Friday, January 29, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying is Dead

Long live D&D RP. Hyperbole? Depends on your definition of “roleplaying.” I just today had someone tell me that BioWare’s Mass Effect 2 isn’t an RPG because it doesn’t include inventory management. So, if you like, you can happily disagree with what I’m about to write by arguing the semantics.

And honestly, I’m not here to rail against WotC’s new “D&D Encounters” because it sounds like a great idea to me. It’s just not RPGing as I enjoy the hobby, or as it was defined in previous versions of the game.

But then, I’m a horrible customer for WotC. The OSR is proving that I can buy new books and games, but I don’t do it regularly or often, and it appears there are not enough of us to support an industry in the style WotC has become accustomed to. Even worse are the members of the “Lost Generation,” the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter and watching the LotR flicks, now grown up to be “the masses of tweeting, texting, facebooking teens” who are quite happy to free-form RP online with their favorite IPs, without a single rulebook, character sheet, or d20 in sight.

It’s quite clear that WotC is embracing the decline of the RPG industry and leaping to the model of the high-achiever in the wargames industry: Games Workshop. The new focus will be on promoting playing at your local game store, cool toys with a strong tactile factor, and rules based on exceptions that make your character stand out. You could see the groundwork for this as far back as the PHB. Flipping through it, I had the same thoughts I did when building an army for 40k; it was less, “I want to play a ranger like Aragorn” and more “I want to combine these cool powers into an awesome double-play.”

This makes perfect sense, from a business standpoint. WotC is not in the business of selling the fantasy of playing a ranger; they are in the business of selling books, miniatures, and, in the very near future I suspect, scale model diorama and dungeon parts. (Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons the virtual tabletop continues to linger in development purgatory? People are used to getting virtual scenery for free, but will eagerly pay large sums of cash for physical scenery they can use at the table. This may be how they snatch victory from the jaws of failure on that score.) Dark Sun is a great fit for this because it’s chock-full of new races and classes (and thus, nifty new powers and synergies) that can be added to any campaign, even ones that don’t take place on Athas (which strongly fits into their “all books are core now” theme). It means new hero and monster miniatures, and desert-themed diorama bits if they decide to go that route.

There are two big challenges for WotC going forward. The first is maintaining the RPG status of D&D. This is the primary differentiator between themselves and Games Workshop’s products, and they do not want to start a head-to-head fight with that 500 lbs gorilla. The second is avoiding a class and character combo that results in an iron gnome. Note this isn’t the same as creating multi-character combos that are extremely powerful. Those will actually promote people playing in groups and building characters based around synergies. This is good, because it encourages people to come to the store every Wednesday to play, and to invite their friends so they can put together more synergistic combos. This is something even Games Workshop doesn’t have, and could be a real winner for 4e.

It also represents a huge opportunity for the Neo-classical movement. WotC has slowly been yielding the roleplaying field to any and all who would claim it. (Don’t believe me? Google “roleplaying,” which is the preferred formulation of WotC and appears on the cover of the 4e books. Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t show up until page 3, entry 27. They should be on the first page at least, if not the first entry, but they appear after Eve Online, GURPS, an “adult” site, and Furcadia.) There’s not much room in this new business model for the moody atmospherics of Raggi or Jeff’s retro-stupid fun, and Oddysey’s tinkerings with a game based on social dynamics is about as opposite a direction as you can go in.

The reason the OSR is still chugging along, and may even be gathering steam, is because the competition is fading from the field. WotC could crush a Raggi or a Goblinoid Games without even being aware they were doing it. But they won’t, because they’re not even remotely interested in the same audiences. There may be some overlap, but it’s not a natural thing, just like there are overlaps between people who enjoy painting watercolor landscapes and listening to country western music. The “industry,” so far as it is defined by WotC and their ilk, are, as Oddysey says, irrelevant, and growing more so, to the sort of gaming enjoyed in neo-classical circles. Or, to put it another, and I think more accurate way, Raggi and company are the industry now. What WotC does is interesting, but the DMG 3 is less likely to affect my gaming than Raggi’s box set, even if I don’t ever buy either of them.

UPDATE: Oddysey is, of course, a bit faster on the draw than an old fart like me.

Art from MoToMo, pasukaru76, and Luca Giordano.

18 comments:

PR said...

Are you a goon? I literally just read the whole no inventory = not an rpg thing there. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, just ignore. :)

d7 said...

If WotC is going to take D&D and leave the field to people who put roleplay above boardgame tactics, then that's great as far as I'm concerned.

My only concern is the parallel with Games Workshop. They're infamous for "supporting" local game stores with events and then crushing the local stores that move GW enough product by opening a Game Workshop Store right across the street.

It's a tenuous parallel, but I do hope that WotC isn't planning on and won't be tempted to take that page from GW's playbook. I have no use for D&D Experience, and I appreciate the potential to be good for stores, but if WotC leverages that into killing them off I'm going to be a very sad (and angry) panda.

JB said...

I try not to hate Wizards of the Coast, I really do. As with Republicans, though, I fail miserably.

Just wrong on so many levels...

Ryan said...

An excellent post, sir.

