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Wizards finding a path out of the dungeon
April 2, 2014 6:42 AM   Subscribe

How did Pathfinder become the only table-top role-playing game ever to outsell Dungeons & Dragons, outpacing it 2:1? What were the economics of the Open Gaming License, whereby Wizards of the Coast effectively gave away the rules to its flagship D&D product? Why did the table-top market collapse? This and more on Episode 73 of the Game Design Roundtable podcast, with guest Ryan Dancey, architect of the Open Gaming License strategy at Wizards of the Coast, and former marketing exec at CCP Games (makers of EVE Online). Dancey is now the business lead on Pathfinder Online, an upcoming sandbox fantasy RPG broadly in the mold of EVE and Ultima Online. TGDRT is usually about game design, but this episode is a fascinating look into the business side of the RPG world, both online and off -- from someone who has been at the heart of the most interesting business cases in the space. The first 30 minutes are all about business history and economics.

Some other highlights from the always-interesting TGDRT:
  1. Soren Johnson on his upcoming MULE-inspired game, Mars;
  2. Alpha Centauri discussion with its designer, Brian Reynolds;
  3. X-COM and tactical games, with X-COM designer Julian Gollop;
  4. endgames;
  5. story-game simulation King of Dragon Pass, with its designer David Dunham;
  6. the fantastic Crusader Kings II with two of its designers.
TGDRT is organized by Dirk Knemeyer (and until recently Jon Shafer) and features a rotating cast of cool regulars, as well as great interview subjects.
posted by grobstein (71 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
It'll be interesting to see if D&D can reclaim it's space at the top of the pile once 5th Edition comes out later this year. They clearly still have brand recognition above and beyond all these other publishers.
posted by chunking express at 6:56 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


A related question is whether the crowd-funded upcoming Pathfinder MMORPG from the independent Goblinworks will prove more successful than the traditionally developed D&D Online property from the corporate-owned Turbine...
posted by Doktor Zed at 7:10 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah. Worth noting DDO is a traditional "theme park MMO," like WoW. Pathfinder is intended to be a "sandbox" like EVE, focusing on player-created worlds instead of prebuilt dungeon content.

(Also Pathfinder has both crowd funding and traditional financing. The first KS round was intended to bootstrap a tech demo to take on the road to traditional investors.)
posted by grobstein at 7:15 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


As a Pathfinder fan, I'm pretty committed to it-- I've spent a lot of time learning the ins and outs of 3.5-style games, and there's a big community around it at my local game store. That said, I've also tried out D&D Next (5th) a few times, and it's delightful. Not perfect, but they're working on it, and it was clearly made by skilled designers with a good eye for simplicity.
posted by 4th number at 7:26 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


It's amazing that people still believe that guy.
posted by mobunited at 7:26 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


to outsell Dungeons & Dragons, outpacing it 2:1

Do they say how they estimated that? Last I heard WotC wasn't releasing sales figures.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:37 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Seriously it's like asking an Alberta oilman where climate change comes from.

Outside the Dancey reality bubble, people know why tabletop RPGs shrank from the 90s to mid-2000s: retail space competition from CCGs followed by suffocating d20 backstock. Switching editions in 2003 helped the latter collapse, but retailers were already shrinking in response to CCG woes, some of which, like L5R's Rolling Thunder, were managed by...Ryan Dancey.

Of course the switch to 3.5 came about because the d20 license failed to make the PHB an evergreen release, as Dancey promised, and he was soon shuffled out. Then after resigning due to doing a thing the people he got elected to GAMA decided wasn't really a crime, he sold some space monocles, which we all know EVE players loved.
posted by mobunited at 7:40 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


God, he's still talking about network externalities? I had to stop at that. (Dancey thought that every game other than D&D was going to go out of business because people were going to use the D&D system for everything. It was a bad argument in 2000 and it's a bad argument that has been disproven by reality now.)

Ryan Dancey built the D20 bubble around 10-12 years ago – the glut of shitty 3.x D&D books that came out because of the D20 STL and the OGL*. WotC made a lot of money, but Dancey's plan (sell Player's Handbooks forever) eventually ran into diminishing returns, and WotC had to put the game in a cycle of endless reboots to try and wring money out of it.

Since he left WotC, Dancey has been a doomsayer for the RPG industry. Every year he's talked about how it's about to go under. This has mainly been a way for him to get funding to do MMOs, which are what he's actually interested in selling nowadays. He has a lot of inside knowledge, but you have to be very careful because he's always selling something, and his ideas kinda stink.

* I'm sure there was good stuff mixed in, but there was a lot of crap.
posted by graymouser at 7:41 AM on April 2 [8 favorites]


I'm sure Pathfinder is outselling 4e, though 2/1 seems speculative outside a particular time frame. 4e boasted the best initial sales ever according to news releases, but this is before returns. Bookscan figures from 2008-present for all book trade line releases? Maybe. Pathfinder does have sales of ebook snack sized supplements. Just core? D&D has two core sets. Grosses will probably never be available for both so I shrug. I do not doubt Pathfinder is ahead, but I shrug.
posted by mobunited at 7:49 AM on April 2


(Disclaimer: I worked at Wizards of the Coast from 2007-2008.)

The goal of selling PHB forever was smart. The initial implementation was also smart. Emulating Linux also had a good idea at its heart.

...but nearly-nonexistent quality control over products that you specifically invited into existence was very, very short-sighted. I remember advertisements like "Does your Elven Archer shoot 3 times in a round at 2nd level? OURS DO."

There was no way for WotC to say "this [book / chapter / mechanic] is fair and balanced and the others are not." Because of that, anyone could release anything* and so many people did. Lots of it was horrible, dragging down the entire segment with it. In terms of the market, it was very similar to the Atari 2600 crash of the early 1980s. Going back to my Linux analogy, it was as if everyone could submit patches to anyone's kernel without warning and left the users to sort out how to fix it.

