Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Dungeons & Dragons Retreats, Goes Back to the Drawing Board?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 11, 2012

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast (WotC, part of Hasbro) officially announced development of yet another new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and the story has surprisingly been picked up by such publications as Forbes and The New York Times. Fourth Edition, we hardly knew you.

Why change now (which still feels sudden)? Besides the fact that WotC has gotten into the habit of changing editions the moment the current edition has started to feel to “mature” and players are finally used to the rules? Well, a lot of things have been said, but what it boils down to as best as I can figure is this: Third Edition (probably not coincidentally with an Open Gaming License) blew away their wildest expectations, and Fourth Edition (without nearly such an open gaming license) failed to meet expectations.

WotC even clamped down and removed all copies of older versions of their games from digital sales channels. Why? Because players were stocking up on older edition stuff. Why? Sounds like there was a perception that the older games were superior among the fan base. This has always been an issue amongst a subset of the fan base – but that wasn’t a problem with 3E. If that perception is so high amongst your fans that the new version is inferior to your previous offerings, you have a real problem that just making your older product hard to acquire isn’t going to solve.

And it didn’t. Among other things, open-gaming-license-powered Pathfinder came along – largely as a response to Wizard’s clamping down on the “open gaming” thing and trying to put third-party publishers “back in their place.” The new GSL for fourth edition really put the fate of the third-party publishers completely in the hands of WotC. So Paizo decided (late into the process) to do their own thing, with a fraction of WotC’s clout and cash, and over the last couple of years  pretty much eaten D&D‘s lunch. I understand it is now out-selling D&D 4E, though I strongly doubt its total sales have been able to trump 4E’s totals since 2008.  But it doesn’t need to. It’s a major victory regardless.

Now, I don’t know how much the open gaming license(s) affected the success of these games. Maybe there are people at WotC/Hasbro who think that the Open Gaming License, which enabled Pathfinder to happen, is the source of all their woes (and there are folks who formerly worked at WotC who now work at Paizo and elsewhere who seem to feel like the “open gaming” thing was the primary source of 3.0’s success, too).

I can only relate my personal experiences. I may be unique and weird in all this, but that’s how it worked out for me. This is entirely “my take on things,” which reveals more about my own mindset and play style than it does about D&D. It’s colored heavily by my own perceptions (and frustrations).

I (mostly) gave second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a miss. Oh, I bought the core rulebooks (eventually), and played some 2E in its computerized RPG incarnation (Yay, Baldur’s Gate!).  But around the time 2E came out, I had moved on to the Hero gaming system from 1st edition.

Why? Mainly because I liked the flexibility of the Hero system. Which turned out to be its biggest fault, as well, but at the time, with the highly constrained class-based 1E and 2E systems, it was exactly what I needed. (This was before they came out with all the splatbooks with a hundred class variants which, of course, everyone needed a copy of the splatbooks on-hand to use, though they did have a tiny rule section on constructing your own classes.) I was also not too thrilled with the tone and style of the second edition — I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but it “felt” too clean, too lacking in whatever mysterious charm the earlier editions had possessed.

Later, I discovered that TSR (then the owners of the D&D property) had largely changed hands and creative staff, and had made a concentrated effort to… well, “dumb down” the game. They’d deliberately written the game to appeal to younger readers, and to remove any material that had ever been used to generate free publicity from fringe groups in the early 1980’s. Evil could never be characterized as competent and powerful (this was in the writer’s guidelines for TSR). Demons and devils were no more… and were later brought back with an explanation that they were simply evil alien races from an alternate dimension. Um, yeah. The “flavor” thing. Sure, for a good Dungeon Master it didn’t make a lick of difference… the new rules were cleaner and more complete but basically the same, and a good DM could provide his own flavor. But it just didn’t hook me.

Hero had its own problems and frustrations, some of which I noted in a recent article on skill-based and class-based RPG systems. We were ready for a change when third edition Dungeons & Dragons was announced. It had three things going for it:

  1. Old-school flavor. At least that was the perception from my end, having played Hero system as our primary game for a decade. It felt like it was written, once again, for adults (or reasonable mature teens). It felt like an old, familiar friend. (And in the meantime, we’d gone back and played a one-off D&D game and remembered how fun it was).
  2. A radically redesigned game system that tried (and largely, IMO, succeeded) to combine the best of class-based and skill-based rules system. It had built-in flexibility not present in earlier editions. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a giant leap in the right direction.
  3. The “open gaming license,” which for me (remembering the years of TSR sending C&D’s to fans for their D&D websites) meant one thing: Huge third-party support. And that was exactly what happened. Too huge, actually, as even the huge demand couldn’t keep up with the exploding, pent-up supply of materials.

