As it nears 50 years old, the role-playing game is more popular than ever—and Hasbro is looking to cash in by moving its wizards and warriors to TV, movies, game consoles and even virtual tabletops.
Cynthia Williams is president at Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro division that publishes the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.JAMEL TOPPIN FOR FORBES
As Cynthia Williams settles into her chair atop a bearskin rug, three dragons stand watchful guard over her shoulder—each no more than a foot or so tall but no less fearsome, with plastic flames pouring from one’s mouth. The glass cases lining the room are filled with more horrible creatures, shrunken down in plastic miniature: ogres and devils and hobgoblins. Drawers pull out to reveal hundreds of polyhedral dice, with 10, 12 or 20 sides. Where a jumble of letters adorns the wall outside, the push of a button illuminates a hidden message: “Those granted entry shall be rewarded.”
This is the game room at the Seattle-area corporate headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the Hasbro division that publishes the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Williams, hired as the unit’s president in February, radiates enthusiasm for her new post, but her first encounter with the game she now oversees was bittersweet.
“My very first experience wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons was back in the ’80s,” says the 55-year-old Williams, who grew up amid the tobacco fields of North Carolina, “and there were some of my male friends in a basement, and I wanted to play, and they were like: ‘No, you can’t play. This isn’t for girls.’ I’m really excited that that is no longer the case.”
In fact, around 40% of D&D players are now female, according to a 2020 study Wizards of the Coast conducted with market research firm Newzoo. And surprisingly for a game that’s about to turn 50, the players skew young. Helped along by a prominent role in the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, 24% of D&D players are between 20 and 24 years old, with 18% in the 25-to-29 bracket and another 18% 30 to 34. Celebrities including Joe Manganiello, Deborah Ann Woll and Vin Diesel have sung the game’s praises, and D&D books frequently pop up on bestseller lists. Next year will see the release of a blockbuster D&D video game in Baldur’s Gate III—the latest in a series that has sold more than 5 million copies—plus a big-budget movie in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, starring Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez. Both properties sport official D&D licenses from Wizards of the Coast.
In all, Wizards of the Coast estimates that 50 million people have played the game since 1974, and while Hasbro does not break out D&D as a segment in its public filings, it noted that 2021 represented the game’s ninth consecutive year of growth. Arpiné Kocharyan, a UBS analyst, estimates that D&D is now responsible for $100 million to $150 million in annual revenue.
That is a small slice of the $1.3 billion in net revenue that Wizards of the Coast posted last year and looks even more modest next to Hasbro’s $6.4 billion. But D&D is growing fast, with revenue up a reported 35% in 2020 from 2019 and more introductory D&D products sold in 2021 than when they were released in 2014. And it is part of a phenomenally profitable unit, with Wizards accounting for 72% ($547 million) of Hasbro’s operating profit for 2021. “D&D is, I think, the poster child for our brand blueprint strategy,” says Chris Cocks, who provided one signal of the division’s importance when he was promoted from Wizards president to Hasbro CEO early this year. Outsiders are taking notice, too. An activist campaign by Alta Fox Capital Management this year unsuccessfully sought to spin off Wizards.
“When Chris and I had our first conversation about this role,” says Williams, who replaced Cocks at Wizards in February, “I thought they had passionate fans, and that’s a good place to start from. … [But] when I got a look at the numbers, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a business I want to be a part of.’”
Wizards of the Coast's Seattle-area office features fantastical murals.JAMEL TOPPIN FOR FORBES
Despite those impressive numbers, Dungeons & Dragons looks just as much like a missed opportunity. Steeped in canonical Western literature from Beowulf (c. 900) to the medieval tales of King Arthur—not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels of the mid-20th century—D&D introduced a modern generation to fantasy worlds of swords and sorcery. But while it was the basis of a 1980s cartoon and a mixed bag of video games, D&D remained at its heart a publishing business, selling a set of lavishly illustrated hardcover rulebooks supplemented by novels and prewritten adventures.
