Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dear Wizards,

"Hey man. I really dig your blog. I send links to it around the office often enough that I should probably be paying you a consulting fee or something."

--Mike Mearls

So, WOTC, I know some of you read this blog--so here is what I would like for Christmas...

Let me first say I am not going to be a jerk about this:

I am not going to ask you to start liking things you don't like.

I am not going to urge you to take directions you clearly have decided not to take.

I am not going to claim that the way I want things to be will definitely make more money.

I am not going to say Look at what you did here, it's crap, do better, hire better people--I presume you are hiring the best people you can, in the opinion of your editors, art directors, other relevant stakeholders and pie-piece claimers.

In short, I am only going to ask for things if I don't know why you haven't already done them.

So, here we go:

1. Publish two big hardcover coffee-table books with all the old TSR adventures in them.

Say...everything from the beginning until '85 in volume one, everything from there until the end of TSR in volume two.

Now, wait wait wait wait wait, hold on:

I am not asking you to do this in such a way that it will confuse your audience or in a way that will in any way challenge the notion that the current version of the game is the most modern and optimal of all possible versions of D&D.

Here is what you do:

-Do it like Marvel and DC Comics do with their oldest material: put it in a crazy retro trade-dress that emphasizes it as a collection of nostalgic pop-cultural ephemera. The kind of thing wives buy for their husbands in book stores. Put the word "Vintage" or "Classic" or even "Retro" in big letters on the cover. Make it look unserious but DeLuxe. 80s nostalgia is gigantic right now--they made a Smurfs movie for fuck's sake. There has never been a better time.

-You don't need to comb through the archives--print the original material as-is from scans of old modules in a little box (scotch-taped pages and all) in the middle, then, in the margins, in fancier modern-WOTC layout, have commentary and glosses on the modules from your current design team: anecdotes "Oh, I remember this room...", historical retrospectives, discussions of how this early material lead to the (you can imply) more sophisticated material you now produce.

Since this is the kind of thing your designers like to sit around and do all day anyway, you probably won't have to pay them that much to do it. Just send a memo around: Got a favorite retro module? A favorite room? Write us 300 words on it.

Since several of these modules have already been revised for later editions, you can even use this to sell the newer versions, and instead of commissioning essays, just reprint stuff the designers of these modules already said online in interviews about the old material.

You could also fill space with snatches of old reviews from the fan press or--if you want to get fancy--reminiscences from like China Mieville and Patton Oswalt and Vin Diesel. I know that sounds expensive but seriously if you just go to a Patton reading and say "Hey you ever run 'Keep on the Borderlands'? He'll talk for 20 minutes and you can just tape record it--I've seen it. And if you can't get them you can get the Order of The Stick or the KOTDT or the Robot Chicken people. I hear they work cheap.

In addition to making these old books more useful to DMs (of all schools) and making reading the modules feel less like scavenger hunts for ideas that still have resonance--cheaply--the commentary might also convince oldsters who don't play any more and who got the books mainly as cute retro-artifacts that the folks now working at WOTC are pretty clever fellows in their own right and might just be producing games they--the nostalgic old-timers--might want to play with their kids.

Aside from the luxurious hardcover exterior and a few color-plates in the middle for cover art, you can print the whole thing in black and white--how cheap is that? How are you not going to make money on this considering you will be able to sell this easy-to-throw together book to:

-Every single person who is into Old School gaming. That's 2-3 thousand right there. If you can sell what amounts to a hardcover artbook for adults (at hardcover artbook prices) to just that many people you'll do better than break even

-The aforementioned nostalgia not-currently-gaming demographic

-A good slice of your more dedicated and hobby-invested new-edition gamers


Its release will be an opportunity for the geek media to rehash the same 3 page think pieces they wrote when Gygax died--only this time you'll have something to sell them.

Plus, these books will act, functionally, as supplements to all the retroclones and postclones--everyone who plays Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC or LOTFP:WF will want one. You'll be making more money off their games than they are.

I suppose it goes without saying you can put a warm and amused intro at the front talking about how far we've come since these primitive days and how tortured and hilarious the mechanics are. If you get real neat you could provide 4e conversion notes on each module for your more ambitious GMs.

So there's that. I think that's the most reasonable think I'd like for Christmas. If you can't do that I'd like to hear about why--since I know somebody at WOTC will read this sooner or later.

