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Dungeons & Dragons grows into whiskey, furniture and candles

Inside the storefront of Cantrip Candles in Hollywood, CA.

Sarah Whitten | CNBC

It’s not every day that a spilled beer can start a company. But that’s exactly how Christoff Visscher got the idea for Cantrip Candles.

An avid Dungeons & Dragons fan, Visscher was hosting a game when a beer got knocked over during a rowdy tavern interaction. The malty scent added to the ambiance of the scene and inspired him to start making his own candles and fragrances to elevate his friend’s tabletop gaming experience.

Some seven years later, Visscher’s Cantrip Candles has a physical storefront in Hollywood and nearly two dozen custom scents — from the airy, pine-scented Walk in the Woods to the rich, smoky whiskey and firewood aroma of Black Hound Tavern.

Inspired by fantasy games and settings like those seen in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and other popular tabletop role-playing games, Cantrip Candles has created its own lore to pair with its scents. They include Library Scriptorium (parchment, aged wood, leather), Den of Thieves (smoke, red wine, aged leather) and Forest of Fae (jasmine, neroli, tomato leaf and amber), all locations that could be found in any fantasy world.

“We always make it our own,” said Visscher. “And that’s how we can be an authentic to ourselves. Sometimes, we create environments that aren’t the most traditional fantasy environments. We have a scent called Goldwheat Bakery.” It smells like yeast, bread and flour.

Products from the company range from $15 for wax melts all the way up to $99 for 20-ounce centerpiece candles. Cantrip Candles also partners with other small businesses to sell wick trimmers, matches, notebooks, plush and apparel.

Sellers need to be on their game with these customers, too.

“They expect you to respect, understand and anticipate their needs, even though the problems you’re solving can be extremely niche,” said Ed Maranville, co-founder of Wyrmwood, a tabletop gaming accessory and furniture company.

The franchise life

The customer base is growing, and it’s hungry for elevated, luxury merchandise that celebrates and enhances their fandom. It’s more than just T-shirts and special dice. There is a desire to live the fantasy, or at least incorporate it into day-to-day life. Crafters and hobbyists have turned into entrepreneurs creating unique and bespoke merchandise like wooden lamps shaped like 20-sided dice (commonly called d20s), custom wall art and just about any item you can find in a kitchen: cutting boards, glasses, spoons, you name it.

It’s part of a wider trend among many different entertainment franchises, from Marvel and Star Wars to Harry Potter and “Friends,” as well as for fans of regency era romance novels, the horror genre and Broadway musicals.

Smells like whiskey and firewood, the Black Hound Tavern candle is one of nearly two dozen bespoke scents from Cantrip Candles.

Sarah Whitten | CNBC

Dungeons & Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in the early 1970s. It is a structured but open-ended role-playing game often played around a table. Players solve puzzles, go on quests and battle enemies. In recent years, due in large part to Covid social-distancing protocols, many games are played virtually using video-conferencing tools.

Hasbro, which owns the Dungeons & Dragons brand through its subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, has boasted that the game has more than 50 million active players. These consumers have consistently boosted sales for Wizards, pushing the division’s revenue to over $1 billion in each of the last two years.

Hasbro acquired Wizards of the Coast, the company that owned the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, in 1999. The Rhode Island-based toymaker is protective of its intellectual property. It recently tried to revamp its game license to crack down on third-party content creators and boost revenue. However, those plans were shot down in January, as the D&D community balked at the new terms, which were largely viewed as overreaching and unfair.

The company did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The shopper cohort that stocks up on fantasy-themed lifestyle merch is often grouped as “kidults.” Essentially, this customer is 12 or older and spends money on collectibles, toys or merchandise. Last year, these kids-at-heart were responsible for one-quarter of all toy sales annually, around $9 billion worth, and were the biggest driver of growth throughout the industry, according to data from the NPD Group.

Kidults buy other products linked to their interests, like furniture, art and even alcohol. And there are plenty of companies offering up unique, quality products for fantasy tabletop gamers.

