Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 17, 2012
Buying new rules

As I mentioned yesterday, the core rule books of Dungeons & Dragons are the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. You could always get all three of them together for under $100, and that was enough to get a full group playing for years. Nice for poor students, but not really a recipe for a huge financial success of the game company. TSR was nearly broke in 1997 when they got bought by Wizards of the Coast. And while I don't have details, I always thought about that purchase as being a case of "I liked the product so much, I bought the company". I am pretty certain that WotC made a lot more money with Magic the Gathering and Pokemon trading cards than with Dungeons & Dragons.

But of course the fact that you *can* play Dungeons & Dragons very cheaply doesn't mean everybody does it. In some ways D&D resembles a Free2Play game, where especially the Dungeon Master can buy all sorts of nice convenience items. In my enthusiasm of getting back to D&D (and having foolishly thrown away most of my old stuff years ago), I bought quite a lot of rule books and rule supplements, adventures, and especially everything having maps and monster tokens. The stuff hasn't become any cheaper since I was a poor student, but my financial means have improved over the last quarter of a century.

Much of what is on sale is targeted at the Dungeon Master. There are campaign settings, adventures, and monsters galore. The players aren't supposed to buy those, except possibly for the "Player's Guide to" the campaign settings. Buying adventures at best spoils a player's fun, and at worst leads him completely astray because he thinks he knows what will happen while the DM often enough changes the story and only uses the parts of an adventure he likes.

But what I noticed especially with the 4th edition is that there are now more and more books printed for players. There is now a second and a third player's handbook, plus several "player's option" books. All of these books contain new character classes with new powers. I've counted 26 character classes just in the Wikipedia entry on 4E classes, and I think the character builder on the Dungeons & Dragons Insider website has even more. There are also lots of races added to the game this way.

I must say I am not a big fan of buying new rules to increase the number of character classes. So many classes mostly end up being confusing and it becomes difficult to roleplay the differences between them. The deluge of player's books seems more designed to increase WotC's revenues than to make Dungeons & Dragons a better game. And as it is difficult to see how strong a new character class is on paper, I would be cautious to allow a player something very exotic that then turns out to have been min-maxed for power rather than chosen for being interesting. I rather support Wizards of the Coast by paying for a subscription to Dungeons & Dragons Insider, which has a lot of useful tools for Dungeon Masters.
Slightly off topic, but you might be interested to know that Wizards of the Coast are reprinting the 1st Edition rulebooks with new covers:

Part of the proceeds are to go to the Gygax Memorial Fund.
But on the other hand, the audience likes buying rules.

During the 3E Open Gaming License days, most of the third-party publishers--who could have written and sold anything--ended up writing new classes and new rules. That's what sold, what the audience wanted.
Facinating stuff. Didn't know much about D&D outside of the computer related games.
Oh man, we would not get along. I absolutely LOVE buying and using new character classes. Back in third edition I was a huge fan of the Tome of Battle, as controversial as it was, and even played classes from the Tome of Magic, even though all three were pretty severely underpowered, they were cool as heck.
When a player buys a new character class book, would that basically also burden the DM with figuring out the ins and outs of that new character class the player is bringing to the table?

I wonder, what types of things would be best marketed towards the player as a fun addition? I suppose figurines would probably be your best bet there, but since this isn't Warhammer/40k, you can only go so far by selling a single figure per player.
I personally have around fifteen 3.5E D&D rulebooks, with about a half dozen of them being player resources. Complete Warrior, Complete Divine, Expanded Psionics Handbook, etc etc etc.

Most DMs I played under have the "I must own the book too" rule to use them in a campaign, which led to a good-nature arms race of sorts. If I had Expanded Psionics Handbook and was a DM, for example, that meant you could buy it and have the chance to use it (as opposed to never having the opportunity because your other DMs didn't). Plus, at college, there was a competition of sorts for players, and if you were known as that "cool DM with all the books," your games would fill up with players pretty quick.

Of course, that business model only works in colleges or other large groupings. If it was just me and my 4 high school friends, we'd never buy new books.

