Friday, August 23, 2013

Dungeons and Dragons 2013 Gen Con Presentation

This year's Dungeons and Dragons presentation at Gen Con was kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand they really didn't have anything concrete to drop on us that might get a rise out of the crowd, like say the release date for the new edition of the product. But there was quite a bit of interesting information.

Interesting Tid Bits:
  • The Playtest packets have given the Research and Development teams an incite into how actual players and Dungeon Masters are playing Dungeons and Dragons.
  • The Final Playtest packet will be done in September of 2013
  • The Playtest has been considered wildly successful within Wizards of the Coast with more than 150,000 people sign up and download the rules
  • The next edition is entering into the Quality and Assurance process
  • The Sundering Event is using a form of player development to determine the outcome of the event and its impact on the Forgotten Realms
  • Gale Force 9 will be producing two unpainted miniture figures for each of the six books produced for the Sundering
  • The Isteval video (see below) is really interesting and actually has even me interested in the Forgotten Realms
  • Balder's Gate Enhanced Edition released 

The Boring Stuff:

Things to Mull Over:
  • Wizards is actively trying to expand the Dungeons and Dragons brand to other media in an effort to expand the game's influence
  • Why was the crowd so quite throughout the program

Thoughts on the Presentation:

I found the overall presentation to better than a stick in the eye. It was dry, as Mike Mearls tends to be when he's speaking to the public, and someone made the mistake of muting the crowd noise to the point where you can just barely hear them (if you watch that first video and listen for the applause when Mike's introduced you'll really notice what I'm talking about). Now normally that would be the right move but when you're presenting the future of a brand you really need some crowd noise to express the excitement of those watching. Watch the corporate presentation videos from Apple or Walmart and you'll see what I mean.

The Sundering Event is really intriguing to me. I like the interplay between the adventures, books, and video games and their impact on the overall narrative; but I have a hard time accepting that there is really as much room within the narrative for my actions to matter as Mike presents. I find it difficult to believe with the video games in particular as there are only so many variables that game narratives can allow and to believe that my choice of two or three outcomes is really a good way to incorporate my actions seems a folly. The books are a typical move from Wizards (and even TSR back when they had the brand) so that's nothing new. But the adventure is different. Adventures are unpredictable. Adventures ask for something new and I wonder how much of that they'll let us have.

The 150,000 individuals is a neat bit of information that Mike dropped on us. From their research, as he says, they know that the majority of downloads are done by Dungeon Masters for their groups. If we extrapolate that number by four (the traditionally accepted average group size) then we can assume that around 600,000 people have participated, at some point, in the playtest. That's definitely a success in my book. Of course even if that number is inflated 150,000 unique individuals who have signed up and downloaded the playtest is impressive nonetheless. 

After watching the video I noticed two complaints being issued over, and over again, and both were summed up by the blog Tenkar's Tavern (which is a pretty good read):
Sadly, after watching this video I now know what "Dungeons & Dragons" means - recycled fiction, 2 MMORPGS, lego like ugly ass crap with one recognizable character from the Drizzt series of books and it isnt even him, iOS Battlegames, iOS Boardgames, re-released 20+ year old computer games and if you are lucky there might be an RPG - but that's just to drive sales for all of the previously listed money makers.

Yes, I know this shit is a business, but WotC has gotten so corporate it's scary.

They will never sell the D&D trademark, but perhaps, one day, an RPG titled Dungeons & Dragons will live up to it's heritage in the hands of others. [Dungeons & Dragons the RPG - Alas, I Knew You Well (D&D GenCon 2013 Presentation)]
Complaint No. 1: Wizards of the Coast is ruining the purity of the Dungeons and Dragons Brand

No, they are not. 

The Dungeons and Dragons property has always meant more than just the role-playing game. Gary Gygax himself brought the property to books, cartoons and action figures. TSR would go on after Gary to bring the property to video games, boardgames, books, comics, collectible cards, magazines, and toys. And yes, they recycled fiction just like the current era of dungeons and dragons products. Wizards of the Coast has followed that tradition with video games, MMORPGs, books, magazines, toys, comic books, audio books, and movies. So why get upset about the company continuing to do what has been done with the brand for nearly forty years?

Complaint No. 2: Wizards of the Coast has gone corporate and is ruining the game!

Wizards isn't publishing from Peter Adkison's basement any longer - nor would you really want it to be doing so if you like the material they're publishing. Basement publishers are great because you can have an intimate relationship with them but when it comes to sending me my shit on time they suck. They can't meet the demands of an incredibly successful business and for proof of that you need to look no further than the hundreds of late and terminal Kickstarters that have sprung up recently in the hobby. 

But ignore that and just consider this: the Dungeons and Dragons property has been attached to a corporation since the TSR days. Being a part of a corporation has meant that the hobby has continued on even after TSR was mismanaged into bankruptcy and almost killed the game completely. It has allowed for the open gaming license which in turn allowed for the Old School Renascence movement that has captured my imagination and that of so many other gamers. It has allowed for new partnerships with groups like Paizo, White Wolf Games, Gale Force 9, DC comics, and so many others. It has kept our hobby flush with new materials for play and to inspire the minds of new Dungeon Masters. It has increased the quality of our products by allowing the company to generate more revenue than straight sales would allow. It has allowed for five editions of the game to be published in the mass market (Basic/Expert/Companion, Advanced, Second Edition Advanced, Third Edition, and Fourth Edition). In many ways being a corporation is the only reason why any of us were ever able to encounter the niche product in the first place. 

So I'm asking this for anyone reading: what's so bad about Wizards of the Coast being a corporation?


