D&D 4th Edition

I figured I would leave it a day before commenting on the whole 4th Edition release kerfuffle currently going on in order to give it time for the dust to settle and a few of the wilder rumours to shake down a bit and get denied, confirmed or otherwise sorted out one way or the other. Anyway, before I really get into the ‘meat’ of the press announcement and start trying to read into it what the effects might – or will – be and gaze into my crystal ball I guess I should make some declarations of interest and a disclaimer.Declarations: I don’t actually much like D&D as a game. I’ve done some work for Wizards and enjoyed it, though corporate culture and RPGs seem like oil and water to me they somehow manage to pull it off. Still, for all I’ve written for it or done with it in my own publications that has always been from an approach of ‘how can I improve this?’ or ‘How can I make this interesting?’ or ‘How can I make this actually work?’ – all about overcoming or sidestepping the system in some way, making up for or compensating for its shortcomings more than anything else.

As a PDF publisher my primary interest in all of this around the new release is ‘how does this effect me?’ and ‘Will the OGL and d20 licence remain intact?’. My primary interest in D&D and its surrounding products is not as a gamer, not as a player, but as a businessman. While I will be making comments about how the game is played and what the new edition likely means for that my primary focus in my comments – whether obvious or not – is as a businessman.

Disclaimer: I often joke around friends and family that I’m ‘Always right’. This isn’t actually true but I generally am pretty good at predicting the effect of things and what’s going to happen. Still, despite being in the business, despite having worked for Wizards, despite being a d20/OGL publisher and despite being an RPG professional I claim no special insider knowledge and no particular propensity for being right in this instance. This is speculation on scant data and pure opinion. I may well be very wrong. I hope I am on some things, I hope I’m not on others.

Now that’s out of the way, lets take a look at what we have so far…

“The 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons game includes elements familiar to current D&D players, including illustrated rulebooks and pre-painted plastic miniatures.”

Illustrated rulebooks and pre-painted plastic miniatures sort of goes without saying. Though the emphasis here seems to me to be on the miniatures. Something that also gave me a sinking feeling while reading through the Star Wars SAGA edition. This is borne out elsewhere in the press release but I’ll get into that here since it’s mentioned here first.

There is no question that the pre-painted miniatures games have altered the hobby market almost as much as CCGs did and, unlike CCGs they seem to have a bit more longevity to them. WizKids may have overstretched themselves a little but D&D minis seem to be going strong, GW is suffering a bit of a decline but Rackham and Mongoose both seem to have gone into the miniatures market blazing and jumped on the pre-painted bandwagon too.

If I ever really used miniatures, this might be a boon as these plastic ones are a hell of a lot cheaper and I have no time to paint anything really (believe it or not) plus I’m hideously out of practice. But I haven’t used miniatures, really, since the stand-up card sets in the old ICE Lord of the Rings RPG. I find them distracting and something that stops people thinking in a role-playing mindset. That’s a matter of personal taste though, but I do only know one group that does use minis. The fact of the matter is that the minis aren’t made with the RPGer in mind, they’re made for a seperate skirmish game which is, these days, eating up the con floorspace from RPGs that the CCGs used to. Bully for them and whoop-de-do for the money it must be bringing in but for an RPG to go back towards a wargame is like a lobe finned fish deciding ‘No cheer, I don’t want to evolve, I’m going to just go back into the sea. This walking lark is for numpties’.

For the first, most pre-eminent and most well known RPG to turn its back on… well, RPGing, seems rather peculiar to me.

On the plus side the new dumbed down miniatures oriented D&D may well operate better as a bridge product between war/skirmish gaming and RPGs and if D&D is ceding some of that roleplay ground to other companies by focussing on Dungeon Skirmish then that can only be good for those other companies, right?

In a way this makes sense, miniatures and things remain somewhat buoyant and they have a physical objective appeal that CAN compete with whiz-bang MMORPG graphics but this, along with their digital strategy mentioned later on seems, to me, like trying to take on MMOs on their home turf, and that means a capital FAIL by not focussing on the strengths of RPGs.

Briefly, while we’re talking about rulebooks as well, to me the trend for really huge, lavish hardback collectable books is a sign of impending doom, just like variant foil covers were for comics. Games need to be affordable and fun still. Anyway… on with the press release…

“Also releasing next year will be new web-based tools and online community forums through the brand-new Dungeons & Dragons Insider (D&D Insider) digital offering. D&D Insider lowers the barriers of entry for new players while simultaneously offering the depth of play that appeals to veteran players.

