D&D Brand Meta

Looking through my blog feed and I stumbled across this post over as Confessions of A Geek Queen.

http://geekqueenblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/how-wizards-of-the-coast-almost-killed-their-company-and-how-theyre-saving-it/

I was at first moved to comment, but realized the amount I wished to write would be abysmally long for a comment box. That being said everything I say is obviously my opinion and my intent is to offer a even-keeled and non-inflammatory counterpoint. So go have a gander at the article above over at Confessions.

The first thing to strike me was the title (obviously right?). The notion of D&D failing as a brand would destroy Wizards of the Coast is excitable but not very accurate. D&D is not even WoTC’s flagship, cash cow product, much less Hasbro. To see this illustrated very succinctly head over to the Hasbro web site. The sidebar showing their products has WoTC but of the only 12 products listed under the affiliate none are D&D related.

Burying D&D would hurt Wizards but it’s no death knell. They have a game called Magic The Gathering, which essentially is a money printing machine. D&D failing hurts only its faithful and those D&D dedicated employees working for Wizards.

I feel the comments regarding Spelljammer do the article harm. I think it’s a marginalizing statement. Spelljammer is a pretty niche interest for D&D enthusiasts. There are even people who are pretty vocal about their disdain for it. Personally I don’t care. Wizards in space really isn’t what I want for my D&D experience but neither do I believe it should not exist. I think that is probably what baffles me most about the opinions expressed in the original article. Fourth edition is nothing more than a money grab, it is not able to support noteworthy campaigns, it is stupid and not the right way to RPG?

There is admission to originally resisting 3rd Edition, but eventually converting and coming to love it. No words are spent concerning the 3.5 revision. Despite being a pretty passionate argument in favor of it being a money grab stunt. It is not difficult to argue 3.0 had problems that were in need of revision. Heck, even 3.5 was served a facelift with Pathfinder. But pale are the transgresses of yesterday when faced with new problems. Edition wars are pretty silly. Obviously we prefer one rules set, and since we play it, it is obviously the best. Difficult is it to convince someone their favorite of a group is not the best option and they should have a new favorite. So… good luck with that Mount Everest of an endeavor. It would be different if someone were just ignorant of the other system, and thus not already decreed judgment on it but everyone in edition wars has so the entire escapade is nothing more than white noise. To have D&D enthusiasts reply “it’s not so bad” to tirades I think is more a credit to a system of rules able to adjudicate actions actually being capable than a group having their collective spirit crushed.

Yes, D&D 4e is different than its predecessors as is each new edition. It is also a departure from some of the commonly associated designs and mechanics of its forbears. The design is not arbitrary, as stated in the original article its design is heavily influenced by video games and MMOs in particular. During its infancy D&D brought most of its players and mechanics from tabletop war gaming and that is reflected in the system’s mechanics. So reflected to the point that originally to play the game you almost needed the Chainmail rules as a necessity. Fourth edition was released in a very different climate than its predecessors. Table top role playing games in recent decades have taken a dive in interest. The competition of PC and console games, then online games, and then MMOs on the surface there is simply more to offer in these options and they’re easier to access.

The audience for traditional role playing games is getting smaller and older. Older editions of D&D were not bringing in new blood to the hobby and gamers who cut their teeth on video games looking for a new option have a difficult time relating to some of the antiquated mechanics and design. Tactics heavy combat with clearly defined party roles make sense to the new audience. Cool down/recharge makes more sense than Vancian Casting and serpentine strings of combat feats, or obtuse grappling rules.

It’s an easier entrance point into the hobby and a more streamlined system of rules. Table top RPGs by their nature are not something someone picks up casually, an offhand way to pass some time. Having an easy to introduce system makes a big difference in bringing new people into the hobby. It’s the difference between handing someone a handful of dice, four power cards illustrating actions they can do in combat and being able to play and slapping down a near 600 page Pathfinder Core Rulebook and telling them they need to read it through. The first is going to get someone playing and the latter is going to push someone away from the hobby perhaps permanently. Even for an experienced RPG player 3.X/PF can be a cumbersome and deep system to wrangle. On the other hand 4e is relatively simple and by far the easiest edition to run as a DM. And if there is something the hobby is always desperately in need of it is more DM/GMs.

To assert 4e was created to make money is self-evident. To point it out makes it seem like other published products and supplements with a price tag were somehow not created with the exclusive intent to amass profit for its creators. That is a nonsensical notion. These are brands and products owned and licensed by corporate entities that exist solely to make money.

The simple fact is 4e was created differently to appeal to a different audience. The current D&D audience and market is shrinking rather than expanding in face of more competition and enticing alternatives than ever before. The reason we see D&D moving at all with D&D Next is because of Pathfinder. Paizo immediately swooped down and picked up 3.X veterans and gave them an option not to convert when it was announced WoTC would not be publishing any more 3.X material. The OSR movement has stolen away those loyalist still playing earlier editions.

This is unfortunately what worries me the most about the latest and iteration of the D&D Next Play Test. Large bits of it are a compromise of prior editions; very safe and familiar. Unfortunately if the last decade of D&D has taught us anything it’s that safe and familiar isn’t paying the bills. On paper the play test sounds like a good idea but in reality only a small portion of those playing DDN report anything to WoTC. The course of DDN is being navigated by a very vocal minority. Personally I don’t believe DDN will pull a significant segment of the market back from Paizo or OSR converts and they have already alienated what new audience they built with 4e. They have placed themselves in a solitary corner and heeding the criticism of people who have already found preferred alternatives to a current/new D&D seems like a poor strategy. I think trying something really new would be a better choice as at this point D&D as a brand is running out of things to lose by the attempt. Of course this is predicated on the assumption that WoTC/Hasbro is taking any stock in play test commentary. To be honest given their past dealings with the brand and its community I would say listening to the community is on the list but it’s not the top bullet.

As for the comments on Forgotten Realms, I think they’re pretty accurate. I’m not the right person to ask about Forgotten Realms specifics as I don’t particularly like Faerun. Though I believe it takes a certain ridiculousness to call a place Forgotten Realms when every square inch of the setting has half a century of world building lore behind it. It should have been considered finished a while back. Repackage it with new stats for each new edition sure, but don’t keep ripping it apart and stitching it back together in an effort to keep the setting fresh.

Conclusion: That which does not grow dies. An attempt was made to grow D&D with 4e and after the initial plunge the brand has done nothing but backpedaled, looking behind rather than forward. Like the saying “if you chase two rabbits you will lose them both.” At this point I would have some confidence saying if the D&D brand is still around in ten years it won’t be owned by WoTC/Hasbro. I think the only way to avoid that is for DDN next to show the table top RPG community something great (not just good or passable) they haven’t seen before.

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5 thoughts on “D&D Brand Meta

    • Really? Tell me about your favourite 4th edition character. Tell me who he is, and tell me about his (or her) greatest accomplishments. Then I’ll tell you about my favourite 3rd edition character (and I won’t even cheat and use the ones I converted from 1st or 2nd edition, I’ll use one created entirely in 3rd edition,) and I’ll demonstrate the difference. – Signed, The Moron

    • Very true, you certainly don’t have to read every page of the PF Core Rulebook to play. I haven’t and I play it with a reasonable handle on the rules. I meant when confronted with a 600 pg book of rules, that conjures a visceral reaction. Something the homework of assignment of read pages X – Y for comprehension doesn’t particularly help. I did however pull out my PF Beginner’s Box to check, just the ‘Hero’s Handbook’ contains more than 60 pages. Which of course includes limited options and doesn’t include the more potent information in the 100 page Game Master’s Guide.

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