Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thank You, Ryan Dancey

I had several people send me links to this post over at the Paizo forums, which I otherwise would never have seen. In it, Ryan Dancey, formerly of Wizards of the Coast, talks about the rationales behind the Open Game License, one of which was:
I also had the goal that the release of the SRD would ensure that D&D in a format that I felt was true to its legacy could never be removed from the market by capricious decisions by its owners.
I can attest to the fact that this particular rationale is not an ex post facto justification on the part of Dancey. I very distinctly recall his having used words very similar to this back in 1999-2000, during the run-up to the release of D&D III (and I'm sure those more Internet savvy than I can dig up the quotes in question). Likewise, the history of the last few years shows that the combination of the SRD and OGL did in fact help to ensure that "D&D in a format ... true to its legacy" would survive "capricious decisions by its owners."

I won't go so far as to say that we'd never have seen retro-clones/simulacra without the SRD and OGL, but, without them, the process of creating them would undoubtedly have been more difficult, both creatively and legally. I've frankly never understood the belief that the SRD and OGL were mistakes on the part of WotC. To my mind, they're probably the company's greatest contribution to the hobby, which is why, despite my disinterest in D&D IV and the burnout I experienced with its predecessor, I still feel indebted to the company -- and to Ryan Dancey, who, in the words of Lisa Stevens, CEO of Paizo, "champion[ed] [them] through the halls of WotC when all of us thought that you were insane."

Thanks, Mr Dancey. The old school renaissance owes you a lot.

55 comments:

  1. A tip for anyone else who the link takes to the start of the thread instead of to the specific Dancey post: Go to the last page for the Dancey and Stevens posts, or else suffer 150 posts of nerdrage over someone who provided a balanced analysis over the effectiveness of the OGL.

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  2. I posted about this 4 July 2010

    glad to see everyone is on board

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  3. I'm not so sure.

    As easy as it is to work from a template, we never needed the SRD to make a retro version of D&D. Put it in our own words and change a couple trademarked terms. I'm not even sure which D&D terms trademarks would stand up to scrutiny. Many have been used for decades in other RPGs without being challenged.

    In between the OGL release and the OSR we had a whole decade of virtually nothing but d20.

    I see the OGL as a marketing success for WotC but a net loss for anyone who admired the variety and originality of the 80s and 90s.

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  4. @Captain Jack - I agree with you there I think I was never more saddened by the rpg industry as a whole than when I first saw the d20 version of Deadlands.

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  5. First of all, Mr. Dancey has had a propensity for smooth talking and embellishing things. It's a trademark of his. I don't begrudge him for that because that's a valuable skillset and he has put it to good use in the roleplaying industry. But it also means his "recollection" of events tends to change depending on the time of the day and who he is taking to. That should be kept in mind.

    Secondly, I remember very well the talk around d20 and the OGL back in the day. I distinctly remember that Dancey's main rationale at the time was along those lines:

    1. There were too many systems. And the prime objective was to kill those systems and eat even more of the market share.

    2. Adventures sucked and were unprofitable. We can live on PHBs indefinitely.

    The overall goal was dominance of DnD and WotC. At least, that's what he was saying back then. From several discussions on the net in the months and years that followed, it is abundantly clear that Dancey was taken by surprise by a few things:

    1. He made it clear nobody ever expected so many companies to jump on board. A lot of people had questioned the wisdom of an uncontrolled, free of charge license. Dancey brushed off those concerns and has been proven wrong. I agree with Chris Pramas that WotC got stuck with a bad deal. d20 was an OK license for them, the OGL was not. They lost control of their property.

    2. I suspected that the 4th edition of the game would not be OGL. I was right but unfortunately, it seems that to do so, the game has had to dissociate itself even further from its past. In effect, the OGL hurt DnD as a roleplaying brand. The OGL is the reason 4th edition is so far removed from the original game and relies on models that can't be easily replicated and "punish" the user base. Electronic tools, an over reliance on minis, a setting and mechanics that look less and less like DnD should.

    I want to be clear that I am very, VERY happy about the OGL gift as a fan. I think it is indeed a gift to the hobby. But I think that Dancey is either:

    1. retro-explaining his moves so as to not look like someone who made extremely bad business decisions that hurt his former employer

    2. Is indeed telling the truth now, which means that he lied to every gamer back then and more alarmingly, was extremely unethical toward his employer. Because there's no way he went to the boss and said: "Hey, I want to make sure I take your brand and give it freely to everybody and totally devalue it!".

    I opt for one. Dancey miscalculated the impact of OGL, the number of creative minds who would take over, the value of supplements and modules. He forced WotC,s hand, throwing them in the direction of "core books" that added unnecessary clutter to the game and eventually led to a 4th edition that has nothing to do with the original game simply to get rid of the OGL replicas.

    And by accident, he gave us the great gift that is the OGL, allowing us to create endless permutations of DnD, close to the original or not.

    So yeah, thanks Mr. Dancey. Even if I don't think you meant for this to happen :)

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  6. @Consonant Dude

    I think that's the most interesting thing I've ever read about the OGL, which I'd previously always found a bore.

