THE GHOST OF D&D FUTURE
Daunted by the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2008, the future of the roleplaying game industry is unclear. The core books of 4th edition sold well, and the game is still popular among a large section of players, but detractors used memes like Hitler’s speech from Downfall to illustrate their rage, while game designers like Justin Alexander carefully examined why the dissociated mechanics of 4th edition didn’t work for him. The nerd rage has dulled a bit in the three years since 4th edition, was released, but the tabletop RPG industry is still reeling.
“A divided D&D is a symptom,” said Mike Mearls, the current head of Dungeons & Dragons development at WOTC. “I think the designers have lost faith in the core essence of the RPG.”
Mearls came from the OGL [Open Gaming License] era of publishing, during which he was a highly prolific freelance designer. Critics and gamers alike regarded Mearls’ Iron Heroes system (2005) as one of the highlights of creativity that the open system could produce. He was hired at WotC soon after, and delved deeply into designing 4th edition with the rest of the team under the direction of former head of development, Bill Slavicsek, and fellow designers Andy Collins and Rob Heinsoo. After their departure, Mearls took hold of the reins in 2011 to nudge 4th Edition a little closer to the D&D a lot of the older players wanted. Even though it was in development long before he took over, the 4th edition Red Box’s homage to the art from TSR’s original Red Box might be considered Mearls’ olive branch. The purpose of the new Red Box was to remind the older generation that 4th edition may be a new direction, but it still shares a lineage with the game they fell in love with in the 80s.
“I have a theory about RPGs,” Mearls said. “When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said ‘To Hell with that,’ it’s all about players, we’re going to give you some really cool options, it’s all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there’s this meaningful choice.
“I think we’ve hit the second era of RPG decadence, and it’s gone the opposite way,” he continued. “It’s all about player power now – the DM is just the rules guy – and the DM can’t contradict what the players say. [The game] is taking away from the DM, and that’s where I worry because other types of games can do that better. I might as well play a board game, ’cause I’m just here enforcing the rules. Without the DM as the creative guy, what’s the point?”
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. “We’ve lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG,” he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. “There’s this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you’ll still have fun.”
The result of this philosophy is that, perhaps more than ever before, gamers are playing different games than the official D&D coming out of the Wizards of the Coast. “What D&D faces now with different editions and old school versus new school, and 3.5 versus 4th edition, it’s like the comic book conundrum,” Mearls said in reference to the differences between Silver Age Captain America versus the plot of the recent Captain America film. “How do we get all these guys back together, so we actually have real communities, not just a bunch of separate smaller communities, that don’t really interact in any way?”
Mearls believes that if he produces games that people want to play or written content on the online portal D&D Insider that people want to read, then he has done his job well, but the problem is that – more than ever – that is a difficult proposition.
“People have no time for bullshit,” he said. “People have less time than ever to do stuff that engages them. You take roleplayers, who are by nature creative and engaged, they’re not just passively watching something. They have standards of what they want, they’re persnickety. They want what they want, and if you don’t give it to them they’ll tell you very loudly and clearly, ‘Screw you buddy, I don’t need this!'”
There is no lack of feedback on the web or at convention panels for what WotC is doing wrong, but Mearls said he is paying close attention. For example, statistics gathered internally show that more than two-thirds of D&D players choose to play one of the four major races – human, elf, dwarf, halfling – so there’s been a shift to focus on the core of what people expect from the game. Mearls intended the Essentials line – essentially a repackaging of 4E rules into easier-to-digest books – to get back to the shared language that unites all D&D players. “You don’t want a situation where someone comes into a room and says ‘Hey guys, I’m playing a Shardmind Seeker’ and the response is ‘What the hell is that?'” he said. “I know what it is because I worked on it, but it’s not even in the Player’s Handbook. If you [publish] too much, that shared language, it just evaporates.”
WotC has also realized in the last few years is that not all D&D gamers are alike. There are some who love 4th edition’s tactical gameplay, while others simply want to participate in epic stories with their friends every week. Some gamers don’t have a lot of time to devote to game sessions, while others would gladly spend all their time playing and reading about D&D. In order to serve each customer well, WotC no longer jams one square-shaped edition or format into a round audience-sized hole but instead offers different games for each potential player.
“D&D isn’t one game, it’s a range of games,” said Mearls.
The current strategy of WotC is diverse. For players who want a quick structured experience, WotC now offers three board games designed to be completed in an hour or two, using a simplified version of 4th edition rules. The Legend of Drizzt came out in late 2011 and uses R.A. Salvatore’s iconic character to attempt to attract new players. D&D Encounters is a weekly program that brings players into game stores for newbie-friendly sessions designed to teach them the full role-playing game, and the recently launched beta of the Facebook game Heroes of Neverwinter aims to get friends playing D&D together as easy as possible.