The model of "create an open-source game, invite others to make products and sell them, and make money making the best/most professional/easiest to understand core resource for that game" is a very smart way to go, in my opinion. Many lessons to take from how WotC did it, for better and for worse.
posted by andreaazure at 8:06 AM on April 2 [11 favorites]


I don't have time to listen a podcast right now- do they mention that the reason Dancey no longer works at CCP is because they put him in charge of White Wolf after they bought it (because it was seen as simpler to just buy the company that owns the IP than to screw around with licensing agreements) and his response was to essentially stop all production of WW books and let what was formerly one of the biggest and most respected RPG publishers just lie fallow, since he thought RPGs were doomed anyway?

I mean, that led to his getting shitcanned and CCP licensing the rights to White Wolf's IP to Onyx Path for tabletop stuff and By Night Studios to do a whole new (and, frankly, fuckawesome) set of LARP rules. But still, Ryan Dancey's the guy who tried to kill White Wolf, so as a long-time WW fan, fuck him forever.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:06 AM on April 2 [13 favorites]


Amongst the many causes of the cycle wherein RPGs are born, flourish, grow entangled, then decay, only to have a new version put out is one particularly interesting externality: at some point, when things look good, a marketdroid will say, "Hey, aren't there more players than DMs?" after which one of the Rules of Acquisition (perhaps the forty-fifth) kicks in and they begin selling to the players.

This leads to an explosion of shoddily-bound tomes with ill-considered spells, splatbooks with game-breaking prestige classes, and DMs who must suddenly accommodate characters who, in a peculiar way reminiscent of high-level monks, have transformed into these party-unto-themselves killing machines capable of unstoppably threshing through your balanced, painstakingly-built challenges. Bestiaries with entirely new creature mechanics, grafted onto an endless stream of familiar humanoids will offload their species like an Ark touring the Alpha Quadrant looking for Progenitor-inspired offspring crash-landing on another world. Rules from one book written by an author who had never talked to the other author of another book issued by a completely different company looking to cash in begin to clash with these additional rules (and rule-breakers) until you wind up with immovable objects and unstoppable forces and situations wherein even the grizzled veterans of Dragon magazine would wrench their beards in confusion and terror.

D&D Next will start out simplified and, within seven years, again become a byzantine nest of conflicting rules suggesting that the world's lawbooks were subject to Burrough's cut-up method. Pathfinder, I submit, is in the flourishing phase above right now. The cycle, like Champion Elric and the subject of the tenth Rule of Acquisition, is eternal. The profit motive turns that Wheel and perhaps the only thing to halt its spin would be the creation of a non-profit which manages the rules, then releases them, but in a manner dissimilar to the OGL.
posted by adipocere at 8:15 AM on April 2 [8 favorites]


The fundamental problem with the "sell the PHB forever" model, as I saw it as a player at the time was that we only ever need to buy it once. Then to sell us more product, TSR/WoC focussed on selling all those "handbook" expansions. To appeal to their perceived 14-year-old-boy market segments, each round of these had to ratchet up the power levels, more better feats, crazy "prestige" classes, completely munchkinizing the game.

This is curious as another model, taken by SJG, was a core rule set, then sell the heck out of multiple settings. We used to buy the Jackson settings books blind, because they were such great sources of ideas. We found GURPS to be way too unwieldy to actually play, but their settings books were amazing.

TSR had some great settings: World of Darkness, Planescape/Sigil (with a hit game tie-in in Planescape:Torment even!), Dark Sun. I'd even put Spelljammer in there. But they devalued, unsupported and even discontinued all of them in favour of those munchin books.
posted by bonehead at 8:19 AM on April 2 [9 favorites]


Oh cool. This sounds like something I'd enjoy but would never find on my own... thanks!
posted by ph00dz at 8:41 AM on April 2


I rarely listen to podcasts and the thought of listening to WOTC folks talking about the nitty-gritty of their business plans makes me cringe, but I knew the comments would be full of enlightening information. Particularly, I'd always wondered what happened with the White Wolf books, so I'm glad to know that if nothing else.
posted by immlass at 8:47 AM on April 2


I'd love to read more about what's happened to White Wolf since CCP bought them. That acquisition never made any sense to me. The Big Outcome was supposed to be the World of Darkness MMO, but that is now delayed and staff reduced and it seems likely it will never get finished. CCP has had a lot of problems (Dust 514 is meh), it seems unlikely they'll ever get outside being the Eve Online company at this pace.
posted by Nelson at 8:51 AM on April 2


bonehead: We found GURPS to be way too unwieldy to actually play

I see this sentiment sometimes, but I'm always confused by it. I found GURPS really simple to play, on both sides of the screen. I mean, it wasn't as streamlined as a ruleset by Robin D. Laws, but it was pretty good at modeling just about anything without getting unwieldy. It wasn't the wieldiest, but it was wieldier than most games I can recall off the top of my head.
posted by Kattullus at 8:54 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I like CCP, but they are going to spin apart if they can't focus on the EVE universe, if not solely on EVE Online itself. I really hope they find a way to sell White Wolf back into its original state, somehow. Their Storyteller system was always my favorite, and the World of Darkness is a really fun setting.
posted by gilrain at 8:54 AM on April 2


Well, like I say, the WoD is getting new books now. There's even been a new Vampire: the Masquerade book out, ten years later.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:05 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Pathfinder is successful b because they've taken to heart the Collectable Card Game model of game production that D&D 3.0 pioneered. "System Mastery" basically means that one builds characters the way one builds a Magic the Gathering deck, and knowledge of the convoluted and obscure ruleset rewards players who spend the hours necessary to find the exploits in the game system. A steady stream of new rules that can build every more powerful characters keeps the players interested and the money flowing.

For instance, if players pay the money for the right sourcebook, they can play Aasimar, a race who get greater bonuses than average characters, and have enough varieties that any character class can benefit from being made with this race. They are a deliberately overpowered option for those who are willing to spend the money to be that much better, and so that supplement has been a real money maker.

