Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Howling Tower

No, not the Arduin adventure -- the blog of long-time TSR and WotC employee Steve Winter. If you haven't been reading it, you really ought to do so. This week, Mr Winter began a series of posts about his thoughts and experiences of the various revisions to D&D over the years. His post today, entitled "Dysfunctional and Co-Dependent," is of particular interest to those of us in the old school world, since it mirrors a lot of what we've been saying over the last few years, such as:
In short, the types of things that players want are bad for the game. They'd be fine if published in moderation, but moderation is a luxury only small companies can afford. Big companies have big monthly bills. The types of supplements that would be healthy for the game, players won't buy in sufficient quantity to keep the company or the game alive at the corporate level. To keep the engine running, the company must publish what customers want, and thereby cut its own throat.
That's as true a statement about D&D thirty years ago as it is today.

Anyway, head on over to his blog and take a look at what he's got to say. Having been involved with D&D as long as he has, I think he's got quite a few insights to share. I interviewed Mr Winter back in 2009, in case you're keen to learn a little more about the man and his involvement in both the hobby and the industry.


  1. Yep, I found his blog last month and it is a treasure trove of behind the scenes knowledge.

    Damn good stuff. I second your recommendation ;)

  2. Interesting comments.

    I'm not an old school player (at least not of D&D, my current flavor is Pathfinder...on the other hand, I run a lot of other old school stuff), but his comments are accurate nonetheless, and frankly extend to a lot more than D&D.

    This kind of meshes with my belief that WotC has hurt itself by putting too many eggs in one basket with the various flavors of D&D (as did TSR before them). It seems to me that they really should have considered retaining the Star Wars license (whatever one may think of Saga Edition, it did sell), and should have looked at expanding beyond D& it into board games (which they've done a little bit of belatedly with 4E), other RPGs, etc. The market just isn't there to swallow that many rulebooks, and eventually, they just kind of leave a GM gibbering in the corner, curled into a fetal position, trying to reconcile three dozen rulebooks worth of rules that were poorly playtested together (if they were at all), and in some instances just flat out contradict each other.

    As far as behemoth game companies go, I think the model right now is Fantasy Flight. They've got the Warhammer RPG lines (40K, Rogue Trader, Dark Heresy, etc. and Warhammer FRP). They just picked up the Star Wars license. They've got a ton of licensed and original board game properties (and I contend that board games are a bigger category than RPGs at the moment), a ton of card games, minis games, etc.

    What's going to be interesting to me to watch is what happens with Paizo in the next few years? They've only cranked out 8 rulebooks, but they have proliferated in Campaign Setting material and adventures the way WotC did with books full of player options with 4E. As a GM, I prefer their model to 4E, simply because the proliferation of rules has been held to a relative minimum. It will be interesting to see if they can continue this pace as the system gets older.

    1. Agreed. D&D is probably* the only property that is perfectly positioned to grow the hobby, because it is what most non-gamers consider to be role-playing. But you don't grow the hobby by appealing to the people within it (a group that naturally diminishes as time goes on), but rather by appealing to those outside the group and enticing them to join us.

      It's why I think pushing the boardgames is probably the way to go, especially boardgames that don't require an active gamemaster. Add some later books on how to create content in these boardgames and you begin to emulate the early days of the hobby (but with boardgamers rather than wargamers). And you can still publish boardgame supplements as well for the people who are not interested.

      Instead I find it worrying that D&D Next is trying too hard to win back the fans it lost to Pathfinder and the retro-clones, which just isn't going to happen. People have had time to invest (both time, money, and effort) in these rule systems.

      [* OK, WFRP and W40KRP can grow the hobby by drawing on the Warhammer crowd. Computer RPGs are no substitute for introducing people to the hobby because you can only play them. The barriers for creating content are generally too high for most people to even consider scaling, and that is the advantage of tabletop role-play.]

    2. I think WotC would consider 5th edition a "win" if *some* of the Pathfinder/OSR purchased it and/or played it. My guess is that a substantial number of us will buy it and play it if only for curiosity's sake.

      They're also betting heavily on Monte Cook, which is a good bet. Monte has his own fanbase and 3e, whatever its flaws, was responsible for the last major renaissance of the hobby. My sense is that 3e brought in more new/returning players than any previous iteration.

