Thursday, September 25, 2008

If I owned D&D...

James Maliszewski, over at his excellent Grognardia blog, recently posted on what he'd do if he was in charge of making a new edition of D&D. That, naturally, got me thinking as to what I would do if I were in charge of the D&D property. (If anyone from WotC or Hasbro is reading this, please do consider this a product pitch, and a resume is available on request.)

I begin by pointing out my belief that the strategy that TSR and WotC have followed since 1989 and the inception of Second Edition has been misguided and ultimately self-defeating. They have seen each successive edition not only as an "improvement" on the rules system, but also stopped printing and producing new material for earlier editions. This was done, quite naturally, in an effort to force their customers to spend their limited gaming budgets on the newest products, thereby justifying the not-inconsequential development costs (I have no reason to doubt WotC's claims that they spent more than a million dollars in the development of 4th Edition).

In addition, they seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the way they approach campaign settings. It's no secret that they haven't known what to do with Greyhawk since Gary Gygax was forced out of the company. They did very well with Forgotten Realms until recently, when the forced conversion of the setting to meet the new design limitations of 4th Edition seems to have alienated a large portion of FR's fan base. Many fans complain that settings lose some of their uniqueness when they are "upgraded" from one edition to the next.

And therein lies the key to my idea.

I would not have a single, "current" version of D&D. I would have a myriad of games, all under the D&D banner, each with differing mechanics and cosmological choices, each tied to a specific "core setting". The term "Dungeons and Dragons" would no longer refer to a single specific game system, but rather to a generic "game type". "D&D" has always been a de facto synonym for "role-playing-games" for most people. As a publisher, embrace it, baby!

  • D&D: Greyhawk Edition, with mechanics largely taken from AD&D 1E.

  • D&D: Forgotten Realms Edition, with mechanics largely taken from AD&D 2E.

  • D&D: Eberron Edition, with mechanics taken from D&D 3.5.

  • D&D: Planescape Edition, with heavily modified 3.5 mechanics, befitting the off-the-wall nature of the setting.

  • D&D: Blackmoore Edition, based on mechanics largely taken from OD&D.

  • D&D: Known World Edition, based on mechanics largely taken from the BECMI rules.
And so forth.

What does this approach do that the current approach does not? For starters, it acknowledges that some people prefer different versions of the rules, and treats them with the dignity that they deserve. All editions (and a myriad-- nay, an explosion) of new rules would remain in print. With the advent of pdf and on-demand publishing, this would be trivial to accomplish.

From a sales point of view, there is little downside. The audience that purchases "the latest rules" simply because they're "the latest rules" would still do so; they'll just move from one setting to another when they do. The ones who prefer to stick with the rules and setting as it is would still purchase new product developed for those rules and that setting. Development costs might be somewhat higher (since writers would be needed who were conversant with a larger number of systems), but as long as older settings were still supported, they would remain revenue streams for much longer. Imagine if WotC were still printing 1E DMG's and PH's, rather than surrendering that market to products like OSRIC and places like eBay.

Now, this doesn't mean that Greyhawk fans, for example, would be incapable of running a Greyhawk campaign using, for instance, the rules officially written for Forgotten Realms. In fact, that would be a plus for WotC; they would make sales both on Greyhawk products and Realms products. The former for the setting material, the latter for any rules expansions. Hell, fans already have kit-bashed things like Savage Worlds Greyhawk and GURPS Forgotten Realms. From the standpoint of the publisher, I would think it would be a good thing to get in on some of that action.

And imagine the secondary line of conversion products that could be marketed. Maybe even with a meta-setting (Planescape? Spelljammer? Something completely new?) where the very laws of reality (i.e., game rules) change depending on where a character finds him or herself.

The benefits to gamers are obvious; they get to decide what to support. The benefits to the publisher is obvious; they radically extend the revenue-stream lifespan of anything they develop. The mind reels with the possibilities.


Neil the Ork said...

Actually, there is a downside. The more of any book you produce, the cheaper each copy is. So if they split their sales between X 'editions' they pay more per copy of the books made. This also ends up being self competition, with each book vying for a person's limited gaming funds. Players who like multiple worlds would be upset paying for rules tehy already had(ie. the 'core' rules). Eventually, good business sense would hold that which ever version sold least would be discontinued. And so on until only the best selling ones were left, which would anger much of their customers.

