This series of articles was published before D&D Next was announced in early 2012, telling the story of how the respected brand began with The Ghost of D&D Past and continues with speculation on The State of D&D: Future.
In the mid 2000s, tabletop roleplaying games enjoyed a resurgence in popularity not seen since the original Dungeons & Dragons rules were published by Gary Gygax in the 70s. The 3rd edition of those rules, and the Open Gaming License (OGL) that opened them up for public use, cemented D&D as the leader of the roleplaying game world, while simultaneously encouraging competitors to advance the design of roleplaying games. But as result of Hasbro’s desire to turn D&D into a $100 million business, and the success of fantasy MMO videogames like World of Warcraft, the release of the 4th edition in 2008 changed more of the game than many fans were comfortable with and despoiled the goodwill Wizards of the Coast had built over the last decade. The Ghost of D&D Present still haunts the industry.
The young designers working at Wizards wanted to stretch their design muscles to make a new game – something that they could call their edition.
Andy Collins worked under 4E Lead Designer Rob Heinsoo at Wizards of the Coast and eventually became Design & Development Manager around the release of 4th edition. Collins told The Escapist back in 2010 that the changes he and Heinsoo implemented in D&D were meant to catch the game up with the way that people played modern games. Collins believed players have a short attention span, and were, perhaps, “less likely [to be] interested in reading the rules of the game before playing.” “I’m not just talking about younger players now, but anybody. We’ve been working to adapt to that, the changing expectations of the new gamer.”
The young designers working at Wizards wanted to stretch their design muscles to make a new game – something that they could call their edition. “Designing new editions is the work of younger, more energetic folks,” said Collins. While 4th edition offered elegant tactical combat and an equanimity between classes never seen before in the game, many of the people who played Gygax’s Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s didn’t understand why concepts they held to be sacred were axed.
“I started playing D&D when I was 10 years old in 1979. I thought they made some curious choices [in 4E] regarding what was central to the property,” said Chris Pramas, President of Green Ronin Publishing. “They added new core races and created a different cosmology, and that was totally fine for the new campaign setting they were releasing. It just seemed strange to me that that all the old settings had to have that stuff shoehorned into them.”
“I don’t know why you call an elf an eladrin and I don’t know why tieflings are there when they haven’t been there all along. I do have some problems with it as a writer,” said R.A. Salvatore, who writes novels set in D&D‘s Forgotten Realms. Salvatore has written more than thirty novels starring the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden, many of them NY Times Bestsellers, arguably giving Salvatore the distinction of creating the world’s most valuable D&D character. “4th edition [D&D] is more like a card game. It’s a strategy game and there are a lot of things in there for the reason of class balancing, so from a mechanical standpoint, it’s a fabulous game. From a roleplaying standpoint, by that I mean a writing standpoint, it’s much harder.”
“I think, at least from my initial observations, that 4E put too much emphasis on the battle grid and not enough emphasis on the world outside of combat. That, in combination with the sacred cow-killing, made it feel like a whole different game to a lot of people, including me,” added Erik Mona, publisher at Paizo, creators of Pathfinder.
Although work had already begun on the design, public talk of a new D&D edition from Wizards of the Coast began around 2007. The expectation was that WotC would support 4th edition the same way it had before with a new license and system reference document. It seemed unlikely that the OGL would survive the new edition unscathed, but fans and publishers had no reason to suspect just how thoroughly Wizards would abandon it.
“Like any aggressive proposal, the OGL never had universal support within Wizards of the Coast. Lots of folks questioned the wisdom of simply giving away the rights to the core system of the game that paid our salaries.”
“[WotC] made all sorts of assurances to the community of third-party developers about how open the new game would be, how they planned to share the rules early with key publishers, and how we could all get on board with supporting the new edition,” Mona said. “But something happened behind the scenes over there at about that time, and a licensing agreement that had been touted as a ‘more open than ever’ failed to materialize.”
Not everyone at WotC believed that the OGL was a good thing for D&D. “Like any aggressive proposal, the OGL never had universal support within Wizards of the Coast. Lots of folks – myself included, at the time – questioned the wisdom of simply giving away the rights to the core system of the game that paid our salaries,” said Collins recently.
“There were a lot of folks who thought [the idea of OGL] was a disaster, and that the result would be a failure of 3rd edition, but they kept their opinions to themselves and to the watercooler chat,” remembers Ryan Dancey, the VP of RPGs at Wizards until 2001, and the guy who came up with the crazy OGL idea. “When 3rd edition didn’t fail, but instead wildly succeeded, most of those folks came around to seeing it at least as a neutral, if not a net positive.”