That's other things Pathfinder does right- they embrace PDFs and online presence, and the PathFinder Society allies players to find fellow players in a highly structured play environment (and incidentally sells a lot of supplements). But it's really treating D&D like a CCG that is the secret to PathFinder's success.
posted by happyroach at 9:20 AM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I lost touch with Dungeons and Dragons around about the third edition, only playing it in the versions that made it into games like Neverwinter Nights. From what I've heard, the fourth edition makes the tabletop RPG into a pen-and-paper MMORPG, which is an abomination.

Basically, because I am ancient and set in my ways, you can have my AD&D when you pry it from my cold, dead Hand of Vecna*.

*NOTE: Hand of Vecna may not actually be cold and/or dead. Check with your local cleric.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:26 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


happyroach, that comparison doesn't really make sense. You don't need the aasimar source book to roll up and play an aasimar character. The comparison would only be true if you bought the sourcebooks in sealed packs with random assortment of character classes, and you might get the aasimar rules in any given one, and you had to have a physical copy to roll the PC. Instead of, you know, this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:34 AM on April 2 [5 favorites]


I found GURPS really simple to play

In our particular case, I'd just put it down to taste. We were moving away from heavier systems at that point, from AD&D to FUDGE, with brief stops in things like Star Wars and Over the Edge.
posted by bonehead at 10:14 AM on April 2


Halloween Jack: remember that for M:tG you also don't need to go out and buy the cards need to make an ultra-powerful deck, you can just play and have fun using one of the pre-made decks. You also don't need to go onto any of the various forums that exist to help with optimizing decks and strategies. However, M:tG rewards people who do spend the money and take the time, and so does Pathfinder. Do you think it's a coincidence that the "Guide to the Guides" which is the directory to all the various character optimizing guides is hosted on the Pathfinder forums?

You can definitely just play Pathfinder for concept or fun, just as you can with M:tG. But optimization brings the money in.
posted by happyroach at 10:21 AM on April 2


Imagine I just retyped andreaazure's comment here.
posted by JHarris at 10:26 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


The Aasimar expansion seems like a great way to weed out push over GMs.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:28 AM on April 2


But it's really treating D&D like a CCG that is the secret to PathFinder's success.

It is also a major reason why our group finds it difficult to get invested in Pathfinder, despite them having played 3E weekly for many years and still overall loves the system. Most of them have been through phases of playing Magic: The Gathering, and are now quite wary of it.
posted by JHarris at 10:29 AM on April 2


Soren Johnson on his upcoming MULE-inspired game, Mars;

Aaah, this might be very interesting. MULE is so great though, a little self-contained gem, it's a tall order to match. One of the signs of the impending suckiness of Electronic Arts (which now calls itself "EA") from their amazingly cool early days was when they hired MULE designer Bunten to make a sequel for the Genesis, but she left the project when EA demanded they add weapons players could use to attack each other.
posted by JHarris at 10:34 AM on April 2


However, M:tG rewards people who do spend the money and take the time, and so does Pathfinder.

Time, certainly. But money? I've been playing Pathfinder for a few years, and one of the things that got me into was the fact that you can do it with no money down: between the PRD and the PFSRD, you have the core rules of the game and the vast majority of supplements online for free. The one thing that's not there are the pre-made adventure paths, which are generally great and worth spending money on, and a large swath of the setting information for Golarion, which is also quite well done, but not necessary for home-brewed campaigns.

In short: you could go online and get from Paizo itself enough content to run your own Pathfinder games, and make your own characters that are as equally powerful as someone who's paid for a PDF (or printed) versions of their content.

Whereas M:tG, you have to spend money to play. You can have a lot of fun with a bit of money -- that is exactly how I, personally, play Magic: as cheaply as humanly possible -- but you can't do it for free, barring the largesse of someone just giving you cards.

There's definitely a progression treadmill: Paizo does keep cranking out new books and adding new stuff, and if you don't have the time to keep up with that and maintain a general knowledge of what's possible you might fall behind someone else who's invested in optimizing their character for [whatever] -- I'm curious to see where they are in ten years, and whether or not we'll eve see a Pathfinder 2 (or for maximum hilarity, a Pathfinder 3.5).
posted by cjelli at 10:38 AM on April 2 [3 favorites]


Aaah, this might be very interesting. MULE is so great though, a little self-contained gem, it's a tall order to match. One of the signs of the impending suckiness of Electronic Arts (which now calls itself "EA") from their amazingly cool early days was when they hired MULE designer Bunten to make a sequel for the Genesis, but she left the project when EA demanded they add weapons players could use to attack each other.


One of my big unfulfilled ambitions is to get a bunch of people together to play MULE. I understand there's an online community but that's a little deep for me. I never played the original and I don't have much experience with the game. What I'd like to do is get together a bunch of similarly inexperience bunglers and play over and over again.
posted by grobstein at 10:40 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


I'd even put Spelljammer in there.

Spelljammer has some amazing worldbuilding in there. They basically invented a whole cosmology for D&D from that. With Planescape you're going to other realities and so the designers could just make up whatever they wanted, but Spelljammer had to try to interface fantasy and historical misconceptions (like crystal spheres) of space travel with the reality of it in a way that could cohere. It's full of crazy awesome ideas. It does have its problems overall (like grafting this into traditional D&D worlds), but I think some of the bits are fascinating.
posted by JHarris at 10:43 AM on April 2 [6 favorites]


The OGL Boom got me my first paying editorial job (I can still find a copy of Arms and Armor from Bastion on the local dusty gamestore shelf) and also gave me something to do this morning when I accidentally murdered a copy of Complete Adventurer with a Dremel Multi-Max.

So it's the gift that keeps giving!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:43 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


One of my big unfulfilled ambitions is to get a bunch of people together to play MULE.

Here is a little information to try to push you towards doing this, because the game is wonderful:

The best ways to play MULE these days, other than hunting up an Atari 800, four Atari joysticks, and a copy of the game, is through emulation. But not just any emulation, emulation on consoles, because they're the best way to get the requisite four controllers.

There are two reasonably modern consoles that do this well. The easier to obtain is the Wii. Install the Homebrew Channel on it, and install WiiXL. It takes some experimentation with settings, but once it's working you can sync four Wiimotes to it and off you go. There are some tricky bits, I seem to remember, but its been awhile since I set it up, so I must leave you to experimenting to get it to work. Of course you'll also need a disk image of the game, which I won't link here of course.

