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D&D Classics

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In case you haven’t heard, starting today Wizards of the Coast is selling PDFs of classic D&D material.

Or, really, they’re selling them again. This isn’t the first time they’ve sold classic PDFs, but it’s easy to see the environment has changed since they last dabbled in classic PDFs. The OSR is bigger than ever, D&D Next is explicitly courting older editions, and there’s no new D&D content on the shelves.

Before I start trying to figure out what this could mean, let’s go over what’s actually released. Through DriveThru on both DriveThruRPG and the dedicated D&D Classics site, Wizards is selling a selection of material for older editions. The vast majority of the material is adventures, plus a few setting books, magic item collections, and monster manuals. Content is broken up into categories of 1st Edition, 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, 4th Edition, and Basic/Expert. Each edition has around 20 products available now, from classics like Keep on the Borderlands to recent adventures that I’d never heard of before. 4th Edition has the least amount of content available, but even there you can pick up more than enough to keep you reading for weeks if not months. Prices are a little higher than typical game PDFs, but not dramatically so. Thus far they’ve brought down the entire DriveThru network a few times, so I’d assume they’re doing pretty well.

Those are the facts. What does it mean?

Well, I don’t know. But I can speculate some!

As a business decision this seems like a unabashed win. The amount of effort that goes into making the PDFs has to be far less than the amount they’ve made already. Scanning the books is mechanizable. Algorithmic text recognition (especially for printed text) is pretty good. The bookmarking probably takes some human intervention, but it shouldn’t take long. All together I’d expect the cost of digitizing these to be very low. A large part of it was probably already done for preservation purposes. Basically, it’s free money for Wizards of the Coast. No design, writing, editing, art, or printing to pay for. Manageable distribution costs. They can even add print-on-demand easily.

It also allows Wizards to make money off of people who prefer Pathfinder or their OSR flavor of choice without trying to move them to a new system. Want an adventure that fits into your Vornheim game? Wizards will happily sell you one. Need a new scenario for a FLAILSNAILS game? Wizards might have something you’ll like. Done with this month’s adventure path? How about this classic 3.5 adventure?

The only surprising thing from a money-making standpoint is that it took them this long to do it.

There aren’t really many losers here. This doesn’t undermine the OSR or Pathfinder. The hardest core of both of those already likely have all the content that interests them from Wizards’ library. The less hardcore will likely be interested, but I have a hard time imagining that it actually steals any sales from books like Pathfinder, Vornheim, or Carcosa. The target audience appears to be the historically curious.

The only potential loser that I see is D&D Next, and even there I can see a potential case for this being a great marketing move.

On the one hand, D&D Next’s ambition is to be the D&D game that unites D&D games. One that can run Keep on the Borderlands or The Slaying Stone or Tales from the Infinite Staircase. If it can meet that goal this PDF library will give it the largest collection of existing content a game could hope for when it launches.

On the other hand, this huge library of Next-compatible adventures already have better systems to run them. Sure, I can run Against the Cult of the Reptile God with Next, but what does that get me relative to playing it with the original system?

First it gets me incompatibilities. Since I’m still waiting for some downloads, let’s use Moldvay v. Next. I buy a Moldvay adventure with bugbears which have 3d8 + 1 HP and deal 2–8 damage with a 50/50 change to hit against a fighter with maybe 9 HP. In Next that same bugbear has 18 HP, deals 4–18 damage with a 3/10 chance of hitting against a fighter with around 12 HP.

The most obvious thing is: those numbers aren’t the same. And even if they were, that would make Next incompatible with other editions. But do they mean roughly the same thing?

A bugbear v. fighter fight in Moldvay works out to an expected damage taken per round for the fighter of 2.5, or just about a quarter of her HP. In Next, the fighter expects to take just about 4 damage per round, or a third of her HP.

Thats a short mathematical example, but the point is: Next and Moldvay say different things, so their adventures won’t be 100% compatible. Even if you replace all the stats from Moldvay with Next you still have to deal with the fact that Next makes different assumptions about how the world works: what being higher level means, how you heal, what happens in combat.

Even if Next did make those same assumptions, they wouldn’t match up with that other editions assume.

Basically, at best Next can hope to relate to any given pervious edition much like 4E or 3E did: you can use the system to present the same situation, but it’ll play out very differently. The rules do different things.

This is why I can see the PDF library potentially undermining Next. It seems Wizards might be worried about this too, since with the exception of Moldvay they haven’t released any core rules, just supplements. If I can easily buy 1E and an adventure for it, why would I buy the adventure and the Next rules instead? Thus far I don’t see what value next adds beyond compatibility, which is limited since it wants to be compatible with everything.

That doesn’t mean that this PDF library was a bad idea. This seems like a brilliant move for Wizards, it just throws some questions towards what they want to do in the future.

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

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