From the Tabletop to the Toy Department: Hasbro’s Dungeons & Dragons Goes Mainstream

Nearly 50 years ago, a legendary franchise was born somewhere in the wilds of Southern Wisconsin. As tends to be the case with many legends, the exact details of how, exactly, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) took shape have become muddy — and even disputed — through the passage of time. At the center of the D&D origin story, one thing is clear: two game designers, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, are credited with turning their passion for wargames into something new and completely epic.

Gygax and his business partner, Don Kaye, formed Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) and brought in Brian Blume as an equity partner to fund and publish D&D in 1974. Upon its release, D&D effectively kickstarted the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) industry.

In D&D, players assemble an adventuring party to go on epic quests while exploring fantasy worlds. The Dungeon Master serves as both storyteller and referee as players level up in experience throughout the game and its campaigns.

As its popularity quickly caught on, a new version, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was released and game components, including The Dungeon Masters Guide and the infamous d20 (a 20-sided die), became part of the pop culture lexicon.

When the Reagan-era “Satanic Panic” movement kicked in, D&D, with its wizards, monsters, mythical creatures, and spells, was placed under the microscope alongside other “controversial” entertainment of the time as BADD (Bothered About D&D) posited that the game was recruiting members for the underworld. Simultaneously, D&D was expanding to reach a wider audience through Saturday morning cartoons and toys, including LJN’s line of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons action figures, beasts, and playsets.

HASBRO JOINS THE PARTY

The 1990s brought change and the eventual sale of TSR to Wizards of the Coast (WotC), which in turn was acquired by Hasbro in 1999. A long-gestating D&D film debuted in 2000, but failed to make its budget back. Still, a pair of modestly budgeted sequels went direct-to-DVD and found a cult following as a new generation of players discovered and embraced D&D.

That generation and the updated, fifth edition of D&D (released in 2012) met at the intersection of new media platforms like YouTube and Twitch, where creators and celebrity players took the collaborative nature of their campaigns to a global audience. But things were about to get a whole lot stranger.

The Dungeons & Dragons showcase in Hasbro’s showroom during Toy Fair New York 2020. | Source: James Zahn/The Toy Book

INTO THE UPSIDE DOWN

Stranger Things hit Netflix in 2016, dropping a new breed of D&D-inspired storytelling into living rooms everywhere. In the first episode, a 12-year-old disappears after leaving a D&D campaign with his friends — but the influence hardly ends there. Numerous creatures inspired by D&D lore entered the Stranger Things mythos. Hasbro took notice and released a co-branded Dungeons & Dragons x Stranger Things Starter Set and other collaborative merchandise to feed the growing fanbase with ties back to the original game.

“D&D is cooler than ever. While portrayals in pop media have certainly contributed to record-breaking sales year after year, we at Wizards believe the ease of entry into the modern rules for the game has allowed more people to fall in love with rolling dice with your friends,” says Liz Schuh, Director of Product Management for D&D at WotC. “It’s a lot easier to learn how to play by watching your favorite content creators out there doing the same.”

A CINEMATIC QUEST

By 2019, Hasbro was entertaining pitches for another go at a D&D movie. Late Hasbro Chairman and CEO Brian Goldner championed the property, citing a record number of players in 2018. Ultimately, the quest to find the right filmmakers led to the duo of Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Vacation, Game Night) to helm this year’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Slated to hit theaters on March 31 from Paramount Pictures, the heist film is set in the Forgotten Realms campaign and stars Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Chloe Coleman, Daisy Head, and Hugh Grant.

Related: The 2023 Edition of The BIG Toy Book is Here!

Last year, with momentum amplified by the release of Stranger Things 4 and its Hellfire Club of D&D enthusiasts facing off against the villainous Vecna in a storyline borrowing heavily from the panic years of the ‘80s, Hasbro met with retailers and others at Licensing Expo in Las Vegas to present its multiyear plan to firmly establish D&D as a mainstream franchise for the whole family to enjoy through entertainment, games, and toys.

An assortment of new Dungeons & Dragons products from Hasbro, Super Impulse, and Wizards of the Coast. | Source: Hasbro

CROSS-GENERATIONAL PLAY

“It was important to the team to create a toy line that would appeal to both new fans of D&D — where maybe their first experience with the brand would be seeing the movie — and more seasoned adventurers who have been playing for years and are already actively engaged,” says Emily Bader, Manager Global Brand Development & Marketing for D&D, Hasbro. “We ultimately created a blend of movie-inspired and lore-inspired products that have cross-audience appeal and, quite frankly, look pretty awesome.”

Bader gives much credit to the design team, which like the modern D&D audience, is made up of veteran Dungeon Masters and some folks who are just learning about the brand. Together, they’ve crafted a line that spans multiple categories, including action figures, blasters and roleplay, collectibles, and games.