I've had some of the same thoughts myself regarding D&D as an rpg vs. D&D as something similar to Descent: Journeys in the Dark. (Tactical, toy-based, etc.) -Oh, I do have to clarify, I don't consider toy-based to be a derogatory term in the least-
I used to feel a bit melancholy that my favorite hobby could potentially be a thing of the past.

On the other hand, most of my recent trips to the LGS involve a half-hearted look through the new release section before spending the majority of my time digging through used/vintage stuff, so in a way it has been dead to me for awhile. Hopefully you OSR types will get boxed sets on the shelves this year.

Norman Harman said...

WotC != D&D* also D&D != RPG hobby.

But then again your post had little to do with it's (yes, hyperbolic) title. The post itself dealt with two topics (WoTC & games industry) that I don't need to care about to enjoy my favorite hobby.

* Other than in regards to trademark law

Jonathan said...

There's an important part missing from this analysis I think -- D&D is still the "gateway drug" to the whole hobby. I think, but pushing D&D Encounters (along with a whole marketing campaign that I expect/hope they unleash on Google Adwords) they will be drawing in new players to the hobby. And... D&D the Board Game or D&D the Roleplaying game won't matter in so much as the new players standing in the FLGS and looking at the GAZILLION books for 4E and thinking - hey... what's this little white box doing here? I think the goal of people in the OSR "revolution" should be to get their boxed technocolor (or white) box on the shelves of their FLGS if for anything else, so that the people going to those stores to push miniatures around on a table might also pick up their box and learn a different game altogether: a role playing game.

Can you imagine? I can hear it now: "Hey Jane, check this out! This game over here on this shelf doesn't even use miniatures and there's everything we need to play in one box. It even includes the dice!"

Of course, we shall have to wait and see what the upcoming WotC Red Box 4E does. It could very well be the thing that would "crush a Raggi or a Goblinoid Games without [WotC] even being aware they were doing it." Or perhaps... that's exactly what their plan is.

trollsmyth said...

d7 & Ryahn: I think one thing the OSR folks and WotC can agree on is the value of the LGS. And yeah, I hope the OSR folks can get their boxes and books in stores soon. A bit of Raggi will blow young minds, I think, and I could easily see him being the gateway drug into the OSR.

Mr. Harman: The post is about how WotC is defining and marketing D&D. Whether or not you do or should care is immaterial. No assumption on your part is implied, or expected.

However, I think the title is appropriate. WotC's Wednesday encounter-based play removes exploration and player choice at the strategic level completely from the game, and reduces verisimilitude and persistence to vestigial appendages. That doesn't leave much at all that I recognizes as roleplaying.

Jonathan: Yeah, don't get me wrong. I don't see the OSR supplanting or replacing D&D anytime soon. I see more a relationship where the OSR is to WotC what White Wolf was to TSR back in the '90s. I hope we can do it without the pretentious faux-intellectualism (which probably means I should hide behind the curtains as much as possible ;p ) but I do think the OSR can even more easily now present itself of as an alternative to D&D and as the logical next step for people who are like D&D but want something different in their RPGs.

That being the case, I don't think the OSR has anything to fear from WotC's boxed sets or reimaginings of the Tomb of Horrors any more than White Wolf had to worry about TSR repackaging Ravenloft as gothic horror. People had an understanding that White Wolf games played differently from D&D, and you knew which one you wanted on any give weekend. I think the same thing is easily true of 4e and OSR play. Heck, they're diverging so much, I don't even think it's an either-or thing anymore; I could easily see someone playing 4e on Wednesdays and then cracking out "Death Frost Doom" on Saturday and enjoying both, just like I used to play Elite after school and Star Frontiers with my friends on the weekend.

ancientvaults said...

Actually, in Mass Effect 2 you can manage your inventory of weapons and select the weapons for your team to have. Your ship even has private quarters for the captain and the captain's computer has email.
I haven't been playing it that long, with real life and the fact that it came out last week and I got it Friday, but the game does allow you to customize a lot of aspects. I even got fashionista points for my snappy casual clothes!

Oddysey said...

I do think the OSR can even more easily now present itself of as an alternative to D&D and as the logical next step for people who are like D&D but want something different in their RPGs.

Interesting. Very interesting. Are there any other contenders for this spot right now? Exalted, maybe; I feel like that's in decline lately but that's my social circle more than anything else. Indie games are important to the on-going game design conversation but otherwise very much niche. Except maybe Mouse Guard, things like that. You'd think vampires would be on their way up again, but White Wolf's take is still much more mid-90s than modern tween creature romance.

Hmmmmmm... creature romance...

trollsmyth said...

Hmmm... Damned good question, Oddysey.

If we limit ourselves to what's in most stores, I'm thinking GURPS is going to rule, though it may be a bit over-represented in the stores here in its home town. But if it's on the shelves, I think the game's "we can do anything" vibe will make it a strong contender, especially for those looking to "escape" heroic fantasy.

