Who Owns Dungeons & Dragons?
By Emily FriedmanApril 8, 2023
Person: “I can’t wait for the Dungeons & Dragons movie.”
Me: “Yeah it looks pretty fun.”
Person: “Do you think they’ll stick to the story?”
Person: “I just hate it when movies like that don’t stick to the story.”
Me: “The story of Dungeons & Dragons?”
This exchange is humorous because the popular tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has no story—or rather, it has hundreds of thousands of stories, crafted at tables around the world, in dozens of languages, by the estimated 50 million current players. Or, as Chris Perkins, senior story designer for D&D, said last week in a promotional D&D Direct event, “What we write, you bring to life.”
But what Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of D&D, writes and sells is only a small portion of the creative material available to players. Game mechanics are not protected by copyright, and the imagined worlds owned by Wizards (such as the Forgotten Realms, the fantasy setting in which Honor Among Thieves takes place) are not required to play the game. “Homebrew” adventures, creatures, settings, and more have always been part of D&D, and over the past two decades, the Open Game License (or OGL) has allowed third-party creators to monetize their creative output with remarkably few restrictions. Publishing D&D content independently or with third-party publishers has now become an established pathway toward working on official D&D products with Wizards. The tabletop role-playing industry as a whole boomed under the OGL, as new companies have formed to provide both supplementary material for D&D and to incubate new game systems.
This is also true when it comes to narratives inspired by D&D. The same open license that fueled independent third-party game designers has also sparked “actual play” performances: role-playing games played for an audience. Pull up a streaming video platform like Twitch or YouTube, open a podcast app, or visit a gaming convention, and you can find thousands of different shows playing many different role-playing games (including D&D) recorded in homes and theaters and studios around the world. Honor Among Thieves, its near-inevitable sequels, and the proposed “TV universe” being developed by Hasbro subsidiary eOne are latecomers to the arena of D&D-inspired narrative intellectual property. And Honor Among Thieves itself has been compared in many reviews to “real gameplay” or to The Legend of Vox Machina (2022– ), Amazon Prime’s animated adaptation of the wildly popular “actual play” web series Critical Role (2015– ).
The pleasure of actual play is twofold: there’s the elemental pleasure of being told a story, intertwined with the alchemy of watching that story be created in front of your eyes (or ears). It is about craft—not in the sense of the well-wrought urn, but in the ways that true chance, fueled by dice or teetering Jenga towers or cards or a coin toss, explodes ossified, clichéd narrative structures. While many (though not all) actual plays trade in the stuff of high fantasy, their pacing and scale is human, depicting the ways that small choices over time create a character and transform a narrative in unexpected ways. We perceive simultaneously the character played and the player playing.
As an 18th-century scholar by training, I am often reminded of Samuel Johnson’s declaration in defense of the massive epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson: “Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment.” In the same way that we come to care for Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe as we read her letters with Anna Howe and the plot slowly accelerates, we watch characters in long-form actual play take shape one conversation and encounter at a time, across dozens or hundreds of hours of gameplay. The maximalist, live-to-tape Critical Role is the biggest actual play (in every sense of the word), giving viewers a simultaneous view of every player through every dice roll, debate, and attack.
That unrelenting gaze creates unexpectedly moving moments. As other players take their turns in heated combat, we can also see, in one corner, Sam Riegel’s puckish face collapse in grief as he realizes his character can cast a spell that will save the world, but at the cost of his plans to save the character played by his friend Liam O’Brien—who whispers “I love you” in response to Riegel’s “I’m sorry.” And even shorter actual plays achieve this effect through deft editing. In Worlds Beyond Number, we hear Aabria Iyengar’s tiny gasp as she—and then her character—reacts to Dungeon Master (DM) Brennan Lee Mulligan’s question, “Aabria. Do you think Suvi makes it to Grandmother Ren’s cottage in time?” On Dimension 20, we wince as Brian Murphy, he whom the dice hate, leaps in to roll (poorly) for the group, and there’s an uproar as Lou Wilson climbs on the table and declares in not-entirely-mock frustration, “Murph, that’s not okay.” We hear the players of Dungeons and Daddies produce an interlude of time travel they recorded without their DM Anthony Burch knowing—slipping a replacement episode into the podcast feed, to the shock and delight of Burch.
The biggest actual plays have viewer numbers that are the envy of some television networks, fueled by passionately engaged fanbases who support shows through subscriptions, merchandise, live tours, and more—all while often being owned by the players on-screen. A 2021 Twitch leak revealed that the most lucrative channel on the platform was the cast-owned Critical Role, now a transmedia phenomenon with the most successful animation Kickstarter of all time, a distribution and first-look TV/film deal with Amazon, publishing relationships with Random House and Dark Horse, and its own charitable foundation, production company, and record label. The top 10 Patreon projects by publicly known paid-subscriber count include eight podcasts, of which three are actual plays. The Adventure Zone is a jewel in the crown of the McElroy Family’s massive collection of podcasts, while Dimension 20 is a cornerstone of streaming platform Dropout. Most recently, new podcast Worlds Beyond Number became the fastest-growing project on Patreon, accruing 8,000 paying subscribers in the first 12 hours based exclusively on the reputations of its creator-owners before gaining tens of thousands more.
