The Swag of Yore

These people understand.

I was born in 1975, so I got to spend the entire 80’s fully cognizant of the gigantic vortex of awesome I was daily marinating in. Once the entire Star Wars trilogy, He-Man, the Thundercats, and Ghostbusters came into play, my imagination was pretty much stocked. There are certain part of my childhood that, after knowing some history, I can’t believe existed. For instance, we had a D&D Saturday morning cartoon and we could walk into most toy stores and pick up official AD&D action figures and monsters. In the 80’s. During all the Satanism scare WTF.

Today, we have D&D merchandise, but it’s much more limited in scope. What happened?

Called Shot: Gamers?

Either my parents didn’t know about all the D&D/Satanism hullabaloo in the 80’s, or they rightly dismissed it as stupidity. Either way, my brother and I had lots and lots of D&D stuff to play with. Oddly, though we did have a Red Box set, I don’t think I ever actually played the actual D&D roleplaying game with my brother until my late teens. Had lots of adventures in the Forgotten Realms? Battled evil monsters from the Monster Manual (though we didn’t know it)? Yes, both of those, and lots.

The strange thing about the cartoon, the toys, and a lot of the other random D&D stuff we had was that it really didn’t feel like it pushed you toward playing the tabletop RPG at all. I remember seeing the occasional ad for the games, and the toys shared the same art style and graphic design as the later AD&D books, but they weren’t marketed as supplements or anything directly game-related at all. They were toys, and games, and books with an awesome fantasy flavor.

Sometimes, liberties got taken from the original source material. For instance, Lolth appears in the D&D cartoon as less of a dark goddess and more of an evil lady who tricks people and turns into a gross spider with the face of an angry Winona Ryder.

Sometimes the material was true to the books but only those familiar with the books knew it. I always thought the Acrobat and Cavalier were strange class choices until I read Unearthed Arcana a few years later. The really bizarre thing is that the D&D cartoon was cancelled the year UA came out — previously, those classes had only appeared in Dragon Magazine and the D&D cartoon. Today, we have D&D Insider for these things. Back then, all we had was a magical teenage pole-vaulter with a fur bikini and an awesome perm. And Ralph Malph.

Marketing Tie-Ins

It seems to me like D&D was being marketed to a much broader audience than gamers back then. Though I’m absolutely certain someone will prove me wrong within nanoseconds of writing this, it doesn’t seem like D&D gets a lot of spotlight time outside of gamer circles. Which, on the surface, is double extra weird because, back then, D&D was owned by TSR (a game company) and now WotC is owned by Hasbro (a much larger toy and game company).

These days, we have tabletop games, board games, and videogames. And belt buckles. Now, don’t get me wrong. I want a D&D belt buckle. But I long for my favorite game not to occupy a niche I have to explain to people. (At least, in the 80’s, all you had to explain was how you weren’t casting real spells using your immortal soul as the currency of the damned. I don’t like explaining things, OK?)

I do not have a marketing degree, nor do I have any idea what WotC could do to put a Dire Chicken In Every Pot™. (P.S. I get royalties if that gets used.) What I do have are desires and silly ideas.

Let me get this out of the way first: I cannot believe that we’ve had 4 blockbuster movies about sparkly vampires and werewolf emotions and the best Dragonlance movie I can get appears to be the product of  a compromise between two warring animation houses that couldn’t decide on 2d or 3d. We can shrink Sean Astin to hobbit-size, we for damn sure can shrink Ryan Gosling to kender-size or just hire Snooki or something. (Maybe Gosling’s body but Snooki’s voice? Gotta get the kender-taunt just right.) Technology has finally invented Benedict Cumberbatch, so he can voice Lord Soth too when he’s done with Smaug.

Obviously, I’d grant my son all the D&D swag I had as a child and more. I want my son to be able to buy a Sword +5, Holy Avenger in a toy store, and have it glow unless he steals something or lies to me. I want to buy big, cool plastic monsters right out of the Monster Vault. I want a plush owlbear. I want good quality D&D cartoons (rendered in either 2d or 3d but not both!) and I want him to be able to tell tales of the Forgotten Realms and Eberron and Dark Sun like I tell about Eternia and Thundera and Cybertron. I also hope their plots hold up better than the cartoons of my youth but that is beside the point.