I was thrilled. I was converted. My gaming group made the (somewhat painful) switch to D20, gradually figured out the rules, and had a blast for several years. We switched to 3.5 somewhere in there, which caused a bit of confusion and frustration for a bit as we’d forget what rules had changed, and everyone had to upgrade to new books. It seemed we’d barely hit our stride with 3.5 when Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons was announced.

That was one strike against it – it felt far too soon for us, especially considering it was going to be another radical redesign of the system. But then, once it was released, it had none of the three benefits 3E had enjoyed (in my mind). The licensing was really not “open” at all and potential third party publishers were alarmed and disgruntled. On paper, the game seemed a totally different fantasy game that had little in common with previous editions of D&D, so there wasn’t a perceived need in my mind to “keep up” with the game… the new system was a totally new game that was D&D in name only. And finally, the rules system felt like it went into the completely opposite direction, trending towards less flexibility and even more rules-bound than 3.x had been (which made the Game Master feel like more of a referee than a participant and storyteller).

And most importantly – we were still having fun with 3.5, and the radical redesign of the game system didn’t address any of the perceived weaknesses in 3.5 that we felt needed to be fixed. It was filling a need that didn’t exist. I guess it did exist – the need to attract new players to the game system rather than appealing to us old gaming farts – but it wasn’t our need.

And that’s where Pathfinder came in. In my mind, the biggest boost Pathfinder could have received came from Wizards of the Coast’s decision to cancel all digital distribution agreements on their older systems. This total jerk move on WotC’s part made staying with 3.5 an expensive proposition (if you wanted to do it legally), and extremely difficult to bring in new players for. It torpedoed any potential for lingering third-party support of 3.5.  It painted Wizards of the Coast as the “bad guys,” especially when digital sales channels had to explain to customers why they would no longer be able to re-download copies of PDFs that they had purchased. And it sent a signal to many of us that WotC had no confidence in their newest edition of the game, as they had to protect it from older versions.

But here was Pathfinder, all ready to fill all those needs. It was readily available, happy to have third-party support, addressed many of the weaknesses of 3.x D&D without radically transforming the experience, and still maintained much of that “old-school” D&D flavor (not as much as 3.x, but a lot more than 4.0, in my mind). Plus, it was every bit as polished and cool as D&D had been (partly because many of the same people who’d worked on the previous editions were now working on Pathfinder).

Also, the Pathfinder guys were very, very active in soliciting playtesting feedback from the community during development – a playbook page that Wizards of the Coast now seems to be trying to emulate for their next edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

For me, it feels like WotC destroyed a lot of the faith and goodwill they gained from me in the early 3E days. I think some great game designers put some really hard work into making a good game system that looks to be a lot of fun to play. To me, 4E was unnecessary, and the decision to make it was a money- and control-grab on the part of the higher-ups at WotC / Hasbro, cannibalizing its fanbase to go after some larger potential market. They didn’t make the game for me, and they didn’t make a game I really wanted to play. Paizo did.

Paizo acted like the white knight, rescuing the game system in a lot of ways for me, and doing a really solid job making Pathfinder a game I really, really enjoy. So I now look at the upcoming new edition of D&D with mainly academic interest. I can’t say I’m excited about the game system at this point.  And part of me just wants to say, “Neener, neener!” to WotC for having treated me poorly in their revenue-generation calculations.  For my gaming group right now, there’s really not much chance that a new edition of D&D will win us over. Its only chance would be to capitalize on some act of massive stupidity on Paizo’s part – the same way Paizo capitalized on WotC’s massive blunders. Otherwise, I don’t see us being very enthusiastic to buy a NEW set of rulebooks for everyone in our group and learn a whole new set of rules for our Saturday night games.

I really hope that doesn’t happen.

Filed Under: Dice & Paper - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Kevin Jackson said,

    I suspect I feel the same way about 4e now that you did about 3e. I certainly don’t feel anything other than curiosity about a new edition–4e is working just fine for me. I’ve still got a bunch of character I want to create and play, and our current campaign has a ways to go still.

