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.
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.