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The Problem With Editions

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I’ve got family in town for the holidays (the first time Sarah and I have played host for Christmas) and so I’ve tried to clear up some space. Bookshelves are always at a premium in my house—which may not be surprising—so I ended up culling my book collection a bit. Maybe the easiest decision was a textbook I had two copies of, in two different editions. The earlier one was a definite give away, I couldn’t see any reason to keep it.

Then, over on my RPG shelf, I kept books from at least 4 editions of D&D (more if you count 3.5 and essentials separately).

If we want to get technical, the major editions of D&D probably aren’t really editions. The typical usage of the term outside of tabletop roleplaying games usually refers to a change in presentation (“paperback edition”), a change in creation (“a first edition of A Farewell To Arms”), or an update to improve a previous version (“the 3rd edition of The Art of Computer Programming: Volume 1”).

The usage of edition in D&D is closest to that of textbooks, like The Art of Computer Programming, but taken much further. While each edition of TAoCP include fixes for mistakes and the latest information since its publishing, its still fundamentally a replacement—there is no reason to buy an earlier edition instead except maybecuriosityor collecting. Each edition of D&D on the other hand is truly a different game. They don’t just fix issues or integrate the latest information; each edition attempts to provide similar experiences using different tools tuned to the tastes of the era in which it is published. There are still plenty of reasons to buy Moldvay or 3E/Pathfinder or 4E, each does things differently.

The only similar usage of “edition” that I can think of is in boardgames, but even that generally isn’t as far-reaching as D&D’s editions. The second edition of War of the Ring makes changes and improvements, but is still very clearly the same game. The improvements are on the scale of editing and playtesting, mostly.

The editions of D&D have more in common with videogame sequels, like Halo, 2, 3, ODST, Reach, 4 or _Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, 3, Black Ops 2_ . The comparison is actually pretty apt: things like the evolution of the Halo pistol, or the way damage and healing are done, is pretty similar to the way things change between editions of D&D.

The advantage Halo or CoD has over D&D when it comes to new editions is that a new Halo game is the only way to get new Halo gameplay. At some point a Halo gamer will have played the entirety of the game1, but a D&D player’s game comes in large part from the people they play with—they’ll never “finish” D&D.

This isn’t to say that the rules of a given edition (or RPG in general) don’t matter—they matter in some important and useful ways. The rules, however, don’t create the content of the game (as they do in most digital games). In a tabletop RPG the infinite potential of the humans around you, with the help of the rules, setting, or whatever else, mean that you’ve never truly finished the game.

A slightly closer analogy might be Civilization , where each game has the same goal, but implemented in different ways. Even if you’ve conquered the world in Civ 2 you’re likely to come back and conquer it again in Civ 4 .

Even in Civilization though the vast majority of people will feel that they’ve completely played out one version and be ready to play the new one. A hardcore few may still explore theemergent propertiesor create mods, but the average player is likely to feel like they’ve “completed” Civilization 2 and be happy to play a new version, even if the main draw of the new version is just that its emergent play will be different.

The same isn’t always true of D&D. In Civilization I might play through one game as every society, hit every win condition once, and win on each difficulty once, then feel like I’ve finished the game—I’ve played the Celts before, I don’t need to do it again. In D&D even if I’ve played a fighter to the level cap before, I haven’t played a fighter in this particular world with these particular people before. The content we can play is limited only by us.

The fact that D&D editions are not incremental refinements or direct sequels isn’t directly a problem. Each edition has its ups and downs. The problem comes from the fact that D&D is a business.

For Wizards of the Coast, new editions are both necessary (to keep selling product) and self-destructive (as theykill the market for what’s currently out there). It’s an endless cycle of splintering the fan base as each edition requires a massive new purchase from all players.

This is the trouble with editions: by replacing good games with other good games the only guarantee is loss of audience.

Why then is D&D only ever one game at a time? The Old SchoolRenaissance, Pathfinder,and Penny Arcade Podcast D&D games show just how great each edition can be. Wizards of the Coast is pretty much the only company in a position to actually leverage the diverse and wonderful wholeness of D&D, yet instead they’re trying to make yet another version of D&D with the explicit goal of making it just like the earlier versions.

What if, instead of D&D Next, Wizards of the Coast started publishing every version of D&D? Or, since “every” is a little crazy with all the tiny revisions, at least a representative sample: maybe BECMI, 2nd Ed AD&D, Pathfinder, and 4th.

The first step would be a minor rebranding. Marketing 2nd Ed alongside 4th Ed would be a problem for the average consumer. Is D&D 2 like Halo 2 (you’ll want to play it between 1 and 3) or Civilization 2 (might as well just go with the highest number)? So, just as 3rd edition has become Pathfinder, rename each of the editions into its own Dungeons and Dragons game. Maybe 4th edition becomes Dungeons and Dragons: Mythic Heroes while 2nd Ed becomes Dungeons and Dragons: THAC0 or whatever.

