Monday, February 9, 2009

Dwimmermount (Session 5)

Yesterday, my nine year-old daughter joined in the megadungeon fun, playing a 2nd-level magic-user she named Iriadessa. She'd been watching us play for several weeks and had played D&D before and I figured that, since we had trouble getting a full complement of players at my table each week, having her along couldn't hurt. As it turned it, Iriadessa saved the party's bacon and introduced them to the wonders of sleep -- probably the most powerful spell in the arsenal of low-level casters. Being able to put up to 4d4 creatures to sleep without a saving throw is a potent ability. Who says low-level MUs are underpowered?

Of course, now that my players have realized exactly how mighty sleep is, I expect they'll be using it a lot more often in the future. Fortunately, the players will likely be descending into Level 2 next session. Their map of the first level suggests there are still a few places left to explore but most either lay beyond traps/tricks they'd rather not mess with or near the kobold warrens they fled earlier in the campaign. Rather than brave those dangers, descending into the next level seems a better option. Their adventuring party has already grown quite large with hirelings. Henga the Shield-Maiden has survived, serving as Dordagdonar's movable bow emplacement. Brakk the goblin likewise survives, as does Sam the archer. Brother Candor released Ragnar from service, after the doughty peasant earned 16 gold pieces -- more than enough to afford his fiancée's dowry and keep him living high for some years to come. He was replaced by Hrothgar, a 2nd-level Fighter they hired in Adamas, because they quite rightly worried that the second level of the dungeon would require more brawn than poor Ragnar could muster.

The session went well enough, but I have to admit that I think I need to mix things up a little next time. The initial thrill of a good ol' fashioned dungeon is starting to recede and what we're left with falls a bit flat at times. Granted, I have plenty to work with already: relics of a Thulian cult to Turms Termax, the presence of Tsathoggua-worshipping Ranine, and some peculiar artifacts that may point to deeper mysteries of Dwimmermount. So far, though, I haven't really given the players much opportunity to dwell on these things nor have I pushed them to investigate them. Part of it is that I'm still quite reluctant to take an active role in shaping the campaign's focus and/or direction; I'd prefer to be more reactive. However, I think I may be a little too passive at this stage. Likewise, I think I need to present more opportunities outside the dungeon. I want to keep Dwimmermount as the center of the campaign, but to be a proper center, there need to be things revolving around it and I haven't really set much in motion in the wider world just yet. Since the PCs will be in Adamas for time next session, I intend to use it as an opportunity to do just this.

And, yes, those are some Otherworld Miniatures gnolls in the photo. I haven't yet had the chance to use them in the game, but you can rest assured I'll be rectifying that oversight soon as well.

37 comments:

  1. Finding the right carrot to keep "modern" (for lack of a better term) gamers interested in a dungeon is tricky. IME, gamers are used to having external reasons to go into the dungeon, rather than creating their own motivations.

    I think this is a symptom of how games have shifted over the past 30 years. When D&D first arose, the idea of an interactive, reactive game was so new and exciting that simply experiencing the game was enough to hook people.

    Today, with consoles and computer games and MMOs, people are used to the idea of messing around in a fantasy environment. They go through that initiation phase (Cool! I can explore a fantasy world!) much earlier, and now want other knobs to play with.

    For instance, I think the shift in D&D over the years is a direct result of this evolution. D&D characters have a lot more knobs and levers today because you need all those features to hook people in. D&D is no longer novel enough to use "Explore a fantasy world" as its lone selling point. It needs a bit more to pull people in, other factors (story, mechanical, or setting) to keep them interested.

    I think that's why we say games like C&S, Runequest, and Rolemaster arise in D&D's wake. All of them had more detailed rules, more realistic settings, or deeper backgrounds.

    Anyway, it'll be interesting to see how you manage things. By no means do I think this calls for a change in mechanics, but I think it does require you to look at DM methods and tricks to keep the players moving forward.

    Nice paint jobs on the minis, BTW. Post more!

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  2. Otherworld Miniatures are fantastic. I have the pleasure of having the troll, jellies/oozes and the stirges and they are well done.

    It'll be interesting to see you reveal how Dwimmermount evolves and changes as the PCs interact with it. They might even find level 1 repopulated. :)

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  3. It'll be interesting to see you reveal how Dwimmermount evolves and changes as the PCs interact with it.
    Definitely. I would think that settling down a huge piece of wilderness like this has to have some kind of repercussions, especially if they become particularly successful in clearing it out or start coming back to town laden with loot. It would be kinda fun to kick off a "loot rush" where adventurers of all stripes try to jump the party's claim, spurred on by stories of "those guys".