  1. For me, WoTC sometimes is a bit like what Louis CK describes as a boy on a date: "Just like a blind dick in space. Just thrusting in infinite directions, hoping to find pay dirt at some place...". There is no continuity but the next edition. Every now and then they do something "right" or interesting with the product, but as far as a legacy of D&D goes (if we can agree such a thing exists), they're a lost cause and too eager to find something "better". A lot of people actually believe "new" means "better" and a corporation needs those people to justify the next edition of a game that never needed a 3rd, so it is only natural. And I agree with your points, as far as the brand goes. But D&D is more than an idea that needs to be changed every two or three years because someone needs to sell those books and the internet made most of the things you mentioned possible, not a corporation. So in the end it comes down to what one thinks about corporations in general. The DIY attitude doesn't lend itself easily to the mechanisms associated with "big business", although I think it depends in many ways on it to really get an audience (maybe even because of that).

    If WoTC is "bad" is not a matter of black or white, it's more about product vs. legacy. That's why people are arguing about it and will do so in the future, I guess...

    1. Oh I think that there was definitely a need for a third and fourth editions to the game. At a certain point in the life of these games the rules become cumbersome and over-bearing to the point where the system needs simplification for the continued introduction of new players. Advanced Second Edition is the first real example of this as the volume of variant rules, clarifications, settings, and alterations got to the point where it was nearly impossible for a new player to be expected to enter into the system in any reasonable way. So of course, Third edition. Now third was also a reflection of a cultural change in the understanding of how a game was supposed to be played, for better or worse, which is reflected in its rule mechanics (most notably ascending AC and skills). It too became incredibly cumbersome by the end of its life cycle (roughly eight years) with a glut of rules that would ground the game to a standstill. Fourth edition came next and my only real problem with it was price and a lack of variety within the classes. And now we get fifth edition because . . . I have no real good reason there.

      “. . . the internet made most of the things you mentioned possible, not a corporation”

      Not really.

      Without the Open Gaming License all of the clones and ancillary products based off the intellectual properties of Hasbro would be getting sued into non-existence (just watch them when it comes to Transformers and G.I. Joe). Wizards of the Coast made the OGL, which is what most of my points were based on, not the internet.

      The only thing that the internet really gave us was a forum where we could discuss our ideas openly without the threat of being sued (though there are some who have been arguing that the clone systems - sounds like a bad Star Wars plot - will soon be getting smacked by Hasbro/Wizards now that they’re selling the old products again).

    2. Again, I mostly agree, you're right from a corporate point of view. But it's only part of the argument I'm making. First edition only published parts of the rules they had. An extraordinary task as it is, given the circumstances. It was a success and it made a "final" version of D&D (Rules Cyclopedia) and a first edition AD&D possible. D&D went corporate. At this point we already had a plethora of rules and variants, including dozens of non-TSR "clones" of the game, like Runequest, T&T, Arduin or Tekumel (so all this already happened long before Web 2.0, and just because The Game had entered the hobby space...). Was a 3rd edition necessary? Maybe, the way you present your argument, I'd agree and say yes. Was it necessary to invent a "new" game with the same name? I'd say no. The thinking behind it (lots of movable parts, open for other publishers, "streamlining" rules) was very oriented on selling as much as possible. Compare Baldur's Gate with Neverwinter Nights and both with DDO and you'll see were it shifted and in what parts.
      D&D might not be about accessibility after all, this game is work. And it's not the work somebody else can do for you, because it is about being able to understand and interpret the rules to play the game. Like chess, in a way, the goal you'd ideally want to reach is far behind what could be explained in rules or helped with by accessories.
      Modules and stuff like that are nice and all, but not necessarily come from the same understanding. In the end it was the realization that it is not possible to build a corporate standard for The Game that led to 4E: as I understand it, an attempt to use the "easier to control" boardgame aspects of D&D to transport those popular tropes. Good or bad is not the problem (it has it's fans after all), it's just not D&D. We'll see about 5th, I guess.
      At the point were they thought it necessary to revive the game, they already had enough variants at hand to make something new without loosing compatibility. They decided not to. They wanted to sell more stuff instead of creating continuity. And they started to think the tropes are the game, which they are not. One thing became clear over the decades: the more corporate they went, the more they lost control over the initial game, the legacy, if you will.
      Which leads to the internet. Maybe we could agree that it was a combination of the OGL, the loss of control and the internet that led to the OSR. But if I understand copyright correct, it is only possible to protect names. On the other hand, protecting (board-)game mechanics (or even most of the tropes...) proved very difficult in the past. To be honest, most of it was "borrowed" to begin with. What is left as "intellectual property" are a few terms and phrases.
      Most of the (free) stuff online has nothing to do with the OGL or it's just used to be polite (creative commons and non commercial use is more than enough, if you're true to your sources). I'm not saying I'm against the OGL, in the contrary, I believe it was very clever and effective marketing. It helped WoTC to stay in the game instead of loosing significance. But it was not them allowing the rest of the world to use the game, it was them profiting from the fact that it was going to happen anyway. I'm pretty sure they will not even try to do anything against it. In the long run it helps keeping the game alive and sells them their product. But without the internet there wouldn't be any need for it, because it couldn't have happened (well, or would have happened through other venues, but not as obvious or public, see above...).
      Sorry, this is far too long for a comment. Thought about writing a post about it, too. Might still do so. You're not saying anything wrong here. I'm in agreement with you most of the time. I just think it's not the whole story and D&D is not just a product.

  2. I'm amazed it has taken them so long to leverage business and product relations to get where they are now. There is value in the brand name. A lot of folks seem to feel the flagship product of the RPG has been neglected, maybe it has, maybe it needs the funds the fully exploited brand can bring in to get the proper attention.

    1. I don't know JDJarvis, but you might be right.


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