Along with renaming each edition into its own game, give D&D as a whole a strong but flexible identity. Much like the Marvel logo shows up on all kinds of comic covers and still fits in (with minor adaptation) make the D&D logo something that can blend into the style of each edition/game.

With a clear vision and branding for each, procede to update each text. The scope of these updates should be more like a new edition of a text book than a new version of Halo: fix only the obviously broken while improving the presentation and still staying true to the vision of the game. BECMI should still look classic in its art, and the rules should change little if at all, but the text can be improved for modern readers, and new art in classic style can be commissioned.

The potential problem here is one of price: given that consumers have limited money to spend on RPGs, they’re unlikely to want to buy more than one book per game. A possible solution would be to do a harder edit and make each game into one book of similar size/cost. The danger with, say, D&D: Mythic Heroes being three books while D&D: Delvers is just one is that Delvers would start to look like the discount beginners option (like Magic’s Portal set). The idea here is to present all these games as what they are: fun playable things that you can pick between based on a number of qualities.

Making each game into one book would not be easy, but it would make the multiple game strategy more viable. Presumably one reason Wizards doesn’t publish more RPGs is that they don’t feel there’s a market for them, which ends up shrinking the market as only one RPG is available from the biggest company around, and the cycle continues. By fitting three games into the three-book space that used to fit one game Wizards would have a chance to diversify without overestimating their market.

With 4 or so decidedly different visions of D&D, release them all under the D&D umbrella. Build D&D as something bigger than any one ruleset. Then support them all in various ways: add-ons, adventures, settings. The support need not be never-ending, as it is with the current edition system. Instead, if one game seems completely supported, or interest in it is waning, quietly scale down production on it and produce something new—something that isn’t just an attempt to do the same game over again.

Settings, of course, would be the most tricky. A setting book that applies to all the D&D games is possible, but a setting that’s a good fit for BECMI adventures isn’t so good a fit for 4th Ed adventures, and the book would be devoid of new rules. Multiple versions of each setting would be confusing to potential consumers. It might have to be that each setting is tied, by default, to one D&D game. While this reduces the potential sales of each individual setting, it does allow each setting to really shine. It also reduces the need for every setting to be radically transformed to adapt to each new edition—the poor Forgotten Realms will be spared it’s regular cataclysms that fit the world into the new rules.

With D&D as an umbrella game brand Wizards would have the ability to sell what sells and adapt without killing their current audience. If it turns out that Mythic Heroes isn’t selling too well they can scale down support for it for a while, then ramp it up again if they have an idea that might breath new life into it.

Even better, if they have clever new ideas for how to do D&D they can release those as new games without it being a huge risk. If WotC wanted to do a game of personal drama and intrigue in the noble courts of D&D they could do a dedicated game just about that without having to kill of anything else.

The very idea that only one edition can be supported at a time is arbitrary. There are resource constraints for sure—WotC only has the talent, capital, and market to publish so much at once. Locking those resources into only one approach though is a tough bet to win.

Consider the current D&D Next development team. Just from the videos, blogs, and such I’ve seen there are at least a handful of people working on that full time. For a whole new game that has some incredibly ambitious2 goals that’s a reasonable investment, but it means the payoff on it has to be huge. If that team was split up onto the revision and support of three or four different games under the D&D umbrella they could increase their output and go with known good stuff, leaving anyone who’s working on new D&D games free to experiment and explore.

With D&D Next still over a year away and D&D RPG products essentially non-existent until then it’s clearer than ever that the vicious cycle of editions is a tough strategy to follow. Wizards of the Coast (and TSR) has published some of the best RPGs ever, but doesn’t support them or even sell them beyond limited reprints. They’re now competing with no one so much as their own back catalog. I fear that, without a new strategy, D&D will be shelved by Hasbro (Wizards’ parent company). This is even worse than D&D being sold off—instead of a new steward of the D&D canon we’d have a world without official support for Dungeons and Dragons, a fate that the brand might never return from.

Wizards has a point of power in that for most people Dungeons and Dragons issynonymouswith roleplaying in general. They already have a brand strong enough that every RPG published is part of it for most people, just like every tissue is a Kleenex. Why not leverage the fact that D&D is bigger than one game?

  1. “Entirety” is probably defined by level of dedication. For me, for example, one playthrough of the campaign and a certain number of hours in multiplayer is the entirety of the game that falls within my skill level and dedication. If I was of higher skill, or wanted every achievement, or whatever, the amount of content would change. Regardless, as some point even the most dedicated player has explored every nook and cranny, reached the top of the rankings, and bought all the DLC._ 

  2. or possibly impossible 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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