2. Find a way to have your game easily work with other RPGs again.

I'm not one of those people who is going to claim Pathfinder's doing so well against Type IV D&D because Type IV is so much worse than previous editions. (Even if Pathfinder was somehow "objectively" better, we all know being good isn't necessarily good for business.) It's doing better because Type IV is so different from previous editions--and from every other game on the market.

I think Pathfinder's doing well because people already knew how to play Type III D&D and liked it and the new edition is almost completely incompatible with it so they gotta start over from zero.

Who would do that? Who would start over from scratch just to play a game in the same genre? Only two kinds of people will do that: hardcore players so jaded and with so much gaming-time on their hands that they will play a new system just to try it and totally new players who are just like "Hey, might as well buy what's in the store". You lost everybody who was just cruising along playing D&D and liking it.

Plus: To turn a 3.5 adventure into a Type IV one you pretty much have to rewrite every encounter from the ground up. Which takes almost as much time as writing the adventure in the first place.

Sure, any game not being currently supported with new stuff will wane in popularity, but if 3.5 was still being supported pretty much continuously from the second it was discontinued in the form of Pathfinder, why wouldn't people who love 3.5 just keep right on? Only one reason: the name is stupid. Who wants to Find Paths? Nobody I wanna play with. But other than that? No reason.

Say what you want about Type 2 D&D, it had a legitimate claim to simply being a tightening of the screws on AD&D--it was worth checking out if you played the old game. Type III rationalized a lot of mechanics that were already understandable to a TSR player. Type IV is just this whole other animal--not bad in itself--but it's trouble if the crux of your marketing strategy is "Why this particular fantasy RPG? It's the one called D&D".

Turning adventures written for any TSR version of the game into any other TSR version of the game was--as they say in computer programming--trivial. Even going from GURPS or Rolemaster to TSR D&D wasn't so hard because there weren't that many stats in D&D back then. Type 3 stats were like the TSR games only more of them. But going from Type IV to anything else requires more computational effort than going between any other pair of systems I can readily think of. I have literally never heard of anyone using a Type IV adventure for any system other than Type IV.

Now maybe your idea was to "wall off" Type IV so you wouldn't leak players off to other systems. But, honestly, I don't think that's working out, financially. Do you?

People who like using their brains well enough to understand and run D&D will eventually use them to try other games--the skills and enthusiasms needed to DM overlap with the skills and enthusiasms needed to hack a game system and investigate new game systems. DMs pretty much all do it. Why not use this fact to your advantage rather than have it work against you?

For TSR, this promiscuity wasn't a problem--folks trying other games didn't mean they weren't still buying TSR stuff. You could sell the Fiend Folio to someone playing MERP or Warhammer.

Now speaking here as both someone who has played and enjoyed Type IV and as someone who has a sort of vague democratic idea that all mutations must be preserved I'm not asking you to abandon that version of the game. I am asking you to do things with it that inject it back into the ecosystem of ideas that is the RPG hobby. Simple conversion algorithms on every product and notes on how to run things in older systems in every book would be nice, but most importantly of all, write the adventure stuff concretely rather than in abstracted language. This ensures that people might still buy your stuff even if they don't buy your system.

3. Switch to a more pluralistic and writer-centric model

I know you remember when Dark Knight and Watchmen changed everything in comics and the audience started getting older and I know you know that's happened in games too. One way comics dealt with that was by moving toward a more author-centric publishing scheme. Writers (and, on good days, artists) were given whole worlds to play with, alternate-universe versions of characters were published as Elseworlds, creator-owned imprints were created etc. etc.

One very pleasant effect of this was that different comics are now very different from each other without damaging the integrity of the overall IP. Grant Morrison X-Men doesn't read like Jason Aaron X Men but nobody questions that it's X-Men.

As I noted several times while looking at The Slaying Stone, there are a lot of things in there I don't think are Logan Bonner's fault. I think they are probably down to whoever decided "A D&D product is a D&D product and that means the goblins are all like this and the orcs are all like that all the time".

I do not think the world-centric approach (Forgotten Realms v. Eberron v. Greyhawk) really solves this--if you listen to the designers there's still a tremendous amount of stuff that gets left out of these products because they don't fit some overall vision. Plus we all know that if you create different gameworlds that (supposedly) don't overlap you're basically competing with yourself. That problem disappears if we're buying based on how it's Mearls or it's Monte rather than it's Eberron or it's Greyhawk.