    What concerns me is the way you described 3e people being hung out to dry. It would be easy for WotC to pull the rug out from under 4e, since so much is dependent on online tools. It would be very unpleasant to lose that information.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I actually did like D&D 2 mostly because I grew up with it. Although the monster manual from the first one was the best. All those funky monsters. For some reason I zeroed in on Dragon Turtles. The artwork for them was too compelling. I had to have at least one in any of the campaigns I made…..didn’t get to play those campaigns with anyone, but still I made them anyways 🙂

    The 4th edition was what I feared would happen when I heard about WOTC taking over the D&D franchise. I thought they were going to destroy it. To my great surprise it didn’t. It improved it beyond my wildest expectations and the more I read about WoTC the more I liked that company and those guys who started it.

    Of course that couldn’t last. I can’t remember the details, but they sold their company and that was the beginning of the end of WoTC being awesome. Now they reverted back to the TSR days or more likely they took after Games Workshops stance on their product. Nothing good can ever come from that.

    So 4th edition was released. I bought it. I read it. I then put it down and never picked it back up again.

    The most horrendous act they commited was the poor gnomes. They became monsters………WHYYYYY!!!!!!!!!!!

    This video is suppose to showcase, in a funny way, some of the changes that will occur, but to me it’s just sad:


  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Kevin – from reports I’m hearing, WotC is trying very hard to send the message that they will be “fully supporting” 4E between now and then. Probably because players remember just how hard they shut the door on 3.x. But back then, they made the same kind of promises, too, so I don’t really know where 4E players will stand. We can just hope for the best.

    @Skavenhorde – Never saw that video before. Funny!

    And yeah, the original 1E artwork was a big factor for my fascination with the game. I think in some ways they were better on account of their… I dunno, “sketchiness.” Although there was some truly beautiful full-color artwork in later editions that were just as compelling. Maybe I was just younger and more impressionable in the 1E days.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    There were two huge mistakes surrounding 4e.

    One was to gut the older editions. The long tail, anyone? If the new product was any good, it would have succeeded anyway, and revenue from the older one wouldn’t have hurt either. As it has, they ended up with a failure on their hands and no fallback.

    The second one was a dismal failure to understand their target audience. Yeah, yeah, they wanted to capture those gamers who grew up with World of Warcraft. Guess what, those of them who might be interested to try tabletop are likely to look for a different experience, as opposed to “the same thing only with dice in hand”.

    So, FAIL. Sorry, but I can’t feel sorry for them. 🙂

  • Xenovore said,

    Agreed. Maybe I’m just too old and jaded at this point, but I haven’t bothered paying much attention to new table-top RPG systems since D&D 3; I took a glance at D&D 4 (some friends had picked it up and were trying it out), but it was so “bleh” — I had absolutely no desire to play it.

    The stuff I’ve owned and played for years works just fine (and often better in my opinion) so why waste time and money on new stuff?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, a lot of it comes down to how much support you want or need. My old 1E books still work just fine, if the pages are a little more yellow than I remember. The problem is trying to get a new player a decent copy of the rules, etc. And I do like having modules and “new shinys” for my game. But that’s the “problem” with the dice-and-paper game industry… you are selling people a toolkit to make their own games, and really that’s all they need for a lifetime.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    2nd Edition AD&D will always be “my” Dungeons and Dragons. I played that for so many years. A lot of people may complain about the complexity of AD&D, but it had so many options to pick or choose from because it was so long in the tooth. My own gaming group adopted and cherry picked rules and tables as we saw fit, and it made for a very personalized and customized game. Critical Hit rules and tables from the Fighter’s Handbook, etc. etc. (Of course THAC0 was never a good idea . . . )

    WoTC seriously ticked us off with 3rd Edition. Not the edition itself, but the fact they changed everything shortly after and said the old books were “wrong”, and “oops, here’s 3.5, go buy all its books now”. The fact we bought in a little later others so it was only a year until the “mulligan” was called left us with a sour taste in our mouths. 3.5 was great, but by then we were mainly playing Alternity sessions, one of the last great gasps from TSR that to this day is still my favorite PnP system.