While D&D plodded modestly along, any number of other fantasy properties leapt off the page and into mainstream culture. Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings earned nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office, won 17 Academy Awards and has a prequel series streaming on Amazon Prime. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels have inspired a pair of HBO series, and the 11 movies based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have grossed $9 billion worldwide, more than 60 times D&D’s annual revenues.
“D&D fans look at Game of Thrones and just see D&D—that that’s somebody’s D&D campaign, effectively, that got turned into this experience on the screen,” says Jon Peterson, author of the D&D history Game Wizards. “Maybe part of it is that D&D isn’t like a series of novels; D&D is a platform for your creativity.”
D&D was revolutionary when it was first published, and it still bears little resemblance to what most people would label a game. Players generally work together, not competitively. There is no winning or losing. A “game”—really more akin to a narrative—is rarely completed in one sitting, and sometimes unfurls over months or even years. There is no board, or game pieces, required. The game exists almost entirely in the minds of its players.
The action goes something like this. A player known as the dungeon master narrates a scene for the other players, each role-playing a fantasy character—say, a dwarvish fighter, human monk or elvish wizard. Maybe they are standing outside a narrow entrance to a cave covered in cobwebs. The players decide what they want to do next, limited only by their imaginations—perhaps they brush the webs aside, light them on fire with a torch or just charge through them—and the dungeon master uses a rulebook and dice to determine the consequences. Giant spiders might swarm the party, or they could discover a secret: a hidden door, or a strongbox filled with gold.
“Anything can be attempted,” says Peterson. “The freedom and latitude that that offers, I think, is one of the aspects that really distinguishes this from what you could get out of [a video game like] World of Warcraft, where you can go to a tavern but you can’t really set fire to it.”
Dungeons & Dragons was originally published by TSR, starting in 1974.Getty Images
D&D’s creators, the late Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, cut their teeth wargaming, using dice and miniature figurines to recreate famous military battles. They had modest expectations for their new fantasy game. Selling a thousand copies “meant you had a real hit on your hands,” says Peterson. Game publishers weren’t interested, either. “They laughed at these manuscripts when we sent them to Avalon Hill,” says Robert J. Kuntz, who worked on D&D in its early years, referring to the biggest name in wargaming.
Gygax started self-publishing Dungeons & Dragons out of his Wisconsin basement through a new company, TSR, in 1974, selling a thousand copies in ten months. By 1979, the game’s core rulebooks were selling over 300,000 copies a year, according to data unearthed by Ben Riggs, author of Slaying the Dragon. Then came a mass-media-fueled hysteria baselessly linking D&D to demon worship and witchcraft—which, of course, had the effect of turbocharging sales to the game’s young audience.
“The rocket took off,” says Tim Kask, who was hired as TSR’s first full-time employee in 1975. “We all grabbed a fin, and off we rode into the sky.” In 1983, TSR sold nearly 1.9 million copies of its main rulebooks and posted revenue of nearly $27 million ($79 million in today’s dollars).
Behind the scenes, however, there were problems. TSR’s employees were largely young and inexperienced in business. Financial problems and mismanagement were rampant, particularly after sales crashed in 1984. A partnership with Random House got the company’s products in major bookstores but became a weight around its neck. A power struggle among the shareholders resulted in the company changing hands in 1985. Massive rounds of layoffs became an almost seasonal occurrence, remembers Tracy Hickman, a TSR game designer in the 1980s. By the 1990s, TSR was selling one line of books for less than they cost to produce.
Compounding its problems, for most players, D&D was a one-time purchase. Players bought a rulebook—and that was enough for a lifetime of play. Sure, TSR updated the rules on occasion, but no one had to play by the Second Edition (1989) rules or use any of the company's prepackaged game scenarios. Lacking a guaranteed pipeline of repeat customers, TSR flailed wildly. There were games based on other properties, including TV shows like All My Children and Perry Mason. The company launched a fiction division and licensed products like beach towels and Shrinky Dinks.
By 1997, TSR was barreling toward bankruptcy. Wizards of the Coast, which by then was a gaming-industry juggernaut as the publisher of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, intervened and snapped up the company for about $25 million, or roughly $46 million in 2022 dollars. Two years later, Wizards sold itself to Hasbro for $325 million, the equivalent of $573 million today.
