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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

5th Edition D&D... in other words we've been down this road before, twice

Normally I’m the type of guy that will let things play out rather then rush to condemn, but the recent announcement of 5th Edition over at the Wizards of the Coast website has made me throw that out the window. I’m very much live and let live type of guy, but I also like to point out idiocy whenever it rears its ugly head. All over the web people are talking about the announcement and what it means. The main point I keep coming back to is a new edition of D&D needed? To which I say, no. This isn’t some reactionary knee jerk either. Rather, Wizards has managed to screw up D&D or succumb to edition churn at an ever-alarming rate. Take your pick; in fact it might be both. This is simply the latest example.
"I come in brown AND I "squirt."

Some will say “How can you know that it’s going to be bad before you see it?” Sorry. but I didn’t have to reserve judgment to know that Justin Bieber, the Microsoft Kin, Google Buzz and Wave and Microsoft Zune would be craptastic either. Some things are just born to suck.

First off some history is in order, for those not in the know Wizards of the Coast is NOT the originator of the game.  Wizards is a subsidiary of Hasbro that subsumed TSR and thereby acquiring the rights to D&D. The history of D&D is a sordid one stretching back to its roots in the 70’s when the game was first born. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson are credited with jointly creating the game, but a sealed settlement, and both men being deceased means we may never know the details of what actually went down.  Enter the Blumes and then later Lorraine Williams (warning link may cause damage to your eyes...) and you have that the main driver of the game never really had control of the creation, or had it for exceedingly short periods of time. 1st Edition succeeded in spite of efforts of those involved in fighting against Gary (as near as I can and others can figure). TSR went belly up in the 90’s through mismanagement  (namely Lorraine Williams promising to show how real companies are run) but I digress and Wizards snatched it up only in turn to be bought by Hasbro. There you have it, game of IP hot potato where the name of the game itself became more important then the content.

And there is one of the main cruxes of why Wizards of the Coast is churning out yet another edition of D&D (for those counting they released 3.0 in 2000, 3.5 shortly thereafter and then the miserable failure that is 4.0 in 2008). The IP is too valuable to ignore and the best way to use it is to create a new edition, there I said it. My suspicion is this churn of yet another edition mantra is for money plain and simple. First off I have no issue per say with this as people have families to support, I get that, but call it like it is.  It’s no different then the Iraq War; had Bush Jr said the real reason why we went to war was weapons of mass destruction when in fact it was something else. My own belief is that it was to get rid of Saddam for trying to whack his father and I’d have been fine if he just came out and said it. Wizards of the Coast is in the same boat: call it like it is guys: 4e went out the gates destroying Attila the Hun style everything that D&D was prior, and gleefully I might add. The only problem with these scorched earth tactics is that well, you ravaged the country side and on top of that you had a peasant revolt for good measure, i.e. Pathfinder. As I wrote about last year in my post the Pathfinder rift vs 4e D&D was the biggest shift since the 1st/2nd edition shift. The difference being is that the move to 2nd was a minor tremor compared to the earthquake of your customers jumping ship to a competitor. You created the madness that lead to your own fracture customer base. I covered this previously last year here.

Edition churn is nothing new, D&D never reached self-sustaining numbers even in its hey-day so the only way for publishers to stay afloat is new editions. I’ve talked about this before at, the game was a rather wobbly business model to begin with and has repeated itself nearly every iteration of the game. The model in my opinion is not sustainable and requires a reboot every so often to survive.

So now we get to the crux of all of this, 5th edition D&D that is supposed to be a big tent for all to come in and play. Do they really think we are that dumb? That their attempts at olive branch D&D détente is anything more then a PR move? Had they really been interested in offering a D&D for all editions all along they would have done so. Rather they took the approach of trying to force their customers to a new edition by cutting off the old, reasoning that with no official support we’d come along anyways. Except that didn’t happen. The peasants banded together and formed their own communities, wrote their own materials and said thanks we’ll go it alone.  The problem only became a dire one once the money spigot turned off and Wizards was forced to look around for new customers. Prior to the debacle of 4th they were doing just fine and wrote us off as lost causes. As I wrote last time they had lost the Pathfinder folks, they weren’t coming back and the industry can’t get enough newer players to make up for it. So somewhere in the bowels of Wizards of the Coast someone had a “come to Jesus moment”. Hypothetical Marketing employee: “I know let’s release a new edition that promises old school feel! Even better we’ll market it at all those folks we discarded in 2000, I’m sure they are going to buy up whatever we shovel out.”  “Better yet they’ll be so grateful that we are selling something that is remotely targeted at them!" Yeah, good luck with that WoTC.

Its been pointed out how monumentally stupid Wizards of the Coast is being in all this and I have to agree. They shunned gamers who played anything prior to 3rd and then 4th and now they need us (read need our $$$$) because they screwed up? Sorry, but I for one am not playing the lonely boyfriend who takes back the girlfriend who dumped him years earlier. If I wasn’t good enough for you then, why should I take you back when you only need me now?!?!? No way. I wanted products from you 12 years ago and you left money on the table don’t be surprised when I don’t buy this edition. It’s much like the record industry execs who became horrified when they realized that P2P was eating their business alive. Well if you had listened to your customers, in this case ALL of your customers you wouldn’t be in the predicament you are now. Or that Wizards is horrified that people play iterations of D&D and haven’t paid them a cent because they play non-WoTC versions. Think of it you dropped some cash on a book in say 1982 and are still using it today! Durable goods conundrum indeed.