    And what is up with the rapid iterations of D&D now?
    Basic D&D (4 years)
    1st Edition Advanced D&D (11 years)
    2nd Edition Advanced D&D (12 years)
    (And most people like my group freely blended materials from both editions of AD&D, so it was really like 23 years with the same edition of D&D.)
    3rd Edition D&D (3 years)
    3.5 Edition D&D (4 years)
    4th Edition D&D (4-5 years?)

    It just feels like WoTC needs a constant cash cow, and instead of expanding existing editions through new books and tools, their trying to use the consumer electronics approach of saying you need a whole new product every few years.
    It’s so damn formulaic at this point: New edition, new corebooks, new versions of all the old supplemental books, new versions of old adventure kits, yada, yada. Just changing the rules and selling the same list of books with the updated rules and shiny new coat of paint.

    I don’t know that I care anymore, At least with the old versions I can still play whenever I want – the books don’t expire. I still have them, and they are all I’ve ever need to run a game. I never even tried 4th Edition, so like you Rampant, 5th Edition interests me only from an academic standpoint. But I shudder to hear how much the newer editions depend on online tools – those will go away someday, and then you’ll be forced to play new editions if you want to still play “D&D”.

    I also have to tip my hat to Pathfinder – I picked up one of their books a couple of years ago (thinking it was a D&D supplemental) and was blown away not just by the fine-toothed refinement of rules, but the overall quality of the books themselves in the design and artwork department. Paizo is kicking WoTC’s ass in more ways than just sales. The way they lay out and create adventure modules, the way information is presented in the books, etc. is all leagues better than WoTC has been doing for recent books.

    It seems with 5th Edition WoTC wants to have the whole cake and eat it too. I predict they’ll choke to death.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s really the thing. I mean, so long as the rules are *reasonably* decent my friends and I can pick up dice and have a lot of fun with it. So it’s not like we really need to “upgrade” – the books don’t wear out too quickly.

    I think the underlying problem is pressure from Hasbro to turn the RPG business into a much larger revenue source, similar to some of the other divisions of the company. That’s just not happened, and it sounds like they are getting increasingly desperate trying to grow that business.

    I agree with you completely about 3.5. Even Monte Cook came out at the time (he was not involved with the 3.5 revision) and said it was too much, too soon. A minor revision that didn’t require a full-on upgrade of the rule books would have been fine. I really like 3.5 (still), but in a lot of ways I would have preferred the change to have been about 4 years later and a lot MORE like Pathfinder. 🙂

    I just wonder how long it will be before WotC sells the D&D license to Paizo and Pathfinder BECOMES D&D.

  • BellosTheMighty said,

    Maybe part of it is that they looked at the history of video gaming and saw a problem. Because as you’re describing it, the OGL sounds like the same kind of thing that brought down the second console generation: third-party developers put out a lot of material, but most of it winds up being mediocre or slapdash, leading to failure of consumer confidence and a market crash. The industry only got back on its feet once the big boys started keeping a tight leash on the third-party product.

    Come to think of it, that happened with the first generation of TCGs, too, which is where Wizards cut their teeth. Maybe they were afraid of history repeating?

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    the video game comparison doesn’t work. The OGL did create a lot of third-party material – but it wasn’t mediocre or slapdash. Most of it was BETTER than D&D.
    WoTC licensed their rule set and found everyone could make better use of it than they could. So with 4th Edition they acted like a spoiled and upset kid and locked everyone else out of the treehouse.

  • Patrick said,

    I must agree with White Rabbit. OGL material was vastly superior to WotC’s own works, a situation I’m sure they found humiliating. Their splatbooks were generic, uninteresting, and tedious. Their progress through material and level of significant support for settings poor. Moreover, their books had an awful lot of padding: a setting book might have no more than a third of it setting material, while a classbook might similarly be about 40-50% class material. The rest was just filler.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I agree that some of the material was far, far superior in terms of rules / content quality. WotC put a lot of money into quality of presentation, with full-color art, etc., and while they were matched, I don’t think they were beat.

    But especially during the early days of 3.0, there was a ton of third-party content of poor quality dumped on the market – the “bubble.” I’d say the majority of it was not of the quality of WotC’s initial offerings.

    But by the time 3.5 came out, most of those companies had died off, and the remaining third-party publishers were pretty good. It was getting to the point where I was ignoring most of WotC’s releases, but continuing to buy interesting materials from a few favored publishers.