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  7. I recall that Ryan Dancey did make a couple of comments back in the early days of 3E in an interview with a non-WoTC magazine indicating that his personal motivations for championing the OGL was to ensure that D&D would survive in some form no matter what WoTC did. As a gamer, he felt it was important the D&D could exist independently of WoTC if the company started to go down a self-destructive path in the way that TSR did during its final years. While these may have been personal reasons for supporting the OGL - and I feel that he deserves full credit for his foresight - they were not the ones that he publically expressed when he was speaking in his official role as a WoTC employee. I suspect that in order to sell the concept within the company, he needed to justify it in business terms.

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  8. I too recall what Ian said.
    I also distinctly recall what Peter Adkison said about 3e; that there would be only 3 core books, and that the new D&D would not go the same direction of 2e in terms of splatbooks. Then he left WotC and we all know how it went.
    Does anybody recall this fact? OR can point me out where he said this?

    Thanks,
    Antonio

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  9. The rationale in 2004 was pretty clearly laid out on the WotC website. I remember reading something similar before then, but this version is still available via the Open Game Definitions FAQ. Naturally, there is some revisionism going on in retrospect, but as is so often the case the truth lies somewhere in the middle rather than at the extreme ends of analysis.

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  10. @Captainjack:"I'm not even sure which D&D terms trademarks would stand up to scrutiny."

    How many RPG publishers do you imagine could endure legal action over a trademark case? Being right doesn't pay the bills.

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  11. @Consonant Dude

    That is a very interesting analysis. I have always believed the OGL was (and is) a great thing for D&D and I do believe it saved the game. However I also never understood how WoTC could have been convinced to do it. After reading your post I see now. Thanks.

    @Antonio
    "I also distinctly recall what Peter Adkison said about 3e; that there would be only 3 core books, and that the new D&D would not go the same direction of 2e in terms of splatbooks."

    This is basically what Paizo is saying today about Pathfinder. We'll see what happens. Especially when/if the "core" Paizo people begin leaving. I once had a boss that told me: "If I ever leave this company, no matter what I say when I leave, things are going badly." That's pretty much how I feel about James Jacobs and Eric Mona at Paizo. If they leave there is a problem no matter what they say as they walk out the door.

    Overall I mentally thank Mr. Dancey every time my group sits down to play a 3.5 based AP. Considering how little I knew or thought about the OGL in 2000 it's odd to think of it as the sole reason why I still play D&D today.

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  12. As easy as it is to work from a template, we never needed the SRD to make a retro version of D&D. Put it in our own words and change a couple trademarked terms. I'm not even sure which D&D terms trademarks would stand up to scrutiny. Many have been used for decades in other RPGs without being challenged.

    While this is true, it took years to come to this gestalt realization, even with the crutch of the OGL to get OSRians halfway there. The ramifications, as well as the limitations of copyright law, were poorly understood by gamers in general, and until attorneys with sufficient legal background to understand this got involved in the industry as a side business (due to the OGL) and had motivation to challenge the accepted way of doing things (due to the impending end of the OGL, at least with regards to "current" systems, or due to the desire to build off the OGL to create the first retro-clones) I doubt the industry would have gotten to the point that folks could blithely say that copyright law allows them to make the retro-clones after all. Nobody had had the guts to challenge TSR's legal machine.

    In between the OGL release and the OSR we had a whole decade of virtually nothing but d20.

    I see the OGL as a marketing success for WotC but a net loss for anyone who admired the variety and originality of the 80s and 90s.


    That's not true; there were plenty of systems during the 00s, not just d20. While it's true that there were a lot of d20 products, that's also the decade when FATE came out, Unisystem, Savage Worlds, there was a significant expansion of the Storyteller system through Exalted, etc.

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  13. I also share the same memory of comments in the 2000 era as Ryan, Peter, James, Ian, and Antonio. It's the people who present the whole "OGL in the wild" thing as an unforeseen blunder who are engaging in revisionist history.

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  14. Matthew James Stanham: "The rationale in 2004 was pretty clearly laid out on the WotC website. I remember reading something similar before then, but this version is still available via the Open Game Definitions FAQ."

    Actually, note that the copyright date listed there (in the sidebar) is "Contents of this FAQ Copyright © 2001, by the Open Gaming Foundation... author, Ryan Dancey..."

    I think the only thing they changed in 2004 was to put in contact information for Linae Foster.

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  15. I don't so blithely assume that a retroclone could have been done without the OGL license. It's one thing to copy mechanics, but another to copy things like spell and monster and magic item lists. I think TSR would have had a good case in court arguing that those amounted to very distinct setting elements, and that your wholesale taking of them amounted to copyright infringement.

    As having a bunch of wizard children in a hidden magical subculture of Britain who belong to the Griffin dorm drinking butterbeer and talking about their next flying broomstick game would get you sued, so could having a LG human paladin, a NG dwarven cleric (skilled at turning undead), and a CN gnomish thief taking on a red dragon added by a lich and stone, iron and flesh golems, after having consulted a gold dragon. That's all setting elements, and pre-OGL, I don't think anyone would question whose setting elements. (And yes, individually, you could have hidden wizardary schools in Britain, griffins as emblems of dorms, and flying broomstick games. It's when you add them together that you'll get problems.)

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  16. @Consonant Dude,

    You are rewriting history based on partial information. Please don't do that. I was very close to the group of people involved in this decision, which also included Peter Adkison, so I know from first-hand discussions that you are missing a good deal of the story in your analysis.

    It was a dream of Peter Adkison's (and many of the Walla Walla D&D players) to some day work for TSR and contribute to the game we loved. When D&D was run into the ground by business interests and TSR got itself stuck - unable to pay bills to get products printed that would have earned the money to pay those bills - many of us were frustrated and outraged. Peter wanted to rescue D&D and ensure it could never be imprisoned again.

