The commodification of imagination

The commodification of imagination in DnD

  •  Focus on human stories for engagement. 

This is a story of how Dungeons and Dragons evolved within the capitalist societies and the people involved in that process. 

PEOPLE

JACK SCRUBY

DONALD FEATHERSTONE

Jeff Perren

GYGAX

ARNESON – blackmoor

Rob Kuntz

Theron Kuntz

TIM KASK

ROB heinsoo owes me tendies

James wyatt??

Blume brothers

Lorraine Williams

Marc mIller

Steve fucking jackson and ian fucking livingstone

FUCKING MEARLLLLSLSS

MATT MERCER

Dungeons and Dragons was birthed out of the union of traditional wargames with fantasy. 

There’s a streak of individualism within this and it makes sense that this coincides with the individual revolution of the 60s. The question that was asked was instead of playing an army why not play an individual within that army? 

Wargaming itself had exploded from the realms of prussian military generals to the tabletops within America in particular where new industrial methods and money in the post war era allows for mass production of miniatures, books, marketing and the spread of wargames clubs.

Fantasy and pulp literature in much the same way has been spreading throughout culture , sci fi, conan etc which bleeds into this and both cultures end up together.

DnD is created, it forms within these burgeoning wargames group. Blackmoor. It’s inherently collaborative and reciprocal. Shared gaming, shared rules, games unique to each club. 

DM is making the world but players are actively moulding it with them and lots of gms, lots of players. 10-20 in a game easily. The entire club plays. 

  • TOOLS ARE LOW
  • 1 BOOK SERVES 30 PEOPLE
  • DICE ARE INEXPENSIVE AND CAN BE BOUGHT IN LARGE QUANTITIES FOR THE GROUP THEN NEVER PURCHASED AGAIN
  • Minis and terrain are optional an d can be handmade,often were

DM = authority on the world and characters within it?

Players = authority on their characters and the world? 

It gets popular! It gets marketed out in far more easily digestible box sets, it’s aimed towards children, the first red box is an attempt for a father to explain it to his kids. It’s a ‘basic set’. There is no ‘expert’ set yet. 

Gygax, one of the many people involved in the creation but a figure at the forefront decides he wants to make some money off of this shit. 

He realises that if D&D remains in it’s current collaborative form it’s almost impossible to make money from it. You can sell someone a rulebook and then they do everything else. Maybe you sell some miniatures but the game doesn’t require many of them if any at all.

Modules are released as toolkits for gms to expand on b1 – , x1 continues this trend.

AD&D is born. Gygax claims it IS DnD. other versions are NOT DND. It is an authoritative claim that aims to take back CONTROL from the the gaming clubs. 

TRAVELER COUNTER EXAMPLE – 1977, STILL A TOOLKIT

“tOO COMPLICATED” 

Rival games are said to be too complicated. Interesting. OSR is said to be too complicated by 5e players. THAC0!?!?!? Reee

Gurps = ‘too complicated’ 

Games that are inherently TOOLKITS 

Tournaments are born. 

AD&D contrasts sharply with B/X. The rules are highly specific and idiosyncratic to the game. The DM is given large amounts of authority but their authority shifts to the ones understanding the rules. The dungeon master guide is born. The monster manual is born. The players role in moulding the world is diminished, the players role in creating their character is enhanced. The player gets a handbook. 

Modules begin to shift from toolkits to planned and controlled narratives. More books are released, More revisions are released. It’s assumed the players cant know how to make their own games, this is now the job of the designers.

Splat books. So many splatbooks.

Gygax is rekt by his own shareholders, corporate sharks come in, the company fails under it’s own weight mismanaged by people who dont understand the industry.

Gygax had insisted that the company allow its employees, himself especially, to retain all copyrights, trademarks, and royalties for works authored rather than assigning them to TSR in the eyes of other directors, this was in violation of existing contracts

Previously, there existed the partnership of Tactical Studies Rules, which formed in October 1973 with two principals: Gygax and his childhood friend Donald Kaye 

Gygax repaired shoes in his basement for subsistence income

BUT OH GOD SO MANY DRAGONLANCE NOVELS 

LICENSING – play as james bond. explosion

DnD is HARD to commodify.  

Step in WOTC

MAGIC THE GATHERING

WHAT IF WE MAKE DND LIKE IT?

Lessons have been learned. 

