The Book of Vile Darkness was recently announced by Wizards of the Coast for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons with a release date of December 20, 2011. You might recall that my pal George Strayton is working on the movie of the same name. The movie and book will be released simultaneously. It’s about time!
This is a marked improvement in Wizards of the Coast’s media strategy. With the past Dungeons & Dragons films, role-playing-related content was more an afterthought. It’s not uncommon for role-playing games to be released to coincide with movie or television franchises, but this is definitely a first for Wizards — a role-playing book launching a movie.
The path from role-playing game to a movie is littered with corpses. Mutant Chronicles, a 2009 independent science fiction action film loosely based on the role-playing game of the same name, ranked 16 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Another “chronicles,” Midnight Chronicles, was based on the d20-compatible role-playing game setting Midnight. The movie was originally meant to be a pilot for a TV-series, but it was never picked up. It currently has a 41 percent rating on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).
Why aren’t these films successful? Part of the challenge is mainstream appeal. Role-playing games are rich worlds that are meant to be explored, but it’s precisely that open-ended appeal that makes them difficult to wedge into a movie script. The other problem is that gamers are in the minority — the collective fans of Mutant Chronicles and Midnight are not enough to bolster film sales like say, a comic book franchise.
And yet a major franchise like the Dungeons & Dragons brand has tremendous crossover potential. While any film based on a game is likely to have a niche audience (Battleship anyone?), a movie’s launch should play to its strengths. You should get a free month’s game play to the Star Wars massive multi-player online role-playing game if you buy a Star Wars movie ticket; you should get a coupon for a fantasy fiction novel set in the Pathfinder universe when you buy a role-playing game rule book; and you should be able to find the statistics of the characters in a movie based on Dungeons & Dragons in a book of the same name. This encourages the fans of the games to try other media, and introduces new fans to the game.
Timing is a factor too. This crossover potential requires discipline and coordination. The last time there was a major synchronized multimedia push on this scale was from TSR with the Dragonlance series, when the modules were released along with the fiction novels.
There are encouraging signs that Wizards finally gets it. The latest Dungeons & Dragons board games feature the same style and formatting of the role-playing game. Multimedia channels like the Book of Vile Darkness movie are an opportunity to interest new players. By leveraging its strength as a brand beyond the role-playing game, we all benefit.