The past several years have seen momentous growth in the cultural interest around tabletop games, and the beating heart of this mass moment is Dungeons & Dragons. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s now an attending set of prestige products for the discerning D&D player. And by prestige I mean prestige. The production company Beadle and Grimm’s created a boxed, Platinum version of last year’s Dragon Heist that sold out at the price point of $500, and they’re creating a Silver Edition of the upcoming Ghosts of Saltmarsh that will take some kind of similar shape at a lower price point. But a question lingers: if we’re sitting down to the enjoy the tabletop theater of the mind, then why the hell would we spend all of this money on it?
That was my gut reaction to the product, and I’ll admit that I still can’t shake the feeling that there’s something deeply strange about the whole thing. But after looking through the Platinum Edition of Dragon Heist, I have to say that I can understand the draw behind the product. The pitch is that the box has everything you might want to jumpstart and facilitate the play of a Dungeons & Dragons module.
A module is a pre-written scenario created by another person or company (like Wizards of the Coast) that allows a Dungeon Master to pick up a book, read through it, and then run it for their players. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a different kind of work than creating and crafting your own world as a Dungeon Master, and it requires a lot of prep to perform the content for your players. What Beadle and Grimm’s prestige editions of Dungeons & Dragons modules do is allow the Dungeon Master to shortcut some of that preparatory work. Instead of reading a found note to players, you can hand them the one that comes in the box. Instead of describing a medallion found on a dead body, you can let them feel the facsimile. Instead of digging through your massive box of miniatures for ones that sort of work for Dragon Heist, you can use the exact correct ones.
As a Dungeon Master, I started out ambivalent about this. Part of the work of running a D&D game is making choices about what maps to prepare, what enemies to queue up, and what parts of the module you think might need to be cut to make the game a little easier. Those are all tactical choices, but those are fundamentally different than the ones that you might be making after you sink a few hundred dollars into a box of map tiles, deconstructed manuals, and prepared information sheets for every enemy. You might feel like you need to do it all. You might feel compelled to really go for it in a way that you haven’t before. So there might be less work in some areas, but that might make more work in others.
I’ll be honest that I didn’t quite understand the appeal of this until I spoke to Matthew Lillard, one of the brains behind the Beedle & Grimm’s products. You might know him from Scream, or as an eternal Shaggy, or as one of the amazing performers in last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return, but we only spoke about his unending love for tabletop gaming and what it allows him to do. The logic behind these prestige editions of D&D products only really start to click for me once we started talking about his play group who has been meeting and doing tabletop gaming for the past 28 years. In my conversation with Lillard, it became clear that we understand the tabletop experience a little differently.
“We’re super heavy on roleplaying,” he explained. “We’re super heavy on cool moves. We have combat, but it’s kind of a different breed of game.” When I asked him about whether his group was more into modules or homespun worlds, he explained that they’re into modules. He told me that they played the published adventure Age of Worms “for like six years” and now they’re in Tomb of Annihilation, one of the bigger published adventures from the past couple years. As our conversation went on, it became clear that what Lillard and his group of players were after in a game of D&D is the very particular flavor of tabletop that we see in series like Stranger Things. It’s a flavor of fantasy and a kind of experience that’s not quite as melancholy as Lord of the Rings, not as grim as Game of Thrones, and not as saccharine as the vast majority of visual and written fantasy content. An on-brand, well-run D&D campaign feels like nothing else, and that’s clearly what Lillard and crew are trying to provide.
If you think about your tabletop gaming experience as a platform upon which you can build out cool moves and fulfill heroic deeds, and you’re thinking about it as part of an already-expensive board gaming hobby, then five people splitting an expensive box for a plug-and-play gaming experience starts making a lot of sense. If you’re time crunched and want to embrace all the neat things that tabletop games allow for, then the whole concept starts to make itself more and more appealing. For people who are invested in tabletop games outside of D&D, including the vast world of free or cheap games like Honey Heist or Apocalypse World or Dream Askew, then the massive monetary investment might not make a lot of sense. With some distributed labor and player-centered play, you can avoid a lot of the prep that D&D demands while still getting the core of the roleplay experience. For people like Lillard and his crew who, as he told me, “don’t have time to experiment,” this provides the exact amount of novelty within the familiar D&D ruleset to keep everyone happy and engaged
Some players are really attached to the prep-heavy mechanics of the venerable institution, and people with more money than time could see this as a shortcut to the kinds of tabletop experiences that they’re looking for. Traditional fantasy characters running into clever fantasy scenarios that are all contained in a convenient box does begin to look like an investment, and while it’s hard to see where this fits into my own gaming experience, it’s hard to deny that this is almost certainly a welcome object for many people who are trying to capture that D&D magic without the huge time sink of D&D preparation.
It’s impossible to deny that these prestige editions are cool and have interesting effects on the game. What’s up for debate is whether it’s worth it, and I think that has to come down to an evaluation of how much your group wants to spend to be able to jump directly into some immersive action at the gaming table. While I don’t know if I could ever be into this for the $500 of the Dragon Heist Platinum Edition, the lower the price goes the more likely I am to recommend these kinds of products to busy Dungeon Masters and money-pooling players. After all, they do make the work of running these games easier. It’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay for that ease.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.