So it Begins–Again: A New Addition for D&D

My dressing up as an alien monster days are far behind me.

If your fingers are on the pulse of the RPG circuit, you’ve probably heard that a new, 5th edition of D&D is on the way. Heck, even the New York Times is talking about it. Most of the world will only blink and take no notice. I mean, this game gets revised time to time, right? What’s the big deal?

I’ll wait for the cries of outrage to die down a bit before I continue.

My reason for the post isn’t that I’m outraged. Maybe I’m too cynical for outrage. Or maybe I’ve been involved in the hobby for long enough to be familiar with the evolution of the industry. Let’s take a very quick look at this in a historical context, shall we?

Don’t worry. This won’t be long or detailed. Grab a Mt. Dew and stay with me here.

D&D started in 1974, was revised into Advanced D&D in 1978, and then split into the mutant hydra of Basic, Advanced, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals over a period from 1981-86. It was a goddamned mess. That got us AD&D 2nd edition in 1989 which cleaned everything up and more-or-less became the standard for eleven years.

During those eleven years, things weren’t always milk and honey. TSR, the company that created the game, and most would argue, the hobby of Role-Playing, had been struggling. They sold the whole shebang to Wizards of the Coast in 1997, who I would suspect, got about revising the game as soon as the check cleared.

3rd edition came out in 2000, and it felt like a betrayal to a certain core of the players. After all, they had boxes of material that was now useless, and a whole new rule system to learn. I worked at a game store at the time and saw my share of “They’ll get my 2nd edition when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers!” But for every one of those, there were five people excited about the new start.

And why wouldn’t they be? The 2nd edition rules were a nightmare. It wasn’t entirely their fault, I suppose. TSR needed to make money, and they did that by selling product. And over the years they published a glut of new races, monsters, places, and yes, rules. 3rd edition was a great way for new people to jump in. Let’s put a pin in this paragraph. We’ll come back to it, because the economics of the game is important in understanding the hobby from a meta level.

And it worked. It worked so well that Wizards (now owned by Hasbro) revised the rules again, rolling out 4th edition eight years later. Where 3rd edition was divisive for revising old core mechanics, 4th edition was vilified for taking several of the sacred cows of the system and tossing them out entirely. While they tried to keep the spirit of the game the same, key play mechanics reminded people too much of video and tactical gaming. A lot of what they had come to love had changed significantly.

Personally, I was fine with the new additions. Yeah, it meant buying more books, but I was never the collector who had to have every book that came out. There was some genuinely fun stuff in 4th addition. Sure, the rules were different, but at the heart, it was still D&D.

And I’m sure that 5th edition will be much the same.

But I’ll admit I’m surprised and a bit confused over the open playtesting model that they’re doing this time around. It makes me think they’re trying for some kind of collaborative effort, seeking input from the gamers themselves over what they want in the game.

Best of luck. Try getting six people to agree on what kind of pizza they want. My people are fickle and opinionated. I was once part of a game session that fought for seven hours over whether we should turn left or right at a juncture. Now imagine getting hundreds if not thousands of gamers to have input on what is best for their hobby.

Either the input is going to be on the level of “Check these boxes” or “Rate the experience from 1-10,” or it’s going to be a nightmare. But that’s just my thoughts on it.

But why a 5th edition? Surely 4th edition couldn’t have failed so completely to justify that in such a short amount of time, right? Well, yes and no.

See, the dirty secret is, once you have the three core books (Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and a Monster Manual), you really never have to buy another product from them again. Back in the old days, D&D wasn’t much more than going door to door in some forgotten place, killing things, and taking their stuff. A person with graph paper could put together their own map, but most people bought adventure modules. And that was the bread and butter.

Get a bunch of seasoned gamers together and ask them what their favorite modules were, I can pretty much guarantee they won’t name a single one from 3rd or 4th edition. Because the game changed more than just with rule tweaks. Dungeon crawling wasn’t enough. Players wanted a big world to stomp around in. They wanted towns and cities and intrigue. They wanted the campaign, a world that centered around them.

But for that, you’re looking at a whole other kind of product–less of an inexpensive adventure, more of a setting book. And the problem is, once you have that setting in place, the characters have an investment in that place, those people, and they aren’t as likely to move on to another. You didn’t have that with dungeon modules. Once you cleaned out the Demonweb Pits, you didn’t buy a pie shop and invest in the community–you went to another dungeon.

For the economic model to work, the publisher needs to keep people coming back buying product that, on a fundamental level, everyone recognizes that they don’t actually need to play the game.

And that’s a dangerous place to run a business from. You need to be able to provide compelling content that makes players want to come back.

And from the get-go, I think they realized that with 4th ed. Last time I checked there were three Player Handbooks, and certain player favorites weren’t available in the first one, nor in the second one. Want to play a Barbarian or Druid? Guess what, Chuckles, you have to buy the second book. But they made it worth it. They put all kinds of useful and fun play info in the books. Likewise with the books detailing powers and features for other classes (Martial Powers, Divine Powers, etc).  From that perspective, they did a great job of monetizing the game.

So, where did they go wrong, and again, why the 5th edition?

While I heard a lot of people bitch and whine about 3rd edition, they didn’t really change core game mechanics that much. Sure, they cleaned it up a lot and got rid of some anachronisms, but it was still the same game–just better presented. But 4th edition took a game that played just fine and made it, from a rules perspective, a different game. (And let us not speak of how they shut the door on 3rd party developers in the process–the genie in the bottle that 3rd edition let out.)

