Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The No-news on the 5e OGL

Mr. Mearls' Legends & Lore blog continues to be the place for breaking news about 5e. Only, in this case, the news is nothing will break before autumn, and nothing will actually be happening until 2015 sometime.

The official reason given is quality control; they want folks to have the DMG in hand and time “to absorb the rules and how they all interact.” That seems a bit odd to me, considering the open beta testing period and online discussions about the rules organized by Mearls & Co.

So, being the suspicious git that I am, I suspect that WotC really doesn't know what they want from an OGL at this point. On the one hand, everyone expects them to have something, and they may actually feel they could benefit from one. On the other hand, they want to take the time to do it right because doing it wrong last time allowed the worst thing possible to happen: Paizo's Pathfinder RPG.

Make no mistake, WotC's fumbling about with an OGL for 4th edition is entirely responsible for the creation of the Pathfinder game. They should have been bending over backwards to get Paizo on-board with 4e. Instead, WotC left them dangling in the wind and forced them to remain with the 3.x OGL. It could have been, and should have been, handled differently.

So the big question is, does WotC understand this? It'd be easy enough to blame the whole situation on the mere existence of the 3.x OGL. After all, without that, Paizo wouldn't have been able to scoop up all those players who didn't want to migrate to 4e.

I think that's missing the point, however. After all, nobody's talking about True20, or Hackmaster, or Dungeon Crawl Classics, or Castles & Crusades, or even all of them combined threatening D&D's dominance of the market. The real threat is Paizo. And that's because Paizo has something that WotC lacks: an effective marketing juggernaut.

People know about Pathfinder, people are excited about Pathfinder, people love showing off their Pathfinder stuff. Pathfinder is bright and shiny. Paizo is seen as friendly and excited about gaming and eager to promote new talent and neat ideas. Paizo oozes cool; people may doubt whether or not they'll like Paizo's next adventure path, or think that Golarion is too generic or mish-mashy, or worry they're putting out too many hardcover rulebooks, but nobody doubts that the next things coming from Paizo will resonate. They will look cool, they will feel cool, and lots of people will be interested in reading them.

Paizo's tapped the same lightning that Games Workshop has held bottled for so long now. Sure, there are other games out there, but Warhammer and Warhammer 40k are the ones that fire imaginations and induce passionate obsessions (both pro and anti, as we also see with Pathfinder). In both cases, the rules barely factor into things. In both cases, the aesthetics created by the companies are gripping and inspiring and enticing.

And that's what WotC needs to worry about. They should fear looking like also-rans, which is why the discussion of their covers does matter. They wallowed for six years in the New Coke debacle that was 4e marketing and trade dress.

5e is a chance for WotC to start over with D&D and it certainly looks like they're taking. A strong and focused OGL would be another potent arrow in their quiver, so I can absolutely understand them taking their time in crafting one.


JDJarvis said...

The hobby just odoesn't need a 5e specific OGL. WTC has to decide if it needs it and wants to use it to leverage their position within the hobby.
Is the D&D brand name worth it to the rest of us? Why are so many of us invested in the success or failure of a single business when the game has in all effects been free of control by a single business for over a decade now?

trollsmyth said...

JDJarvis: Partly because D&D is still the defining game of the genre to those who don't play RPGs. But mostly because those of us who make some money (or want to make some money) writing and selling game stuff would love more direct access to that market. It might be smaller than Pathfinder's but it's still huge in comparison to the rest.

And partly because it's fun to talk about in its own right. Will they rise, will they fall? Why and how? And it's more fun now that there are two 300 lbs gorillas in the RPG jungle.

I can absolutely understand how it can be frustrating to people for whom WotC, Paizo, etc. are completely irrelevant to their gaming. I was there myself for a few years during the double-oughts, just before and during the transition to 3.5. These days, I don't have as much time as I used to, so I appreciate it when imaginative folks come up with cool stuff I can use in my games.

Cas said...

So far it looks like WOTC is learning from Paizo by trying to replicate their strategy to some degree (but in a way that takes advantage of their more iconic IP and the broader scope of WOTC and Hasbro). The Tyranny of Dragons looks a lot like an Adventure Path. My guess would be that they will continue to license other companies to provide high-quality adventure lines at a steady pace, each tied in with multiple media (board games, books, computer games, organized play, published adventures, maybe card games?, and probably eventually TV and film). The focus will be on licensing IP, with bound rulebooks one revenue center but by no means the only one.

Whatever 3PP program they come up with will be designed to further those goals. I suspect they want to encourage (free) grassroots content development, but want to make money from licensing of commercial products based on their system.

I could actually see them licensing Paizo to write 5e adventures, or Pathfinder system adventures using WOTC IP (like monsters only available in D&D, or stuff for specific campaign settings). Why not? It allows Paizo to make money from stuff that's currently off limits, and allows WOTC to make money off players that prefer the 3.x/Pathfinder rules and possibly lure them to buy 5e rules as well.

Using Pathfinder as an example, they might also focus on providing IP-related or thematic Player's Guides, which is a better way to make money off players than an endless succession of generic splatbooks.

Add in products aimed at DMs to enable the creation of home-brew campaigns or customization of the supported WOTC campaigns, and you'd have a really good balance of material across the entire hobby.

This would actually be really good news for players and DMs. It would grow the overall hobby/industry and increase choice. It would put the focus on characters and stories and world-building rather than on combat and mechanics and build optimization.

Or they could screw up again. We won't know until it happens. But I think the signs so far are that, whatever you think of 5e mechanically, WOTC seems to have a much better long-term strategy these days.

trollsmyth said...

Cas: Hmmm... Not sure I see WotC turning to Paizo for adventures, but they've already done that with Kobold, so clearly outsourcing is part of their plan.

Part of the problem with the D&D IP is that it's not terribly exciting. It pretty much consists of beholders and mindflayers, Wildspace and Planescape and Dark Sun, and then a bunch of clones of Middle Earth. I'm not sure they could get many buyers if they put it up for auction.

This, however, I find very intriguing: ...products aimed at DMs to enable the creation of home-brew campaigns or customization of the supported WOTC campaigns... What, to your mind, would that look like?

Cas said...

I'm not actually sure what that would look like, because it hasn't been done. But as the guy who gets tagged as a DM and has found that role overwhelming ever since third edition, I think a key part to making the hobby successful over time is making it easier to run a game.

I guess I would just like a suite of tools and mechanics for DMs to make their own stuff, and official campaign products that deliberately play to this possibility by suggesting alternatives to the campaign as written, and deliberately add in sandboxy things for DMs to play with.

I personally have bought very little official D&D campaign material, because it's usually too constrained to allow for me to modify. But I don't really have the time to build my own stuff from scratch anymore. I suspect I'm not alone.

trollsmyth said...

Cas: I don't doubt that at all! Even those of us who do enjoy doing it all on our own are constrained by time.

Is there anything in particular that feels overwhelming to you? Any part of DMing you dread or that you find yourself grinding through over and over again?