By the time that 4th edition was developed, even the people who begrudgingly accepted the OGL had left their positions at Wizards of the Coast. “Many of the key players were completely different at this point – different brand managers, different legal team, different executive team,” said Collins. “And with new people come new opinions … and this time around, the pro-OGL side was in the minority.”
He still believed in the benefits of an open system, but he was fighting a losing battle. “I remember arguing pretty hard to retain something like what Wizards had done for 3rd edition; an open license that included the core rules and a few basic guidelines on how to use it. I argued that without some kind of OGL, Wizards risked leaving behind the body of customers and potential customers who saw the open license as an assumed part of the D&D experience,” Collins said.
“In hindsight, I wonder if it might simply have been better to [let the OGL die] rather than guilting the company into crafting a Frankenstein’s monster of an open license that ended up pleasing basically nobody,” Collins continued. The Game System License [GSL] that WotC released in conjunction with 4th edition took away many of the freedoms that the industry had come to expect with the D&D rules, such as reprinting text for clarity in new products. “At the time, those of us arguing for the continuation of an OGL-like system truly believed that we’d be able to come up with something that protected Wizards and also helped the community,” he admitted, but wrangling an agreement that achieved those goals proved a monumental task that took much longer than anyone anticipated.
If the licensing issue was the only black Eye of Vecna on its face, 4th edition might still have been a hit with fans and other publishers alike. In December 2007, WOTC released Wizards Presents: Races and Classes the first of several preview documents that outlined some of the radical changes to the rules, and initial feedback from fans was not encouraging. “All of a sudden our subscribers started begging us not to convert to the new game system,” Mona said. “The fact that many members of our editorial staff shared some of these concerns underscored our uneasiness with the dragged out licensing situation. We finally made the decision that if we weren’t able to support the game at launch, we might as well not bother supporting it at all. So we decided to stick with [D&D] 3.5.”
The designers at Paizo rewrote the 3.5 rules a bit under the old OGL license and added the distinct setting of Golarion into a package called Pathfinder. Even Mona was surprised at how well the beta version of Pathfinder sold, and how it has grown into a multi-million dollar enterprise. “We put together an impressive print run of the Beta Playtest version of the Pathfinder rules, and when that sold out in about a week, we knew we were onto something,” he said. “Interest in the system far exceeded our expectations, and continues to do so. We sold more [Pathfinder] Core Rulebooks in 2011 than we did in 2010, and the final hardcover Core Rulebook is now in its fifth printing with no end in sight.”
Paizo’s success with Pathfinder was possible because the OGL was not abolished; it was still valid for the rules printed under the 3rd edition D&D banner, while the GSL governed everything published under 4th edition. This created a unique situation in the history of role-playing games- for the first time, it was legal for companies to reprint older versions of Dungeons & Dragons after its publisher had let the core rulebooks disappear from shelves.
“That allowed something we have never seen before: a company that emerges as the champion of the previous edition and rallies its fans,” said Pramas of his competitor in the third party market. “That is what Paizo was able to do with Pathfinder. Similarly, many companies of the Old School Renaissance used the OGL to recreate older editions of D&D in various permutations. Now, no matter which version of D&D you prefer, there are many publishers supporting it with new material.”
The Old School Renaissance is the name given to what can only be called a movement among gamers to return to an older style of play. “I think Gary Gygax’s death [in 2008] had a profound impact on a lot of the old schoolers. Many of them were grudgingly going along with modern game design conventions simply because they had no other choice,” said Erik Mona.
Games like Swords & Wizardry, Castles & Crusades, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess use the OGL to recreate the feel and simplicity of older editions while making tweaks to the presentation and playability. (Full disclosure: I’m publishing a game called the Adventurer Conqueror King System which similarly represents older rules with significant modifications.) Members of the Old School Renaissance play these so-called retro-clones, or keep on rolling dice with old copies of TSR’s own editions and then dissect the experience online at websites like The Mule Abides and Grognardia .
Changes in how people buy RPGs and the freedom of the OGL combined to make the Old School Renaissance grow across the internet. The rise of digital distribution of PDFs through marketplaces like DriveThruRPG.com have allowed designers to make money selling their work with less overhead. The costs of printing books has also decreased, especially print-on-demand services that allow smaller print runs, so it’s easier than ever for amateur designers to publish something gamers can bring to the table and use with any of D&D‘s older editions or retro-clones.
Pulling from so many different sources, especially videogames, may have worked against the reception of 4th edition D&D.