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  4. Hold the show -- they'd been playing for *four sessions* without anyone to cast Sleep?!? Had any of them played pre-3rd edition D&D before?

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  5. Being able to put up to 4d4 creatures to sleep without a saving throw is a potent ability. Who says low-level MUs are underpowered?

    Comment 1 of 2: The original white box rules don't say that sleep avoids saving throws. (I guess we can quibble over the phrase "always affects"). It's actually Supplement I that has the addendum that "There is no saving throw against this spell".

    In my OD&D gaming, I'm very happy to ignore that Greyhawk addendum. I feel that it starts a whole complicated cycle of boost spells (some have no saves), weaken spells (introduce magic resistance), boost spells (create feats to reduce magic resistance), etc.

    I feel it's simpler in OD&D to just give everything saves, no need to track exceptions, no need for added mechanics.

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  6. Finding the right carrot to keep "modern" (for lack of a better term) gamers interested in a dungeon is tricky... They go through that initiation phase (Cool! I can explore a fantasy world!) much earlier, and now want other knobs to play with.

    That may be true for a certain narrow niche of "hardcore" gamer. However, it flies in direct contradiction to the experience I have when introducing more casual gamers, at any age, to OD&D.

    Once again I was playing OD&D with my girlfriend over the weekend and at the end of the session she again said, "This seems so much more fun than that 3E we were playing earlier." (That being her first RPG experience, about 6 years ago.) She also doesn't have the interest to follow a made-up plot line from week to week (same for video games she plays with an overarching "story"). That's just one close example.

    So, I've seen the "number of knobs" be a direct and explicit turn-off to every new gamer that I've personally introduced to gaming via 3E+ D&D.

    My prediction for some time now has been that WOTC's strategy of pursuing the more-and-more niche hardcore gamer will result in a continually dwindling number of players for the industry, resulting in cancelling of the WOTC's printed product line some time around 2018.

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  7. Ah, yes. Sleep was always my favorite spell in TFT. Of course, I was also prone to fumbling spells, so half the time I'd end up putting my OWN character to sleep instead of a foe. Much entertainment was had by all.

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  8. "Brother Candor released Ragnar from service, after the doughty peasant earned 16 gold pieces -- more than enough to afford his fiancée's dowry and keep him living high for some years to come."

    This is a great idea, esp. when you consider the 'rep' the party was probably getting in town for having hirelings getting killed off.

    I suspect that word will get out in town that there is a fortune to be made in working for the PCs and they may possibly attract even better help(?).


    /just a thought.

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  9. So, I've seen the "number of knobs" be a direct and explicit turn-off to every new gamer that I've personally introduced to gaming via 3E+ D&D.

    That probably says more about you, and your preferred style, than gamers as a whole.

    A D&D campaign cannot exist without at least one hardcore gamer in the group. At the very least, that's what you need for a DM.

    Further, there's a huge step between a true casual game, like Wii Sports, and any flavor of RPG. An RPG, merely by the form it takes, is a game for the hardcore.

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  10. The initial thrill of a good ol' fashioned dungeon is starting to recede and what we're left with falls a bit flat at times.

    I'd argue this is why your Silver Age is my Gold, James. -Not to say Dragonlance and company got it right, but I think those Silver Age folk were really on to something. IMHO, story becomes necessity for long-term compelling play, and I think having been born from war games, D&D was on an evolutionary trek that was untimely cut short. IMO, 2E was a first try at something that could have been great. Not to say 2E was great itself, but the notion of "imagine a character then make it" was lit. It was a new step for players. Unfortunately, I feel 3E was created without the 'rulings not rules' spirit, and somehow an assumption was made that mechanics could address anything a player wanted to do.

    Don't get me wrong. This is not to say that Dwimmermount won't turn into a rich and compelling campaign. I'm sure it will. However, in my Basic D&D and 1E AD&D days, I felt I was doing this despite the mechanics, not along with them. We'll probably disagree here, and that's fine. -But I thought it might be why your Silver is my Gold.

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  11. 2e is a story of wasted potential. It really could've been a boon to the game, but too often it wallowed in advice and tropes that send people running from D&D in droves.

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  12. Nice paint jobs on the minis, BTW. Post more!

    There are some pig faced orcs, oozes, skeletons, and giant rats on the way. I'll post pics of them once they're done.

    I wish I could claim to have painted them myself, but they're the handiwork of one of my players, who's really quite talented. The photos don't do them justice.

