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Guts & Bolts: Have Dice Bag, Will Travel

I spent last month’s Guts & Bolts being pretty hard on Epic Fantasy’s promotional copy. That’s not surprising: I have a complicated relationship with Josh-1the genre, even going so far as to quit it entirely while I was in college. But I’m going to try and be nicer this time around by dealing with a very specific type of Epic Fantasy that has never left me: The Fantasy Roleplaying Game.

And if I’m going to to take that on, I might as well start with the latest iteration of the grandaddy of them all, Dungeons & Dragons.

So how does the most well-known fantasy RPG market itself when it’s time for a new edition? Let’s find out.

D&D 4ed DM Guide800lb Gorilla

Much like X-Men for comic books or James Bond for spy thrillers, the simple fact of the matter is that Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have to market itself. There is already an existing fanbase that will buy the product simply because it has the words Dungeons & Dragons on the cover. And it’s probably a big enough number to keep the whole enterprise afloat, especially when you consider that the publisher is going to slam the shelves with new, shiny, hardcover, expensive addendum books on a monthly basis until five seconds before the next edition comes out.

But probably isn’t definitely. So the publisher had to do something enticing for a couple of completely different sets of people in very limited real estate. First, they had to try and get “new edition skeptics” to give a second look. Second, they had to appeal to the new roleplayer.

New Editions That Don’t Involve Bell, Biv, and DeVoe

Whether it’s an (ill-advised) update, a (detestable) new formula, or a (more boring) re-imagining, all brands need a fresh coat of paint now and then. But as you can see from my examples, for every successful casting of Daniel Craig there are a bunch of Roger Moores. And consumers are naturally leery of change, even to brands or characters to which they’ve grown loyal.

So how did Dungeons & Dragons do with their fourth edition? Not bad, actually.

The cover uses an updated but still recognizable version of the logo, which is the same as a warm, comfy blanket in branding terms. They use beautiful (if not overly dynamic) cover art of a dragon inside a dungeon. It ain’t subtle, but it gets the job done. “This is your same old D&D,” the cover art promises, “only sexier.”

The promotional copy does a pretty good job as well. At the end of the day, players want to know they can get right to rolling dice out of a book, and that promises is made for sure. Let’s take a quick look.

…exciting encounters, adventures, and campaigns for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game, as well as advice for running great game sessions, ready-to-use traps and non-player characters, and more. In addition, it presents a fully detailed town that can serve as a starting point for any D&D game.

Advice, ready-to-use stuff, and even a town to use as a jumping off point. Instant adventure, just add twenty-sided dice. This is attractive to an edition skeptic because it means they can get right to work on trying the new stuff and deciding if they like it. Holding their hands into a brave new world is good marketing.


What about those totally new to the hobby? Well, as it turns out, D&D does a solid job here as well, and with a lot of the same tools. I mean, the first most important thing they did was make sure Dungeons & Dragons is front and center on the cover. There is, quite frankly, no stronger or more recognizable brand when it comes to any RPG, let alone fantasy ones.

Similarly, although the cover art isn’t super exciting or particularly action-packed, it gives you what you expect. Dragons inside Dungeons. “Yes,” the new consumer is thinking, “this is most assuredly what I’m looking for. It’s right on the label.”

As for the promo copy, the bit we’ve quoted makes the same promises to a newcomer as to an old hand because they’re attractive, albeit for different reasons. A greenhorn wants his hand held because he’s never done this kind of thing before, and this rulebook promises to give him the help he needs to get started.

But that’s actually the second paragraph of copy. Before that, there was this tidbit:

The third of three core rulebooks for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons® Roleplaying Game.

The Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game has defined the medieval fantasy genre and the tabletop RPG industry for more than 30 years. In the D&D game, players create characters that band together to explore dungeons, slay monsters, and find treasure. The 4th Edition D&D rules offer the best possible play experience by presenting exciting character options, an elegant and robust rules system, and handy storytelling tools for the Dungeon Master.

Now, that first sentence might be a misstep. I appreciate the honesty, but if I was totally new to a hobby and thought I held the only book I needed, then found out there were three more…I might get leery. Still, as far as customer satisfaction, this is probably a better way to go than hiding the fact. After all, you’ll notice the publisher doesn’t mention the other nine thousand books that are entirely options but, we pinkie swear and cross our hearts, are just as AWESOME.

But as far as reinforcing the newcomer’s decision to go with an established brand, this copy is bedrock. Defining genres for thirty years is a big deal. On top of that, exploring dungeons, slaying monsters, and finding treasure is pretty much three decades’ worth of raison d’être for D&D.  What’s more, it sounds hella exciting! Just what I wanted! To get together with friends and imagine us up some fantasy adventure!

And if the new guy is worried about the rules, he’s assured they’re exciting, elegant, robust, and full of handy tools. It could be a lie, but it’s a comforting one designed to sell books. And you’ll never know until you’ve spent the money and read the whole thing.


There’s a lot of nuance I skip over in this analysis, such as “how would people even find out about a new hobby?” or “wait, where do I buy all these weird shaped dice they talk about?” But that stuff aside, this D&D book does a great job of convincing the two main groups of folks that need convincing, and they did it by leveraging the best tool they had at their disposal: a venerable and strong brand.

So the moral of the story is to get one of those strong brand thingies. But that’s a hard road to travel. If you find a shortcut, share it with me, will you?

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