growth, and none of those ideas are going to fuel that kind of increase.
TTRPGs are actually a titanically difficult product to make a lot of money on. Drop $150 on rulebooks and campaigns and you can play for years without ever making another purchase. Weird, right? We D&D fans actually have no need to ever purchase anything from you ever again. (Yet nearly all of us want to!)
I understand you’re trying to get more money from players. Again, that’s fine by me! I can’t wait for a gorgeous Atlas of Neverwinter and Edgin the Bard socks. I hope your VTT is so fantastic that I want to use it everyday and twice on Sunday. Still, will any of that really grow the game’s player base exponentially? Probably not. I understand a lot of you have backgrounds in video games, which makes sense. However, I would caution you here as well. D&D is not a video game. The VTT will not make it a video game.
You need to reframe your thinking. Do not think of D&D as products. Don’t even think of it as a brand. Definitely don’t think of it as a video game.
D&D is the first and most famous tabletop role-playing game, and tabletop role-playing games are an original and radical medium. A TTRPG is something new to do with paper, pencils, and the human mind that was invented in 1974. Imagine acting was invented in 1974, and that we are a mere 50 years into seeing how acting will change culture. That is the potential of the TTRPG revolution.
One of the most amazing features of the TTRPG is that it is infinite. If one started a D&D campaign in 1974 with the first rules release, one might still be playing that same game today, which is to say telling that same story today. Most video games, by contrast, can be finished and once complete require a new purchase. Video games are finite. TTRPGs are not. They are a bottomless bottle of vodka, or a car that never breaks down and doesn’t even need gas.
So how do you make money off a new medium which, after an initial purchase, never requires another? It’s tricky, but it can be done. The most successful models are sports and religion. (I want to be clear here I am not denigrating religions, nor am I making some sort of truth claim for D&D.) And the key to unlocking a bigger, brighter, and more profitable future for D&D is not at Wizards, not at Hasbro, and ironically it isn’t with the players, no.
It’s the Dungeon Masters.
Across the world, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Dungeon Masters ask people to try D&D for the first time. They explain the rules. They setup D&D nights. They figure out who’s bringing the chips, and who’s bringing the dip. They literally sell your product for you, and they do it for free. Consider this simple math. If there were only 10 Dungeon Masters in the whole world, but every year, each DM convinced one other person to become a DM, within 20 years, you have over 20 million Dungeon Masters.
You are going to make money by radically increasing the number of people who play D&D. And you are going to do that by making the lives of those millions of Dungeon Masters much, much easier than they are now.
As you may know, there is a Dungeon Master shortage. People are intimidated to DM. They worry about knowing the rules. They worry about mastering the adventure, or writing their own. That puts a brake, perhaps even a ceiling, on D&D growth. Someone may be a Critical Role fanatic, but if they can’t find a D&D game to play in, they may never become a D&D fan.
So how do you make a DM’s life easier?
First, you are currently producing the best version of D&D that has ever been in existence. Furthermore, having watched dozens of 12-year-olds play through the Starter Set, I can also tell you that product does a fine job of teaching the game. That said, you should produce a ten to twenty page pamphlet that would be available free on your website of the most important D&D rules. Continue using the internet and YouTube to create content explaining D&D and your products. Maybe even sort of audio adventure summaries so instead of reading, a DM could listen to prepare? Maybe read by an existing D&D celebrity?
But outside the Starter Set, your other adventures and campaigns are a wildly mixed bag. I know that countless droves of D&D fans will buy your books no matter the quality or content, but making lifelong fans requires producing fantastic adventures. A good campaign both inspires DMs to run it and makes their lives easier. I don’t know how your books are produced, but based on the final products I’ve seen, you should do the following:
Campaigns should have one to three authors. Add more with only great caution…
Campaigns should be pitched by authors & designers.
You should pay your game designers like they are working on video games, and you should give writers royalties.
There should be a consistent format for campaigns that carries over from book to book.
Time for playtesting should be included in your production cycle. It should be measured in months.
Your books need to be shorter! Incorporate 21st century RPG layout & design.
Return to the boxed set! Create handouts, maps, character portraits, in-game journals, & clues to go with the game. (Also make PDFs of those goodies available.)
What else can you do? Can you make a sort of Dungeon Mastering graduate school, with perhaps special products only available for purchase by graduates? Can you run DM contests at gaming conventions? Winners get swag, trips to Renton, honor, glory, etc. Can you create some sort of Academy Awards for DMs? There’s an awards ceremony, with celebrity presenters.
That all may seem absurd. And how does it lead to profits? Well consider in a world with 20 million Dungeon Masters, you probably have 100 million players. 113 million people watched the Super Bowl in 2023. If D&D is a game with a fan base on par with that of the NFL, imagine the profits from t-shirt sales alone. Furthermore, consider that these suggestions are not about replacing what you are doing now. Rather, such a re-focusing on the DM will augment your current efforts. More DMs and more players make your VTT more useful and more profitable, for example.
So that’s the way it looks from where I sit. I wish you the best of luck. The movie was awesome!
D&D Historian Extraordinaire
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