The ‘barrier of entry’ here is finding a group, I also think that with this WOTC is trying to do with RPGing online what they tried to do with d20/OGL. bringing it all together in one place. At the moment there’s a plethora of different forums, websites, game tools and so on out there. It seems to me that WOTC are trying to leverage the power of their brand, as they did with the OGL, to bring more of that under their banner.

I’m not a huge fan of monopolies and I can see this backfiring horribly in the form of flame-jihads on whatever forums and tools they do get set up. Being an op or moderator on such a thing would be a terrible, terrible proposition as centralising will inevitably mean clashes. Wizards are also late to the party in all of this. Any product they do put forth this way had better be pure-fucking-essence-of-awesome in order to pull people away from what already exists.

Part of this digital offering – which will be subscription based – will be the Dungeon/Dragon equivalent in PDF form (if I have that right) as well as access to the tools, community site and the online play-table thing that they have been on about and is demonstrated on youtube. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

“The 4th Edition rules emphasize faster game play, offer exciting new character options, and reduce the amount of “prep time” needed to run the game. D&D Insider includes a character creator that lets players design and equip their D&D characters, dungeon- and adventure-building tools for Dungeon Masters, online magazine content, and a digital game table that lets you play 24/7 on the internet ā€” the perfect option for anyone who can’t find time to get together.

This is marketing speak for ‘dumbing down’. A return to a more D&D basic way of doing things with some stripped down customisation options that reverses the half-arsed modifications of third edition to quarter-arsed modifications. Again, if SAGA is anything to go by. Skills are simplified as are feats, but there’s some rumour going around that fighting options may be bumped up a bit to compensate and make fighters a bit better. They’ve got a point on the prep time, and that’s something that was addressed in SAGA but whether their approach (mooks) will remain the same remains to be seen, Star Wars is a different beast to D&D.

As to the online tools, again, WOTC is late to the party, too late unless their materials are utterly, utterly stunning. Judging from the video linked above much of it isn’t particularly stunning, at all. I haven’t heard what the subscription price to this package will be yet, but $10 a month has been bandied about, putting it in the same sort of field of play as an MMORPG subscription, roughly. Is this all going to be worth the money? Will it be updated and maintained enough to be useful? That remains to be seen but let me say one thing abundantly clearly.

TRY TO TAKE ON MMORPGS AT THEIR OWN GAME AND YOU WILL FAIL!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been advocating a subscription model and online regular support for quite a few years now but the problem is it is too late. Wizard’s offering will need to be damn near perfect to pull people away from existing online gaming tools and if that video is a sample of what they’re offering they’re not going to win back anyone from MMORPGs. Not with static models, a 2d environment and a complete failure to leverage the advantages of computing in making things easier for the GM. From the look of things – and I’m hoping that’s an unfinished version – you’d be better off using Neverwinter Nights (first version), even with its relatively impenetrable scripting language.

This is what you offer to take on WoW and its ilk? A sub par version of MB’s Heroquest played online? I’d be laughing if I weren’t crying I think. Too little, too late, too poorly done. It doesn’t offer anything MMORPGs don’t already do a hundred times better. The things RPGs do a hundred times better are plots, stories, role-playing, intricacy, detail, longevity and character impact upon the world. Rather than play up these things and try to emphasise them, the decision seems to have been made to play second fiddle. Here again that cedes ground to actual RPGs by middle tier companies, but it also means less exposure for them and a rather alien RPGing experience for new players.

Getting regular sessions together is a problem, but from first glance – and I stress that’s all this is and I could be wrong – the virtual gaming table doesn’t look like a viable solution to me. Not for actually roleplaying.

“We’ve been gathering player feedback for eight years,” said Bill Slavicsek, R&D Director of Roleplaying and Miniatures Games at Wizards of the Coast. “Fourth Edition streamlines parts of the D&D game that are too complex, while enhancing the overall play experience. At its heart, it’s still a tabletop game experience. However, D&D Insider makes it easier for players to create characters, run their games, and interact with the rest of the D&D community.”