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  13. It would be kinda fun to kick off a "loot rush" where adventurers of all stripes try to jump the party's claim, spurred on by stories of "those guys".

    You have no idea :)

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  14. Hold the show -- they'd been playing for *four sessions* without anyone to cast Sleep?!? Had any of them played pre-3rd edition D&D before?

    I think the important thing to remember is that, until my daughter joined in, they didn't have a magic-user in the party at all, just an elf, who most of the time used the abilities of a fighting-man. So it wasn't so much that they weren't familiar with sleep and its effects, but rather that they didn't have ready access to it till yesterday's session.

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  15. IMHO, story becomes necessity for long-term compelling play...
    I agree, but I dislike the approach to story that the "Dragonlance" period products tended to prefer. I think the story is most satisfying when it develops organically, through play, rather than being envisioned before play begins. That is, the PCs interacting with the world and making choices drive the story.

    Obviously, the referee still has a great deal of influence on the story since he is creating the world and placing the elements the PCs interact with, but I think there's a large conceptual difference in the two approaches.

    I look at it like this: "Hey, I've created this world for you to come mess around in. The basic idea is that your PC is seeking fortune and glory. We'll riff off each other and see what kind of cool stuff comes out of it..."

    The dungeon is just a very convenient place and mechanism for this. I like the trappings of the dungeon, but don't think dungeon-crawling is the only way to go. I also think that there's no reason a dungeon-based game (especially one centered around a sandboxy megadungeon) can't have the same kind of politics, intrigue, story, etc. that people usually associate with extra-dungeon gaming.

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  16. In my OD&D gaming, I'm very happy to ignore that Greyhawk addendum. I feel that it starts a whole complicated cycle of boost spells (some have no saves), weaken spells (introduce magic resistance), boost spells (create feats to reduce magic resistance), etc.

    I feel it's simpler in OD&D to just give everything saves, no need to track exceptions, no need for added mechanics.


    There is wisdom here, I think, but I'm definitely an OD&D + supplements kind of guy, so I instinctively followed the Greyhawk addendum. It's not a huge deal and I'll adapt future encounters to deal with it.

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  17. An RPG, merely by the form it takes, is a game for the hardcore.

    There's certainly some truth to this. The phenomenal growth of the hobby in the late 70s and early 80s was almost entirely a fad; it was not sustainable in the long term, because gaming expects more attention than most people are willing to give it.

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  18. I suspect that word will get out in town that there is a fortune to be made in working for the PCs and they may possibly attract even better help(?).

    Interestingly, the players have been very careful about how much money they spend in town, preferring to head off on several days' journey to a larger city so as not to attract attention by their big spending ways. It's worked so far ...

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  19. I also think that there's no reason a dungeon-based game (especially one centered around a sandboxy megadungeon) can't have the same kind of politics, intrigue, story, etc. that people usually associate with extra-dungeon gaming.

    Very much agreed. The fault lies not with the style of campaign I'm running so much as my own reluctance to paint too much of the world outside the dungeon for fear of pushing the players toward any particular goal or endeavor. I realize now that what I need to do is present a slightly larger canvas for their enjoyment. The city-state of Adamas already exists and the characters have visited it several times, but it's mostly just a stopover on their way back to Dwimmermount. I think the time has come to make it a place in its own right.

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  20. Sleep spell is there for one reason: to make the MU useful at the first couple of levels. It is a pain, though, to have a party of a dozen orcs challenge the party, then having that challenge removed by taking out half the orcs with one fell swoop. Luckily, it stops being that useful by 3rd or 4th level.

    At 14 years old, using only the original three books, my game world almost immediatly starting fleshing out beyond my first dungeon setting. From tavern, to town, to city, I could tell early on that you needed more than just the dungeon and nearby tavern to have long-term fun. Personally, I think most players want things fleshed out for the world to feel truly alive. That "nothing exists but the dungeon and tavern" should be first session setting, not a full campaign setting.

    Running a classic old school dungeon, with no real meat beyond the complex, gets a bit dry when the puns, irony and weirdness is constantly in your face. It wears off. The world will go a long way to fleshing itself out if you let it.

    Just from my reading the Dwimmermount posts, my DM mind is thinking in terms of how I would flesh things out, not in particular story fashion, but just in a "world that has color" frame of mind:

    *Instead of the party taking long breaks in town between delves, have them stay for just a couple of days now and then on the mountain in a base camp. Gives you a chance to mix things up with some classic old school outdoor monsters.