    When Magic: The Gathering became such a hit and made Wizards of the Coast successful enough to do so, of course he bought TSR and rescued D&D - any D&D fan in a position to do so would have done so.

    That was half the deal - to rescue D&D.

    The other half required figuring out a way to keep it rescued, and that took more thought and work. The OGL was the direct result of that search. It was sold to Wizards of the Coast's business side of the house using the arguments you have repeated here, but those were never the core reason why it happened. That it made sound business sense made it easier to do what Peter and others at Wizards were already bound and determined to do if they could figure out any way to do it.

    You're reading too much into a small selection of the many things Ryan Dancey has said or written on the subject. He has said other things at other times that might help you complete the picture, and his work was part of a larger project and quest within Wizards of the Coast specifically and the D&D gaming community generally.

    So no, the OGL was not designed to screw the gaming industry and lead to the domination of Wizards of the Coast and the d20 system. They hoped it would be good for the company and the that edition of the rules, but that's not why they did those things - that's only why as a business they were allowed to do those things. The core motivation predated even the existence of Wizards of the Coast, let alone d20 - the love of a gamer for his game and the desire to protect it forever.

    The more we personally know about historical events, the more we realize how terribly easy it is for human beings after the fact to misread history. For those few topics on which I'm a primary source because of having been directly involved, I have simply never read a newspaper or magazine article on those subjects that didn't either leave out the most important points or include falsehoods, usually several. If we so badly screw up on the couple of subject I know so well, it's safe to say we screw up the rest of the time as well. Your post is a good example of how intelligent and well-meaning people using the tools of reason so often miss the mark when trying to understand history.

    I'm lucky enough to have witnessed what really happened and to have known many of the parties involved going back almost a decade before the creation of Wizards of the Coast, but you don't know me from Adam, so you have no reason to take my word for it. Feel free to believe whatever you want to believe.

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  17. The real question to me is not so much whether retro-clones could have *existed* without the OGL but whether they would have enjoyed the same success. The three letters O-G-L now act as an incentive, a rallying point and some sort of invisible brand. Gamers talk about it between them and I've seen game shop employees also use it as a selling point to potential customers.

    So the permission, the legalities are nice. But it has also facilitated some kind of hub, a common ground and a reference point for fans, customers and even designers. Without it, I think you would see the same games risk being more isolated and short-lived efforts.

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  18. @Consonant Dude,

    I was very close to the group of people involved in this decision, which also included Peter Adkison, so I know from first-hand discussions that you are missing a good deal of the story in your analysis.

    It was a dream of Peter Adkison's (and many of the Walla Walla D&D players) to some day work for TSR and contribute to the game we loved. When D&D was run into the ground by business interests and TSR got itself stuck - unable to pay bills to get products printed that would have earned the money to pay those bills - many of us were frustrated and outraged. Peter wanted to rescue D&D and ensure it could never be imprisoned again.

    When Magic: The Gathering became such a hit and made Wizards of the Coast successful enough to do so, of course he bought TSR and rescued D&D - any D&D fan in a position to do so would have done so.

    That was half the deal - to rescue D&D.

    The other half required figuring out a way to keep it rescued, and that took more thought and work. The OGL was the direct result of that search. It was sold to Wizards of the Coast's business side of the house using the arguments you have repeated here, but those were never the core reason why it happened. That it made sound business sense made it easier to do what Peter and others at Wizards were already bound and determined to do if they could figure out any way to do it.

    You're reading too much into a small selection of the many things Ryan Dancey has said or written on the subject. He has said other things at other times that might help you complete the picture, and his work was part of a larger project and quest within Wizards of the Coast specifically and the D&D gaming community generally.

    So no, the OGL was not designed to screw the gaming industry and lead to the domination of Wizards of the Coast and the d20 system. They hoped it would be good for the company and the that edition of the rules, but that's not why they did those things - that's only why as a business they were allowed to do those things. The core motivation predated even the existence of Wizards of the Coast, let alone d20 - the love of a gamer for his game and the desire to protect it forever.

    The more we personally know about historical events, the more we realize how terribly easy it is for human beings after the fact to misread history. For those few topics on which I'm a primary source because of having been directly involved, I have simply never read a newspaper or magazine article on those subjects that didn't either leave out the most important points or include falsehoods, usually several. If we so badly screw up on the couple of subject I know so well, it's safe to say we screw up the rest of the time as well. Your post is a good example of how intelligent and well-meaning people using the tools of reason so often miss the mark when trying to understand history.

    I'm lucky enough to have witnessed what really happened and to have known many of the parties involved going back almost a decade before the creation of Wizards of the Coast, but you don't know me from Adam, so you have no reason to take my word for it. Feel free to believe whatever you want to believe.

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  19. @Rick Marshall

    If this is such a truism - we did it for love - then why isn't 4th edition OGL? He may be misreading, but you are leaving out things you find inconvenient.

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  20. Brasspen: WOTC is now run by different people with different motivations. But you probably knew that.

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  21. @Rick

    Thank you. I sincerely appreciate that you shared this with me. I've always known that my views from this came from a particular vantage point on the outside and that I did not view the entire picture. But still, a post like yours reminds me even more of that fact.