    3. I agree with your contention. Of course, I'd suggest that WotC's decision to throw the baby (OGL) out with the bathwater (the proliferation of 3.0/3.5 splatbooks and third-party garbage) is precisely why Pathfinder and OSR exist in the first place. Still, it's clear that WotC got their clock cleaned by both Pathfinder and OSR, and D&D Next (still a stupid name) will only be a success if it wins some of that market share back (and keeps it after the initial excitement fades).

      I also agree that recruiting Monte Cook was a good move. I admire him greatly as a designer and am genuinely curious to see what he does. I'll probably consider picking up the core books when they come out, something I never considered with 4E. I believe my exact words, while thumbing through the 4E PHB at the FLGS were "What the is a Controller?"

      Still, D&D Next is going to have to stake out new ground. Pathfinder has pretty much staked it's claim to the territory of "let's clean up the 3.5 rules set and make it into a new game". I contend that WotC will be fighting an uphill battle to regain much territory from Paizo in the short term. After all, at this point, they've pissed off a good chunk of their customer base, between the d20 Modern debacle, killing the Star Wars license, and D&D4. In the long term...well that will depend on what the inevitable Pathfinder 2 looks like in a few years, and how many more marketing missteps WotC makes.

  3. Geez, I was just saying the same thing to someone verbally within the last hour. What a fascinating case-study that the art D&D is basically poisoned by its own business.

    1. Well, it doesn't have to be.

      It's perfectly possible to maintain it without expanding it, much less "revamping" it. You don't *have* to put out a zillion sourcebooks, adventure paths, player options, etc. You could maintain D&D with even ONE LONE BOOK. The D&D Rules Cyclopedia proved that. If you'd cease publication of AD&D, D20, 4th Edition and so on, and would just publish the RC, chances are, you'd still be in business, albeit as a small publisher.

      You don't have to hire a gazillion people, who have to be financed by putting out more and more products, part of whose revenues go to paying the employees.

      You could maintain D&D with one person at the hem of the firm, and the rest being (very few) hand-picked workers employed on a project basis.

      And this would keep D&D clean from bad works that taint Gygax' genial game and keep on destroying everything from Greyhawk to Planescape. Indeed, it seems that only the Dragonlance Saga escaped the toxic tendrils of 4Ed. Every other campaign setting was altered to the point that it is effectively dead.

    2. Small company = small marketing = small market.

      It might be nice to imagine D&D existing purely as a core book kept evergreen by a small publishing company, but the market for that would shrink with each passing year. As popular as it is to scorn the wicked ways of marketing, telling people about the awesome stuff you have is a fairly important way to attract new interest and keep existing players' excitement up. Small companies cannot afford to do even the modest marketing that WotC does.

      There's a complex dynamic involved in the splat treadmill. You can look at each splat as being a fresh clot of rules to muck up the pristine elegance of the core system, but a lot of people are going to see that clot as a vital improvement. Moreover, even those who don't care for the splat will see it and be reminded of the game, confirmed in their confidence that people are playing it and that it has enough vim to make additional books worthwhile for the publisher. Splatbooks are marketing. I myself put out free squibs every couple of months for SWN largely for their marketing value and ability to keep people paying attention.

    3. Certainly, a small company can only handle small marketing. But that doesn't automatically result in a small market.

      But it doesn't help grow the overall customer base (not only for D&D, but p&p RPGs per se), that is true.

      Still, even as an (essentially) "one-person-firm", you can do much for marketing a one-book system. If you have the time, which many small publishers have not.

      For instance, in the case of the D&D RC, I can think of many ways to market it. How about this?

      1)Market it to librarians, parents and teachers as an "engine" for creating and playing interactive fiction; the dice mechanics ensuring that the game stays fair, since the outcomes of fights, character generation, situation solutions etc doesn't depend on the whims of the GM, but is a joint result of dice luck and player strategic thinking.

      2) Market it to parents and librarians as a hybrid between reading and playing, encouraging time away from the tv/gameboy/MMOP, and cultivating a desire for reading.

      3) Market it as a "One Book RPG System". Stress that you can create every possible fantasy world with the rules given therein, whether it's "The Hobbit", "The Eternal Champion", "Darkover", "1001 Nights", Herakles or Grimm's Fairy Tales.