The other is the Dreamcast, which can run homebrew software off of CDs without modding. The emulator to use is Atari800DC. There are programs out there that can automate the process of installing Dreamcast homebrew software to an ISO image that you can burn. I remember there being kind of a train of tools to use, but there are also projects that can automate the system for you. Note, some brands of CDs work better than others. That's most of what I remember of it. The advantage of using a Dreamcast is its four controller ports while still being able to run the game full speed.
posted by JHarris at 10:51 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this JHarris!

Q: any problem with Planet M.U.L.E.? Is it just the controller issue?
posted by grobstein at 11:03 AM on April 2


Planet MULE seems okay to me, although I generally prefer the Atari 800 version. (It has the best version of the theme song.)
posted by JHarris at 11:05 AM on April 2


One of my friends, who is also a gamer and is one of the only people writing adventures for Champions, and is a theory gamer of the first water (again, Champions) said once that the big issue with the sell PHBs forever thing was that there were really not enough new players to make it work. So they'd need to do revision after revision, minor changes, just to sell them.

Or as he also once said, "some of these guys have weird ideas about selling things."
posted by mephron at 11:06 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]


mephron:
So they'd need to do revision after revision, minor changes, just to sell them.
I could see a somewhat ethical way of doing this, though. This is because over time the rules as printed for a game will be adjusted with errata. It is also likely that new and better ways of doing things while keeping the core of the game the same will evolve.

So after a few years you re-release the core books with all the errata included, maybe with a bit of new content to make it more appealing. After that you eventually release revised core books. This would be more like 4e Essentials where rules are improved and things done better but it is still compatible with the old rules if you want. Then that would eventually need errata, etc., repeat for a decade or two until it gets worn out enough that you need a whole new edition just to keep up with the market.

It would be kind of like the line from B/X D&D to 2nd edition AD&D which covered a good chunk of time. You could still run Keep on the Borderlands as written for your 2nd edition characters even though the core books were nothing alike at that point.
posted by charred husk at 11:38 AM on April 2


> to outsell Dungeons & Dragons, outpacing it 2:1

Do they say how they estimated that? Last I heard WotC wasn't releasing sales figures.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:37 AM on April 2


Don't know about actual numbers per se, but ICV2.com puts together charts based on interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufacturers. According to their Internal Correspondence #84 (which just came out a couple of weeks ago), the top five best-selling roleplaying games for Fall 2013 were:

5. Iron Kingdoms (Privateer Press)
4. Dungeons & Dragons (WotC)
3. Fate Core System (Evil Hat)
2. Star Wars (Fantasy Flight Games)
1. Pathfinder (Paizo Publishing)

To my knowledge, ICV2's info does not include online sales, so I don't know what these numbers would look like if sales from Amazon or DriveThruRPG were figured in. I don't think the 2:1 figure is too inaccurate these days, though, simply because everyone's waiting for D&D Next. Really, D&D 4e sales have been stagnating ever since D&D Next was announced.


Oh, and it should go without saying that those figures are for the current edition of D&D. I'm quite positive that if you figured in re-sales of books and supplements for earlier editions (especially the PDFs you can buy at DriveThruRPG) and "old school" revival books like Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Labyrinth Lord, D&D would blow Pathfinder out of the water. :)
posted by magstheaxe at 11:40 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Granted, that's a model that works on video games. Can anyone really tell the difference between the last three versions of Call of Duty or Joe Madden Football? And all you have to do is change the packaging and a couple skins to put out a "Delux Edition Grand Theft Auto". So Dancey could well have been looking at it from a video game perspective.

This is ignoring the fact that a) gamers are notoriously stingy, and b) game books are durable goods. So you can't depend on selling new editions of the fundamentally unchanged base game forever.

But use the base game as a free loss leader, and start a club in stores where GMs have to buy adventures and maps and miniatures, and encourage people in that club to buy more supplements to make better characters? You have a steady cash maker.
posted by happyroach at 11:48 AM on April 2


Spelljammer has some amazing worldbuilding in there.

Hippos in SPAAAAACE! Hamster-powered ships! Stuffy British Elves!

It was great world building. I am being completely serious. Boo was a spacehammy in my head canon.
posted by bonehead at 12:05 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


ICV2's rankings have always been considered kind of dodgy because they're hobby trade only and don't use POS data--they're based on a survey the company sends around. D&D and Pathfinder each have a serious book trade presence, and that's before considering online sales, which ICV2 doesn't. Again, while my dinosaur hindbrain is tingling enough to make me agree that Pathfinder is on top, everything else is highly speculative.

Since by failing to sell PHBs, open licensing did not demonstrably present an advantage to WoTC over simply releasing the first new edition of D&D in over a decade (with 3e), it's difficult to figure out how much adulterating the principle with 4e cost, though it certainly damaged relations with fans and small press semipro/superfan fronts. I thought the OGL was damaging to fans by obscuring Fair Use doctrine and the non-copyrightable nature of game systems, but I think like the feeling of making something "official-ish." In fact, most RPG "publishers" are not viable businesses, but ways to acquire a certain amount of credibility on fandom along with pizza money.

(Don't be me and tell those people that you, a guy who works for pro rates, are not really in the same business as them. It's true but man, it makes them mad.)

In any event there was the impression of something given for free, of a real opportunity proffered, even though for most people the SRD was more Blogger-like in offering a theoretical opportunity most of its users will never exploit, and then taken away. People hate that.

But of course, there were some folks (like former WotC staff who formed their own outfits) who pretty much knew what they were doing: people for whom the SRD was *not* like Blogger, but something like an actual OS kernel. They quickly figured out using the D20 logo and churning out modules and supplements was for suckers (especially since WotC could tank sales at any time by releasing their Official Orc Book to compete with unofficial ones) and made interesting variations on D&D like Arcana Unearthed or Grim Tales. Some WotC folks made some angry noises about this, but the OGL is structured in such a way that they couldn't do much about it aside, I suppose, by exercising copyright on the required text of the license itself, which would be a PR disaster and might not even work.

