“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” – Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit
Recently, Scott Alden, founder of the tabletop gaming hub BoardGameGeek, honored its 23rd anniversary by asking site members, “How Long Have You Been Tabletop Gaming?” As of this writing, the thread has 931 posts and counting, many of them multi-paragraph memoirs in miniature, telling stories from childhood games of Monopoly to eye-opening first plays of The Settlers of Catan. Many games appear repeatedly in these accounts, and perhaps unsurprisingly, few appear as often as one of the most pivotal tabletop games of all time: Dungeons and Dragons.
Love Thy Nerd is no stranger to D&D. Considering the game’s saturation in pop culture, to say nothing of nerd culture, it’s increasingly hard to imagine who might be completely unaware of it. Buoyed in part by its central role in the Netflix megahit Stranger Things, D&D has also had a “critical role” in the rise of “actual play” roleplaying game streams and podcasts. With a big budget movie just released this year, the public embrace of the game only continues to rise. What could stop this goose from laying a never-ending supply of golden eggs?
In early January, however, the D&D community was upended by the revelations of leaked documents. As first reported by Gizmodo, Wizards of the Coast (D&D’s publisher, a subsidiary of the toy giant, Hasbro) was planning to revoke the Open Gaming License (OGL) under which the game has been published for 20-plus years. The OGL has allowed third parties, including indie publishers and content creators, to publish their own works that interact with D&D’s game world and mechanics. This increase of content and tools has worked as a rising tide lifting many boats, especially WOTC’s flagship product itself.
One of the most controversial changes WOTC proposed was to claim a 25% royalty on all revenue above a relatively low threshold. This move would devastate bespoke publishers and various cottage industries, as their margins were already painfully low. Fan reaction was swift, and a grassroots campaign to cancel subscriptions to WOTC’s “D&D Beyond” online platform forced the publisher to respond. The simmering controversy finally led WOTC to completely reverse course, going so far as to put the core D&D ruleset into the Creative Commons. Still, much damage was done, resulting in seismic changes in the industry.
At this point, some might be tempted to think that this was merely a knee jerk reaction from overly online fans who are unhealthily invested in their hobby. But, I’m not a D&D player per se. I don’t approach this topic as some ranger desperate for vengeance against orcs. Rather, I am worried that short-sighted corporate greed is merely part of a greater threat to our real world, not a fantasy one. We tend to think of this greed in its extreme forms, like slash-and-burn agriculture destroying the world’s forests, or the mountaintop removal mining destroying Appalachian wild places. However, greed doesn’t have to be immediately catastrophic.“All of God’s gifts, including wealth, are abundant—they are increased when we share them, not decreased.” -Paul Butterworth
Even though I would argue (as have others) that we saw this same mindset at Wizards of the Coast, I am not writing to join in a pile-on. I want to humbly suggest a way forward, not just for companies, but for the people they consist of. The way forward requires that instead of hoarding up treasure like dragons, we embrace a life of abundance that shares the wealth. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax drew inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, including The Hobbit, which illustrates the importance of community over greed. Bilbo Baggins stumbles into adventure alongside a wizard and dwarves, looting a dragon’s treasure in the process. The Dwarven king in exile, Thorin Oakenshield, pays a heavy price in his quest for gold and revenge. He utters the quote which opens this article on his deathbed, saying further, “I leave now all gold and silver, and go where it is of little worth.” A dungeon crawl for treasure was not the goal of the story. The alternate title of the book is “There and Back Again”—for Tolkien, the good life was what Bilbo left in Hobbiton, a place of communal feasting and joy.
Tolkien drew deeply from his faith in crafting these stories. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul warns Timothy to be content with God’s provision of daily food and clothing. This passage is the source of the famous quote that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” If the letter stopped there, the natural inference would be that asceticism is our goal. But, Paul tells Timothy to urge the wealthy in his congregation to put their hope in God, not their wealth, as he “richly provides us everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:17b-18). All of God’s gifts, including wealth, are abundant—they are increased when we share them, not decreased.
We live in a creation corrupted by greed, and I often struggle with how to respond. As I’ve reflected on the implications of WOTC’s actions, I’ve found myself questioning: How can I internalize this message of abundance? What would it look like in my day job to be driven by hard work with a view toward service and sustainability, not just profit? As a nerd, what would it look like around the gaming table? How can I better invite people into my gaming community with generous welcome? What if, instead of adding another Kickstarter-exclusive game (which I might never play) to my collection, I used my funds to bless others?
The swirling discussions around Wizards of the Coasts may continue for some time. Some nerds saw this as an irreparable breach of trust and moved on to other RPG systems and settings, with a goal of supporting their publishers in the process. Many others, though, would probably quote Will Byers in Stranger Things’s third season: “Can’t we just play D&D?” As I walked through my local Barnes & Noble the other night, I was struck by just how prominent the D&D section remained, taking up prime real estate on an end cap. In the long run, I think its popularity as a system will continue. Ultimately, the choice of which system you run at your table for game night doesn’t matter nearly as much as choosing generosity.