I think you hit the nail right on the head so far as World of Darkness goes. Their Anne Rice mood combined with '90's style mechanics is almost antagonistic to the tween creature romance of "Twilight" and its ilk. (But I could be wrong, having extremely limited exposure to either of them.) Exalted's got its heart in the right place, but it's got some mechanical issues that are well known now. Plus, it's got that very strong anime vibe. Not sure how much of a deal-breaker that would be. And it's still heroic fantasy, which will be a consideration for some.

Savage Worlds has some great looking games out there. And if you're looking for something a bit more Forge-y, it's not a bad fit at all. They'll pick up some. I think Mouseguard will as well, if for no other reason than the art and tie-in.

Once you get on the 'net, things get a bit more wild. All roads eventually seem to run to RPG.net these days, and that means folks picking up their infatuation de jour. A quick glance shows they still seem to love them some Exalted. So maybe White Wolf is in a stronger position than I'd thought.

Jonathan said...

Savage Worlds is perhaps the best system I've played in a long long time. I'm currently playing in deadlands game - load of fun - and getting ready to run a PbP savage worlds game set in a fantasy steampunk setting being developed by Nevermet Press. should be interesting...

Oddysey said...

Ooh, yeah, good point about Savage Worlds. I'm not sure how it measures up in actual play, but I've seen a lot about it in various places on the web.

And Exalted and GURPS are both strong "post-D&D" type games in my local gaming circles. But those are all people who started with 3.5. I'm not sure someone who'd entered the hobby with 4e would necessarily jump on either.

Jonathan said...

not to derail these comments too much -- but, savage worlds, I really can't say enough good things about it. Coming from a strong, 20+ year D&D background - SW is friggen liberating. Character creation takes about 10 minutes and takes up about 1/3 a page. Reminds me in some ways of 1E AD&D characters... it's all just right there with nothing to look up. Plus, the rules still ahve enough crunch that it's definitely not a "Storyteller" game. For $10, you should pick up the explorer's core rules just to have a looksee. =D

ancientvaults said...

WotC doesn't worry about the OSR, but I imgaine they watch it. Roleplaying itself is "irrelevant", so every dollar counts. Every dollar going to S&W, LL, BFRPG, etc is a dollar not feeding the beast. I ran into a twenty something guy the other day and we starting talking rpgs, he thumbed through the 4E books and said that they were too complicated. I pointed out the OSR. I have a new player.

Oh, and I doubt that WotC could take out Raggi, one would probably need an elephant gun to slow him down.

Savage Worlds is a fun system, though, not as fun as LL, my players prefer LL and sometimes Pathfinder, the 3.5 simulacrum.

Anonymous said...

Oh, you poor thing. Hasbro insists on selling enough product to keep paying its employees, and that's just ruining your day, isn't it?

After all, you'd *never* be able to role play or develop persistent campaigns if your little hand wasn't being held by the nice game company people, now would you?

And instead, if the Evil Corporation actually tried to extend its brand by going after marginal gamers with stripped-down versions of D&D, well that would just ruin everything for you, wouldn't it?

You could never play again because they'd gone ahead - *sniff* - and spoiled Role Playing - *sniff* - forever and ever!

Jesus. Grow up. From day one in 1974 it's always the same story - you make the experience, you create the campaign, you do with some other guy's barebones rules what he never envisioned in the first place. And in the meantime the companies sell games so they can feed their families. They aren't forcing this crap down our throats, and it's on them to create material that will appeal to enough people who will lay down their hard earned cash for it. Fourth edition, first edition, retro clone, whatever. You like it, you buy it. You don't, you don't.

But whether you're really roleplaying - well, that's entirely on you, pal. And blaming a company for your lack of imagination or bad play experience, that's about as un-Gygaxian and un-Arnesonian as it gets.

Turn in your D20. Your whining is too much.

trollsmyth said...

Oddysey: I think Savage Worlds has the shiny to at least get a peek. As you've commented, GURPS appears to tackle a lot of what many folks will perceive to be problems with D&D, but the mileage varies greatly on how happy folks are with it in the long run. But I expect a lot of folks to give it a try.

I can be convinced that Exalted is a popular alternative, because it also has the shiny in spades. That's something White Wolf does really well. But they've been pretty quiet lately, and as you say, there seems to be a wide-held "feeling" of decline in their market share. Which could be utter bunk, as conventional wisdom often is, or simply a regional thing.

Jonathan: Yep, it's on my list of games to check out soon. Plate's a bit full right now, though, and the Artesia game might be first. Just have to see.

ancientvaults: My only caveat is with your assumption that there is competition for dollars between 4e and the OSR. The money I spend on Fight On! or Raggi's stuff isn't money I would have spent on WotC stuff. I've got no interest in buying what they're selling right now. If I didn't spend it on OSR, it would probably go to Half Price Books for old gaming stuff, or new anthropology/history books, or fiction I saw years ago but never got around to reading. I suspect that's not unusual.

In fact, the OSR is great for WotC in that it keeps me paying attention to what's going on in RPGs. Without the OSR, I'd never hear about stuff WotC produces that I might want to spend my money on, like potentially their Gamma World box set. Thanks to the OSR, while I may not be an active customer, I'm still a potential customer, and that's better than nothing.

Anonymous: Reading comprehension is hard, isn't it?

Jonathan said...

I love it how the flame bait posts are always anonymous...

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