(I have this morbid curiosity about whether anyone from high up at Hasbro, for whom D&D doesn't even merit a dedicated line item in reports, will decide they can sacrifice the existing audience and exercise this Nuclear Dick Move to reassert control over D&D, let it die for a while, and resurrect it as a generic intellectual property. That would sure be bad.)

But these OGL game variants all had the disadvantage that they had to compete with D&D, and so somehow present some kind of novel variation on the game. Arcana Unearthed used a Stephen Donaldson-homage assumed setting, for instance, and a completely different set of base classes. But with 4e, WotC was kind enough to get rid of their competitor. Pathfinder was not the only try at seizing the crown of OGL-style D&D, but had numerous advantages, being driven by the publisher that took over Dragon, possessed numerous business and design insights straight from the source, and a reputation as the next best thing to it.

Meanwhile, 4e bore little resemblance to its predecessor and its license was redesigned to keep people from ever designing competitors to D&D, which was a wee bit late, there. Maybe 4e could have been a more iterative edition, as five years (3.5 to 4) seemed to be way too short a time to get existing gamers on board. 3e came after a decade of D&D in decline, and a rules set that only iterated on its own predecessor.

So the OGL may not have made 3e popular (though it was popular, its sales followed no pattern not accounted for by just being a new edition of a popular RPG) but it surely made 4e *unpopular*. It made competing with 3e using its own tools popular, and created confusion for brick and mortar retailers flooded with garbage supplements. So it represents perhaps a worst case scenario for the business end of the D&D hobby.

Note that none of this has to do with the quality of 4e as a game. After the big steps taken in 2000, the differences between 3 and 4 are mostly irrelevant to the average person gaming for the first time--though of course, said person is not as common as he or she once was.

I think at this point WotC has realized that it has a greying audience with a large contingent of nostalgic folks (see the retro-D&D movement) who want to be served D&D that feels like what they think D&D was when they started, and want to feel like they're part of a semi-official creative community that can influence game design (many gamers generally believe that RPG designers are either more successful than they are, or are parasites who should step aside for True Fans/Independents, or in a display of neurological flexibility, both at the same time). The new version of D&D is there for them, and I think WotC desperately wants that audience to take ownership of it. Accordingly, it is aggressively non-innovative and has no enduring aesthetic framework except what can be applied post hoc after everyone has their say. But at this point does it really matter? Virtually every conceivable variant of the rules can be acquired free or cheaply, and that's before we get into the scans/ebook sales-->/tg/-->torrent piracy cycle that the most desired market segment might be going to *first*.

So I don't know. Maybe they should have killed D&D until 2018, honestly. Let Pathfinder take a decade to get strange and inaccessible, the stride in with a back-to-basics edition. Because with everything floating around, nobody would *miss* D&D until it created a deliberate campaign to be missed.
posted by mobunited at 1:35 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I am not sure of the damaging effect of OGL there, mobunited. You're leaving out the bad experiences TSR had forged with fans by shutting down third-party material. The OGL at the time felt tremendous, and I can guarantee that I, at least, appreciated it even though I have never created an RPG product with intent to sell. It felt to fans like saying "we were wrong to try to blow you all out of the water like that." It also meant, in the early days of 3E, there were pre-published adventures to choose from that didn't come from WotC, which is nice if you have core books but no adventure to play with them.

What they got from the OGL was good will from singed fans and a large amount of material out quickly. Who really is to say 3E would have gotten to the point it had without that?

As for letting Pathfinder take a decade to get strange and inaccessible, for me, it's there now. Part of the appeal of D&D is its stance as the official Generic Fantasyland of RPgaming. Pathfinder seems to be more of a specific fantasyland, like playing in someone else's world. I have not read much at all of Pathfinder material though, this is completely from looking in from the edges, and would welcome opinions from people who play it.

As for killing D&D until 2018, that won't work this time, that would be ceding that space for the retrogaming community to colonize. Many of them already consider their variants of the game to be real D&D, and it feels like the attitude might be spreading. And Hasbro could easily make D&D into another Avalon Hill, a formerly godlike and respected brand now with little selling power at all, a mere label to stick on Axis & Allies.
posted by JHarris at 2:47 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]


I am not sure of the damaging effect of OGL there, mobunited. You're leaving out the bad experiences TSR had forged with fans by shutting down third-party material. The OGL at the time felt tremendous, and I can guarantee that I, at least, appreciated it even though I have never created an RPG product with intent to sell. It felt to fans like saying "we were wrong to try to blow you all out of the water like that."

Yeah. My point is that fans had a false impression of this policy. The OGL in no way repudiated TSR's position. It was very good at *looking* like it did, but in fact it provided a license to mostly do what you were already allowed to do anyway. Games are not as strongly protected by copyright as some think, though Hasbro is known for claiming otherwise. The OGL rather implies that TSR was right to screw you, but WotC won't, even though it could. So the OGL made people feel better but was basically an injury to the concept of fair use and the inherently open nature of game systems (though not individual expressions of them).

This is why Dancey's solution to this contradiction is to attack the non-copyrightable nature of games by analogy with "human-selected values" in software design. So the software analogy giveth, but it also taketh away. Your rights to hack tabletop games are not being expanded, but turned into contractual relationships.

As for killing D&D until 2018, that won't work this time, that would be ceding that space for the retrogaming community to colonize. Many of them already consider their variants of the game to be real D&D, and it feels like the attitude might be spreading. And Hasbro could easily make D&D into another Avalon Hill, a formerly godlike and respected brand now with little selling power at all, a mere label to stick on Axis & Allies.

I think that ship has already sailed. The retrogaming community is probably as big as it's ever going to get. D&D has seen a resurgence as a brand, though not a game produced by that name, to the point where Hasbro is trying to snatch it from Syfy cheap movie hell. Heck, I bet the current maneuvering around this film license is probably using money equivalent to a significant chunk of what's being spent on any actual D&D game. Now that the entertainment business is "Tentpole IP or GTFO" I think D&D will be managed based on its ability to deliver a tentpole with a decent fanbase, with the development of the game being incidental. MY musings were about the success of D&D as a game called D&D, which I think has been overstuffed with edition and alternatives.
posted by mobunited at 3:24 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]


Yeah. My point is that fans had a false impression of this policy. The OGL in no way repudiated TSR's position. It was very good at *looking* like it did, but in fact it provided a license to mostly do what you were already allowed to do anyway.