    *You mentioned the NPC who is getting married. Perfect chance for a mini-adventure in town to break up the dungeon monotany - have the PC's get invited to the wedding. Maybe a locally known of monster, or better yet some bad attitude local bandits showing up drunk looking for loot and a fight. Weddings can be a great place for role play encounters. Maybe some pretty bridesmaids are looking for handsome adventurer's to hook up with. Whatever the encounter, something like "the hireling retired to get married" is the type of thing that jumps out at me when coming up with the next game session.

    Seeing as the party is used to spending a couple weeks every month in town before returning to the mountain, have them take a month off and spend a few days in the big city. Maybe they want to consult with a wizards guild about the artifacts, maybe they want to shop them around. You really only need to come up with some key spots in the city, so that should be easy to set up. Maybe have a themed mini-dungeon adventure in the city. By the time they get back to Dwimmermount, they will be fresh and ready for old school cheese again.

    James, you are shooting for a true old school dungeon experience, and my hat is off to you. Old school lives in your heart. But things didn't change just because of the realism movement. I was out of the loop in the 80's about the new editions and new ways of playing D&D - I just sort of evolved away from the standard dungeon crawl. I think my style, and by association my players, demanded a more fleshed-out world than that. Not of sand box or pure storytelling (I am old school forever), but of possibilities and opportunities and changes of pace. If the action stays entirely in Dwimmermount, then things risk getting stale. If you are already sensing this, it's time to change things up a bit so the players won't lose interest of or get discouraged.

    On the other side of the coin, it's also up to the players to maybe help change things up and flesh them out. They are in on this too.

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  21. Can I just say that this blog always contains interesting posts and interesting discussion generated by them? Alright, I will. :)

    I’m having a similar experience to James in my Onderland game. The players seem content to wander about the town, meet people, figure out ways to pay for an expensive hotel, and whatnot. I have to keep fighting my instinct to push them into the dungeon. After all, if they are having fun then that’s the whole point of the exercise. Plus, I’m realizing more and more that the town is as much a part of the sandbox as the wilderness and the dungeon.

    As the broader issue raised by Mike, I’m honestly not sure. I grew up and along with D&D and in the mid-80’s I was right there with the Hickman Revolution. I was pushing story right and left. And I was also being disappointed right and left when my players didn’t want to follow “my” story. These days, I align with Philotomy et.al. in that the story is produced almost retroactively as a way of contextualizing what the characters have done.

    Yet, I can see that some players don’t like that and want to have stories tossed to them. Is one way or the other better? I don’t think so.

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  22. There is wisdom here, I think, but I'm definitely an OD&D + supplements kind of guy, so I instinctively followed the Greyhawk addendum. It's not a huge deal and I'll adapt future encounters to deal with it.

    If it proves too powerful, modifying it is very much in the spirit of the ongoing D&D campaign. The reason that haste is subject to system shock in AD&D is because Gygax found it was being abused in his games. You can be certain that he didn't wait until he had finished writing AD&D to instigate that drawback, I think.

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  23. @Philotomy: Actually, I am in total agreement with you. Stories are best when they are driven by PC curiosity. When the PCs want to investigate something that forces the GM to create on the fly, that's when things are really working, -IMO.

    I also agree that much from the Dragonlance days encouraged putting the cart before the horse.

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  24. I posted a lengthy reply to your question on my blog. Hopefully the answer will allow to continue your original goals yet give you the tool needed to spice up your campaign.


    Rob
    http://batintheattic.blogspot.com/

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  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  26. Re: staleness and plotlines.

    Both of my games have megadungeons, but they haven't become the focus of the campaign - yet. In one game, the solo player hasn't made it that far, having been taking care of other plot hooks and having fun learning. I have left enough sprinkled around that she has generated the situations that take her into other avenues.

    In my other game, there is no megadungeon because the entire area is basically a megadungeon - someone had used the phrase "my wilderness is my megadungeon" and there's some truth to that in how my large campaign is starting out. That's not to say there isn't a mega-dungeon - there is. Again, they haven't gotten to the specific place and the whole setting is really various things interacting together.

    My players "have stories tossed at them" by virtue of the hooks, rumors and various things they have available to try out. How the story develops is partially based on which hooks they take and which ones they don't. If my wife decides not to rescue the kidnapped merchant's daughter, that's fine... the bandits might get bolder and kidnap more, while she's off looting ancient ruins.

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  27. My players "have stories tossed at them" by virtue of the hooks, rumors and various things they have available to try out.

    I will add that a surrounding cast of NPCs is often an element missed by many GMs. In addition to all of the above if you get the players invested in the lives of those around them it will propels the campaign forward for a long time. This technique helps solves the problem getting them interested in various hooks.

