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The Problem With "The Problem With Editions"

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About a week ago I posted a kind of daydream about a different direction for D&D, one where D&D is an umbrella for more than one RPG, just like it currently cover more than one boardgame, videogame, novel series, comic series, and so on. Since then there’s been a lot of great discussion, not all of it here, so I wanted to revisit it.

First off, the “problem” from the title: I’m fundamentally a backseat driver here. While I can spectate and suggest, the folks at WotC are really good at this, and have probably already considered this option. Whenever I get comments on how WotC should hire me I know I’ve done something wrong—I’ve made it sound like I know more than they do, and that’s certainly not the case.

I’d love to see D&D be bigger than one game, and I can make a case for why that’s good business, but I don’t have the data. WotC knows their goals, knows where they’re at, and knows their resources. My comments here are suggestions at best, daydreams at worst. Don’t go off thinking that WotC isn’t on the ball.

With that in mind, one of the more concrete issues that was pointed out was that the strategy of branching out into multiple games was what killed TSR, the original publisher of D&D. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I did some reading, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. The deathblow, at least, was Dragon Dice and novels, returned in bulk from mass distribution. Interestingly non-RPG games and fantasy novels are some of D&D’s bigger sellers these days. Products that now seem like oddballs, like the All My Children RPG or the Rocky and Bullwinkle RPG, weren’t complete flops and their role in TSRs decline was indirect at best.

Branching out is certainly dangerous, but I’d say it’s less dangerous now than in the 1985-1996 era of TSR. While the lamented/praised Rocky and Bullwinkle RPG certainly pushed some design boundaries, the market wasn’t particularly receptive to it. These days the field is larger: games like Fiasco are big sellers. Smaller than the top 5, sure (and ICV2’s numbers are not entirely representative), but games that use Jenga towers, games with multiple GMs, games without GMs, games in boxes, games in folders, and more are all getting traction within the RPG field. That traction isn’t enough to put a game in the top 5, but that’s not the goal I’m suggesting Wizards pursue. I think the appropriate goal here is to expand their potential audience. Instead of relying on having the #2 or #1 spot then could target having two games in the top 5 and two more close behind. Without precise numbers to work with, I’d guess that’d be bigger than just one of the top 2 spots. Fantasy Flight Games is already headed this way: I wouldn’t be surprised if between Star Wars and their 40K RPG line they could hit two spots in the top 5.

I also didn’t present the idea as clearly as I should have. The idea of starting with each edition as a game was just a starting point—an easy way to jump into publishing multiple games. The goal is to have multiple games under the D&D umbrella no matter if those games are older editions lightly revised or entirely new games drawing on years of design experience.

Ultimately the goal is two-fold: get rid of a dependence on the product treadmill and bring fresh ideas into D&D.

The first goal is the more directly financial one. Currently D&D relies on new editions, each of which gets more or less the same stream of books, until it’s so bloated it’s replaced by something pretty similar. The problem here is that the audience remains largely the same—a few new people are drawn in by the new edition, and a few old players stick with the old. It’s not a particularly growable business, since any growth relies on convincing people that what you have is what they want, not making what they want. By making more games there’s less reliance on bloating any given one of them and the total audience increases. Even within existing RPG players there are markets that WotC could serve as well as anyone else, if not better, but they haven’t ventured into.

The second goal is a little more self-serving. As long as each edition of D&D is tasked with replacing the last one there’s only so much allowable innovation that can happen. The space of what an RPG can be and what tools it can use to achieve that has been growing since the concept of an RPG was first formalized. The field is now large enough that games can be distinguished by more than just hitting-things-with-swords vs. shooting-things-with-lasers. As RPG design continues to evolve the market has opportunities to grow. Fiasco is a great example of this: there are people who saw the Tabletop episode with Fiasco who would gladly play that, but have no interest in any given edition of D&D. So long as the market leader (be in Pathfinder or D&D) presents RPGs as one type of strategic action adventure the overall market will expand slowly at best. If WotC threw it’s considerable power behind a game like Fiasco it could be even bigger.

Ultimately this is all daydreaming. This is me, as an excited outsider, thinking about what Mike Mearls and company could do. That doesn’t mean what they’re doing is wrong, it’s just making a case for another potential direction.

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

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