Except, when it comes down to it, what you're "allowed" to do doesn't really matter. Practically, it's enough for Hasbro to claim they can copyright the rules: for small time operations, the threat of lawsuit, even one that might lose but yet still might not, is enough of a dampening factor by itself. The OGL, for anything it actually did (and I think it did a bit more than you're implying -- you can't copyright rules, but you can copyright a lot of individual pieces of those rules, like monsters, and just getting the basics of the game out into the open had value), gave people enough confidence to start making third-party D&D material again.

I would think anything implying what people could or couldn't do in a license, if it's not necessary to accept the license to make add-on content anyway, would nullify the license in that situation -- the publisher would just say: "Okay, since we don't need it anyway, we don't agree to the terms of the license, and our 'rights' under it end." IANAL however, and I don't know if the OGL was ever tested in court, I really don't know how it would come down.

I think that ship has already sailed. The retrogaming community is probably as big as it's ever going to get.

Well, I don't know about this, but have no figures. Part of my wondering comes from the fact that retrogaming is largely off the economic map (many games are free) and thus hard to track, but still holds territory on the social map, and that's what matters to people's perceptions of what is Dungeons & Dragons.

BTW, I'm sorry if this comes across as fighty, I'm really not trying to be, I greatly appreciate your insights!
posted by JHarris at 3:52 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]


I liked 4th Ed a bit because it solved the Linear-Fighters-Quadratic-Wizards problem, while 3.5 seemed to do everything possible to make it as bad as possible. It's a big part of what's driven me away from D&D in general.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:10 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Hi All!

I was really pleased to be on the podcast. I hope you all enjoy listening.

I did want to make a few comments in response to this thread to clarify a few things.

First, Pope Guilty said:

"I don't have time to listen a podcast right now- do they mention that the reason Dancey no longer works at CCP is because they put him in charge of White Wolf after they bought it (because it was seen as simpler to just buy the company that owns the IP than to screw around with licensing agreements) and his response was to essentially stop all production of WW books and let what was formerly one of the biggest and most respected RPG publishers just lie fallow, since he thought RPGs were doomed anyway?"

I don't work at CCP anymore because the CEO and I disagreed fundamentally on the strategic value of doing DUST 514, among other things.

I was not EVER "in charge" of White Wolf. The acquisition happened in 2006 and I didn't join CCP until late in 2007. I was in charge of the global sales & marketing effort for the company, and my directive from the CEO and the Board was to focus on EVE and prepare to market the World of Darkness MMO (which was 2-3 years away from release when I was hired).

The publishing business was managed by Rich Thomas. I didn't make any strategic decisions about the publishing business except championing the V20 release (see below).

CCP is not a publishing company nor did it want to stay in the publishing business. CCP made a graceful exit from publishing beginning with ceasing production of its own EVE collectible card game (before I joined the company) and winding down its production of other RPGs under the direction of the people responsible for that business. My team created the Masquerade event in New Orleans and ensured that the V20 book would be produced, which I felt was the best way we could support the existing fans of the game during the transition period before the release of the MMO (which was 2-3 years away when the Masquerade was held).

If you want to know why CCP doesn't want to publish tabletop RPGs you should ask the CEO, who made those decisions.

Mobunited said:

"Outside the Dancey reality bubble, people know why tabletop RPGs shrank from the 90s to mid-2000s: retail space competition from CCGs followed by suffocating d20 backstock. Switching editions in 2003 helped the latter collapse, but retailers were already shrinking in response to CCG woes, some of which, like L5R's Rolling Thunder, were managed by...Ryan Dancey."

Let's review the actual history of the market.

TSR was effectively bankrupt in 1996 when we negotiated the rights to buy it and transferred those rights to Wizards of the Coast.

In 1995, Wizards of the Coast passed TSR to become the largest publisher in hobby gaming based on the surge of collectible card games. Except it didn't. It passed TSR, but the largest publisher in hobby gaming was Games Workshop, who had passed TSR in 1994, and it would not be until the arrival of Pokemon that Wizards would clearly top Games Workshop as the largest publisher.

How is it possible for CCGs to have broken the back of RPGs but at the same time the miniatures wargaming category exploded? It isn't. CCGs, RGPs and miniatures wargames appeal to different audiences. There's a very small overlap - less than 20% - of people who regularly buy all three categories of products.

The RPG business went into a tailspin about the same time as the rise of CCGs but that correlation did not imply causation. Instead, the problem was that the publishers of RPGs massively over-segmented their market, driving players into ever more narrow niches and feeding them endless diets of super-specialized sourcebooks until the player network became so fragmented that the hobby as a whole suffered a massive collapse. That collapse did not just affect TSR, though TSR was the most visibly distressed company. It also hit White Wolf, FASA, Steve Jackson, Iron Crown, Chaosium, Palladium, essentially every major RPG publisher in the market. All of them tried to diversify out of RPGs to avoid the melt-down, and many of them did not succeed.

By 1996, sales of RPGs had dwindled to perhaps 10% of their late 80s high water mark. It was a bitter time for RPG publishers but it wasn't because they were headshot by CCGs it was because they had manufactured then consumed their own poison.

Now let's turn to this issue of D20 "backstock".

3rd Edition was released in 2000. At the time, Pokemon revenues had tripled or quadrupled the revenue most hobby gaming stores were earning. As well Magic and Games Workshop were continuing to sell in huge volumes. For most retailers, RPGs represented, AT MOST 10-15% of their revenues POST 3rd Edition.

During the time of the D20 "backstock" problem, Pokemon gave way to Yu-Gi-Oh, which delivered outsized financial performance to the retailers for 6+ years, through the end of 3.0 and the bulk of 3.5.