Once a player has played for about 2 years they get how game mechanics work and they presumably have got themselves (or are) a DM who can write an adventure--the only thing a published product can offer these people any more is ideas. At some point, the WOTC stamp stopped meaning "This contains the work of the best paid--and therefore possibly best period--professional RPG writers in the world" and started meaning "This contains the most generic version of this writer's ideas you are likely to find--if it is at all interesting to you, seek out the things they wrote for smaller publishers who gave them a freer hand".

Authors should be allowed to offer genuinely different takes on what ever edition you have out all under the WOTC banner--different presentations, formats, rules hacks (carefully explained, of course) and deviations from world canon. Don't worry-nobody is going to forget it's D&D and that you own D&D.

Also, curmudgeons like me won't be able to complain WOTC's this and WOTC's that if you abandon an obsession with house style, continuity, and regularization--each product will have to get looked at on its own merits because there won't be a blanket assumption that it is all from the same factory. Plus people who work over there will probably like it and have fun and do good work because they are having fun writing what they love. You know--freelancer morale and all that.

4. More fun tools for DMs

I know, I know--selling handbooks to players makes more money than selling stuff to us. I could make a financial case for selling genuinely useful, durable GM tools but it might be total bullshit--I don't know.

Alls I know is: I wrote a book full of GM tools and it took a month and I did way better than break even--and I am a known pervert with a funny haircut, not a company that already owns the most valuable piece of intellectual property in the industry with enough money to maybe even print it in color and hire some guys who aren't them to draw pictures in it.*

Okay here's a financial argument: Every GM tool (Majestic Wilderlands, City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Dungeon Alphabet, Vornheim) brings a different specific style of playing into focus. Putting some truly decent GM-option books out would show the range of possible ways Type IV (or whatever version you have out at any given time) can be played. This expands the audience, this expands peoples' notions of how the game can be played and therefore lengthens the shelf-life of the game.

We all know D&D has lasted so long mainly because it can be played in 1000 different ways---why not use this fact to your advantage?

You must have some designers dying to write books like this. Let 'em! Have them take all those ideas they put up on the WOTC forums and in their blogs and in the old podcasts and newsletters and work on them until they turn into some concrete tools which show us what all can be done with your game.

5. Less padding

All this usefulness-to-people-who-aren't-all-Type-IV-all-the-time ceases to be useful if we have to pay three times as much for the privilege of never being able to find anything in the damn book.

Maybe you fixed this in Essentials, I haven't checked. I do know I managed to fit my entire Type IV Warlord on one side of one piece of paper and you didn't, so that suggests someone over there is napping on the job.(And yes, weirdoes who may have found this post via some weird forum: he is not optimized. I know.)

Y'know: what I think I'm saying overall is--at this point I feel like I am more likely to pick up something written for almost any other kind of RPG than I am likely to pick up a Type IV product. Which is weird because I don't play Dread or Car Wars or DC Adventures or Stormbringer--I play D&D. Hell, I even play 4e sometimes.

Theoretically, there should be something in a WOTC product that can gives me ideas. But no: Type IV products are about Type IV and not much else. And I don't think that helps anybody in the long run. And it doesn't have to be that way.


Alright, I'm done.

Note: Vociferous edition-warring in the comments will be considered boring.

*Mr James Edward Raggi IV would like to remind readers: 1) that Vornheim was in black and white because its author wanted it to be available for a reasonably low price, not because LOTFP couldn't afford it, and 2) that the pictures were done by me because I wanted to do them.


thekelvingreen said...

That's a good wishlist Zak. I'd add "bring back the pdfs" because that never made any sense.

Bryce Lynch said...

Yes, #4 is BS. As you implied, any product only appealing to DMs cuts the market down by at least a factor of 4. A decent revenue stream needs players options and subscriptions at the scale of WOTC. I doubt DM supplements are going to fly at $80 ... But maybe at $50?

I love non-generic. I wonder if it sells in Deluth?

-C said...

First, Thank you.

Second, Your restraint is admirable, I could not have managed - I would have been a dick about it.

Third, and most importantly: How many ways can you say "Make a book that people want to buy?"

I imagine the conversation goes like this.

Employee:"I have this awesome book/idea/thing"
Corporate Control Freak Drudge Master Blaster:"It does not fit our long term plan for profit generation! It has to generate profit like magic!"
Employee.oO(Maybe if the goal weren't money, and was instead awesome, we'd make money!)

-C said...

