In a departure for the property, the classic Dungeons and Dragons board game is entering the world of middle-grade books for the first time. HarperCollins Children’s Books’ new Dungeons and Dragons publishing program will launch with an illustrated middle-grade novel called No Humans Allowed!, set to hit store shelves in the U.S. on November 2. Written by Madeleine Roux and illustrated by Tim Probert, it is the initial title of three in the Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon Academy series. The second and third books are scheduled for fall 2022 and fall 2023.
The program, which is produced under a license from Hasbro and its Wizards of the Coast division, will also include illustrated chapter books and graphic novels. A chapter book series from HarperChapters, based on the middle-grade novels, will launch in winter 2022, with the second and third books planned for winters 2023 and 2024. An original graphic novel series from HarperAlley, written by Molly Knox Ostertag and illustrated by Xanthe Bouma, will debut in fall 2022, with a second title in fall 2023 and a third in fall 2024.
The deal came about after Hasbro pitched HarperCollins on some of its newer properties. The presentation included a slide about D&D. “It felt interesting and odd,” said Tomas Palacios, executive editor at HarperCollins, who, as a Disney/Marvel veteran, knew first-hand the power of fictional worlds. “At retail, people gravitate toward what they know. It’s familiar and safe. You see the brand and you instantly know what it means to you.”
Palacios asked if the property would be available for middle-grade publishing and was told to submit a proposal. When doing a deep dive into the property as part of that process, Palacios picked out themes such as teamwork and learning from your mistakes that were key components of the property. “All the elements were there that are perfect for the middle-grade audience,” he said. “And this is a massive audience that is not yet being touched by D&D.”
Of course the popularity of the property among adults, many of whom have children, was attractive. “The fan base is ridiculous,” Palacios said. More than 50 million people play the 40-year-old game, which has experienced seven straight years of growth.
The books are set in a school where monsters and creatures learn to be scary. The main character, Zelli, is a human raised by minotaurs who keeps her real identity secret. Familiar elements from the property are featured in the books, but with a twist. For example, one of the characters in the book, an owlbear—normally a savage, carnivorous species—is a vegan botanist with a British accent. Palacios describes the premise as something like The Lord of the Rings combined with Harry Potter. “If they had a baby, it would be this,” he said.
“For someone who draws fantasy art, Dungeons and Dragons is up there as one of the pinnacle properties,” said Probert, who is currently adapting his illustrations for the novel to the chapter book format. “I bought Dungeons and Dragons as a kid and I actually never played it, but I read the books that are in it and loved the covers and the box art.”
Roux, author of the first three middle-grade readers, has older brothers who played D&D. “I didn’t understand the game as a kid, but I really liked the art and the monsters, and I used them to learn to draw.” As an adult, she has played and run games as a Dragon Master. She was attracted to the project by the unique premise and the ability to play with established archetypes, as well as Probert’s illustrations. “Tim’s art is so enchanting,” she said. “It was so unique and funny. I came up with ideas just from the art, it was so inspiring.”
The creators had a lot of freedom compared to some other licensed projects in which the story has to fit into a large, well-established world, although the licensors made sure the monsters had enough tails and the maps were consistent with the existing lay of the land. “It certainly feels like D&D and it’s nestled into that world, but we had the freedom to establish our little pocket world within the canon,” said Roux, who has worked on projects tied to Star Wars and World of Warcraft. “They actually told us to be weirder and wilder. This is the most freedom I’ve had on any IP project.”
Palacios said the deal brought some unique marketing benefits. Wizards of the Coast has a massive social media presence and has been promoting the covers and news about the books on gaming platforms such as Twitch and Steam, as well as on Instagram, raising familiarity to adult fans and their kids. It also devoted an entire edition of its monthly Dungeons and Dragons magazine, Dragon+, to HarperCollins’s books, including a cover image by Probert. “This was something they did organically, without it being in the contract,” Palacios said. “They were so into this, and so supportive.”