Open Letter to Wizards of the Coast

Dear Sirs,

As a long-time gamer, I am deeply concerned with the direction your are taking with the “Dungeons and Dragons” franchise.

“D&D” is the first role-playing game I played. As such, I feel somewhat invested in the franchise, both for emotional and practical reasons. Emotional reasons based in franchise-nostalgia and practical because “Wizards of the Coast” expends significant time, effort and money on marketing the game. Marketing efforts which often lead young players from a “D&D” beginning into the greater role-playing community. Simply put, WOTC is not only marketing its own products, it is marketing the hobby and for that I am thankful.

It is for these reasons I hope that Wizards continues to be successful in its endeavors. However, WOTC’s recent business decisions leads me to believe that the franchise is in danger. It is not an immediate danger, but a serious threat to both your sales and the franchise as a whole.

Complacency.

4th Edition was very successful and clearly sold very well. Then the various supplements started coming out in short order, Player’s Handbook 2, Monster Manual 2, Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 and other sequels planned for the future. This business model seemed familiar and after a little thought the answered occurred to me: TSR, inc..

TSR went on a publishing spree with D&D that provided short-term gains, but long-term damage to the franchise. Supplement overload simply burned-out their customers and the reduced sales combined with poor management lead to a takeover by Wizards of the Coast. The franchise suffered. I see this happening again with 4th Edition. I fear that the reduced sales will result in a diminished D&D presence and reduced marketing will impact the entire industry.

Please do not assume that there is an endless demand for “D&D” supplements. Reduce the number of supplements, but increase their size and content quality. Innovate. Raise the price if need be, but make each release an event, keep excitement for the game high. I know this will lead to a longer lifespan for the game in its current incarnation and drive interest in the hobby as a whole. Look beyond short-term gains and strive for a steady, long-term return from your franchise.

Supplement fatigue is but one issue that worries me. I am far more concerned with the lack of innovation going forward in the franchise. Gen Con 2009 saw the release of several new games from various companies and Wizards of the Coast proudly announced their new world book.

“Dark Sun.”

WOTC spends more money on coffee and donuts than most RPG publishers have in their entire budget. You employ talented game designers, excellent artists and produce some of the most elegant books in the entire RPG industry. For all that, WOTC chooses to dredge up a long-dormant world from an extinct company as its “new” release.

Nothing against “Dark Sun” per se( I rather like the setting), but this is the best you could muster? For all those resources you took the easy, safe route and strip-mined gamer nostalgia for guaranteed sales. You have the resources to accept more risk than any other company. Try something different. Stretch those talented writers and artists to create something innovative. Perhaps a D&D book written for adult gamers? Include some rules crunch, but allow your writers to really push the envelope in storytelling in an original world without worrying about a 12-year-old boy understanding it. Yes, this approach risks money, and some failures are certain. That said, it might also produce the “next big thing” and that is a gold mine. I cannot guarantee this approach will work, but one thing I can promise is that the “Player’s Handbook 4” will not be “the next big thing.”

Complacency is an insidious threat to any successful company. After a string of wins it becomes increasingly difficult to justify change when doing the same thing over and over again still sells. It is an easy trap to fall in to and the only solution is innovative content and an awareness of market demand.  Please do not repeat the mistakes of the past to the detriment of Dungeons and Dragons.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Trask

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trask

Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

13 thoughts on “Open Letter to Wizards of the Coast

  • August 26, 2009 at 5:11 am
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    I find your factual observations to be accurate (the pace of supplement release is just over one book a month, and Dark Sun is indeed an update of an existing world).

    However, I do not find myself in agreement with your concerns.

    I do not find the pace of supplement release to be parallel to the TSR setting glut. TSR split the fanbase with its release pattern because there were so many settings so fast, much of which was setting-dependent. If you were a Realms player, you had no use for the non-Realms setting-specific material. (And the same was even more true for most non-Realms players and the glut of Realms-specific supplements.)

    The pace of releases is perfect for the player that will buy more than the core three books. One book a month. A budget-able expenditure. Not too much and not too little.

    As for Dark Sun being “safe” — yes, it is. The setting pace (one setting per year) is also perfect, especially when it is only two books for each setting rather than the glut of setting-specific books TSR churned out to cater to smaller and smaller segments of its player base.

    And your suggestion that WotC take risks with a book aimed at adult players — why should WotC do *anything* that aims at only a subset of its player base? That’s just plain bad business.

    I respect and admire your willingness to post this Open Letter, but I find little of the opinion you express in it to match good business practices.

  • August 26, 2009 at 6:18 am
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    @Trask: I fully agree with all your points. I am not really interested in D&D 4th Edition itself, since I don’t like the direction it has taken, but if WotC fails it will be bad for the whole industry.

    @Glenn: WotC has already reduced their player base with 4th edition. I am sure a lot of former D&D fans will now switch to Pathfinder or even other games.
    And what’s the harm if they try to expand in several directions? Currenty they obviously try to get more teenagers to play, so why not cater to older players, too? WotC is surely a company that could easily do so without fearing to go bankrupt if it’s not working out.
    But churning out another PHB every year will diminish the interest in D&D in the long run as Trask has pointed out.