Scott said...

"From a sales point of view, there is little downside."

This is incorrect. There are downsides: dilution and market confusion. A given market can only support so many alternatives, and compatibility of product is a concern.

Dilution was one of the factors behind TSR's collapse. At one point in the 90s, they were publishing Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Al Qadim, Spelljammer, Birthright, Dark Sun, Mystara/Known World, that setting where you played a dragon, and whatever else I'm forgetting. There were supplements coming out for all of those lines. Sales were less than phenomenal.

Your proposal is different in that there would be multiple editions, with settings "assigned" to an edition -- but that's still a lot of material.

Here's what I mean: Say Wizards has the capacity to release three game books per month.

Right now, they use that to put out, say, one setting rulebook, one generic rule supplement, and one module. Their market is "people who play (4e) D&D," and everyone in that market is a potential customer. They can focus their marketing on this group.

With your plan, assuming they put out one book per month for 4e, they can also put out one book each for two of their settings, meaning each setting gets one book per two months. Their market for each book is "people who play (this version of) D&D" plus a couple of people who play other versions but might be interested in picking up a book to adapt to their setting. This is a smaller market than "people who play 4e." (With the possible exception of 3.5 -- which will shrink over time, like 1e and 2e did.) And marketing now has to be split between six-seven different versions of the game.

Plus, they now have possible complaints from non-gamers who can't understand what this "THAC0" thing in their Greyhawk Edition module is, because their Eberron Edition Player's Handbook doesn't mention it, and they both say D&D on them, so what gives? That sort of thing makes it harder to grow the market.

Joseph said...

A given market can only support so many alternatives, and compatibility of product is a concern.

I disagree. There are scores of alternative Monopoly editions, for example. From a production standpoint, that doesn't seem to be an issue.

Too, there are things which are essentially different games marketed around the same brand all the time. Axis and Allies; "why does my game not come with cards?" Risk; "my box didn't have any events!" etc.

I think it's more a problem of mindset than anything else. People and companies are hidebound and used to thinking in one way. "D&D is a game, with a single set of rules". I'd love to see that mindset changed to "D&D is a broad category of games."

Joseph said...

Eventually, good business sense would hold that which ever version sold least would be discontinued.

Hence my mention of print on demand and pdf. WotC could be publishing 1E players handbooks right now if they chose, for no more cost than setting up the files at (Not that they'd be using lulu, but you get the idea.)

Squach said...

Very interesting idea. You can eliminate the printing cost problem with too many supported products (which was part of the downfall of TSR, supporting too many various products, in their case campaign settings, but the same could happen with editions) by supporting older editions with new products in a PDF format. No printing costs incurred.

I do notice that you missed an edition that would use the 4e rules.

Joseph said...

I do notice that you missed an edition that would use the 4e rules.

I couldn't think of a setting that would be supremely appropriate for them. Maybe:

D&D: Points of Light Edition.

Mike Lee said...

Actually the many settings at once led to the downfall of TSR ( WotC bailed them out at the last minute.

WotC does plan to release new settings. Eberron next year followed by (possibly) Dark Sun. But the marketing is much more cohesive this time around.

In the 90s people were buying one setting, and frustrated at the lack of support. They didn't buy another setting. They quit buying. WoTC is rolling each setting out according to demand. One-after-the-other. Additionally they are making all content usable in every setting via conversion guides.

Mike Lee said...

There's no point in WotC publishing products from previous editions. It works against progress for the current edition, and sends a mixed message to the market.

The message, "this edition is better than the last one" is assumed because WotC dropped support for the last edition. But the message is really, "this edition is the spirit of D&D, rebuilt with our interpretation of maximum fun". 4e Is most definitely NOT the "most fun" for everyone, but it is for most if you look at their initial sales...

A second printing was ordered just to fill pre-order expectations.

And Gen Con attendance...

Sell-out in 30 seconds, second run of tickets sold out in 2 hours. Players turned away at every slot, and attendance up over 10% (which is huge for that type of convention).