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The State of D&D: Present

Greg Tito | 28 Dec 2011 09:00
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Changes in how people buy RPGs and the freedom of the OGL combined to make the Old School Renaissance grow across the internet. The rise of digital distribution of PDFs through marketplaces like DriveThruRPG.com have allowed designers to make money selling their work with less overhead. The costs of printing books has also decreased, especially print-on-demand services that allow smaller print runs, so it's easier than ever for amateur designers to publish something gamers can bring to the table and use with any of D&D's older editions or retro-clones.

Pulling from so many different sources, especially videogames, may have worked against the reception of 4th edition D&D.

While most members of the Old School Renaissance are older people who began playing as kids during D&D's early-80s heyday, the current edition competes against a totally different medium among young people today - computer games. "Nerd momentum has moved away from RPGs and towards videogames in the last 30 years," said Pramas. "In the 70s, if you were a certain kind of geek, you'd have played D&D. Now that same type of geek is much more likely to enter fantasy gaming through World of Warcraft."

Mona admits that tabletop games are vying for the attention of the audience but instead of a threat, he sees a challenge. "Gamers have more options to spend their money than ever before, and that could lead to an erosion of tabletop gamers across the board," he said. "A lot of the bleed-off can be counterbalanced by a new generation of gamers who come to the hobby through electronic games, but who are open to tabletop experiences, as well. Many of these gamers come to the table with a much greater understanding of RPG basics like hit points, character class, and armor class than any of us had in the 1970s. It's up to game publishers to make compelling content that these people will want to buy and experience as much or more than the latest computer or console game."

Coinciding with the release of 4th edition D&D in 2008, Wizards of the Coast launched an advertising campaign that reached out to MMO players. "If you're going to sit in your basement pretending to be an elf, you should at least have some friends over to help," the text of one ad read over a shot of a bored young man in front of a computer. Paradoxically, one of the most frequent complaints with 4th edition was that the rules too closely mimicked World of Warcraft or EverQuest. The concept of certain classes described specifically to take or deal damage in 4th edition mirrors the role of tank or "DPS" in MMOs.

Collins admitted that 4th edition was influenced by MMOs but was quick to point out that the design took inspiration from many contemporary sources. "As professional game designers, we look at all games for lessons," he said last year. "Certainly, the lessons we learn from online games are going to be the most obvious ones because they have a lot of people familiar with the sources, but there's also lessons about turn management from European board games, interface ideas from card games."

Pulling from so many different sources, especially videogames, may have worked against the reception of 4th edition D&D. "I think the mistake people sometimes make is to think that we can attract more players if we ape the experience of videogames. I think a better approach is to emphasize what makes pen and paper RPGs unique and fun," said Pramas.

For all the machinations behind-the-scenes at Wizards and the grumblings of people in the industry, Collins and his designers clearly wrote a game that fans wanted to buy. Preorders for the core books of 4th edition of D&D in June 2008 were extremely strong and - without any hard sales numbers released by WoTC - anecdotal evidence from local game stores supported the claim that it sold much better than 3rd at launch. Moving its periodic content to a digital portal called D&D Insider on a monthly subscription model, while providing access to online tools like the handy Character Builder seems to be successful (Again, without any sales numbers it is hard to gauge, but anecdotally most people who play 4th Edition use D&D Insider in some capacity.) In addition, any gamer who wrote scathing critiques of the game on forums was met with an equivalent number of fervent supporters of 4th Edition. The new game has attracted a loyal audience, especially with younger players, but at the cost of alienating those who grew up with the game of Gygax and Arneson.

The negative response to 4th edition was not without consequences for the people who made it. Rob Heinsoo was laid off in late 2009, and Bill Slavicsek, Director of RPG R&D for more than ten years, left earlier this year. Wizards is notorious for laying off employees before Christmas, but restructuring can happen at any time. In May 2010, Andy Collins was asked to vacate his position at Wizards of the Coast as design and development manager of D&D. "To be blunt: They told me they were restructuring the department and I didn't have a job there anymore," he said. "As harsh as that moment was, it was a good thing for me, both personally and professionally. Despite working on an amazing game, surrounded by smart, talented folks whose mere presence made me a better designer, I was stagnating."

With the departure of Heinsoo, Slavicsek, Collins and most of the brand team who launched 4th edition, it seemed the company was moving in a new direction. The D&D Essentials line and the new Red Box starter set released in September 2010 were publicized as easy gateways for players to enter the hobby. WotC also released its first D&D-themed boardgame - the dungeon-crawl with 4E elements Castle Ravenloft - at the same time. Wizards of the Coast appeared to be moving away from a pure tabletop RPG publisher and people began speculating what the company would do next. Some assumed that a new 5th edition was inevitable, while the concentration on digital subscriptions and online tools suggested that Wizards could sustain the 4th edition lifecycle for a while. Old school gamers rejoiced when Collins' successor was named, but it remains to be seen whether one man can turn the tide.

A changing of the guard at Wizards may herald a sea change for the company, check back to see what the ghost of D&D future has to say about where tabletop RPGs will be like in ten years.

Read more on the The Ghost of D&D Past and continue with speculation on The State of D&D: Future.

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