    I hope you'll forgive the cynicism I showcased here. Despite what you've said here, there's still much that I find nebulous. I don't think you owe any explanation to me or anybody else, though. I remain skeptical of the whole affair but as someone else said here, the truth probably lies in the middle.

    Thank you again for sharing. Much food for thoughts but leaves me wanting for more ;)

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  22. @brasspen, Delta is right. Hasbro's Wizards of the Coast is a different company from Peter's Wizards of the Coast.

    And for what it's worth, I'm one of those people who loves inconvenient truths. I'm far more likely to put too much in than to leave too much out, as my editors will tell you.

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  23. @Consonant Dude, my pleasure, and no problem. In most of life, we misunderstand from applying too little skepticism. The few of us who try to compensate for that inevitably misinterpret the rare acts of charming but naive idealism. I've made that mistake many times myself and no doubt will do so repeatedly in the future.

    I agree there is plenty even in the early history of Wizards that deserves criticism, as all things human do. :)

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  24. @Rick,
    thanks for sharing with us. Can you confirm what I recall Peter Adkison said (IIRC on one of the first 3e issues of Dragon Magazine) about there being only three core books for 3e?

    Thanks,
    Antonio

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  25. @Antonio, there were several issues here. I'll try to walk through them in the next few posts.

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  26. First, Wizards was highly motivated by a lawsuit that occurred early during their history when they were small and new, before Magic: The Gathering, in which they were sued by an established RPG company (not TSR) for releasing a product that included conversion notes for how to use their product with that game system. (You see me being vague here? That's because by the terms of the settlement we aren't allowed to discuss the details.) That lawsuit almost killed Wizards right out of the gate, which we believe was the point of it.

    Peter and the rest of us felt that this kind of inter-company hostility was hurting the RPG industry by preventing the development of an ecology of companies who worked readily together. Peter vowed that when Wizards got big it would never treat another company that way, and he followed through on that promise. More than anything else, the OGL was a direct of that early bad experience, a desire to make it legally safe for RPG companies - especially small ones - to work together without the threat of harassment lawsuits.

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  27. Second, when Wizards rescued TSR, the first order of business (and part of the agreement with their frustrated creative team) was to help them publish the things they already had finished, so none of their work would be lost. The anniversary editions and other releases around that time were designed to honor their agreement and make clear that the creative team would not be treated as second-class citizens within Wizards's TSR group.

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  28. Third, during that initial wave of publications, the question was what to do next. We all knew there would be a new edition of D&D that involved redesigns to fix problems and integrate promising house rules from around the D&D community. The question was which things Wizards would publish. If you've been following my little narrative, you know the answer couldn't be everything, because Peter wanted to create a healthy ecology of small companies who could safely collaborate without the threat of lawsuits, to recapture some of the garage-band feel of the early days of the industry.

    By this point, Magic had given Wizards deep pockets and an experienced production team, so they knew they could give higher production values to their work than most RPG companies. The strategy centered around that difference - which products could be done well by small companies and which required those kinds of expensive production values. Wizards would generally try to avoid modules (which require only basic production values, plus a writer, a cartographer, and some B&W artists) and smaller releases to leave that work open to smaller companies.

    Wizards would initially focus on the three core rule books and pour as much production quality as they could into them. The goal was to create three marvelous books that would get everyone's attention and help to lead new people into the game (and old players back to the game), where the smaller companies would be able to offer them their modules and other supplements. Wizards was so committed to this that they were willing to lose money on the core books if it helped grow the game again. This was most evident in the money they poured into the Wizards of the Coast game center in Seattle, which was lavishly designed and pretty much lost money until Hasbro later shot it down. The goal was to lose money if necessary in order to make clear Wizards's commitment to the players and the larger RPG community.

    You see, D&D didn't have to make much money for Wizards, because Magic was its bread and butter. That put Wizards in the position of being able to invest in D&D at a level most companies would find financially ruinous. It worked. It generated a ton of goodwill and rebuilt both the D&D community of players and the ecology of small and medium companies - at least until Hasbro took over and threw out the entire strategy. We'll come back to that.

    They did want to try to keep down the number of core rule books, because if that grew unwieldy then it would become an inhibitor that would discourage people from joining the game. But there was never an insistence that there would be only three - if they were willing to lose money on each one then the economics had to be balanced somewhere else - only that just those three would be required.

    The decision they made was to have Wizards only add products beyond those three where the kind of product involved required Wizards's strong production team. Whatever could be left to other companies would be. For example, second-edition players were passionate about preserving the many fabulous settings of second edition, so Wizards decided to publish a core book for each setting as well. If you study the other D&D3 releases from Wizards, you'll see that in general they stuck to this strategy, publishing a few sample modules, and other assorted but comparatively scarce works.

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  29. Fourth, another place I'm going to arm-wave is about the Hasbro purchase of Wizards, since as with the early lawsuit there are things we're not allowed to talk about (and I wish U.S. law didn't allow, let alone enforce, those kinds of perpetual gag clauses in legal agreements, but it does). But here are some things not covered by the purchase agreement, things that do add to this discussion.

    During the negotiations for the purchase, Wizards came to believe that Hasbro valued the Wizards management team and strategy. Most or all of the Hasbro executive team were nearing retirement age, and Wizards came to understand that part of the reason for the purchase was so that the clearly successful Wizards management team could gradually expand their duties and begin to help to manage Hasbro as well, to take over responsibilities so that Hasbro executives could retire.

