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.