Given my background and my interest in computer history there is one recent company that Wizards of the Coast is doing their best imitation of: Quark. The parallels to Quark Xpress losing the desktop publishing wars to Adobe InDesign is eerily similar, For a good read look here:  It’s from 2005 and it talks about Vista, but look past that and look at the history of Quark: they made every customer related mistake in the book and invented a few new ones for good measure. Worse was they didn’t realize it till far too late and alienated a ton of people in the process. Sound familiar? Wizards should have read up on this as they followed the same failed strategy to their folly. Basically put Wizards in place of Quark, and Paiza with Pathfinder in place of Adobe and you have the same story in the making, or as I like to say “Same circus, different clowns.”

Next up I keep hearing about big tent D&D. Big tents don’t work because by their nature they are a compromise. Compromises by definition are not going to lead to a unified fan base. Compromise means that no one walks away from the table happy. Some have countered then what is the alternative? I postulate that maybe there isn’t one. The genie is out of the bottle; it came out of the bottle in 1985 and isn’t being stuffed back in anytime soon. There is far to much damage to be repaired, far to much baggage. And on top of this I’m still not convinced a new edition needs to be created.

On the subject of style of play and I keep hearing this it has a retro feel, well no kidding? What else are people going to say, until I see it with my own eyes color me skeptical. Are they going to say that it plays more like WoW then traditional fare? And I add that if we need a D&D version that has old school feel, then pick up a copy of Castles and Crusades. No matter what the d-bags and naysayers like to paint it as, it does have that old school feel. Again is a new edition of D&D needed? Again no.  Want retro with new rules here it is again:

I should hasten to add as I’ve stated on I have no beef with folks in how they want to get their D&D/role-playing entertainment. Go scratch your gaming itch however you want. Unlike some of the ass-hats in the OSR community (some who are now quietly deleting their flame bait, frothing neck-beard incendiary bombs on various sites) I won’t tell a newer gamer that they are “wrong” for liking what they like or where they get their fun. I’ve had that hurled at me for endorsing 2nd edition and I’m not passing that on to others.  I’m a big proponent of the newer gamers playing what they will look fondly back on years later as their “golden age of gaming”. My game is not their game and the same is true, I’m fine with that. But that leads to overall point? Why even do this? By it’s nature a modular approach is going to mean that if you got everyone to stop playing and move to 5th edition D&D they are still only going to buy the parts that creates the game in the look and feel of what they are used to, it also limits who is going to by any given add on. Or put another way this is what TSR did with all the campaign settings back in the 90s that lead to its demise. Wizards will put  (whether they know it or not) everyone into separate buckets. It was Bill Slavicsek who said "It's raining money outside and you want to catch as much of it as you can. You can either make a really big bucket or waste your time and attention by creating a lot really small buckets -- either way, you're never going to make more rain." In this case Wizards is hoping to get some people who haven’t present money on them ever to do so. Call me foolish but while similar to the 1st/2nd edition split this is far worse.  Its like they forgot the whole episode of what led to the demise of 2nd edition. At least 1st/2nd are nearly compatible. And that is about the only area that Wizards has a shot with me personally: stuff that I could use with my existing 1st/2nd edition stuff for adventures as I’m highly unlikely to buy the core rules.Maybe that is their intention but either way it's unlikely that all players will belly up to the same table.
"Still need some help lugging this! Where's Nodwick?
Tangentially related to this is style, look at feel. To me this has never been a major issue as it is to some. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of the manga dragonborn/tiefling goth assassin/warforged over-sized weaponry and armor and more gear then a US Marine on their back (see left) look to the art, but it’s not enough to make me not buy something on that alone. Grogs need to get over the fact that nudity was going to be exercised from the game as were its more violent elements in ANY edition that came after 1st. 1st was created during the free-wheeling 70’s… the conservative 80’s was a reactionary phase and thus the more toned down feel. Meaning that the cleanup of 2nd edition in this regard was a reaction of the times. In short don’t expect it to look like it did in first edition. I must confess that Bill Willingham was my favorite TSR artist back in the day for either first or second edition, but I don’t expect he’s getting hired back anytime soon.

In closing, a version of D&D designed to appeal to all players of all editions is likely going to satisfy none of them. I hear of a modular approach of a core game and then adding the parts you want? What you mean like people have been doing since rpg games began? While I may end up being wrong in this I don’t think that will be the case. And if I’m to shift my opinions on this and open  my wallet then WoTC had better be bending over backwards for the treatment we’ve (I’ve) received as a customer since 2000. Until they do I've got this mixed with first edition and WoTC can't do a thing to stop me:



  1. warning link may cause damage to your eyes...

    How dare you. To many gamers (and probably most of the married ones) she's a beauty beyond compare!

    Now excuse me while go into the office mailroom and punch a couple of letter openers through my eyeballs...

  2. Heh, yeah that photo is a bit much but in the world of twinked out characters perhaps tame no?