    Central to this was the idea that Wizards's strategies had been successful, so they would be kept. This was not stated in writing in the purchase agreement, unfortunately, so Hasbro was not bound to follow through on this after the purchase, and they did not. To the surprise and disappointment of the Wizards executive team, after the purchase Hasbro began reorganizing Wizards to make it fit with the rest of Hasbro, rather than vice versa, and began replacing Wizards's successful strategies and policies with their own. Wizards executives began retiring in frustration. My wife was one of the first - she left on leap day in 2000 - but eventually Peter, Ryan, and others left as well. The core creative team was kept intact and protected as much as possible, but from an authority perspective they were returned to their old status as second-class citizens, allowed to retain authority only within a constrained range of choices.

    When you're working under such conditions, there are tricks your mind plays on you depending on how close to leaving you are. When you're hoping the things that are happening are aberrations and things will be straightened out soon, you tell yourself and others things that you hope are true or are trying to believe are true, even if your intuition keeps nagging at you that this isn't right or won't last. During such periods, for example, you might convince yourself that the things you're being ordered to do that you usually disagree with maybe aren't as harmful as you in your gut know they are. So you have to be careful how you interpret quotations from Wizards's management during that period.

    To make a long story short, Hasbro had lost a lot of money in their electronic ventures before the purchase, and chopped up and parted out whole swaths of Wizards to make their finances temporarily look better on the books. They threw out all the loss-leader strategies, dispensing with the game stores and eventually insisting that the TSR group - that D&D - become as profitable as Magic or as close to it as possible. That was simply not possible under Peter's good Samaritan strategy of minimizing the number of products D&D players had to purchase.

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  30. Thus, 3.5 was born.

    Trying to make the best of a bad situation, Wizards tried to use 3.5 as a chance to fix problems in third edition and to increase the production values further - and they did do those things - and they kept the OGL in force over the new work, but otherwise their hands were tied. Their orders were clear. There would be a new edition, with lots and lots of books and supplements, and Wizards would basically sell as much stuff as possible to try to bring up D&D's bottom line.

    This is not fundamentally different from the way fourth edition has been published and licensed. 3.5 may have initially seemed from the outside like a refinement of third edition, but that's only true on the surface. Third edition was the only edition of D&D released and supported the way Wizards of the Coast wanted it. In almost every way that matters in a business - except the core rules and license themselves - 3.5 has more in common with fourth edition. It was really Hasbro's first edition.

    After the core of 3.5 was released, more of the demoralized Wizards executive retired, so the creative team was less and less insulated from Hasbro's policies. Although fourth edition was designed by many of the same creative people who did third edition, they were now operating entirely within the constraints of their new management.

    The Wizards executive team may have been disappointed by Hasbro's changes in policy (all of which were perfectly legal and within their rights as the new owners of Wizards), but they weren't 100% blindsided. They knew that even if Hasbro changed directions after the purchase, that their hands would be tied by the OGL, that the OGL would do its job of protecting the RPG community's access to D&D. In short, even if they lost this battle, they had nevertheless won the war, because a group of D&D players had managed to rescue D&D from the hands of short-sighted business managers and save it forever.

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  31. So, finally, a few clarifications.

    I'm not saying 3.5 or 4.0 are bad sets of rules. You can judge the rules as such independently of how they were managed as business ventures.

    I'm also not saying Hasbro did anything illegal. In a system of private enterprise, the owners have the right to dispose of their property however they see fit.

    I'm also not saying 3.0 was the greatest D&D rule set ever, or that the Wizards executives were saints. Everything human is flawed by definition, sometimes in execution, sometimes in its conception, usually both.

    I'm just clarifying from what I and people close to me witnessed how and why 3.0, d20, and the OGL came into existence. There's a lot more to the story, and there are other perspectives, but I want to be sure that Peter, Ryan, and others do get credit for the things they did right and don't take heat for things they didn't do.

    I hope this has been helpful.

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  32. Mr. Marshall,

    You have provided a fascinating insight into the history of D&D (and if your credentials are not as you claim at least a good story;)). Why doesn't someone write a book about this stuff? I never tire of reading it. Thank you for your posts. Unfortunately I don't think this is the best forum for your historical recap but I'm glad I at least found, followed, and read it.

    Some questions for you if you have the time:

    Why did WoTC sell to Hasbro at all? I keep reading about the "deep pockets" of WoTC and the never ending cash flow MTG was providing so what caused them to succumb to Hasbro? Was it really just as simple as cashing out?

    It seems a bit naive to me for the executives of WoTC to believe even for a minute that Hasbro would not gut them. I understand what you wrote about the OGL "winning the war" anyway but it seems odd for such a savvy and smart group to, for any length of time, believe they wouldn't be gutted. Why did they feel this wouldn't happen? An acquisition is like a wedding. It has a bride and groom. The bride is the center of attention and gets what she wants, if the groom is lucky he just gets f***ed. Hasbro was clearly the bride ;)

    Was there ever a discussion on what IP to put into the SRD and what to leave out? I asked this to Ryan Dancey over at the Paizo boards and he indicates it was his call based on what was "cool" or would sell (I'm paraphrasing) but it seems to me it should have been as simple then this: anything that is wholly created by and for the D&D game should NOT be in the SRD. Why did WoTC decided to put some D&D IP into the SRD (like Aboleths and Otyguhs) but not others (like Mind Flayers and Beholders)?