  • August 26, 2009 at 7:54 am
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    I agree with you that fewer updates will have more impact in the gamer community, but disagree with you over the Dark Sun release. I think this is going to do WOTC a lot of good. They will bring a lot of the 2nd edition gamers to the 4th edition table with this release and maybe even some from even older editions. A fragmented userbase does not benefit them; thje more people that are playing 4E the better for WOTC. Plus, they *do* need to acknowledge the past, and this is without even considering for one minute how good the Dark Sun setting really is. Others have already commented on how it will suit the 4E play style. So I have to disagree completely that this is a bad move to do it, its actually a very smart one!

  • August 26, 2009 at 8:12 am
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    Great post Trask! I think the important thing you mentioned is that though their current trend may be well and good for 4E and sales, in the long long super-long run of things they’re really not taking risks and I agree with you 100% as the main company that could afford to take those risks it’s a shame to see them not doing it.

    @Stargazer: Let’s try to leave conjecture out of discussions like this, “WotC has already reduced their player base with 4th Edition” – where’s your proof? Are there significantly less players of D&D now than there were at the end of 3.x? No one has solid numbers on this, and we may not for a while, so it’s not a solid argument to throw around.

    On a personal level I’ve heard from at least a dozen people who stopped playing D&D in either 1st or 2nd edition, or even stopped in 3rd, and have come back and really enjoy 4E.

  • August 26, 2009 at 8:30 am
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    @Bartoneus: Ok, my evidence is probably just anecdotal. And I don’t think that anyone will ever have any solid numbers, since RPG publishers tend to be very secret about this. But you’re right, it’s probably not a valid argument.

  • August 26, 2009 at 9:12 am
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    I think you are just brushing aside what they learned from 3.x regarding speed of product release and fan following. They watched TSR fail when they continually subdivided the market through multiple supported campaign settings so they tried to avoid this – I think it is brilliant how they are doing it this time, with a setting each year instead of six simultaneous settings.

    And I’m a B/X and 3.x fanboy, not a 4e fan. But I just don’t see WotC’s current 4e work as a bad thing.

  • August 26, 2009 at 10:00 am
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    The current biz model seems to be to look for regular, monthly income versus having players make a one-time rulebook purchase. Content is being delivered digitally and in print form, with a variety of price points available for players to choose from.

    I agree that Dark Sun may have been chosen to lure former players back into the fold, but I’d really love to see new content as well. Perhaps it would work to do settings incrementally as well? Modules that gradually reveal new settings?

  • August 28, 2009 at 7:50 am
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    From the time it takes the reach 1st level to 30th is a little over a year. I loved 3rd edition but love 4th even more so. However, we are still working on the first core books. I bought the Players Handbook 2 but no one is using it yet (it is a good book for sure). Our characters are at 27th level, nurtured from 1st back in June 2008. After we finish at 30th level we want to try other character classes from the first Players Handbook. We haven’t even tried the power series yet. I play a Fighter but want to try the Wizard. Don’t know if I will buy Arcane Power yet.

    I don’t know for sure how I feel about the release schedule. I am lucky I play with a group that doesn’t need fresh content to keep an interest in the game. We purchase the miniatures when a new set is released, play only Dungeon Delves and play without a DM. One campaign book a year with only 2 books is modest. It would take over five years to exhaust the material in the first three core books. Another three if the power books are added. The only advantage I see in releasing a core book every year is for someone who loved Druids or the upcoming Psion.

    Last thing- I do support the D&D Insider. I also buy their releases as they come out. I firmly believe in supporting Wizards.I don’t use the material though. We shelve them and stick to the first 3 core books.

  • September 7, 2009 at 9:56 am
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    I think that the current distribution model Wizards is using is a good thing, like Anarkeith said, focusing on regular monthly revenue instead of a large rush at once. However, the mechanics of the game itself is what’s keeping me from buying new books as they come out.

    Having played D&D since I started with 2nd edition, I’ve seen players react all kinds of ways when new editions came out. Honestly, 4th edition may have a lot of hype about it, but I’ve seen more negative reactions (both personally and online) than I ever have for any game system ever.

    Now, I mostly ignored this, and managed to scoop up the core 3 books for really cheap (thank you, Amazon gift cards!), and I was running a 4th edition game for a while (only reason we stopped currently is because of some life events for the players). I must say that while it can be an enjoyable game, and that it does make the job of the DM easier, it just doesn’t *feel* like D&D anymore. Anything you could do in (and out of, for some things) combat in 3.x is reduced to a list of pre-set powers. Spells can no longer be used as imaginatively as they used to be, nor can the party wizard rifle through the spellbook of the evil wizard the party just defeated to gain new spells. Nor can the wizard prepare for a large scale battle by preparing 4-5 fireballs in advance, no, now they get exactly 1. No choosing the same spell twice for a day. Fighters transformed into a basic meatshield, and one that honestly does a pretty poor job of it at that.