Note: I have no idea what I'm talking about.

huth said...

Employee.oO(Maybe if the goal weren't money, and was instead awesome, we'd make money!)

What was that term the studios use? "Implementation dependant," I think?

Arkhein said...

I think all four points you make are great. I also tend to think that the folks at WOTC already know this. Well, except for the awesome coffee table book idea. I just think that - or maybe it's just a hope - that they have their hands tied by some evil ogre magi that prevents them from implementing these ideas.

My bookshelves are littered with hundreds of dollars (maybe a thousand - I am scarred to actually sum it all up though) of 4e products - each one bought with the hope that maybe THIS was the turning point, and D&D would start feeling like D&D again. Essentials was my last great hope. Okay, yeah, maybe I'm naive. Yes - Hasbro got my money - but I don't feel particularly good or clean about it.

I bought one book from Paizo - the Core Rules. Yeah, it's a big costly book - but I am far happier with that one purchase. No, it's not *my* D&D, but that all important vibe is still there - the vibe of 'here, have some D&D,' as opposed to um, whatever the heck 4e is now.

I know some bloggers are ripping Monte's columns to shred - and I understand the nerd rage. But you know, he is sitting there asking questions - big structural questions - and, one would hope, cogitating on the answers. So I have some hope that things may move to a good place in the future for official D&D.

But, like I said, I have a tendency towards naivety.

- Ark

John said...

@Bryce: I haven't seen any statistics so I could be dead wrong, but I would guess that DMs make up a disproportionately large part of the market. How many groups actually have a Player's Handbook for every player? In my experience it's usually just one, and it's usually the DM's.

John said...

Although on reflection I must be wrong, since Type IV itself seems to be designed with the idea of selling player-option books in mind. Presumably whoever made that decision knew the market trends a lot better than I do.

arcadayn said...

Zak - Thanks for once again using your soapbox for the greater good of the hobby. I concur with all of you points (ESPECIALLY 4), and I second Kelvin's addition of bringing back the pdfs.

Also, related to number 5 - ENOUGH WITH THE MASSIVE WASTE OF SPACE THAT IS DECORATIVE BORDERS!!!!! It does nothing but drive prices up and decrease word counts. I haven't checked, but I would bet that the 130 page AD&D PHB has a much higher word count than the 322 page type IV PHB.

Piper said...

In addition to Zak's quality advice, I would echo Kelvin's request to make the PDFs of the 1974-1983 era editions of D&D and AD&D available again.

Anonymous said...

Re #1:

- I would make my husband buy these for me.

- I would encourage every university library with a games program to buy these.

Bryce Lynch said...


Traditionally, I think you are correct. Core rules are published and sell well and then adventures and settings are published for DM's. If you don't publish adventures then the game dies out, but because you limit your market, selling only to DMs, they are are expensive to produce. This was one of the nice aspects to d20: WOTC could offload the unprofitable portion to third-parties, yet the adventures were still available.

In any event, selling to DMs limits your market. If you can sell to the DMs AND the players then you increase the pool of prospective buyers. Maybe you'll sell two or three copies of a product to each gaming group, instead of just one. The current way to do this seems to be players options books. It's unlikely these will ever disappear because they increase the size of market. Other products may appear, but these are here to stay. This means that the game WILL get more and more complex; all of those options add complexity. In fact, I suspect that a lot of complexity has to remain in the core rules, in order to allow them to expand on it in further players supplements.

This is another reason why subscription based services are here to stay. They get to charge your credit card every month AND they get to do it not only to DMs but also to the players. That's a huge amount of revenue coming in each month, guaranteed. They will not want to wean themselves off of it. Why did the DM tools lag behind the character generator? Because they can sell the PC generator to five times the customer base as the DMs.

Every month they need to grow their revenue. Every. Single. Month. If they don't then they'll be out and replaced by someone who can. Players options let them do that. Subscriptions let them do that. Products which appeal to players & DMs alike do that. Modules do not. Settings do not. GM supplements do not. A one-off nostalgia product won't do that. It may provide a small bump, however it will also keep them from recapturing those revenue streams long term. They won't do that.

A smart group would try to recapture players that have left the current version of the game. They would also try to capture new players (Encounters anyone? Red Box Nostalgia?) I suspect we're seeing some of that in those L&L columns; it's an attempt to appeal to the old base and get them back in to the current revenue stream.

