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Cocktails and Chromatic Orbs: Keeping “Dungeons & Dragons” Vibrant For 42 Years

Dungeons & Dragons director Nathan Stewart explains how he’s growing an old brand by sticking to its storytelling roots.

The packed Dungeons & Dragons event at Meltdown Comics last week was as adventurous as one of its games–featuring a bar laden with exotic drinks bubbling over with dry ice fog, a raucous live-streamed celebrity gaming performance, irreverent press conferences, an explosion of limited-edition D&D artwork and merchandise, and that time-honored Los Angeles staple: food trucks.

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Michael Ng, owner of BTG Bartending, pours a concoction.Photo: Klaudia Seidl, Kloud Nine Photography

What was unusual was such an elaborate launch being used to unveil a single storyline–called Storm King’s Thunder, which debuts this fall–offering a glimpse into how D&D, a cooperative fantasy adventure, has maintained a four-decade market leadership in role-playing games. The company estimates tens of millions of fans worldwide, with 6 to 7 million playing at any given time.

Dungeons & Dragons is a storytelling platform,” says D&D director Nathan Stewart. “You don’t need to reinvent everything. We make it fresh with yearly changes rather than a whole remodel. We tell a new story every year, a big overarching story to pull everyone back in, then introduce a little bit of new stuff and new ways to play it.”

D&D players portray different characters who journey together, solve problems, and battle common enemies. This event teased Thunder with a live cast performance of a game following that storyline, which continues as an eight-episode summer series, Force Grey: Giant Hunters, on Nerdist.com. It features a group of comedians and actors, to be joined by Nerdist’s Chris Hardwick, playing various elves, dwarves, and the like tasked with fending off marauding giants.

Since debuting as a tabletop board game in 1974, D&D has survived pre-geek chic culture, ownership changes (it’s now published by Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast), and the proliferating gaming landscape accompanying the rise of geek culture, to keep an old brand modern and relevant. There have been legendary “campaigns”–games with an ongoing connected story–rumored to have continued for as long as a decade.

The Dungeons & Dragons cartoon that debuted in 1983

“You have to figure out the core essence of your brand,” says Stewart. “D&D was created with the purpose of people getting together, forming bonds, and diving into this world together. So what’s the current way people are doing it? You don’t change who you are but how you’re delivering it, if that’s how the fans want it.”

Special guest Cundo Rabaudi, a Dreamworks visual development artist, overlooks D&D figures he’s just painted. Photo: Susan Karlin

It since has expanded its storytelling platforms to video games, mobile devices, books, MMOs, and virtual reality formats. There’s also a new D&D film franchise in the works from Warner Bros. in partnership with Hasbro.

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An attempt to translate D&D to film, from 2000

“We make sure what they’re doing synchs with the stories we’re releasing,” says Stewart. “If you’re playing an MMO and I’m playing at the table with friends and we want to talk about Dungeons & Dragons, we’re saying the same stuff. The end game is always people sharing stories together.”

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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