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  28. Delta:
    "
    That may be true for a certain narrow niche of "hardcore" gamer. However, it flies in direct contradiction to the experience I have when introducing more casual gamers, at any age, to OD&D"

    I agree strongly. There are gamers at my games club who are like this, who like the bells & whistles of 3e/4e and see Labyrinth Lord as primitive and uninteresting. But I have absolutely no problem recruiting online gamers for Castles & Crusades or Labyrinth Lord. Indeed when I suggested to complete strangers at rpgeurope.net that I run a chat game online, the unsolicited request was to run C&C, not 3e or 4e. There are so many people who either played D&D years ago and prefer the old ways, and complete newbies who prefer simple, easy to understand systems, that the middle tranch of 'only 3e/4e' gamers seems quite narrow.

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  29. A D&D campaign cannot exist without at least one hardcore gamer in the group... An RPG, merely by the form it takes, is a game for the hardcore.

    That probably says more about you, and your preferred style, and the business strategy that you work in, than gamers as a whole.

    As much as I preferred to work with a 3E level of detail, and as many of my friends came and asked me to run a game of D&D for them (fantasy lit buffs, computer strategy gamers, etc.), I am done with watching them be universally turned off by the complexity of the game from the new-to-RPG-players perspective.

    The "hardcore" focus may appear good from a corporate perspective in the short-to-medium term. But I'm convinced that it's a bad approach from the ground-level perspective of sustaining a player base for the hobby in the long term.

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  30. Actually, from a "corporate" perspective, a rules light approach is more profitable. Less dev time, less playtesting, less work, means more profit.

    It isn't better from a sales POV, though.

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  31. Actually, from a "corporate" perspective, a rules light approach is more profitable. Less dev time, less playtesting, less work, means more profit.

    I would be highly skeptical of that (either as net profit or margin). If you have numbers or research publicly available I'd be interested in seeing them.

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  32. The developments with the surviving henchmen sound great. Open-ended consequences are what it's all about. No videogame or super-fiddly later edition has the knobs to replace that ;p (And IMO the "modern gamer" has slim at best experience messing around in a truly interactive fantasy world. Plotted modules, scripted outcomes, Elminsteresque NPCs, camped spawns, clownish in-jokes, debased tropes, intricate rules systems that take too long and don't make much sense, bitching endlessly about same, "good" and "evil" dialogue menu choices, chains of set-piece combats, throw-away subplots---these, they know.)

    And while I'm being a big ole opinionated jerk, I'll also say: give it a go without those dungeon tiles. For me, stuff like "imagination" and "paying attention" usually ratchet up to compensate, both as player and DM.

    Cheers and good gaming.

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  33. The biggest aid to a long term campaign IME is the NPCs. Allies, but especially antagonists. Especially the ones who survive more than 1 session. An antagonus (sp?) villainous organisation is ideal - religious, magical, martial or criminal. A hostile wealthy merchant or powerful noble. Maybe not _that_ powerful right now, but still...

    A rival adventuring party is good. They need to be durable, so I suggest (a) somewhat higher level and (b) not overtly hostile; but highly competent and after the same stuff.

    NPC love interests work well if they are also important - the head of the Wizards' guild or the Queen/Countess are good candidates that have worked well IMCs.

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  34. A rival adventuring party is good<

    I think that would work great in Dwimmermount or other mega. Not hostile as said, but maybe the leader (smarmy paladin, smarty pants mage) has an annoying personality. Have them pop up every couple of games to get in the parties way. Maybe they end up fighting a common fight one session, then have fun argueing over the loot with them.

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  35. My experience is that those new to RPGs are much quicker to take to dungeon-delving than anything else, plotted, open-ended or what-have-you. I've also seen them be really turned-off and confused by a myriad of knobs. RPG books may sell to the hardcore, but over the years I've played a lot with people of all ages who've never played an RPG before, not even a CRPG, and it's not even remotely true that RPGs as games cannot by their nature appeal to the casual gamer. Their palates aren't jaded, and they can be pulled in by the very thing that pulled people into OD&D in the first place: the lone idea of "Explore a fantasy world."

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  36. I agree with jamused. I think high crunch games with lots of supplements may be the most profitable publication route - they typically appeal to active, hard-core gamers, often students, with lots of free time and a decent disposable income. But these gamers are a fairly small minority of the potential player base. Something like Mentzer Red Box retains its appeal in the age of MMORPGs and would have a far wider appeal than WotC seem to realise, judgng by the very narrow, boardgamey WoTC intro sets I've seen.

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