To suggest that there was any meaningful negative effects of D20 "backstock" on the market is just not congruent with the facts. Sure, a lot of retailers discounted or destroyed a lot of RPG products, but the cost of those products was minuscule in comparison to the revenues they earned on RPGs above what they were earning prior to 3e, and dwarfed by the profits they were earning on mass-market CCGs, hobby market CCGs and miniatures games.

Sturgeon's Law (90% of anything is crap) applies to RPGs just as it does to comic books, pop music, romance novels, and a million other products. The way you get a bunch of really great new products in a category is to have a tidal wave of new products, assuming that 90% of the wave is crap. The result of the D20/OGL era was a resurrection in the ability to profitably publish RPGs, the ability of a bunch of people to "live the dream" and publish their RPGs, and the creation of a number of companies which continue to be RPG publishers to this very day - an amazing regeneration of a moribund, rapidly dying category of products.

Sometimes the facts get lost in the sweep of time but I think it's useful to remind people of what they are, so they can put erroneous theories like these in the proper context.
posted by RSDancey at 6:13 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]


TSR had some great settings: World of Darkness, Planescape/Sigil (with a hit game tie-in in Planescape:Torment even!), Dark Sun. I'd even put Spelljammer in there. But they devalued, unsupported and even discontinued all of them in favour of those munchin books.

It's interesting that there haven't been any good D&D videogames for the past five years either, since the expansions of Neverwinter Nights 2, unless I'm missing something. The CRPGs seemed to lead people to P&P in my experience, but neither AAA nor kickstarter rpgs use D&D rules nowadays.

Also, my favourite, underrated TSR setting was Birthright and it's a shame it's gathering dust.

WoD was always White Wolf, right?
posted by ersatz at 6:48 PM on April 2


How is it possible for CCGs to have broken the back of RPGs but at the same time the miniatures wargaming category exploded? It isn't. CCGs, RPGs and miniatures wargames appeal to different audiences. There's a very small overlap - less than 20% - of people who regularly buy all three categories of products.

It doesn't really matter that Warhammer players are not normally D&D players are not normally Magic players. It matters that these products competed for hobby store shelf space . . . well, mostly. There are GW retail stores, and used to be Wizards retail stores. There were not TSR stores focused on selling D&D. In any event, RPGs became an unattractive way to fill square footage in the hobby games category--no crossover consumers required.

The D20 bubble and burst is so well known I'm just gonna link to a Google search (which includes items from OGF-L!) and note that after flirting with evergreen core and minor releases for a brief period of time WotC gave up and returned to exactly the same release structure that supposedly killed RPGs before, though with a few stabs at evergreen-ness via core book "sequels." That, and the brief attempt to float the Miniatures Handbook as a fourth core. TSR may have split itself up through a bunch of game worlds but this was pretty specific to it. In all other respects, after a token attempt to do something different through some very poorly received brown floppy books WotC pushed D&D through the same core+more model.
posted by mobunited at 7:19 PM on April 2


Hey, RSDancey! Welcome to Metafilter, and thanks for your insights!
posted by JHarris at 7:30 PM on April 2


It's interesting that there haven't been any good D&D videogames for the past five years either, since the expansions of Neverwinter Nights 2, unless I'm missing something. The CRPGs seemed to lead people to P&P in my experience, but neither AAA nor kickstarter rpgs use D&D rules nowadays.

There was Daggerdale in 2011 and Neverwinter in 2013, although calling either of them 'good' would be, charitably, a stretch.

This is partly due to licensing issues; Atari has held the sole rights to make CRPG adaptions of D&D since 2001, and was supposed to hold them through 2017, but back in 2009 Habsro attempted to terminate that agreement, which lead to a two-year lawsuit. They resolved the dispute in 2011 (they settled out of court), but that put a bit of a damper on development in the meantime. And then, in 2013, Atari went bankrupt (well, the US arm of Atari) and -- let's just say that Atari has perhaps not been the best steward of the license in recent years? It's absolutely crazy that they never managed to make a good 4E game, considering how ideal that system was for a CRPG adaption.
posted by cjelli at 9:27 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Whatever one may say about the legalities surrounding the OGL, it did have one major benefit; it encouraged companies to open up their systems for use by others. For instance, the success and diversity of the games using the 3rd edition of FATE is partially a result of the framework granted by the OGC. So instead of killing off all rival systems, D&D 3rd. accidentally encouraged some excellent modern rps.
posted by happyroach at 12:15 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]


WoD was always White Wolf, right?

Yeah, I misremembered the name of TSR's own vampire setting.
posted by bonehead at 8:10 AM on April 3


It was called Ravenloft. It was basically a bunch of standard horror adventure settings clamped together and was inexplicably popular. I mean, other settings at least pretended to be a world, but Ravenloft was just vampire-castle-next-to-werewolf-forest-next-to-zombie-village-next-to-some-other-cliché. Somewhere I own the setting box for it but I never particularly wanted to play it.
posted by Kattullus at 9:07 AM on April 3


Ravenloft was great, especially if you ported characters there from Dark Sun.

"So you mean there's water here. So much that it comes up in a mist?"
"Yes... but the nights are long."
"Woah, y'all got nights here too? Sold."
"But we're ruled by an evil despot!"
"Is that despot an undying sorcerer?"
"Yes!"
"... that is also a dragon who demands the corpses of thousands?"
"Uh.. no. He's a lich who hides in his castle, plotting evil!"
"Not a problem. He hiring."
"He only hired the dead!"
"Oh."
"YO DID I HEAR YOU ASKING ABOUT A JOB? I'M TOTES HIRING. MY NAME IS LORD SOTH."
"Dude, I've always wanted to work for a Darth Vader."
"ONE QUESTION... ARE YOU CONFLICTED TO YOUR CORE ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE DONE?"
"Only if I gots paid for it or not."
"CLOSE ENOUGH. WELCOME TO THE KNIGHTS OF THE BLACK ROSE."
"Oh snap is that metal armor? Durf'gnar, you magnificent Mul finally made it!"
"COOL, RIGHT THIS WAY OH SHIT THE HELL IS THAT GIANT BUG"
"That's Mister Clickles. He's a psychic ninja."
*sup*
"THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST SENIOR YEAR EVER"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:30 PM on April 3 [10 favorites]


Dark Sun gets its own special Island of Dread in Ravenloft called Kaildnay. It sucks to be stuck in even more than vanilla Ravenloft.
posted by absalom at 3:52 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


robocop is bleeding, are you DMing anything soon? I'd just about be willing to pay for admission.
posted by JHarris at 4:49 PM on April 3


I'm in. I think we just need a cleric.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 4:54 PM on April 3


Sure. You are all from the small, yet surprisingly multiracial village of Hoebrook. Friends through childhood, you have all returned to Hoebrook to attend the funeral of Jon hep'Malt, pub-owner and uncle like figure who inspired you to become the 1st level adventurers you are today.

