Sunday, May 4, 2008

"Whatever that means"

My favorite whipping boy -- Bill Slavicsek, the R&D Director for Roleplaying Games, Miniatures, and Book Publishing at WotC -- is back and, once again, he's saying something that's either unadulterated marketing speak or further proof that the man has never played D&D. In the latest "Ampersand" column in the mockery that is E-Dragon, he comments
You wouldn't believe how many times over the years I've heard people say "I play in [insert favorite campaign setting here] so product X is of no use to me," or "I only play Core D&D (whatever that means)
I've italicized the part that really sticks in my craw. Before I explain why, let me provide some further context for this quote. Slavicsek reveals in his article that WotC "won't be producing campaign lines, per se" for 4e. Instead, WotC views "every D&D product we do is a Forgotten Realms [or insert your favorite campaign setting here] game product." He goes on to explain that "This is a subtle but significant change in philosophy geared toward making all players D&D players. It just makes the products and the brand stronger if every player is using the same material."

Lest anyone accuse me of not seeing Slavicsek's point, let me acknowledge right now that he has one. Starting with the release of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set in 1987 and accelerated throughout the whole 2e era (1989-2000), the caretakers of D&D made a concerted effort to release reams of material for a wide variety of campaign settings, each with a distinct flavor, style, and focus -- not to mention dozens of "fluff" products describing the details of the settings. Aside from making D&D compete against itself -- a bad business move -- what it also did was fracture the player base of D&D. No longer did many gamers consider themselves D&D players firstly. Instead, they became Forgotten Realms players or Dark Sun players or Ravenloft players who just happened to use the 2e rules, each one heavily modified to suit the idiosyncrasies of their favorite setting, of course.

At the dawn of the 3e era, WotC clearly recognized that too many campaign settings was a bad thing and so 3e would have only two settings: the implied "core" setting of the rulebooks, which was basically a watered version of Greyhawk, and the heavily supported Forgotten Realms. The belief was that 2e had suffered economically in part because TSR had allowed D&D to fragment into little camps that didn't buy products for other settings. This is clearly the undesirable outcome that Slavicsek is alluding to in the quote above.

Of course, WotC itself didn't stick to its original plan for very long. In 2002, with much fanfare, WotC announced a Fantasy Setting Search designed to create a new setting for D&D, the winner of which was Keith Baker's techno-magical "noir" fantasy Eberron. Eberron was intended to showcase the new v.3.5 iteration of the D&D rules and, in retrospect, it was also an early testbed for many ideas and concepts that would come to fruition in the 4e design due to be released next month.

Despite claims to the contrary, I don't believe that Eberron was much of a success for WotC, either as a gaming property or -- more importantly -- as a setting for the far more lucrative book trade. At the very least, I suspect it performed less well than WotC had hoped, which is why the Forgotten Realms continued to be the flagship of both game products and novels. The Realms itself will be the first new campaign setting released for 4e (this August) and it's intended to showcase all the "cool" changes the new edition has wrought on D&D. A revised version of Eberron is due in 2009 supposedly, but, by all accounts, will not get a full-scale reworking as the Realms did. Whether that's because Eberron was 4e before there was a 4e or because WotC sees it as a redheaded stepchild is open to interpretation.

So, what it looks like is that WotC believes that, by branding a book as for Setting X or Setting Y, they are limiting the pool of potential buyers. With 4e, they want to return to the halcyon days when there were just D&D players rather than Realms players or Eberron players. Undoubtedly, they figure, by avoiding such branding, they can sell vastly more books and please their masters in Pawtucket, who are probably wondering why D&D, as an IP underperforms compared to Transformers or Spongebob Squarepants. And, honestly, Hasbro is right to wonder about this; I imagine D&D does underperform by a serious amount and WotC needs to do something about that.

Unfortunately for WotC, this new approach won't cut it. That ship already sailed long before WotC even existed. "D&D," thanks to a variety of moves both well intentioned and cynical, is now little more than a vague brand. People who play D&D nowadays probably share far fewer assumptions about the game and its content than they have since the start of the hobby. The mere fact that Slavicsek doesn't understand what's meant by the term "core D&D" is evidence of that. Once upon a time, "core D&D" would have been readily understood and any grognard worth his polyhedrals would quickly and simply explain to Slavicsek what it means. More to the point, such a term wouldn't have even been needed, for there was only D&D without qualification, for the game itself was always intended as a common pool of ideas and mechanics from which gamers could create their own fantasy worlds and adventures. How things have changed!

It's in WotC's best interests, of course, to simultaneously deny the meaningfulness of "core D&D" and to push the notion that its 4e products are simply D&D products without qualification. If they can manage to pull off that magic trick, they might just succeed in holding off the bean counters in Rhode Island for a few more years, especially if a lucrative 4e-derived licensing deal to a computer game company or something similar occurs. But I'm skeptical. More than that, I'm increasingly of the opinion that WotC itself is so internally conflicted and at sea when it comes to their business strategy for RPGs that, even if they somehow manage to use the smoke and mirrors effectively, they won't reap the benefits of their legerdemain. Since the announcement of 4e last August, WotC has repeatedly proven themselves tin eared and sclerotic. But then, given how poorly their R&D Director seems to know the history of the very game he's selling, I'm not surprised.

6 comments:

  1. Obviously they don't know (or can't admit) what core D&D means, or else they wouldn't be able to say with a straight face that their new fantasy RPG is D&D.

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  2. I'm choosing to simply not keep up with 4e's development, and this very well written post only serves to remind me why. Modern D&D has lost it's way when the very notion of Core D&D confuses the R&D man at WotC. I'll keep the faith that D&D will live on, even if in name only.

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  3. That line stuck in my craw when I first read it as well. I found it a transparent bit of marketing speak, as he had already used the term "core" twice previous in the article and obviously knows exactly what it means. Then he follows it up with the assertion that every book they release from now on will be "totally core". I see it as part of WotC's efforts to eliminate players who only buy core material. The bigger move in that direction is the plan to release a new iteration of the core books every single year.

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  4. or else they wouldn't be able to say with a straight face that their new fantasy RPG is D&D.

    Absolutely. It's a Pontius Pilate moment -- "What is truth?" -- meant to throw into doubt the very notion that you can define D&D and thus says this is or is not D&D.

    Either that or he really is just ignorant, but, try as I might, I have a hard time believing that.

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  5. Never fear: the name "D&D" will live on forever. It's too valuable a brand for Hasbro to let fade away. Increasingly, though, that brand will have less and less to do with its historic associations. With 3e, it was already edging ever more confidently toward being a completely different game and the transition will be even greater with 4e.

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  6. Hey, Bill. Pull your 3e PHB, MM, and DMG. What does it say right there on the bottom of each front cover? Now do you understand whatever “core D&D” means?

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