You can see much the same behavior in Warhammer. I'm not sure if it's possible for a publicly traded company to deliver what Zak wants. Maybe, but I doubt it.

x said...

They do know all this, but unlike Paizo, they choose to ignore their feedback.

And they want us gone and when I say 'us' I mean anything remotely related to playing anything but what they produce now.

The 'few thousand thing' is a bit of a misnomer. Until a decent tracking system can be put together it will remain a challenge to understand how big the indie movement is, but it is far larger than 2-3k people. The line gets blurred but counting the number of people who are gaming and the reverse flow that has started to happen due to trends in console gaming and the economy, board games and RPGs are a great value, a great way to have fun and for those of us who have a desire to create our own material note how many video games now come with editors so you can create your own content. It's kind of a logical step to create your own P&P as well.

Those same people are now looking to P&P and think that for the cost of a console and a couple games they can be fully tricked out with a paper game that can be played for a very long time.

Example: I have recently gotten into board gaming and I must say these are not your Mom's old ratty copy of Monopoly anymore.

For less than the cost of buying a new console and 1 or 2 games you can buy the entire Arkham Horror series from FFG with a MASSIVE amount of content and play for years, alone and with others, even online.

I believe we have already seen what the next version of D&D looks like because they want something that can't be pirated. The line of board games they are producing and the fact that the only major award they won this year was for Best Board Game kinds of gives away the battle plan for the future.

I'm sorry to say that I think we are on our own from here on out. And honestly I really don't mind. I like when humans run hobby companies and not spread sheets.

arcadian said...

All these are well reasoned ideas for making money both from a fan and industry point of view, which is probably why they wont happen.

WOTCs attitude really point 1, the rerelease of old material, still mystifies me. "Geek" and "80s nostalgia"has been a hot pop culture men's at least two years and why they don't want to cash in is puzzling. People beyond the hobby would probably buy the stuff, as you point out. Easy money really.

mntnjeff said...

Well thought out Zak...

But unfortunately I think that Bryce has the right of it. It's all about growth trends and how to maintain a positive growth pattern.

Effort for something like that might be worth it short term, but overall I don't think that it would pan out in terms of a product roadmap.

Here's what "might" work though: How about take that very same idea (I'm talking about idea #1 btw) and allow Paizo free reign? Set up an agreement about content rights and such, and let them produce something nice. We know that they have the resources. We've seen the end result, it's polished.

I think idea #1 is certainly worth a look-see. Just maybe not for WotC.

Bryce Lynch said...


The only nostalgia products we will see are those using current rules. Your suggestion, and Zak's, is only valid for the shortest of short-term cash, and actively works against their attempt to build revenue. Anything they do that supports old versions will keep some percentage of those players from returning to their current product line. If a farmer sells his fields to make his yearly balloon payment then how's he going to make a living next year?

They need to:

*) Get new players in to the game. I think Raggi has done more mass media advertising than D&D has. No Christmas marketing? No pushing encounters in to schools? They seem to really suck in this area.

*) Recapture players who have left RPG's. Red Box, Encounters (Keep on the Borderlands anyone?) do this.

*) Recapture current players not buying the current product. That's us. L&L is interesting. A simple enough game may recapture me ... at least through the core rules. The only way they will keep me is through some of the points Zak mentions. I want interesting content that's supposed to fire my imagination, baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby.

They'll produce nostalgia products, but only as as a way to recapture us, and only if it gets us buying current rules ... month after month.

patch101 said...

Zak, this mostly applies to part 2. Monte Cook wrote this article, released yesterday, which mentions the idea of taking all editions of D&D and making each part optional. Each individual DM could pick and choose and craft their own hybrid system. you might find it interesting. you can read it here:

m said...

Man, if Wizards doesn't do the re-issues (and capitalism is probably not going to give us good D&D without a fight), a DIY/OSR book of remixes/tributes/commentaries/whatever's legal for the best TSR modules would be awesome too. Has anyone done that yet?

Adam Thornton said...

I would hate myself for doing it. Especially while Amy doesn't have a job.

But I *would* throw down eighty or a hundred bucks or so for the pleather-bound two-volume crazy-production-values coffee-table-size Compendium Of All The AD&D Modules Even The Crappy Ones. Even though I already have actual paper copies (sometimes multiple) of almost all the good ones, and PDFs of nearly all of them--many bought perfectly legally while I could still do so--good or not. And even though I've long, long since mined damn near everything mineable out of them.