    I’m usually pretty open about what RPGs I’ll play, and whether it’s a well-known system or not usually doesn’t factor into it, but 4th edition (to me) just doesn’t seem like the same game.

    Most of the campaign from here has been a tedious hack’n’slash fest that takes quite a long time to get through. For example, in order to make a decent fight for my party, I need to design an encounter with a rough “encounter level” about 4 higher than the players, because otherwise they just tear right through them, tactics or no. My party’s ranger (at level 8) regularly does between 20-50 points of damage with a single attack, and the same is true of the party rogue. Meanwhile, while those two are killing things left and right, some of the other party members are stuck doing 6-15 damage and getting mauled by the rest of the enemies.

    Not to mention the skill rift. I used to try to make skill challenges for my players, but those same two players have such a ridiculously high modifier that I can do one of two things: 1) Jack the DC up so it gives them a challenge, effectively negating the rest of the party, or 2) make it so that the entire party has a chance but those two pass it by rolling a 2. Hell, at level 8, the rogue’s Stealth skill modifier is somewhere around a 15. The ranger’s Perception sits around the same.

    I understand that some (ok, a lot) of this is dependent on the players to make a character that can either balance with the rest of the party or try to keep up with players with characters like this, but to be honest, those two players aren’t powergaming. They just made their characters like they imagined their characters would be, and they turned out this way.

    I just see 3.5 as a more imaginative system that doesn’t limit what your characters can do down to a set of “powers” that can be used X number of times per day.

    I’ll keep the books in case anyone does want to play in the future, but given my experience over the past year or so with 4e, I’ll stick to 3.5 myself if at all possible.

  • September 11, 2009 at 8:04 pm
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    Ok the last post got me. Clearly your a 3.5 fan. I completely disagree that 4E is the most disliked game system of all time … that is a baseless assertion. 3.0 had as many naysayers and haters as 4E has had. 2nd edition was greeted by some with disdain. You can look to any other game company that revises the rules. There will always be cranky gamers who don’t want to change from their current systems. Either out of fear of change or out of a desire to not spend any money on a system they already own. Game companies need to continue gathering revenue if they are to continue producing new material. WOTC will eventually release a 5E … someday it will happen. I was never a fan of 3.0 … talk about “it doesn’t feel like D&D anymore” 3.0 and 3.5 were a power gamers paradise. The multi-classing, prestige class, feat heavy, overly complex rules of 3.5 did not sit well with many players. I tried both 3.0 and 3.5 and really never enjoyed either system and I knew many, many people who basically just either went back to refined versions of basic, or 2nd edition D&D or just played other systems. For example White Wolf had a surge of new players thanks to 3.0. People are you forgetting the glut of material that the OGL released upon the industry? Also has anyone seen that monster of a pathfinder book? $50 bucks? The size of a tombstone? No thanks I’ll pass. I’m not a fan of 4E, I currently play because more people in the group want to than not. But 3.0 and 3.5 made me a fan of independent RPG systems (Spirit of the Century, Savage Worlds, Mazes and Minotaurs, Tunnels and Trolls) and since I gave games like that a chance that is where my preference is now.

  • September 11, 2009 at 8:13 pm
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    I think what has happened is the creativity that was once abundant in RPG players and DMs has gone. We live in a RPG world now where if you aren’t spoon fed rules and ideas … we just “can’t do that.” A DM and a party can make most any system awesome and they can also make it terrible. 4E is an entry level system for players who want crunchy dungeon delves and a minis based skirmish game. If you want high role playing, if you want spell complexity, high customization 4E (and really probably 3.5 and/or Pathfinder) isn’t the system you want. Almost all of the criticism of 4E I’ve seen (my own included) tends to be along the lines of “well in 3.5” … well if you want 3.5 go play it or pathfinder. If you want something new and fresh, if you want new releases, if you want to experience something different give 4E a try. Personally I’m with the guy who was talking about Fate stuff. If your an experienced, serious role player your probably doing something else in addition to 4E. For me 4E is a fun board game that I play once a week with a group of friends. When I want to role play I get something else out.

  • September 12, 2009 at 5:34 pm
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    3.5 was a horrible beast of a system. At its core the rules weren’t bad it was all that extra stuff. The feats were off the charts. You could play a Half-Orc, Paladin, Monk, Sorcerer … by the rules … you could have done that. There were just an absurd amount of things that players could use to break the game. I played 3.5 for several years and I am not in the slightest sad to see it go and I agree with the release gluts in both 2nd edition and 3.0 and 3.5 … but I will say that the flood gates that the OGL opened were terrible. There was just too much stuff on the market, I remember walking into the local game shop and just thinking WTF … why are there 3,000 different books for the same system? Sadly I’m sure 4E will go the way of 3.0 and 3.5. At this moment in time I like 4E much more than I ever liked 3.5 … but give it time … I’m sure that will change once there are as many ludicrous options for the game.

  • September 17, 2009 at 12:57 pm
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    Bravo, sir, is all I can really say.

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