Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The 2008 Fantasy RPG Wars are ON!!!

The cute goblin “fire brigade” we linked to yesterday is no longer up at Paizo. It has instead been replaced with the boldest move you’ll likely see in the world of professional RPGs this year. Paizo has opted out of D&D 4.0 for their Pathfinder adventures series.

I may be making a bigger deal out of this than it warrants, but to me, this feels like a shift of seismic proportions. Paizo has long had a strong relationship with WotC. When WotC recalled Dragon and Dungeon magazines, Paizo sharpened their focus on their very successful “adventure paths,” linked adventures that create an entire campaign in the vein of the old Temple of Elemental Evil series from the first edition of AD&D. Paizo’s reliable and extremely high levels of quality in terms of writing, the use of rules, layout, and art, combined with their emphasis on adventures of a more polished and “adult” nature, created what appeared to be the perfect partner for WotC during the launch of D&D 4.0. WotC, with their name recognition, “social networking” and Web 2.0 initiatives, and marketing muscle, could have focused on creating a new generation of players, while Paizo focused on the 3.x “grognards”, luring them into the 4.0 fold with high-quality product aimed at a playstyle marked by lots of disposable income but almost no time to create the complex worlds older gamers desire.

But now that’s clearly not to be, and WotC has nobody but themselves to blame. Seriously, by now, we should be hearing how the Paizo and WotC staffers are playtesting their products together to ensure a seamless launch of a new generation of Pathfinder adventures, tailored to maximize the benefits of the new 4.0 rules set. We should be hearing how WotC is considering adding Pathfinder-focused options and tile sets for D&D Insider. Instead, in spite of the new edition having been announced to the public in August, the details of the new Game System License, that would allow third-party companies to produce adventures and rules compatible with the new edition of D&D, still have not been released. In order to learn anything about the new rules, Paizo employees had to attend the D&D Experience convention last month. In short, their first good look at the game system was the public unveiling. And in spite of that, they still haven’t seen the GSL, and still haven’t been offered a chance to really dig into the new rules to see how they work.

Considering Paizo’s business model, did they really have any other choice? Unable to even see the rules in time to create a Pathfinder series anytime near the launch of 4.0, or possibly even within the first half of 2009, Paizo was going to be stuck riding the 3.x horse after the launch of 4.0 regardless. Making lemonade out of these lemons by creating their own version of D&D 3.75, called the Pathfinder RPG, is only the logical next step.

I’m going to take a moment to tell you what I’m not saying in this post: I am not saying that Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG is a potential D&D killer, or even a D&D 4.0 killer. The only folks with the clout and power in the RPG market to deal D&D a mortal blow are WotC themselves. Unfortunately, that statement is not as facetious as it might seem. They’re eagerness to part with certain tropes of traditional D&D, both cosmetic and mechanical, has alienated a certain segment of their players. This has only been exacerbated by clumsy (some have even gone so far as to call it insulting) marketing. Changing the OGL to the GSL last month, a full half-year after they’d announced that 4.0 was in the works, coupled with their inability to actually produce a written license agreement that people could sign on to after declaring they’d charge “early adopters” $5,000 for the privilege, indicates that WotC is still uncertain what, exactly, they want their new license agreement to do. The digital versions of Dragon and Dungeon have failed to live up even to the standards of their print versions, forget the potential of the online medium. They are certainly not the best sources of information on the upcoming 4th edition: ENWorld retains that crown, largely unchallenged. Even worse, without Dragon and Dungeon magazine in newsstands and book stores, any D&D players who don’t frequent gaming web pages might not even be aware yet that a new edition is coming out later this year!

In short, everything seems to point towards hesitation, uncertainty, and confusion over at WotC. We don’t see a company forging ahead into the future, creating a new and exciting gaming experience for its customers. Instead, we see strong dead-tree periodicals replaced by anemic web pages, marketing derided as clumsy and sometimes even insulting, and a lack of action that has already transformed one potentially strong partner into a full-on competitor.

WotC can, of course, still turn things around. As the books go to print, I fully expect more resources to be devoted to D&D Insider, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t come to outshine both Dungeon and Dragon magazines. D&D remains the three-hundred-pound gorilla in the market. A sturdy, fun game could wipe away any lingering bad feelings between fans and WotC, and render the assistance of third-party publishers largely redundant. The promise of a streamlined gaming experience and flexible, powerful online tools has the potential to bring back lots of folks who have felt they couldn’t be involved in RPGs anymore, while a new edition is the perfect time to bring in a whole new generation of players.

Time will tell if WotC is up to both the challenges and the opportunities that 2008 offers.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of reason to be bullish about Paizo and what they are up to. They’ve already released the first document of their “alpha” version of the Pathfinder RPG. As to be expected, it’s a lovely document, expertly laid out, easy to read, and fun. (Putting Wayne Reynolds’ cute rampaging goblins at the top of the chapter describing how the playtesting would be done was a stroke of genius.) They’re encouraging their players to get involved now, which means by the time 4.0 is finally released, players will already have three months of Pathfinder under their belts. Their completely open playtesting process also allows them to leverage one of Paizo’s core strengths - their loyal and knowledgeable fan base - and stands in marked contrast to the tight-lipped behavior of WotC. With Wayne Reynolds also doing their cover art, Paizo’s books will look at least as good as WotC’s. Working with an existing framework of rules, and inviting an Army of David’s to playtest for them, Paizo is also less likely to publish a broken or unpolished game. And with their partnership with Necromancer Games, Paizo keeps one foot in the new edition. After all, if 4.0 does turn out to be a supremely popular and superior game, they can always convert Pathfinder over in 2010. already has a quick review of the first release of the Pathfinder RPG’s alpha-test rules. So far, things look promising.


ChattyDM said...

Awesome post full of foresight Brian. Still very appropriate in late June as it was way back in March.

Hats Off!

trollsmyth said...

And you know, it's still looking awfully timely three years later.