I do want to emphasize that I'd feel dirty doing it, though.

John said...

@Bryce: I agree with you almost completely, although you've stated it in more detail than I've bothered to think about before.

I'll add that selling player option books only makes them money off their existing customers. In order to pull in the markets you've listed, the core rules need to be appealing in the first place - particularly for 3), which is not just us but anyone currently buying from any of their competitors. Any change they make to the ruleset to support their line of auxillary products is almost inextricably going to reduce the appeal of that ruleset, since the decision is based on what will make them the most profit rather than what will make the game the most fun, so ipso facto suboptimal.

Like, Type IV is set up so that it's hard to "hack", the intent presumably being to encourage you to buy the player options, but the same design choices that lead to that also lead to me and probably others like me not buying into the game at all. There's some middle ground or point of mediocrity that will give maximum profits by milking the existing players while also attracting new players in an ideal ratio. Possibly WoTC erred too far on one side of the equation, since apparently Type IV wasn't as successful as hoped, and now they need to swing back a bit towards the side of fun game design. Or maybe I'm talking through my hat.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations....great...great post!
From Brazil!

Todd said...

As for #1, they could also include a little jar of jam in with it for you know, in case you get hungry.

Unknown said...

Not only is Pathfinder more " well known" game mechanics wise to people, but by large they put out very good product. I'm blown away how good the Basic Fantasy box is and really hope they put out an expansion box a swell.

Tzimiscedracul said...

Amazing post (and a great service to the hobby in my opinion). I just wish they would listen. And before someone claim that doing any of these suggestions "will not raise enough money than doing X", I must point out the >>enough<< part. Steve Jackson Game is a perfect model in this regard; videogame, MMORPGs and toy companies are not role models for RPG busisness. (Anyway, that was my two cents. Congratulations again, Zak!)

Tedankhamen said...

But Zak, when WotC hire you, will you have time for games, art, and porn? Something will have to give.

John said...

@ancient: If you're in her gaming group, then surely you're better positioned than anyone to convince her. (and if you're not in her gaming group, then what the hell do you care what she plays?)

John said...

I've got to stop replying to these people. They're just going to vanish anyway.

Zak Sabbath said...


You don't get to talk here until you apologize for all the boring shit you stirred up and all the trolling me you've done ever since I told you No, sorry, I'm not going to make my documentary about porn actresses family-friendly.

And you definitely don't get to leave links to your blog or anybody else's here.

Kiltedyaksman said...

The first idea has some merit, but I'd strongly argue not to mix your generations. You'd need to keep the past-present value-judgements to a minimum.

Don't make it like the 30th anniversary book.

Good work will always be able to stand on its own, and the type of TSR stuff you could include in such a book would all be good work.

As an alternative, brand, sell, and publish "Classic Dungeons and Dragons" with trade dress etc that distinguishes it from 4E/5E or whatever. Embrace retro-gaming. It isn't going anywhere.

Dr Rotwang said...

80s nostalgia is gigantic right now--they made a Smurfs movie for fuck's sake. There has never been a better time.

I'll get back to the rest of the post in a moment, but first--QUOTED FOR TRUTH.

William said...

Jason Aaron Xmen is KINDA like Grant Morrison Xmen

Joethelawyer said...

I had some good points to make, I think, but they all flew out of my head as I read the comments and tried to wrap my mind around this:

Why would anyone want a family friendly porn documentary?

David Rollins said...

There is a lot of great stuff going on here (except maybe family friendly porn which I can't really wrap my head around) but I am stuck on Zak's point about the name Pathfinder. It's probably a large part of the reason I haven't bought any of their stuff, It doesn't capture the imagination or create a sense of mystery like Dungeons and Dragons does. It sounds like "Boy Scouts, the RPG" to me.

You say TSR or WotC and I think about what their names mean. You say PAIZO and I think it sounds like a clown. They've obvious put out some quality stuff, I just wonder what a difference it might have made had they put some of that effort into choosing their name.

When people who use Pathfinder game, do they say they're playing Pathfinder or are they just using the Pathfinder rules to play D&D?

-C said...

Yes @the idea that they need to grow their profits every month.

Does anyone else think this is stupid stupid stupid? Banal?

If your goal is to make _more_ money month after month, then STOP MAKING RPG'S and go do something else.

Make a profit, sure, that's possible. Why isn't that enough?

Seth S. said...

I'm glad you put that note at the bottom about why you didn't print in color because I was planning on asking if you could have printed in color, would you?

