Critical Corporations: The Dungeons and Dragons Renaissance and Corporate Sponsorship

For the last four years I was a barista at Starbucks. One of the first things I did in my time there was tell a lie.

Well, sort of.

On the interview, when the manager asked about my availability, I told him I would be unable to work Sundays. He said that was unusual and that it might effect whether or not I got the job. I told him there was no way around it; I had group therapy every Sunday. He reacted uncomfortably, like he’d insinuated something inappropriate. He assumed I was spending my Sundays in a doctor’s office. I wasn’t. Instead I was spending my Sundays engaging in a different type of group therapy—a weekly game of Dungeons and Dragons.

I got the job and never worked a single Sunday. Four years, a bachelor’s degree, and almost a master’s degree later, my Sunday’s are still reserved for D&D. It’s the only therapy I’ll ever need.

Some of you reading might think I’m being ridiculous. I think you’ve never played.

Getting into D&D was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It’s a reason for some of my closest friends to get together and see each other every week, face to face. It’s a creative writing outlet. It’s an exercise in quick thinking, adapting, and improvisation. It’s the only time I am ever excited to do math. But most importantly, it’s the best escape. For a few hours a week, I get to forget about deadlines and projects and bills and step into the shoes of a fantasy hero of my own design. I don’t want to imagine where I’d be if I hadn’t found the hobby.

I got into D&D at one of the most interesting times in the game’s history. The game has exploded in popularity in the last six years. In part due to the launch of D&D 5E, the most recent edition of the tabletop game. The rule set was simplified from previous editions to be less daunting. The basic rules were made available online for free. Entrenched fans instantly fell in love with the new version’s simplicity and the ease with which they could pick up and start adventuring.

The game’s audience grew even larger when a group of eight self-described “nerdy-ass voice actors” decided “to sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons” live on camera. The first episode of Critical Role aired live on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel on March 15th, 2015. The YouTube upload clocks the run-time in at a hair above three hours. The video currently has almost 13 million views. The show’s first campaign ran for 115 episodes before coming to its epic, heroic conclusion. The show’s second campaign is still ongoing, 95 episodes in. Each episode is between three and four hours long. The brand is close to approaching a thousand hours of content. For comparison’s sake, the run time of every episode of The Simpsons adds up to about three hundred hours of content.

The Critical Role cast. From left to right – Liam O’Brien, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, Sam Riegel

The cast of the show, Liam O’Brien, Ashley Johnson, Travis Willingham, Laura Bailey, Matthew Mercer, Marisha Ray, Taliesin Jaffe, and Sam Riegel have said in multiple interview that they are still taken aback at how successful their show has been. They are the ultimate ambassadors for the new era of D&D: humble, respectful, inclusive, funny, and most of all dedicated—to themselves, to the friendships that make Critical Role what it is, and to supporting the millions of fans in the community that has built itself around them.

Since the show launched, Critical Role has evolved into a full-fledged brand. They’ve held live shows, selling out theaters in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Their merchandise recently started appearing in Hot Topic stores across the US. The show is officially sponsored by D&D creators Wizards of the Coast. The cast recently completed a kickstarter campaign to created an animated show based on the first Critical Role campaign that raised over eleven million dollars, breaking the record for the most funded TV or film project in the site’s history. The Critical Role brand is really taking off, and with it so is the popularity of D&D.

Stephen Colbert and Matthew Mercer playing a special D&D game for Red Nose Day

The popularity of Critical Role and D&D has created an interesting ripple in popular culture. In the last year several big names in entertainment have proclaimed their love for D&D, from actor Joe Manganiello to TV personalities like Andy Cohen and Stephen Colbert, the latter of which actually played D&D with Critical Role’s own Matt Mercer for charity. D&D isn’t just for the nerds anymore. It’s for everyone—which is fantastic. More and more people playing and being exposed to this game can only be a good thing. But this places Critical Role’s cast in an interesting place, especially when they take sponsorships. Wizards of the Coast is a given, of course, but the brand has promoted other projects too. Private VPN’s, makers of custom D&D miniatures, various video games. All of the sponsorships make sense for the community; they’re services or products that people who watch D&D might also enjoy. According to Matt, “We don’t accept advertisers unless we can find some thread of use to us and our community.”

As a long time fan of the show, I can safely say that nearly all of the products sponsored by Critical Role have been things I could see myself using or have used in the past. One of these sponsors, though, was particularly jarring and made me think a lot about what it means for Dungeons and Dragons to be popular.

On October 3rd last year, the Critical Role team partnered with Wendy’s for a special one-shot where the cast played a game in the Wendy’s produced tabletop RPG Feast of Legends.

When I first read the headlines talking about this collaboration, I assumed this was a joke. When I discovered it wasn’t and Wendy’s had, in fact, created a 100-page rule set for a tabletop game in the vein of D&D and released the rules for free, I was taken aback. At first, I was delighted. The art is funny and the rules are actually pretty detailed and fun. There are lots of fast food related puns and knocks at Wendy’s competitors; two of the major antagonists presented in the rules are The Creepy King with the Paper Crown and the Ice Jester, rules of the United Clown Nations. Reading this product, it was clear that someone at the Wendy’s marketing department has a passion for D&D and this product really shows it.

As I started thinking about how truly crazy it was that a giant in the fast food industry would make something like this, my feelings started to change. While Feast of Legends is hilarious an homage to modern D&D, I have to wonder how much, if at all, corporate giant Wendy’s cares about the D&D community. This whole thing is obviously just a marketing ploy. It’s a really, really good marketing ploy. But it’s just a marketing ploy.

And then there’s Critical Role. It’s one thing to talk about a product as a brief ad before an episode, but to devote the space of an entire episode to one sponsor’s product was unprecedented. And sure, I like Wendy’s well enough and I thought the rule system was an interesting novelty, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a full episode being basically product placement. I’m not sure where the team found the thread of use with this sponsorship. I wasn’t angry or upset about the episode. Mostly I was really excited for the episode. But there was a nagging feeling in the back of my head, like something was intruding on my sacred hobby. It didn’t feel wrong. It felt weird.

The Wendy’s episode, unsurprisingly, was hilarious and a ton of fun. It was evident the cast had a great time and were really into it. I laughed and smiled the whole time. But that feeling was still there. What does it mean for this group of people, who so many hold as ambassadors for the game and the pinnacle of D&D to be hosting a three hour long Wendy’s ad? I still don’t have an answer to this question, and unfortunately it’s not a conversation anyone seems to be willing to have anymore. There was a lot of backlash the cast faced for taking the Wendy’s sponsorship because of Wendy’s refusal to source produce from farms under the Fair Food Program, an initiative meant to ensure fair labor conditions for farmers. That said I’m not going to breathe anymore life into this branch of the conversation because it’s been had already.

The backlash has, unfortunately, caused the cast to distance themselves from the entire collaboration, taking the episode down and not talking about since it aired. Which is a real shame, because I think there is a real, generative conversation to be had about what it means for Critical Role and D&D to be getting so popular so quickly. What happens when big corporations take notice and view the community as another market space to tap into. Are we okay with that? I still don’t know, and I wish that conversation was still happening. Because at some point it’s going to be too late to have it.