The other side of Wizards is the cash cow of Magic: The Gathering, and it’s hard for Mearls not to want to emulate the profitability of that game. Magic has seen a boost in popularity from the success of the Xbox Live game Duels of the Planeswalkers. A large percentage of players will get hooked on the digital game and then be inclined to purchase a booster deck of cards – or twenty. “One of the big questions facing the medium now is what is the Duels of the Planeswalkers for D&D?” said Mearls.
The problem with developing such a game was, until this year, Atari held an exclusive license to produce all digital representations of D&D, and Atari had no interest in making games other than what was already in the pipeline. As of August 2011, the two parties have settled that dispute, and D&D is now free to either develop games itself, or hire other video game developers to make the game WotC hopes will be as successful as Duels is for Magic.
With all of these options, it seems that the biggest hole in WotC’s catalog would be a product for those players who grew up with the game. “Working on a game that’s almost 40 years old now, we’ve seen the complex end. And what happened with each edition of D&D is it got more complex and we need to go back to the original D&D.” Mearls isn’t necessarily arguing for WotC to reprint the older editions and compete directly with the many retro-clones released by the Old School Renaissance – although there are rumblings – but he wants the company to go back to what drew people to the game in the first place.
“Let’s just play D&D,” he said. “Just cut all the bullshit that can get in the way, and say ‘Look, we have all these different ways you can express yourself in the game,’ and let’s just give people what they want. Don’t trick people into things they want or just come up with something new for the sake of it. [Let’s] get back in touch with what makes role-playing games great, what makes D&D great.”
Only a little over three years since the last revision, it’s probably too early to speak of a 5th Edition of D&D because such talk would only further enrage customers who just bought a whole set of books. Instead, Mearls is less dedicated to reuniting the fractured audience rather than catering to each new niche in turn. But with products like Paizo’s Pathfinder, the many games of the Old School Renaissance, and Chris Pramas’ RPG lines from Green Ronin already serving their communities well, it will take more than lip service from Wizard of the Coast employees to heal the loss of hit points that 4th edition caused.
“A lot is going to depend on whether D&D can rebound from its current state. The game has had a troubled few years and it’ll help everyone if WotC can turn things around,” said Pramas.
A healthy RPG industry depends on how the most recognizable brand fares, but Pramas remains optimistic that Green Ronin will still be publishing rulebooks. “I expect there will be least one and maybe more than one industry-changing innovation,” he said. “We will be here one way or the other, making great games and promoting all that is awesome about pen and paper RPGs.”
Paizo will continue to innovate as well, while still holding onto the principles that made Pathfinder successful. “The future is going to bring more integration of technology to tabletop games, to the point at which ‘pen and paper tabletop games’ won’t, in many cases, use pens, paper, or tabletops,” said Erik Mona, publisher at Paizo. “I hope Paizo is still at the vanguard of the tabletop hobby in 5 and 10 years, pushing forward with new ideas and new expressions of the game, but always focusing on story first.”
Not all gamers are so optimistic. “I think the tabletop RPG market is enduring a kind of death. I think it is transforming into something that isn’t a viable commercial business for more than a handful of people,” said Ryan Dancey, former VP of RPGs at Wizards and marketing guru at White Wolf/CCP. Dancey was instrumental in developing the OGL before the 3rd edition era of D&D, but he foresees the RPG industry becoming a dead hobby like model trains. “Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business.”
No matter what edition or game you play, tabletop role-playing games are really just vehicles for getting together with your friends, rolling some dice, and having fun. The saddest part about the current state of the tabletop industry is that game designers, publishers and even regular gamers are now hyper-aware of how well each game sells and how these games are marketed or written instead of – as Mearls pointed out – just playing the games. The vitriol seen during the launch of 4th edition now just leaves a bad taste in gamers’ mouths. Healthy competition is a good thing for any industry, and with digital distribution and cheaper print costs, it’s easier than ever for startup gaming publishers with great ideas to compete with established brands like Pathfinder and even Dungeons & Dragons. While the separate communities and aging of the audience as Dancey says could be perceived as unhealthy for the hobby, the many different tabletop options gamers now have might actually be a good thing. D&D, and by extension the whole role-playing industry, has been through a rough patch in the last few years, but there is a glint of great things ahead. Like the characters in any fantasy adventure story, passing through the dark times will only make us stronger. Despite the anger and resentment fostered by the release 4th edition, optimism on the future of RPGs has begun to bubble to the surface. We are on the verge of a golden age of tabletop gaming we haven’t seen since fantasy roleplaying roared out of the minds of Gygax and Arneson and took over imaginations of gamers everywhere.