      However, the one-book rpg is a rather extreme thing. I myself prefer a 3-book system: players guide, GM guide, and monster book.

      Later on, one can start to publish setting books, since those generally don't result in rules bloat but rather, are strictly optional.

    4. Well, let's take it as a given that those marketing angles would be successful. That said, who's going to actually do the work and pay the money involved in executing the strategy? You can't market to parents, librarians, or anyone else without going through channels, and those channels cost money and take time to manage. Until somebody comes up with the magic recipe to create on-demand viral buzz, we're stuck with doing it the old-fashioned way and hoping that something we throw out there sticks.

      The basic problem that Winter is pointing out is that players *love* rule bloat. Some of them may yell about it on the boards. Many of them may voice frustrations that are rooted in it whether or not they realize it. Others might complain about the endless treadmill and the creeping difficulty of actually understanding the whole game. But when it comes down to raw dollars and cents, more of them will buy bloat than anything else a publisher can offer. That's what makes it such a diabolical problem- the industry isn't forcing us to buy what's bad for us any more than the corner crack dealer. If the dealer could make a better margin selling us organic arugula and mineral water, he'd do it, but that's not what we want from him.

    5. I wanted to argue with this, Sine Nomine, but I really can't.

      What really needs to happen is for GMs to vote with their dollars. Players will stop buying splat books if enough GMs just say, "Enough! No Marty McMunchkin, I'm not allowing the Left-Handed Blackhearted Death Knight of Ultimate Doom of Extreme Halitosis class in my game, sorry." Then, and only then, things will change.

      To WotC, this has already happened with 4E to some extent. Enough people were dissatisfied with 4E that it gave Paizo maneuver room to release Pathfinder. I think a lot of that had to do with rules set, but I also think a subset of folks started with 4E, liked it well enough, but then started seeing WotC nickel and dime them to death that they jumped ship.

  4. I recently ran into his blog as well. It's good to see Mr Winter still active after his departure from Wizards.

  5. Heh. If needing only the core books for a system is a dirty little secret, it's the worst kept secret, ever.

    1. No, it's not a secret, but there are enough completists out there to keep WotC and Paizo in decent sales figures. It's the completists that are really the heart of this problem. And I've seen enough completists over the years to know that there are a lot of them out there.

      I picked up the core book and Bestiary for Pathfinder last week, and posted on Facebook about what I considered to be positive changes to 3.5, and my satisfaction that for all Paizo has published in the way of setting and adventure material, in not quite 3 years, they've published a grand total of 8 rulebooks (3 MMs, the Corebook, a magic splatbook, a combat splatbook, an equivalent of a PHB 2, and a DMG 2 equivalent). That's a sustainable pace for this sort of thing. I don't think it's a stretch for a GM or a player to pick up what amounts to a book every four months or so and decide what they want to incorporate into their game. It's also the pace at which this stuff can probably be adequately tested and QC'ed.

      I posted about this, and I immediately received flak from a friend, who is a committed 4E fan (and an admitted completist), who ragged on Pathfinder for the (admittedly large) volume of adventure and setting material out there for the game. As others have said, adventure and setting material doesn't pose the problem of rules bloat, and as a GM, I can pick and choose (and do) what I use. I don't need setting material to run a game. It's nice when I'm looking to steal ideas, but I could run all the sword and sorcery games (or just about any other genre I wanted to run) I want from here to eternity just by pulling from my own library.

      I still buy some of it, mainly to mine ideas, but I'm not a completist, and I'd say the Old School movement (and the broader indie movement) is one of several clear indications that a growing minority of the hobby feels the same way about D&D/Pathfinder. If we're ever going to break WotC and Paizo of the habit, that minority needs to continue to grow.

  6. I think one of the single defining things about the OSR is simply this: We won't keep buying this crap. Everyone else might. We won't. We don't need to start a boycott because we are already boycotting. We don't need to vote with our feet because we're already far away. The more I hear about what TSR-WOTC-Hasbro etc. is up to, the more I just want to go look again at my first edition version of Modron.

    Getting of this crazy consumer treadmill is what the OSR is all about. It's not noble. It's not about some kind of virtuous sacrifice. They simply aren't making anything we want or need... and we just don't care.