An assortment of characters from the 6-inch scale Dungeons & Dragons Golden Archive Collection | Source: Hasbro

“Our D&D toy segment has three main product pillars for our 2023 line,” she explains. “First is The Golden Archive, our premium line of 6-inch-scale characters and monsters. Think of it as the D&D equivalent to our Star Wars: The Black Series or Marvel Legends lines. Then we have our Cartoon Classics line, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of the 1983 D&D cartoon by bringing those characters to life in action figure form for the first time. And last, but certainly not least, are our new Dicelings, which are d20s that convert into monsters.”

To make an impact in the toy department, Hasbro’s D&D team was tasked with developing a cross-category line involving input from multiple divisions, partners, and the filmmakers.

Related: From the Editor: Let’s Start the Roaring ’20s

“It has been such a collaborative journey … The product development team has worked closely with our partners at Wizards, eOne, and Paramount every step of the way,” Bader says. “We were inspired by the script, had collaborative ideation sessions, and really got to understand the movie and how we could translate it into toys. Our movie toy product really capitalizes on what makes Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves special and celebrates the characters and monsters of the story. One of my favorite movie products is our new kid-focused movie dragon — his wingspan is nearly 20 inches!”

Hasbro is targeting kids with this new movie dragon. | Source: Hasbro/The Toy Book

NEW ADVENTURES AHEAD

While Hasbro bets big on the success of Honor Among Thieves, the future of D&D is already unfolding in new ways. In January, Paramount+ ordered eight episodes of a live-action D&D TV series from eOne and rumors persist that an unscripted series will follow. Beyond that, more kids may get hooked on the franchise in the years ahead in a rather surprising place: school.

“One thing that’s been really exciting within the community recently is D&D play being endorsed by so many educators as a powerful learning tool,” Schuh explains. “Last year, Wizards partnered with Young Minds Inspired (YMI) to build a curriculum that teachers can use in the classroom. YMI reported more than 9 million teachers, students, and families accessed Digital Teacher’s Kits with more than 56 million total impressions. Wizards also launched a new D&D After School Kit providing everything educators or volunteers need to start a D&D club at their school, community center, or library. Both of those programs focus on bringing new players into the community using the content in the new D&D Starter Set: Dragons of Stormwreck Isle.”

An assortment of new Dungeons & Dragons products from Hasbro, Avalon Hill, WotC, and Ata-Boy | Source: Hasbro/The Toy Book

But that’s just the beginning as Hasbro and its partners gear up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the game that started it all. According to Schuh, “The D&D Team has a lot of amazing things up the sleeves of their wizard robes for the 50th anniversary.”

One project already confirmed to be swirling on the horizon in 2024 is a feature-length D&D documentary from actor and Dungeon Master Joe Manganiello (True Blood), who will co-direct with Kyle Newman (Fanboys).

While Gygax, Arneson, Kaye, Blume, and Goldner have all passed on, their contributions to the toy and game industries continue to inspire new ways to play as the fantasy realms of Dungeons & Dragons continue to expand, forever welcoming new parties of adventurers to become a part of the story.

The 2023 Edition of The BIG Toy Book features the global reveal of Hasbro’s Golden Archive Collection Owlbear. The figure will be available to pre-order beginning March 1. | Cover photo created by © Mitchel Wu Toy Photography

A version of this article was originally published in the 2023 edition of The BIG Toy BookClick here to read the full issue! Want to receive The Toy Book in print? Click here for subscription options!

About the author

James Zahn

James Zahn

James Zahn, AKA The Rock Father, is Editor-in-Chief of The Toy Book, a Senior Editor at The Toy Insider and The Pop Insider, and Editor of The Toy Report, The Toy Book‘s weekly industry newsletter. As a pop culture and toy industry expert, Zahn has appeared as a panelist and guest at events including Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) Wizard World Chicago, and the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy. Zahn has more than 30 years of experience in the entertainment, retail, and publishing industries, and is frequently called upon to offer expert commentary for publications such as Forbes, Marketwatch, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, the Washington Post, and more. James has appeared on History Channel’s Modern Marvels, was interviewed by Larry King and Anderson Cooper, and has been seen on Yahoo! Finance, CNN, CNBC, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, CBS, WGN, The CW, and more. Zahn joined the Adventure Media & Events family in 2016, initially serving as a member of the Parent Advisory Board after penning articles for the Netflix Stream Team, Fandango Family, PBS KIDS, Sprout Parents (now Universal Kids), PopSugar, and Chicago Parent. He eventually joined the company full time as a Senior Editor and moved up the ranks to Deputy Editor and Editor-in-Chief.

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