More power is given to the players but in the form of character builds.  Significantly less is given in terms of freedom of play. Rules become more specific, more controlled. The GM is now the rulekeeper not the dungeonkeeper.

The internet begins to spread this. 

Builds

Tiers

White box forum posting

All controlled by the company. Pay to play events controlled by the company. Adventures guild . Similar to tournaments in a sense.

SPHERES OF AUTHORITY

WOTC = WRITES RULES

DM = AUTHORITY ON RULES WOTC WRITES

DM = AUTHORITY ON THE WORLD AS CONTROLLED BY THE RULES

PLAYERS = AUTHORITY ON THEIR CHARACTERS AS CONTROLLED BY THE RULES

Modules are written to be read not played.

Modules not ‘balanced’ are seen as unfair. 

DnD still collapses under it’s own weight. It’s not earning ENOUGH for Hasbro. 

SO MANY SPLATBOOKS STILL

IMBALANCE, confusion, impentratability. THOUSANDS OF PAGES OF FUCKING RULES

1999

Age of aquarius Russia

Anime style post soviet – urban fantasy – 

SLUMP

4th edition

Online play 

Subscription services – new future –

WoRlD OF wArcraft

Rules are even more highly specific – SO they can be played AS a video game quite literally

Fails and is rejected  by the older 3.5 fans. 

Pathfinder captures market share.

OSR begins to form. Disillusionment sets in. 

Indie games begin to explode pbta etc

5E

Significantly lower budget and design team

‘Community’ focus behind the design. 

Community in this sense is tapping into social media trends, influencers etc to build an identity around dnd. New form of commodification. 

Social media makes money off of DATA.

DnD Beyond – data 

Roll 20 – data

IDENTITY becomes linked to brand, geek is cool, crit role is cool. 

Self expression – superficial?

LGBTQ identity gets wrapped into the mix.  

WHITE MEN WITH BEARDS

ANTI-COLONIALISM

Whilst good obviously it again fits into the existing structure of power 

NEW book = no more racism, elves can be trans, your character. It’s the same shit. It just sells you BACK YOUR IDENTITY. 

Passive observation – critical role – passive consumerism 

PAID gaming – supply and demand

Individualism has returned in a passive form

Whitebox forum still exists, 5e is still the authority on the rules but confused as attempting to emulate narrative within critical role and not designed for it. 

SHINY DICE

ENGAGING IN ROLEPLAYING GAMES IS HARD

DMs guild commidifies thought. Copyright serves capital owners. 

Community becomes focussed around DnD but expands

Lots more roleplaying games begin to be birthed. Market grows again. 

COVID

ONLINE PLAY 

Still is deregulated as it were , roll20 is big but people play via video, discord, off of forums, play by post. It’s all over the place. 

Future?

The bubble bursts? Hasbro stops caring. DnD is relegated to it’s small small niche.

A competitor arises? Quest? Gets the commodification model better? 

A decent online competitor – a virtual mmo/tabletop simulated mix

Where is the money?. 

Someone turn this into a video essay for me pls kthx

2 comments

  1. This is one of my favorite posts that you’ve written. I would turn it into a video essay, but only so I could commodify it with adsense :-p

    One thing to add is that it feels like homebrew has become more of a dirty word in recent years. Most experienced players don’t want any homebrew touching their table. This is partly because there is just so much bad homebrew posted on places like D&D wiki. But I think it is also that more people are playing online with rotating strangers rather than with the same group of friends for long periods of time. In that context, you want everyone to be playing with a uniform set of agreed rules rather than each person having their own homebrew rules. Both of these factors lead to homebrew being rejected and therefore reducing the authority of GM and players in controlling the game world.

    Like

    • Lol I’m glad a copy paste of my mad google doc I couldn’t be bothered to form into any semblance of sense was a favourite!
      I agree homebrew is def a dirty word and this forms part of it. If the company takes control of the product then it becomes increasingly more difficult to justify homebrew content as it upsets the internal balance of the game. But who decides the balance of the game? The company. Hence you buy the companies balanced products, which are balanced because the company says they are and ignore homebrew and creativity.
      Granted some homebrew is fucking awful but in general I’m not a huge fan of a trend that discourages creativity.
      Online play and increasing commonality of pick up online games as a result as you say does make a baseline rather useful however so I can see why it arises in contrast to the gaming of yore which was based around a specific group slowly developing their own rules and games.
      Indeed HOUSE rule literally means ‘the rules we play at that persons house when they host the game.’

      Like

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