I hadn't ever thought to apply F2P logic to D&D, but that makes perfect sense now that you said it.
Even more fun - TSR is currently gathering willing beta testers for the *next* version of D&D.

As if I've even had the chance to absorb 4 edition....
See, it was always one of the problems with RPGS (from the publisher's point of view) that only one person in the group needed to buy the books.

Popularising the splat books (books aimed at players, each focussing on one class) was one of the great discoveries that White Wolf made with Vampire. Players loved having extra lore, flavour text, optional (and probably powerful) rules, etc.

ie. you're right, this is all about what sells to players and not about game design. But all rules are optional really, you can always use the ideas and tweak existing stuff in a way you feel more comfortable with.
It's pretty obvious why they sell additional game-mechanical content in video games. The players have no other means to obtain new items, try out new classes and to bring new adversaries into the world.

But in pen&paper rpgs, all this stuff can be user-generated. Buying monsters for rpgs sounds a lot like buying pre-made castles in Minecraft - why would you, if this disables on of the strongest points of the game?

The only reason not to design mechanic stuff by yourself is when the system is closed by design and too obfuscated, and by adding or modifying something you risk breaking the system. I guess in 4E it's really easier to buy the stuff outright than to struggle with some counter-intuitive rules.

In my opinion the most precious commodity that the developers can sell for pen&paper rpgs is lore, fuel for player's imagination. If the players are excited by the game world, they'll come up with all the mechanics they need by themselves.
Yep, I think White Wolf is doing it right.
I suppose, for pen&paper, lore, not rules, is the real content.
Mm. Well, I think Wizards of the Coast, about a year ago, agreed with Tobold, which is why they released the "D&D Essentials" line that he panned in his previous post, heh.

Seriously, though, Essentials was an attempt to build a "here's everything you need" set. Heroes of the Fallen Lands have the "most iconic" races and classes, so it has Humans, Elves (EQ would say "Wood Elves"), Eladrin (EQ "High Elves"), Dwarves and Halflings on the race side. Classes are two builds of Fighter (the offensive "Slayer" and defensive "Knight"), Cleric, Thief and Wizard. It has all the rules someone has to know to play, a full set of equipment, feats -- it's a complete book for a player that wants to play at someone else's table.

Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms is the same content, a full ruleset for a player at another person's table, but with the "first step away from basic" classes and races. You'll find the Druid, Paladin, Ranger (two builds, the ranged "Hunter" and the two-weapon melee "Scout") and Warlock. The races are also a bit more fringe than what's in HotFL -- the Human is revisited, but you get five races from the fringes: Drow (EQ "Dark Elves"), Dragonborn, Half-Elf, Half-Orc, and Tiefling (a "Half-demon" if you would).

So, between them, you get 10 races and 10 classes, covering all of the iconic races and classes, as well as the somewhat more exotic options.

The other thing that they did in Essentials was they altered the play of some of the classes a bit. In the initial 4e release, all of the classes had a similar, fairly high complexity. The martial classes in Essentials play in a more simple fashion than the spellcasters, which matched people's expectations a bit.

One other book that a player might want. Many, maybe most, players are content to show up, run their character, go home, and let someone else worry about the nitty-gritty of the rules. But some want to master the rules without actually DMing. The Rules Compendium fills this gap. As you have noticed, it is the pure "here are all of the game mechanics" book.

So, why organize the product line like this, instead of the more traditional "Player's Handbook" approach?

Money, of course. D&D is very, very much like a Free-to-Play MMO. Most players don't spend a dime. Some buy a bit. And some run games, buy product, and actually pay the salaries for the WotC staff. At my personal table, I've been running 4e since it first came out. I have purchased a copy of every non-miniature item they've released. I bought a second copy of the PH. I bought a second copy of the Rules Compendium when it came around -- that one sits at the far end of the table. How much product did my players buy?

WotC's challenge with additional class and race books, additional option books, rules explanations, etc, is to convert "Free" players to "Freemium" payers.
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