Those of you who’ve attended Gen Con probably know how fun this is: I want D&D themed food, especially at fast food places. I want to eat the McIllithid and drink Sahaugin Shakes. I want Beholder Bites. I want Fries +2. I want themed cups, and I for damned sure want cool Happy Meals with neat monsters and treasure. C’mon, I still have fond memories of the Astrosniks. Give me an Elemental Princes of Evil Happy Meal. I wanna see all the crazed soccer moms who used to hoard Beanie Babies lining up for days trying to get the elusive Cryonax figure.

Tears Shed For Decades Of Swag That Never Were

Eh, who am I kidding? I would have hoarded it just like the other stuff I actually did hoard and the majority would likely have the same honored place in my closet and crawlspace. But it really would have been cool and I do hope we see a few tendrils of our favorite game snake out into the mainstream.

Thinking about how vastly different D&D’s marketing approach has become over the last 30 years has really intrigued me (and may warrant a future article in which I am not full of crap). If you are chock full of this info, please let me know so that I may mine the contents of your brain.

Until then, I will wait for the day I can buy an Otiluke brand refrigerator.


Photo Credit


  1. I think that there is something to be learned here from Pokemon (among the most successful product enterprises of all time, no doubt). Back around when the original Pokemon movie came out, someone once heard a Hollywood exec spouting off about “well now the movie will come out and that will be the end of it”. Except… that wasn’t the end of it, far from in fact. Hollywood, and many people like Hollywood, are used to the movie making model: a flagship IP comes out, there are a couple of spinoff toys and swag and whatever, and then that’s the end of it. Except Pokemon didn’t work that way. It wasn’t selling you a movie, or a game, or trading cards – it was selling you a UNIVERSE through many different windows.

    Did you want to experience Pokemon through a cartoon? How about a movie? You can have pokemon trading cards or a game on your Game Boy or other Nintendo system. For a while, in the 80s, D&D was selling a universe, not a game. It said “you can come into D&D through the RPG, through the cartoon on TV, through the toys in the stores”, but now we seem to have reverted to this single-IP niche model, as you note.

    I’m not sure what it would take to return to selling a universe instead of a tabletop RPG – I’m no marketing executive either (though I did manage to spend a few months inside of a marketing department a couple of times) – but whatever it is I’d certainly like to see it.

  2. I was born in 72 and I can remember much of this stuff as well. I loved the cartoon and though I only had one of the action figures(Grimsword) I thought they were awesome.

    It is lamentable that they have such little stuff like that now a days. I mean Hasbro owns Wizards so it shouldn’t be a big leap in logic to make new action figures. And man the ones they could make today.

  3. There are tons of really strange offerings for kids these days, just as we had in our day. The BeyBlade / Ninjago style of spinner-card toys are just one example where I shake my head at how my kids would like to consume tons of toys, TV, and associated merchandise if I let them (we are a low TV and low brand-name household). As it is, I see plenty of room for D&D to offer the same.

    As Vanir knows, I’ve been watching the D&D Cartoon with my kids. It is actually a really good show. The plot is usually pretty fun and the action never too scary or over the top (unlike today’s ultra-fast-pace horror-in-your-face sex-jokes-in-Scooby-Doo style). I actually catch my kids interacting with the show – laughing, discussing what will happen next, etc. The time we watched Ninjago (what a terrible show!) they were completely sedentary. I recommend the D&D cartoon highly, plus you can get the DVD set for a very reasonable price through Amazon. Surprisingly, the plots work well enough that they can become adventures – perfect for using something like Newbie DM’s RPG Kids to run a game for them.

    What will the future hold? I do think there is potential here. If Lego can release what is essentially a version of D&D with their Heroica line, can have battle-spinners like Hasbro’s BeyBlades… surely WotC can have a product line that brings D&D to kids. A new cartoon, a board game for kids, perhaps something like a D&D arenas for duels or a D&D Dungeons similar to Heroica. It sounds much more plausible than a new movie… the horror, the horror.