Drink like a warlock

“In this community, in most fandoms, if you build something that’s premium, a luxury feeling item, people respond,” said Matthew Lillard, co-founder of Find Familiar Spirits. “The industry sort of discounts their buying power. They’re like, ‘Oh, they just want dice,’ but the reality is that I want something that speaks to me as a modern human. I want to be able to live it on my own.”

Lillard, who rose to fame in the ’90s and early ’00s for roles in films like “Scream” and “Scooby-Doo,” is an avid Dungeons & Dragons player and fan of the fantasy role-playing genre. This week his new company, Find Familiar Spirits, which he founded alongside screenwriter Justin Ware, is launching its first in a series of limited edition whiskeys.

Distilled in Indiana and Kentucky, the first whiskey edition, which has an initial run of 5,000 bottles, is called Paladin, named for the playable class in classic tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a bourbon whiskey blend with notes of vanilla, fruit and a little spice and will retail for $150.

Three other whiskeys — Rogue, Warlock and Dragon — will roll out at later dates under the banner Quest’s End Whiskey. Early interest in the product has led the company to expand the number of bottles produced going forward.

Source: Quest’s End Paladin

In total there will be 16 whiskeys, released every three to four months over the course of four years. Each bottle is paired with a booklet that contains a chapter of a new and original fantasy saga called “Dawn of the Unbound Gods.” With every release, a new chapter will be unveiled.

Similarly to Cantrip Candles, Found Familiar Spirits is creating its own lore.

“Our whole thing is that we’re creating an immersive unboxing experience that goes along with the whiskey,” Lillard said. “It does no good to create a beautiful bottle and a s— whiskey.”

Lillard is no stranger to selling products to this community. In 2018, he co-founded Beadle & Grimm’s, a gaming company that offers licensed expanded editions of Dungeons & Dragons modules, Magic: The Gathering sets and other games in the tabletop role-playing game space.

The company started by selling premium $500 boxes filled with high-end miniatures, maps and props tied to specific Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.

“Our belief is that if you create a high-end premium experience for a whiskey connoisseur, that also loves Dungeons & Dragons, people will turn out to buy and support that,” Lillard said.

A seat at the table

Other companies have found similar interest from consumers, particularly those looking to meld their fandom with their dining rooms.

That’s where Wyrmwood Gaming comes in, offering products that serve multiple needs for consumers. In this case, a place to play weekly tabletop role-playing games and have dinner every night.

“Gaming tables serve a need that most consumers have, which is to save space and give them flexibility in their life,” Wyrmwood’s Maranville said. “While some are fortunate enough to have a dedicated space for gaming, for most of us, space is at a premium, and your space for playing games is in either your living room, kitchen or dining area.”

Wyrmwood is known for its high quality wooden accessories and gaming tables, which feature modular pieces that can transform furniture from a dining space to a fantasy landscape. The company first launched on independent online marketplace Etsy in 2012, offering products that could bring gamers “out of the basement.” The company now has its own website.

“As lifelong gamers, there weren’t a lot of options for finely made accessories,” Maranville said. “Gaming could often still feel like a childish hobby, despite the enormous passion and seriousness that many gamers bring to it, along with their grown-up tastes and budgets.”

Wrymwood’s prophecy gaming table in Bolivian rosewood with wine fabric trim.

Courtesy: Wrymwood

Prices range from $600 to more than $10,000 based on table size, shape, wood and other customizations. The company also sells accessories with magnetic components including cup holders, card and poker chip holders, dice trays and bottle openers. Wyrmwood recently extended its line to include a customizable modular desk.

Maranville said he knew the company would thrive nearly a decade ago when Wyrmwood first attended the PAX East convention in 2014. He said patrons gravitated toward the brand because it took their passion seriously and provided merchandise for everyday use.

“We sold out of everything, I completely lost my voice, and our little booth was inundated with attendees all weekend long,” he said.

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