Not much to add to this part except that I don’t think they’ve been listening to all their customer base, or potential customer base, equally. d20, at heart, isn’t that complex a game, it is ‘feat bloat’ and ‘prestige class bloat’ and the interactions of buffing powers that makes it complicated, like a CCG, but then to some people that’s the pull, the depth of complexity, the ‘perfect build’. So, not only do they stand to lose the artsy-fartsy RPers that stuck it out with D&D, but also the number-crunching aspergers types.

The rest is just padding and bumf along the lines of how influential D&D has been, etc, etc.

It does seem to be confirmed that fans and third party companies will still be able to produce material via one of three ways.

  • Free licence under Gleemax – this being their new focal site for hobbyists. Anything you put up here is subject to being republished by WOTC though, so its a sort of open-open license for them to blag anything they want. Probably some people will get noticed for freelancing/job offers through there, but for most it’ll likely just mean idea-rape.
  • OGL – 4th Edition WILL appear under the OGL and will have an System Reference Document. Whether they’ll tighten up the version for the new material remains to be seen. It may not be quite as open as the old one, since the old one took off in ways unexpected.
  • A new d20 license – Of sorts, details don’t seem to have come out yet but speculation seems to be that it will be a fee-paying/invite type license, possibly to use the trade dress and some things kept from being open.

So, what does all this mean for me and the industry?

A downturn in the d20 market until at least next May, followed by a splurge, another crash and a settling down. Fortunately I’ve moved away from d20 stuff in just such anticipation and am less reliant on it than most. Still, less d20 business means less business overall and the RPGnow/Drivethru merger has already hit my sales more than a little, this added blow combined with the nosediving economy and the shit value of the dollar makes for a bleak six months or so ahead I think. Something that can be partially remedied by convention attendance and since I’m partially out of action anyway at the moment this isn’t the worst time for a lull for me. The only ongoing d20 projects I have are multi-rule books and those address d20 Modern rather than D&D, so I have a bit more breathing space too.

I don’t think this 4th Edition ‘bounce’ will be as big as the last. We still have grognards playing 1st edition for the love of Torg, and second, and basic, and third, and 3.5. Each incarnation casts off more grognards and the OGL and OSRIC mean that those people can still get material and don’t NEED to buy into the new edition.

I think we’re seeing things starting to go the way comics did. A split between the big, event driven producers and the small, owner operated press where the ideas happen. That’s not a bad thing but the middle tier companies have been squeezed, and will be squeezed harder, especially those that chased d20 before. That said, WOTC all but abandoning actual roleplaying provides an opportunity for others to squeeze in there and claim that ground. A few years ago I’d have said White Wolf were positioned for that, now I’m not sure.

Still, interesting times.

What would I have done for 4th Edition? I couldn’t have done anything, too many sacred cows, hit points, classes and levels. Nobody would have let me re-do it from the ground up so that’s a moot point.

Here’s hoping I’m proven wrong, especially on the digital initiative.

3 responses to “D&D 4th Edition

  1. Several months ago I applied for a bursary to start up a business. My idea was to create an online game system much as wizards of the coast has just proposed. While I got quite far in the application process, my first problem came when I was informed that the SRD that allows companises to use the d20 system for their games does not allow for these games to be played on the internet for profit.
    Therefore if the SRD legal document remains the same only wizards of the coast and anyone they license will be able to have such online games, in a computer format using a normal business model (though pdf’s are not counted as such).

  2. Check out http://www.fantasygrounds.com. WoTC isn’t trying to make an exact alternative to MMORPG. What they are trying to do is make a virtual tabletop that will expand the opportunities for games to well… game. Virtual tabletop software is an offshoot of whiteboarding software not MMORPGs. It is also won’t be designed to supplant traditional gaming around the table. It will be designed to allow people who otherwise can’t find a table to find a place to play.
    Because my gaming group scattered across the country I started using this type of software. (Fantasy Ground and Skype). It works and does a remarkable job of allowing tabletop gaming over the internet. It works better than something like Neverwinter Nights because it a lot easier to setup. Making a NWN module is way too time consuming for a weekly game. So in some respect what WoTC will produce will look simplistic compared to MMORPGs. But because it will allow a human DM to run a game for players around a “table”. There are strengths that WoTC virtual tabletop will have that MMORPGs won’t have. Finally with a staff, WoTC can have pregenerated modules setup for DMs to use.

    • I appreciate the differennce,but I’m examining the reasons why it won’t succeed. Visual appeal is one of them. The subscription model and all of this IS trying to take on the MMMORPG model and it isn’t one that’s going to work.

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