    Do you feel that at WoTC 3.0 was meant to be the LAST version of D&D, not the latest? It seemed to me at the time that this was the initial plan. WoTC set out to publish the "definitive" game of Dungeons & Dragons once and for all then move on to other areas.

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  33. Rick: Thank you so, so much.

    I'm one of those "weird people" who saw the quality drop after 3.0. I'm a proud user of the 3.0 corebooks and see 3.5 as a huge step back. Most of what you said here made sense to me :)

    Your posts also remind me why Peter Adkison is one of my roleplaying heroes. For folks who doubt that or who may not have been aware of what you refer to, look at ENVOY. This is the most visible initiative by Peter that he indeed wanted a massive network of companies working together.

    For those curious, the company that sued WotC back in the days was the always lawsuit-friendly Palladium. One of many dick moves by Kevin Siembieda.

    However, there was a huge difference between Envoy and d20, which was perceived by many at the time.

    ENVOY was a sort of nexus platform, a system-neutral language. The goal was very obviously that as many games and systems could coexist and be supported.

    With d20, this is more nebulous and the initiative is system-drive. You adopt our system and work with it or you are outside looking in.

    It really sucks that Adkison felt the need to sell. These feelings are very selfish but I wish he had kept going on because I like where the game was going but I still think the license was half-assed and I'm skeptical of everything Dancey.

    Some other comments: DnD 3.0 benefitted from the largest, most extensive and rigorous playtest phase EVER. People can like the game or not but the robust and consistent nature of the system, while keeping a lot of the old versions' spirit is a tribute to that playtest as well as the amazing designers that worked on it. Then they released the 3 hardback corebooks at a ridiculous bargain price (MSRP $19.95. Yes, in 2000)

    Rick, one day I'm gonna pester you and chase you around so you can give me the history behind Everway, if you know anything about it :)

    There is very little known about this part of WotC's history, as the focus was squarely on Magic at the time and the game caught many by surprise. Since then, even Tweet has been pretty elusive about the process and the company which currently holds the rights to Everway seems to have vanished completely :)

    PS: And I maintain that WotC undervalued the module/supplement model. Yes, I know they were a big-sized company but yes, you can still make it work :)

    Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us!

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  34. First, Wizards was highly motivated by a lawsuit that occurred early during their history when they were small and new, before Magic: The Gathering, in which they were sued by an established RPG company (not TSR) for releasing a product that included conversion notes for how to use their product with that game system. (You see me being vague here? That's because by the terms of the settlement we aren't allowed to discuss the details.)

    Those of us on the outside can say the product was The Primal Order, the established company was Palladium, and the game system was "The Palladium Role-Playing Game", the conversion notes being on p. 201 of The Primal Order.

    And I note Palladium's system is the one that was most like D&D/d20 of the major companies', and it was the company whose production values on their books was most amateur. RIFTS looked to me in 2000 to have been the primary target of the system-consolidation talk.

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  35. Those posts were lots of fun. The WOC wiki page has a link to a Salon article from 2001 called "Death To The Minotaur", a recollection of how WOC lost its innocence. The funniest paragraph to me was:

    "Corey lasted longer. He exacted his bitter revenge against management, though. At a Magic tournament in New York he set up a dress code for staff that consisted of black pants and brown shirts. This, combined with the black and red event banners he commissioned, made the whole thing look like a Nazi rally. Last I heard Corey was somewhere in Florida. I can only hope he is running guns. "

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  36. @cibet, that is a worthy question that deserves a straight answer. My sister just asked me about this today when we were discussing these posts.

    There are two main reasons.

    First, the truth is that the company was thriving, but the principals weren't. Everyone went deeply into debt to launch Wizards, and further to try to survive through the lean times of the lawsuit. Magic: The Gathering almost didn't happen at all. Friends and family teamed up to help people make rent and car payments to they wouldn't go bankrupt before the game could be released. We thought Magic was a blast to play, and the art for it looked gorgeous, so we hoped everyone would like it, but we didn't really know. It was an enormous gamble, and everyone put everything on the line.

    When Magic hit it big, it was an exhilarating roller coaster and hugely gratifying, but we were all still broke. We got into this weird state where the company was thriving but the principals weren't. The new employees were fine, because they were being paid and weren't trying to dig out of deep personal debt, but the principals were drowning.

    Wizards tried to address this problem by doing a stock buy-back some time before the Hasbro deal, and it did help a great deal, but mainly it put most of us back on track with where we would have been if we had normal paying careers and hadn't bet everything on Wizards. Most of the principals were still carrying some debt.

    In the end, the principals were tired of being broke.

    Second, and this was a critique I discussed repeatedly with some of the principals at the time long before things reached the breaking point, Wizards began with a startup culture of working long, hard hours, sacrificing like crazy to try to get things moving and to do a good job on them. As anyone who's been through a startup knows, this is both exciting and exhausting. At some point a company needs to transition out of the startup mode to avoid burning out its employees.

    Wizards never did.

    Several of us saw this problem coming. Everyone worked so hard for so long that they were burning themselves out even while they were having a blast. Houses fell into disrepair, people put on lots of weight and got sick a lot, marriages fell apart, and more, all while Wizards itself was thriving and everyone was having a blast working on something they loved.