  4. And what about the movies??? I can’t understand why we get movies of every Marvel or DC superhero, every vampire or werewolf themed teen novel that was ever written, but then any D&D based movie because a straight to the sci-fi network horrible flick staring a Wayans brother with CG that was done by a senior in high school for his AP school credit…

    I understand it is expensive to make a movie.. and I understand it is expensive to do things with computer graphics .. and I understand it is expensive to hire known actors or actresses who may or may not want to be associated with Dungeons and Dragons (although you think Vin Diesel might be interested for sure)… but when we are making remakes of remakes and doing nothing original in the film industry, don’t you think Hasbro or WOTC could find someone willing to make a screen play about the Dragonlance Chronicles or Drizz’t or someone or some setting that is evocative, entertaining, but also has some emotion, some plot, and would be something that would appeal to non-gamers as well… but one can keep hoping!

  5. Alhazred says:

    Yeah, it is true, D&D had a much broader marketing back in the day. I was old enough that the D&D cartoon seemed corny and we were a bit old for the action figures by the time they got that far, but it was still cool that you could buy a Red Box in a box store.

    I think the problem is that was all Gary really. Once he got booted from TSR the grinch people took over and just thought they could milk it. Things went downhill into the muck for 15 years (though at least they did come out with a bunch of cool settings, it wasn’t all bad). They sure didn’t care about keeping RPGs and D&D out there in front of the big world.

    WotC? I think the problem there is M:tG. M:tG is cool, but that’s all that Hasbro bought WotC for. D&D was kind of an afterthought. They’re just not willing to put a lot of real muscle behind cool stuff like cartoons, and when they do do something it seems to be lame. To Gary proselytizing D&D WAS the whole point. It was all about how cool it was and a vision. That just doesn’t exist anymore. The people with the authority and resources to do cool stuff want to know about ROI, Gary could have cared less about that. I’m sure he was pleased as all heck to make money, but I am also sure it was just fuel for the next great thing to do with the game, not shareholder equity or dividends. Those days are over, D&D is in a limbo where it is corporate but not really corporate enough to matter.

  6. In all fairness (regarding the post about Marvel movies), comic books predate D&D by almost half a century (1930s as opposed to the late 70s). That’s a pretty significant time gap, which indicates to me that maybe D&D just hasn’t had enough time to properly ingrain itself into the public subconscious.

    The other half of it is, D&D is a heftier investment for people than comics were. Back in the original editions, which were in some ways more accessible (simpler rules, lower rules mastery needed), you also had some glaring flaws (typography, editing, wargame-based terminology) that rendered it harder to get into. Fast-forward a bit, and you now have 3.5 and 4th, both of which are pretty hefty, in terms of the number of rules. They can be intimidating to get into. The Red Box fixed some of this, but it hasn’t been out for long.

  7. I watched the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon recently on whatever upper-channel cartoon network they are syndicating it on.

    I wanted to stab myself in the urethra with a fork just to distract myself from the pain of how awful it was. Some things do not withstand the test of time.

    Also, @Josh: There was a Dragons of Autumn Twilight animated film not too long ago. Most fans have scoured it from our memories. I recommend checking it out, just for the “Wow, really?” factor.

  8. Alhazred, interestingly enough, the D&D Cartoon came from Gary being booted… the first time. The owners wanted him out of daily operations, so they sent him to California to negotiate licenses. Gary ended up getting the TV deal. It is actually surprising how often the projects he was given to get him out of important areas actually turned out to be… important!

    Shane, sorry to hear it. I guess results may differ. Every time I watch the cartoon (currently 3/4 through second season) I am struck by how good they are. On the other hand, those Lego/Ninjago plots are brutal and void of any redeeming lessons (though nothing will make me stab my urethra…). 🙂

  9. Alphastream: I think it’s the difference between being a dad and being a 30-something guy that refuses to grow up. The newer Thundercats and He-Man series really did it for me, for the most part, because they steer clear of silliness and shoot for straight-up action.