Perhaps the best illustration of the impact of actual play and other non–Wizards-owned storytelling was the reaction to the first trailer for Honor Among Thieves. Audiences (and journalists) did not immediately identify the infamous Red Wizards of Thay, a staple of D&D’s primary Forgotten Realms setting. Instead, they thought they were seeing Vecna, another canonical adversary who had been featured in the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016– ) as well as in Critical Role—media properties not owned by Wizards of the Coast. At least one cast member of Honor Among Thieves, Sophia Lillis (Doric) has credited actual plays like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and Dimension 20 as her gateway into the hobby, citing the performances of Mulligan specifically in interviews. Honor Among Thieves press events sparked rumors of Critical Role cameos that appeared in People and were picked up by other outlets, persisting even after the film’s release, until Matthew Mercer, DM and chief creative officer of Critical Role, publicly denied any involvement. As designer and critic Alyssa Visscher argued in 2021, “Exandria [the world of Critical Role] is this D&D gen’s Forgotten Realms. It’s so many folks’ intro setting; a large section of the newer player base *knows* and is emotionally invested in it.” If Visscher is right (and I believe she is), then Critical Role and other major actual plays are the primary sources today for D&D’s narrative and world-building intellectual properties.
D&D would not have the market share or the fanbase able to buoy Honor Among Thieves to its current box-office success without the independent creativity that has taken place outside its control for the last decade and more. Like D&D itself, a game that emerged from the larger wargaming hobby to create a new form of play, actual play’s roots can also be found in the blurry spaces between work and play. Game sessions have long been an inspiration to writers in a variety of media, and in the 1990s and 2000s, offline communities experimented with recorded or performed play long before the days of monetizable video streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube or the proliferation of podcasts. Evan Torner traces the roots of actual play back to game sessions recorded as part of designer playtesting from the early days of the internet, while Alex Chalk notes that the first televised actual play was Dungeon Majesty, which aired on public access stations from 2004–10. Game designer and interdisciplinary creative and educator Jonaya Kemper recalls many playful experiments, some including artists who would later go on to success in actual play: “[Th]ere were web shows, youtube channels, puppet theaters, huge larp events in random broken mansions, and even well a musical duo. Not cause we thought it would be a big break, but because you put a bunch of nerds in an artistic space and you went POOF.” This analog tradition still continues on stages like Los Angeles’s semi-scripted show Dungeon Master, which recruits the audience as the adventuring party, or Atlanta’s Improvised Dungeons & Dragons at Dad’s Garage.
As Wizards began the development process for the fifth edition of D&D in the late 2000s, they collaborated with Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade to create Acquisitions Incorporated, among the oldest ongoing actual plays. Begun in 2008 as a podcast and live shows at Penny Arcade’s PAX conventions starting in 2010, AcqInc has taken every form that actual play would adopt, including a season of prerecorded and edited video, AI: The Series (2016–17), and a live-streamed in-studio spinoff, The “C” Team (2017–21). Every iteration has included D&D staff as part of its cast, starting with Chris Perkins as the original DM, until the torch was passed to his colleague, Lead Rules Designer Jeremy Crawford; and designers Kate Welch and Trystan Falcone served as cast on The “C” Team. Despite its name, AcqInc was “official” but never acquired by Wizards, remaining independent but allied to this day. Both AcqInc and Critical Role have published official D&D sourcebooks with Wizards while their original creators retained their intellectual property.
With a few exceptions, this has been Wizards’ playbook for how it engaged with actual play: while Senior Communications Manager Greg Tito developed Dice, Camera, Action! (2016–19) in-house and fostered Rivals of Waterdeep (2018– ), much of Wizards’ support for actual play would be through “exposure”—live-streaming events tied to D&D content releases between 2018 and 2020 and interviews on Tito’s (and colleague Shelly Mazzanoble’s) Dragon Talk podcast. But even at the height of Wizards’ cultivation of actual play, some performers recall feeling that executive-level management was never able to acknowledge the impact of these shows on D&D’s success. And when remote play in 2020 allowed Wizards to invite more mainstream celebrities to play, even the intangible goods of exposure were hard to find for community creators.
By 2022, Wizards had withdrawn financial support from the last official streaming shows: the long-running Rivals of Waterdeep and The Black Dice Society (2021–22), occasionally funding miniseries and single-episode “one shot” events through the platforms of recently acquired digital tool D&D Beyond. Although at a recent Creator Summit (which I attended virtually) staff suggested that Wizards hopes to build out an incubator program for actual play, no concrete road map or plan for financial support or distribution was described.
Thus, when Linda Codega revealed Wizards of the Coast’s plans to revoke the Open Game License in January, fans sided with “unofficial” creators against the “official” game. Tens of thousands of users canceled their subscriptions to D&D Beyond, as third-party companies announced their intentions not only to stop developing content for D&D but also to create rival game systems and new open licenses.
While it was never clear whether actual plays were at risk, fans rose to their defense proactively. This is in no small part because the actual plays make the circumstances of their creation extremely legible to their audiences, and so many of them are owned directly by those who make them. The result was nothing short of a miracle: Wizards not only walked back any plans to revoke the OGL; they placed the hundreds of pages of the game’s Systems Reference Document (SRD) into the Creative Commons.
On the cusp of its 50th anniversary, D&D is at a moment of transition: it has never been more mainstream or more ambitious. At the same time, its core rules are in the commons; neither players nor audiences need to go to Wizards to enjoy the game or stories inspired by it, and the most compelling, diverse, and experimental world-building is being done by third-party creators only loosely affiliated with the company (if at all). Wizards and Hasbro may own the official lore that Honor Among Thieves draws lightly upon, but actual plays and other creators have proven that they have tales worth telling—both the stories of their tables and the narratives woven in the compelling, independent imagined worlds they’ve created.
It’s clear that Wizards dreams of a Marvel-like franchise that would duplicate the success of Honor Among Thieves indefinitely, as one way of capitalizing on an “under monetised” brand. Meanwhile, independent actual plays, beholden to no one but themselves and their audiences, already offer something far more compelling: the stories they want to tell, told the way they want to tell them, with all the infinite variety and delight that come from pure chance.
Emily C. Friedman is an associate professor of English at Auburn University.
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