    Workaholism was epidemic at Wizards. Wizards invested in an exercise room, classes, great offices, and everything they could to make it a blast to work there, but that only made people not want to go home to the lives they'd been neglecting. The problem with working for your favorite company in the world is that you never go home. At least one person stopped going home and had to be told he wasn't allowed to live at work. More than anyone else, the principals were happy but exhausted and needed to stop trying to go go go at 110% all the time unless they wanted to die young.

    In the end, the broke and burned out principals pretty much all needed the sale in order to get their lives back into order and stop being broke.

    After leaving Wizards, more than one of the principals lost a bunch of weight and got their health back. Some rescued marriages while others moved on to new relationships. Some sold off neglected houses at a loss and bought new ones they committed to taking care of properly. The money itself spread far and wide, used to start new, more sustainable game companies; for healthcare and college funds for family members; and into retirement funds for parents and grandparents whose early loans made the company's survival possible during the lean times. A couple spent everything they made just getting back to break even. There are a few small piles of money here and there, but over half of it has gone back into the community that made it all possible.

    In short, they had to sell the company to survive as individuals.

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  37. @cibet, as for the marriage analogy, it's apt. It seemed like a marriage made in heaven, a win-win situation. Hasbro really needed the new blood in their management, and the Wizards principals needed to sell to get themselves back to being financially healthy.

    As much business theory as he studied and business advice he got, let's not forget that Peter was first of all a gamer with a programming background. He was used to looking at how to optimize situations. The idea that Hasbro might intentionally injure themselves in the long run to improve their bottom line in the short run wasn't inconceivable to Peter; it just didn't seem the likeliest scenario.

    When Hasbro began dissecting Wizards, it was a shock; it seemed and still seems profoundly short-sighted. Had Hasbro stuck to their verbal agreements, both companies would be in much better shape today, in the opinion of myself and many others.

    I'm not going to be able to help on the question of what went into the SRD. I wasn't involved in those discussions and can't quite work out the logic of the choices just by looking. For what it's worth, based on the spirit of the place at the time, here's my guess. Maybe Ryan thought there would be time later to improve the SRD after they had a chance to play it out and see what worked and what didn't, so he didn't try to get it all rigorously correct the first time, just took a first stab at it. As the freeze set in from Hasbro it caught everyone by surprise and stopped many things in midstream. Maybe this was one of them.

    I don't think the goal was to make a final version of D&D and then move on to other things. Rather, it was to do as good a job as they could on one big upgrade to D&D, and then largely to let the TSR creative team decide where things would go from there. I know protecting them and letting them steer the game they knew so well was a major strategic consideration.

    If the TSR team wanted to stick with third edition ad infinitum Wizards probably would have, but if they'd wanted eventually to do another edition they would have supported their decision. If they had done another version under their own direction, though, TSR's silver-age history makes pretty clear they would have taken a more incrementalist approach than 3.5 did, certainly more than the abrupt break with the past 4.0 represents. I doubt there would have been a new edition so soon without the Hasbro purchase.

    By the time third edition was released, I doubt Peter seriously thought D&D would become a big money-maker for Wizards in the future. Certainly, in the present he treated it as a loss leader designed to strengthen the RPG community. The game store bled money, and Peter was fine with that; he thought of it as a well-deserved thank you to RPG players.

    When the Hasbro financial folks got a look at the bottom lines for D&D and the game stores, they were appalled at the money Wizards was losing to support D&D - but these are the sorts of decisions most accountants and MBAs cannot comprehend. From our perspective it made perfect sense, since the income from Magic: The Gathering was enough for Wizards's needs (a sentence that must sound like gibberish to a bean counter, I'm sure - what is this word, "enough").

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  38. @cibet, as for moving on to other areas, sure, Wizards was never intended to be a one-trick pony; they put out a lot of smaller games and ran a lot of experiments. D&D was not meant to be milked for the maximum profit, because Wizards didn't believe in limiting themselves to just doing one or two things.

    The R&D department basically played and designed games all day long (and often after hours as well). At regular intervals, even the lawyers and accountants had to leave their offices and go play games with everyone; it was a job requirement. Many of these were a blast to play, and many of them did well enough, though Magic was obviously unusual in that regard. The TSR team and D&D were given what we hoped was a safe home to do their thing, but beyond that it was just one of many areas Wizards was exploring, looking for things people would love to play.

    That culture of constantly experimenting with new games was deep in the Wizards cultural DNA, but logistically the production and management teams couldn't quite keep up. Many more things were designed than released (which is why James Earnest left to start Cheap Ass Games, by the way, so he could create a production cycle capable of keeping up with his prodigious creativity).

    Most people don't realize that Magic itself started out as just one of those side things, a test for Richard Garfield before committing to publish his labor of love, Robo Rally. The original goal for Magic was to make Wizards just enough money to let them publish Robo Rally.

    There was every reason to think there would be other Magics in the future, but the main point was to help stimulate people to interact with each other by playing games together, to rekindle that gamer culture. It was right there in the mission statement - to make interactive games as big as the movies - which we all took very seriously. Wizards was a culture factory.

    Starting with bringing in Richard's team and made clearer by later bringing in the TSR group, Wizards was becoming a home for relatively independent design studios, in which designers had a great deal of freedom in determining their own fate. The studios mostly shared management and production support - for example, most of Wizards's editors were in a team together, though individual editors tended to specialize as to which games they supported - and everyone talked with everyone else, but otherwise they had a high degree of autonomy. The future of Magic was largely up to Richard's team; the future of D&D was largely up to TSR; and you could feel other groups coalescing based on how well the smaller games were playing.