    Plus, I could just never stomach that damn unicorn. 🙂

  10. I think that TheHydraDM is on to something. As a kid I definitely considered D&D something that was bigger than just the game. I thought the cartoon was pretty awesome – even if the differences between the cartoon beholder and the one in my brothers’ books bothered me (yes, as a kid I was getting upset about canon).
    I also had a pretty good collection of D&D toys – I went looking at my Mom’s house a few months ago for my Warduke, but all I found was a neon-colored PVC roper (cool in its own way I guess – its bendy!). Warduke will have to live on in my memory, along with my lost Calibos action figure from Clash of the Titans.

  11. They made 2 (or 3) D&D movies…all failed. 4e didn’t even get a video game (facebook games don’t count, IMO). Hasbro has its transformers and GI Joe. And, as someone said, they baught WotC for Magic the addictive money making card game. They got D&D for free like how you get 2 AA batteries with your DVD remote. Heck, I’m willing to say that if 5e doesn’t work…Hasbro will scrap D&D altogether, so someone like Paizo will just own it outright. Magic the Blind Buy Gathering is already loosing to the fairer to the consumer, and still profit-making, “LCG’s” like Fantasy Flight publishes…
    A decent D&D based movie would be great. Like a Drizzt trilogy…but they’d have to not call it D&D, or even Forgotten Realms. They’d have to work with RA Salvatore. Also, how could they come close to ‘winning’ the inevitable comparisons to Peter Jackson’s LotR movies?
    I’d love to see D&D sold as a ‘world/experience’ as well, but it won’t happen. No money in it. It’s partly due to the stigma of D&D. Not the ‘satanic’ BS of the 80’s…but the stigma that was there then, and STILL is huge today. “D&D is for NERDS!” Yet, harry potter, twilight, etc…somehow…aren’t. (?!)

  12. Daniel-san says:

    Well living on the other side of the Atlantic we only got the cartoons (a little late so even if I was born in ’79 I got to enjoy them) but still they were quite mainstream, I think they were one of only three American cartoons who really got an audience here amidst a ton of Japanese stuff in the 80s.

    To be fair though an Italian mainstream games publisher also did the local edition for the first Red Box, which is saying something.

  13. Sahaugin Shakes – I hear those go great with the Filet o’Fish sandwich…

  14. Seti, that is incorrect from everything that has ever been said publicly. You can find podcasts and other interviews where both WotC and Hasbro staff have said D&D was a big part of the bargain. I forget which podcast had Peter Adkison (Wizards CEO at the time) sharing how he had gone back to a Hasbro top executive that authorized the deal and asked something like “for my own peace of mind, was getting D&D a big part of the deal”, and the executive said something like “absolutely, it was a major part of it”.

    I also disagree with your assessment that there is no money in it. Was there no money in Lord of the Rings? D&D is arguably a bigger brand name and was likely a bigger brand name before the LotR trilogy… bad movies are bad movies. Had the D&D movies been at all like LotR, D&D could have seen a massive resurgence. Even as it stands today, D&D has huge brand recognition. I’ve never told someone I play D&D, regardless of age group, and had them not know what that means. And when I tell a group of 20 – 40 year olds that I play, there is practically always someone that used to play.

    As to Magic, check out any recent reports. MtG is at its absolute most successful ever. The growth of MtG in the past 5 years is absolutely staggering. In 2011 they _doubled_ the 2008 revenue! And while the business model is fantastic, D&D has a stronger basis for communicating with an audience. The reason? Look at the D&D cartoon: the adventuring party provides multiple people with which an audience can relate. Had 3E seen a cartoon with Jozan, Mialee, Redgar, Henet, and the rest… that could have been truly iconic. We need that again. Take the Essentials guys, turn them into D&D Next guys, give them a story, and bring back that cartoon. I want to see my kids with a D&D lunchbox, with the T-shirt, with the stickers, and with the action figures. Seeing the kids in my neighborhood watching the cartoon eagerly in my house 2 weeks ago, it is clear that they are ready for a new version. Any way you slice it, D&D is a valuable brand and could really be launched for greater growth.

    Daniel-san, I know what you mean. I grew up in Colombia. We went to stores and rented VCR tapes where someone had recorded several episodes of the show while on vacation in the US!

  15. The D&D 4e comic by IDW was brilliant. That quality of writing would make a truly awesome cartoon that I think gamers of all ages could enjoy.

  16. Well, until the real deal is made, we can always enjoy this:


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