Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Asking the wrong question

The question most often asked by a DM in Dungeons & Dragons is: "What do you do?". But sometimes you get a convoluted answer about some very complex action a player wants to try which makes no sense to you at all. And then it is better to ask: "What do you intend to achieve with that?". Once you know what the player is trying to achieve, you can decide whether what he does is getting him there, or even point out an alternative. Wizards of the Coast, who now make D&D, should know that. But I still think they are asking the wrong question.

I think WotC's intent with D&D Next is relatively clear: They feel they did split their customer base with 4th edition, and lost half of it to Paizo's Pathfinder; so now they want to create the "one game to bind them all". And they try to get there by asking the players: "What do you want? What is D&D to you?". As Penny Arcade already pointed out in January, that is a stupid question. As I mentioned already in previous posts, your experience of a pen & paper roleplaying session depends only in part on the rules (which is the product WotC sells), and to a bigger part on the players around you. The more experienced players become, and the more free-form they play, the less rules they need. Those people most in need of WotC's product are not the veterans, but the new players. So not only is WotC asking the wrong question, they are asking it to the wrong people. Their question is backward looking, and so are the people they are asking, with the result that D&D Next ends up being "D&D Previous", a futile attempt to mix all the best elements from over 30 years of D&D.

Now I'm not saying that D&D 4th edition doesn't have flaws that couldn't be improved. So do the previous editions of D&D. But Paizo already did an excellent job of taking 3rd edition and making it better. I've seen Pathfinder been called D&D 3.75, and D&D Next 3.85, and that should make the marketing problem of D&D Next very clear: It will not reach it's intended goal. The players who wandered off to Pathfinder are not going to come back for something which is only marginally different. And in spite of WotC's attempts to pacify the 4th edition players and their promised modularity, it is pretty evident for anybody who played the D&D Next playtest that it is impossible to transform D&D Next into a tactical game even half as good as 4th edition by adding some modules.

I once proposed a different question: "How many arrows does it take to kill a level 1 wizard on average?", and pointed out how much a game changes when your answer goes from 1 to 5. You can't fix that with modules. And you can't fix the quadratic power progression of a wizard with Vancian magic (the kind where you have to memorize spells and "forget" them after casting) with modules either.

Instead of asking backward-looking questions, a better plan for D&D Next would have been to ask what kind of rules would be most likely to attract new players. 4th edition isn't actually all that bad in that, but they bungled the release and first released the complicated rules versions, and then the simplified "Essentials" rules and the introductory red box. If I would design D&D Next, I'd start with the "one hour (expandable) board game" version, like Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon provide for 4E. Then I'd publish rules on how to move that game "off board" with simplified rules for combat and skills and lots of emphasis on story-telling and help on getting into a role. D&D Next has some good ideas there with character backgrounds. The full rules for the veteran roleplayers would be released last.

The real question is "How do we get people to play roleplaying games for the next 30 years?", and because they asked the wrong question, Wizards of the Coast have the wrong answer for that.

Perhaps more pertinent a question: "How do we get players to play OUR role-playing games for the next 30 years."

I strongly urge you to take a look over the 'games' section of Kickstarter sometime. A significant number of those games aren't just video games and boardgames. There are a quite few PnP in there, too, and some of them have great ideas. Some are simply looking to fund adding features to something that already exists, sometimes for free.
Personally, I think the fundamental problem isn't the edition wars. I do think buying a new set of rules every 5 years is redundant when you're talking about a game of the imagination that doesn't have any in-built time limit to its usefulness (you've mentioned this in previous posts I think).

What would get me buying Wizards products again would be to make their actual valuable IP, their world settings multi-ruleset compatible. A good example of this is the earlier Shadow World setting materials (from 1990s), the modules always included rules for the Rolemaster game AND for Fanstasy Hero as well. So one world catered to DMs and groups of both rulesets.

Sure they can market 5th edition at new players, if they can find any. But it's the adventure modules and world detailing books that have the most value - they save DMs and players time, time that can be better spent playing the game rather than preparing for it. I love to write my own modules but given that I work, study, blog, play MMOs and like to go out once in a while where do I find the time for writing adventures as well?
I'm far from impartial here but WotC will have more and more difficulties attracting new players to AD&D.

I bet there will be at least one person here who will say: "No, AD&D is not obsolete, the same way that Gillette razors coexist with Philips electric shavers."

I believe that long term AD&D will be squeezed out by online RPGs that offer good multiplayer with friends (be it synchronous or asynchronous). As mentioned by Tobold, a certain amount of commoditization has already occurred in the market (Pathfinder and others), so a better analogy would the the publishing industry where "quality" magazines and newspapers become victims of online news, classifieds, etc.
I don't know that that is the right question for WotC, actually. It's the right question for you or I, the players, but the honest answer is that people who want to play Pathfinder will do so ad nauseum until something new or better comes along. As you've pointed out, it's about the players as much - and probably more so - than the game.

WotC wants to ask "How do we keep making money off of this group of people who will keep playing for 30 years regardless?" Their solution is to try to please everyone, and we know how that old saying goes. I remember, as I'm sure you do, the 3.0/3.5 release cycle, which pissed off people to no end because for the first time (quite literally since it was the first "new" addition since WotC became involved) it became perfectly clear that Wizards were just trying to cash in, not provide a new and unique product that we'd enjoy. 4.0 tried to fix that by creating something totally new and unique, which was also the wrong response. Who knows what Next will look like (well, some do, since they've play tested it), but I suspect it will be more cash-in mechanics as opposed to meaningful change.

This tendency is precisely why you find some many players who've simply stopped being interested in the new systems and have arrested at a particular point, usually 2.0 or Pathfinder, which is really 3.5+.
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