While most members of the Old School Renaissance are older people who began playing as kids during D&D‘s early-80s heyday, the current edition competes against a totally different medium among young people today – computer games. “Nerd momentum has moved away from RPGs and towards videogames in the last 30 years,” said Pramas. “In the 70s, if you were a certain kind of geek, you’d have played D&D. Now that same type of geek is much more likely to enter fantasy gaming through World of Warcraft.”
Mona admits that tabletop games are vying for the attention of the audience but instead of a threat, he sees a challenge. “Gamers have more options to spend their money than ever before, and that could lead to an erosion of tabletop gamers across the board,” he said. “A lot of the bleed-off can be counterbalanced by a new generation of gamers who come to the hobby through electronic games, but who are open to tabletop experiences, as well. Many of these gamers come to the table with a much greater understanding of RPG basics like hit points, character class, and armor class than any of us had in the 1970s. It’s up to game publishers to make compelling content that these people will want to buy and experience as much or more than the latest computer or console game.”
Coinciding with the release of 4th edition D&D in 2008, Wizards of the Coast launched an advertising campaign that reached out to MMO players. “If you’re going to sit in your basement pretending to be an elf, you should at least have some friends over to help,” the text of one ad read over a shot of a bored young man in front of a computer. Paradoxically, one of the most frequent complaints with 4th edition was that the rules too closely mimicked World of Warcraft or EverQuest. The concept of certain classes described specifically to take or deal damage in 4th edition mirrors the role of tank or “DPS” in MMOs.
Collins admitted that 4th edition was influenced by MMOs but was quick to point out that the design took inspiration from many contemporary sources. “As professional game designers, we look at all games for lessons,” he said last year. “Certainly, the lessons we learn from online games are going to be the most obvious ones because they have a lot of people familiar with the sources, but there’s also lessons about turn management from European board games, interface ideas from card games.”
Pulling from so many different sources, especially videogames, may have worked against the reception of 4th edition D&D. “I think the mistake people sometimes make is to think that we can attract more players if we ape the experience of videogames. I think a better approach is to emphasize what makes pen and paper RPGs unique and fun,” said Pramas.
For all the machinations behind-the-scenes at Wizards and the grumblings of people in the industry, Collins and his designers clearly wrote a game that fans wanted to buy. Preorders for the core books of 4th edition of D&D in June 2008 were extremely strong and – without any hard sales numbers released by WoTC – anecdotal evidence from local game stores supported the claim that it sold much better than 3rd at launch. Moving its periodic content to a digital portal called D&D Insider on a monthly subscription model, while providing access to online tools like the handy Character Builder seems to be successful (Again, without any sales numbers it is hard to gauge, but anecdotally most people who play 4th Edition use D&D Insider in some capacity.) In addition, any gamer who wrote scathing critiques of the game on forums was met with an equivalent number of fervent supporters of 4th Edition. The new game has attracted a loyal audience, especially with younger players, but at the cost of alienating those who grew up with the game of Gygax and Arneson.
The negative response to 4th edition was not without consequences for the people who made it. Rob Heinsoo was laid off in late 2009, and Bill Slavicsek, Director of RPG R&D for more than ten years, left earlier this year. Wizards is notorious for laying off employees before Christmas, but restructuring can happen at any time. In May 2010, Andy Collins was asked to vacate his position at Wizards of the Coast as design and development manager of D&D. “To be blunt: They told me they were restructuring the department and I didn’t have a job there anymore,” he said. “As harsh as that moment was, it was a good thing for me, both personally and professionally. Despite working on an amazing game, surrounded by smart, talented folks whose mere presence made me a better designer, I was stagnating.”
With the departure of Heinsoo, Slavicsek, Collins and most of the brand team who launched 4th edition, it seemed the company was moving in a new direction. The D&D Essentials line and the new Red Box starter set released in September 2010 were publicized as easy gateways for players to enter the hobby. WotC also released its first D&D-themed boardgame – the dungeon-crawl with 4E elements Castle Ravenloft – at the same time. Wizards of the Coast appeared to be moving away from a pure tabletop RPG publisher and people began speculating what the company would do next. Some assumed that a new 5th edition was inevitable, while the concentration on digital subscriptions and online tools suggested that Wizards could sustain the 4th edition lifecycle for a while. Old school gamers rejoiced when Collins’ successor was named, but it remains to be seen whether one man can turn the tide.
A changing of the guard at Wizards may herald a sea change for the company, check back to see what the ghost of D&D future has to say about where tabletop RPGs will be like in ten years.