I know several games still running in 3rd (technically 3.5) edition. I can’t say that about 2nd edition. These are games that are doing just fine without ever having to buy another D&D product again (except dice, which Wizards doesn’t make, or minis, which they only do random blister packs for.) To add insult to injury, Paizo, one of the aforementioned  (but not spoken of) 3rd party developers who got screwed in the move to 4th edition, did their own retooling of the 3.5 rules and called it Pathfinder (though it’s essentially D&D 3.75). They’re doing pretty well for themselves.

If I had any advise for Wizards/Hasbro in their time of need, it would be this: go digital, and revitalize your fiction line.

I know you’re worried about piracy, but let’s face it–if you put out a print book, some dick with a scanner is going to make a digital version available for free to anyone with a bit of time on their hands to look for it. If you make reasonably priced digital versions available, people will buy them from you to a) support your product, and b) for convenience.

I may not need every damn book you publish, and I certainly can’t lug that library around from game to game. But if I can pick them up for $10-$15 each for my tablet as a searchable file, I would buy a whole hell of a lot more of them. Heck, sell a digital subscription service to download the books (and I’m not talking D&D Insider–that was some weak bullshit and we all know it.)

And you guys remember the Dragonlance Chronicles? My third wife wrote her college entrance essay about one of those books. Hello Notre Dame! Now, while you do still publish books (and a few damn fine ones–you need look no further than Eric Scott de Bie’s Shadowbane books and Rosemary Jones’ novels for proof of that), it’s almost an afterthought. Editorial staff turns over faster than, well, anywhere I can think of. And I understand, Hasbro, that you’re not in the business of publishing novels. But novels, well marketed and flooding the market, make people aware of the product and the world, and that in turn brings in new players. So I’d suggest you start taking it seriously because it could be money in your pockets.

And I’ll be watching the development of 5th edition. I won’t stop playing in my 3.5 game, and will continue running my 4th edition games. Because the pressure is on you, now. You have to show the gamer community that 5th edition is going to be an improvement to the game–not just an improvement in how you monetize it.

2 thoughts on “So it Begins–Again: A New Addition for D&D

  1. Hey Nathan,

    I will make a few tiny corrections and then put in my two cents worth. First 3rd edition was already in development when WoTC bought TSR. That said it did get a substantial overhaul once in their hands and of course the D20/OGL license that allowed 3rd party developers to play in the same sandbox was wholly the brain child of Ryan Dancey (suuuuuper genius <- said with sincere affection).

    As you pointed out the problem is that once you have sold someone the core books they don't really need to darken your door again. They *probably* will, but only if you entice them with a product that is compelling and that puts you in the position of always wooing your customers. Something that you will inevitably fail at.

    But the most important thing that you missed is the value of the backlist. TSR/WoTC roleplaying is unique in the publishing industry in that their backlist (books already published but reprinted) is probably the most powerful in the publishing industry. Most other gaming companies put their product on the market and see 90% of their sales in the first 6 months and then piddle along until the product goes out of print. The core books, however, hit a plateau and then just keep selling. The problem, of course, is that the plateau is far lower then initial sales.

    Part of the goal of the D20/OGL was to keep that plateau active and strong. The idea was that as long as new/weird/interesting products hit the market that required the core books they would keep pulling in new consumers. The D20/OGL was *intended* to allow 3rd party publishers to publish products that WoTC (and eventually Hasbro/WoTC) could not or would not do but for which there might be a small market. Unfortunately, the folks who understood that left WoTC and when 4.0 was released that idea was tossed into the dust bin.

    The same, by the way, is true of TSR/WoTC's backlist of fiction novels. They just keep selling. Not at the level that they debut at but once the initial costs are paid off reprinting is *cheap*. The trick is to publish stories so compelling that they become "canon" (for lack of a better word). Weiss and Hickman's Dragonlance novels and Salvatore's Dark Elf series certainly qualify.

    But back to the main point. I am, in no way, an insider anymore but I will take a guess as to why 5.0 had to be done. The initial sales for 4.0 were likely strong. Not quite at the level of 3.0 but more than worthwhile. Follow up products did as expected and sold somewhere around 50% of what the core books did (perhaps even a bit better because of the way they structured them). But then something unforeseen happened. The backlist trailed off hard. Suddenly that nice profit margin that is created by reprinting core books was weak. Revenue were expected to decline after the core books peaked but it was hoped profits would remain strong or even increase – but they didn't.

    The problem is that the new edition did not pull in any new consumers. And without the pull of third party publishers the product was only selling to D&D fans. Imagine if Cthulhu Tech had come out compatible with 4th edition or Dresden Files or even the Pathfinder setting Golarion? None of those are setting that WoTC would have published all of them sold well enough that they would have driven core book sales.

    Now with both revenues and profits dropping something had to be done. Looking back historically the answer would be obvious – release a new edition.

    Anyway that is the theory.

    Anthony Valterra

    1. Thanks so much for the insight, Anthony!

      I still question how they are currently handling their fiction backlist, at least from what I’ve been seeing in the past year or two. But the economics of the OGL, backlilst gaming product, and enticing new people to pick up the core books is a good reminder of how the industry works. Or at least worked.

      Man…Cthulhu Tech on 4th ed. would be awesome. 🙂

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