    So, in summary, it's not that they would have left D&D static after third edition came out, but rather that management's focus would have moved on to the next group that needed help getting organized and into the black, leaving D&D's future largely in the TSR creative team's hands.

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  39. @Consonant Dude, I'm working on a couple other books right now, but when I finish them I'm considering writing the book you're hoping for, about the history of Wizards of the Coast up to the Hasbro purchase.

    Most of the articles I've read to date approach this subject as leverage to help them make an argument they already wanted to make before studying it, i.e. based mostly on preconceptions, but it's interesting enough in its own sake that it deserves a straight, direct treatment that just tells how and why all these things came to happen, why these people did what they did.

    I've unfairly hijacked this thread, but I wanted to support James's original post.

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  40. This is great stuff and I am glad that you taken the time to share. Good luck with your future endeavors.

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  41. I agree with Rob and the others. Fantastic stuff, and I'd very much like to see it incorporated into a book at some point.

    In the meantime, do you have the above comments consolidated on a home page or elsewhere? This is the kind of stuff which I'd have killed to have read linked from the bibliography of the D&D wiki page. When I first went through that, Death to the Minotaur was about as insightful as it got. ;)

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  42. Wow, what an amazing stream of posts. Thank you so much for sharing all those reminiscences!

    I do have to take exception with one thing, though...

    When the Hasbro financial folks got a look at the bottom lines for D&D and the game stores, they were appalled at the money Wizards was losing to support D&D - but these are the sorts of decisions most accountants and MBAs cannot comprehend. From our perspective it made perfect sense, since the income from Magic: The Gathering was enough for Wizards's needs (a sentence that must sound like gibberish to a bean counter, I'm sure - what is this word, "enough").

    "Bean counters"--accountants and MBAs--certainly understand the concept of subsidizing a loss leader with something else that makes money hand over fist. That's actually a common strategy in many industries, where a company wants to keep a foot in the door, or feels like they have to spread across multiple markets or multiple consumer groups, even if they can't make money on all of them.

    I think it more likely that the Hasbro "bean counters" simply had no love for D&D, and didn't see any value in promoting it as a loss leader as an effort of corporate goodwill towards their customers. You have to admit that it sounds like Peter's reasons for doing so where kind of esoteric; he loved D&D, so he did it as a labor of love. For a businessman with no love of the property, well, the whole thing doesn't make sense. But not because the strategy of supporting a loss leader with something else doesn't make sense, rather it's because without the love of the game that Peter and Co. had, there isn't any compelling strategic business reason to do so.

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  43. @Rick Marshall: Just fantastic stuff. Thank you very much. When you do publish a book about this topic I'll be first in line to pick it up.

    It sounds like Wizards did its best to preserve D&D and seems to have rescued it from oblivion. I'm glad we have the 3.x system now and for the foreseeable future. It seems Paizo has picked up the "love of the game" torch and is running with it, may they avoid the debt and burnout Wizards was experiencing. Hopefully your recaps will give them some food for thought. Thanks again.

    @Joshua: I agree. I'm a long time D&D player with an MBA so I see the benefit of a loss leader and have a love for the game so the two can co-exist.

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  44. Yea, I'd buy a copy of that book. I'll check your blog periodically to see if you've taken the plunge.

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  45. @Joshua and @cibet, you are right of course. I have friends who are accountants and lawyers and managers - and dear God I've become a manager myself - so that throwaway comment was not only pointlessly hostile it was paradoxical. I know better.

    Sometimes when we're tired we open our mouths and the strangest things come out. Thanks for calling me on it. :)

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  46. @cibet: Me too, dude. Me too. MBA class of 2000; D&D playing class of ... oh, 1980 or so. :)

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  47. @shimrod and @brasspen, the book is a few years off yet, but I think I'm going to take you up on your suggestions and start posting Wizards history on my website starting next week.

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  48. @Rick Marshall:"I'm going to take you up on your suggestions and start posting Wizards history on my website starting next week."

    Yes please!

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  49. Wow, Rick is my boss and I don't think he has ever told us the full Wizard's story in such detail before! Heh, thanks, Rick!

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  50. Thanks so much your kind words!

    RyanD

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  51. And another big Thank You to Ryan Dancey, for freeing D&D for good! And to everyone else that worked for the forces of good gaming everywhere.

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  52. I find it interesting, too, given the history above about the behind the scenes corporate differences between 3e and 3.5, that that's not reflected really in the books at all.

    Although I continue to remain unconvinced that the revision was necessary, or even an improvement at all on the system, I think it was clearly an improvement of the books. In fact, that's part of what eventually won me over--comparing, for example, Sword & Fist with it's 3.5 counterpart Complete Warrior, the 3.5 book is light-years ahead of it's 3e counterpart. Even the core books themselves were substantially improved with new layout, new art, and lots of new material added--the 3.5 DMG basically got an expurgated version of Manual of the Planes added in, for example, and Monster Manual got tons of new monsters, new monster creation guidelines, new art, and significant clean-up and improvement of a lot of monster stats.

    I was initially somewhat reluctant and resistant to the entire idea of 3.5, but I now consider it a better game and that's what I play, and I don't really look back. I still think the fact that they needed to redo it at all leaves a sour taste in my mouth, a bit, but at least the content producers--the designers and authors, etc.--did their best to make the books worth getting for their own sake.

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