It's after the official town wake and about half way through the unofficial wake taking place behind the locked doors of hep'Malt's pub, the Wayward Steer. Roll to see if you're drunk (CON check) as you boast about your exploits during the X years you've been away.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:19 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I fire Magic Missile!
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:20 PM on April 3


This is partly due to licensing issues; Atari has held the sole rights to make CRPG adaptions of D&D since 2001, and was supposed to hold them through 2017, but back in 2009 Habsro attempted to terminate that agreement, which lead to a two-year lawsuit.

Oh right, I had forgotten about that. This reminds me of the Gothic/Arcania/Risen lawsuits that also seemed to do a number on the quality of the games.
posted by ersatz at 6:22 PM on April 3


I fire Magic Missile!

Magic Missile, hep'Malt's erstwhile goblin barback and one time adventuring companion, throws his towel down in disgust. That the pub was not left to him in the will was bad enough - to be fired before the body is even in the ground is just too much. He storms from the pub in disgust (INT check or Language:Goblin to learn the names you are being called).

You have earned an enemy this day.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:30 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


Oh goody! My character relaxes in his tavern chair and orders something called "Bouncy Bubble Beverage" and an order of "Hot Fun."

(My character is actually the victim of a transdimensional accident that left him stranded in Greyhawk. His home plane is a strange place called "Alpha Complex." He has a ray gun that doesn't work, and armor that doesn't protect against anything around here. Basically, he's a 1st level Fighter with mediocre stats. He thinks this place is a lot better than home and doesn't want to go back, but he's kind of a clone fish out of water.)
posted by JHarris at 6:40 PM on April 3


The departure of Magic Missile means that there will be quite a wait before anyone takes your order. After a few minutes you get up and go behind the bar. hep'Malt took months perfecting a recipe that came close to what you remember of Bouncy Bubbling Beverage (boiled wortroot, dwarvish brandy, lager) but he was never able to manage the Hot Fun. He just couldn't get the taste of Red right. But after enough BBB, who cares?

As you root behind the bar for the stone urn of brandy, you fine a metallic box. On it is written 'HIGH PROGRAMMERS ONLY' in a conveniently trans-dimensional common tongue.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:57 PM on April 3


(BTW, I just did a search for "Kaildnay", and after confirming I didn't mean Kidney, I got zero hits. Even Google knows nothing of the Demiplane of Dread.)
posted by JHarris at 6:59 PM on April 3


My character nearly chokes, then immediately starts looking for security cameras scrying devices. He says aloud "Gee, this box clearly belongs to someone else, obviously someone with the same fingerprints as me!" Making unbecoming wimpering sounds, he looks around for anyone in white robes....
posted by JHarris at 7:06 PM on April 3


The only person in white robes is Jon hep'Malt himself, his body dressed as per his will. His corpse makes no comment regarding the handling of the box.

The only scrying device you notice is the yellow eye of Magic Missile, peering at the group from a hole in the ceiling. Upon making eye contact, he yelps, and the eye disappears to the sound of tiny footsteps.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:13 PM on April 3


"Hmm. Maybe his next clone will want it. I'd better take this for safe keeping. Maybe it'll 'accidentally' open later." He still hesitates for a moment before picking it up, remembering stories from back in the 'plex about a black box that nearly destroyed the place once....

Wait. What color was Magic Missile's skin again? Green? That's high clearance -- it would be a good idea not to let him see me with this. My character puts it in his pack, along with his only other reminder of home, an Old Reckoning paperback copy of How Much For Just The Planet?
posted by JHarris at 7:43 PM on April 3


Kalidnay is an obscure shithole featured in Dragon Magazine #190. (PDF)
posted by absalom at 9:29 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]


Hello, upthread diversion! I worked on World of Darkness Online. AMA in PM (though understand that I may not legally be able to answer some things).
posted by susoka at 9:39 AM on April 4


I finally had time to listen to the podcast and it's great. (Seriously, a whole hour? Who has time? But it's well edited and worth it.) The first half is a great introduction to the business of tabletop RPGs and MMOs and Dancey is a uniquely interesting guest to speak on that topic. Rare combination of someone who both loves the details of game designs and works on the business side, figuring out how to make games successful.

But the second half about Goblinworks (aka Pathfinder Online) is super exciting. I hadn't caught the framing of sandbox MMO in the post here and it's really encouraging to hear Dancey talk about what they're doing. He's basically taking what he learned from Eve Online and applying it to a fantasy MMORPG, with lots of player politics and crafting and a real economy. He's smart enough to recognize that Eve's spaceship combat isn't fun so he talks a lot about their tactical combat design. And he's got enough history to give the big hat tip to Ultima Online, the first big MMO and also the last fantasy sandbox MMO. Finally he's business savvy enough to talk about how they're not aiming to be a AAA blockbuster, they have a very reasonable target of 50,000 subscribers after a year. I'm thrilled they're taking a chance on this genre again.

They're doing an interesting rollout of "early enrollment", with more players added every month. This lets the economy and political structure develop in a smaller social setting. It also lets them pre-finance the development to augment the Kickstarter funding. It's not cheap: $100 for early access, three months subscription, and some minor goodies.
posted by Nelson at 11:54 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]




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