Nearly 25 years into the 21st century, the idea that the “future is digital” might seem blindingly obvious, but except for a few licensing deals, Dungeons & Dragons has largely focused on selling physical books. Williams knows this must change—and with a résumé that includes stints at Microsoft’s Xbox video-gaming outfit and Amazon, she has the perfect background to lead the charge.
“I draw inspiration from what I’ve seen from so many games as a service,” she says. “Today, it’s a publishing business. I think we’ll expand beyond that.”
In May, Hasbro paid $146 million for the website D&D Beyond, a licensed compendium and set of tools for playing the game. Williams sees the site enabling more direct sales to players, starting with print-and-digital bundles of books. The site will also play a major role in growing the game overseas, where D&D has been held back by the difficulty in printing and distributing physical copies of books. Of D&D Beyond’s 10 million registered users, 85% are based in North America, and about 75% of Wizards’ overall sales occur in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Seeing an opportunity, Wizards announced this year that it had retaken direct control of D&D publications in French, German, Italian and Spanish and would release a Brazilian Portuguese version as well.
“D&D as a game, as a lifestyle has the potential to help people be more comfortable with who they are, express themselves more.”
More broadly, in August, Wizards unveiled One D&D, a three-pronged strategy that, in addition to building out the D&D Beyond platform, will see the game’s rules revamped (in what would equate to a sixth edition) for D&D’s 50th anniversary in 2024 and the development of a “digital play experience.” That will include a virtual tabletop, allowing a traditional version of the game to be played online.
These digital initiatives offer plenty of new revenue potential. Dungeon masters will likely be able to buy premade maps plus visual and sound effects. And other players will—for perhaps the first time—have a real incentive to plonk down money of their own. Just as fans of video games like Fortnite are happy to spend 99 cents for in-game avatars and special guns, D&D players may be willing to shell out some cash to slap their real-life face on their fantasy characters.
Video games like Baldur’s Gate III and movies like Honor Among Thieves will also play a major role in extending the brand. Hasbro’s 2019 acquisitions of game studio Tuque Games and TV and film production house eOne will allow Wizards to start creating those sorts of properties in-house, without ceding profits to licensees. Already, there is a scripted TV show in development.
Just how big is the opportunity? “Look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe—it’s TV shows, it’s movies, it’s merchandise, it’s video games, it’s virtual reality, it’s amusement parks and real-world experiences,” says David M. Ewalt, a former Forbes reporter and the author of the D&D history Of Dice and Men. “Can they actually pull that off? I don’t know. But I think they’re in the best place to try that they have been maybe ever.”
The entertainment strategy has its risks: Video games and movies are expensive to produce, and the brand is still shaking off the stigma of the widely panned 2000 film Dungeons & Dragons, which cost a reported $45 million to make but grossed only $34 million at the box office worldwide.
Another challenge: diversity and inclusion, topics that are of special interest to the game’s young fan base. The artwork in D&D’s early publications featured overwhelmingly white characters and sexualized women. Wizards has made a conscious effort to change that in the currently available fifth edition, but critics have noted that the game’s use of “race”—a character’s species, like a gnome or an orc—can reinforce stereotypes. All drow, or dark elves, were traditionally portrayed as evil, for instance.
Wizards seems to be trying, hosting roundtable discussions with fans after promising to promote diversity in a 2020 blog post. And while some efforts have been derided as lip service—such as slapping sensitivity disclaimers on culturally insensitive books that remain for sale—Williams insists that she is serious about creating “a culture where everybody can do their best work” and “bringing more people into the party.” The Player’s Handbook now explicitly tells readers, “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender.”
“D&D as a game, as a lifestyle has the potential to help people be more comfortable with who they are, express themselves more,” says Williams, who finally got the opportunity to play the game this year, with Cocks as her dungeon master. “It’s amazing how far it’s come since someone first told me I couldn’t play when I was in that basement. I’m super-excited.”