Instead I'll ask, if it wouldn't have raised the price of the book would you have?

I just sort of assumed you did all those paintings (accept for the front of course) in just black and white.

Zak Sabbath said...


I did do all thos epictures in B&W.

If we could've done it in color for the same price I might've, but probably not, because it woulda taken a it longer to make the art.

That having been said--stay tuned...

John said...

@C: Because WoTC is owned by Hasbro, and multi-billion dollar companies do not care about RPGs. I'm sure the designers are fun people who enjoy making games but they're not in charge.

Zak Sabbath said...

@ everyone talking economics

It is always possible that WOTC is in the same boat with Hasbro as many small culture companies in the culture business are vis a vis their big corporate parent companies: the parent company makes so much money on its own that they can afford to try to make the subsidiary long-term profitable through actually producing good product. Maybe.

We don't know.

John said...

I'm just making wild extrapolations based on what I've seen. I assume Wizards' designers are intelligent people who are good at their job, and some of their decisions don't make a lot of sense to me unless they're a result of strictures from their corporate bosses.

Kiel Chenier said...

All these comments are gettin' me all nervous in the service.

I agree with most of the above. I'm usually one of the first to complain about 4e products being obtuse, difficult to use, and generally unintuitive when compared to other games.

That said, I know there's a whole new audience for D&D that's played 4e exclusively, and (from what a bunch of my/other's players have told me) they like things just how they are.

Hard to make a character using the books? Pfft, they use the online character builder (which costs monies).

Difficult to parse out info in the books? No need, online character builder.

Desire for old adventures? Screw that, we gots "Lair Assualt".

Books cost too much? ...well...okay yeah.

Thing is, it seems like there's become a parallel market for this stuff. You have longtime fans who don't like what the game has become, as well as new diehard fans who don't want it to change. While I generally love most of Zak's/Other's contributions and innovations with the game, I know a lot of my players aren't as keen on them, which is a shame.

Kiel Chenier said...

Oh yeah, Mearls wrote a pretty good city supplement for 4e called "Hammerfast". Came with a poster map of an inn, plus a lot of good fluff.

It's no Vornheim, but it's pretty fun for a Dwarven city/necropolis that has ghosts as everyday people.

Zak Sabbath said...


Someone sent me Hammerfast--I read it.

As for your point about the split audience--man you are SO right.

I looked at a recent poll on the WOTC site--most people there apparently want MORE story and flavor text (i.e. padding).

And whenever any idea about different rulesets comes up on RPGnet, the discussion immediately becomes about "But it's so easy to balance encounters in 4e!"

..which is a "problem" that's not even on the radar of most people out here in DIY land. It's a nonissue for experienced "hacky" DMs.

Yeah. Different world. What is to be done?

John said...

I guess it's a question of whether the two audiences are different enough that WoTC could market a different line of games to each without being in competition with themselves.

Zak Sabbath said...


if that is, indeed, the question they're facing I think the answer is clear:

if the two tracks are parallel but separate (different PHBs, different DMGs, different manuals, different adventures etc), then they are in competition with themselves.

If they can mingle (two PHBs, one DMG--why not?--one Monster Manual--why not?--and one line of adventures with conversion rules or rules which are like "Ok, for Old School play, just ignore everything in blue") then they're not in competiton any more than Amazing Spider Man and Spectacular Spider Man are.

John said...

Well, maybe. If the new school players are buying player option books and character generators and whatnot, and the old schoolers aren't, then anything that might get NSers switching to OS stuff potentially means they'll be buying less. They'd want to lure as many people into the game as possible, which a mingled ruleset might accomplish, but then they'd want as many of those people as possible playing the new school game since it has higher profit margins (?). If that's the case then they'd probably have more success with a Basic line than by trying to appeal to old schoolers. Just thinking out loud.

Zak Sabbath said...

there's probably a way to write player options so they aren't just cheese factories:

Anonymous said...

Hi Zak,

This was the amazing post-- You are absolutely spot on. This was realistic, insightful, and unlike 90% of the posts I seem to read about "WTF is going on with modern D&D?" not bound up with the usual cocktail of ego and injury we usually see. And I also think that WTF is going on with modern D&D is a completely legitimate question that deserves a real answer. Kudos..!

I agree with all of it- especially moving towards a writer-centric model. I say that as an LFR admin who will only run adventures I get to write myself using the DIY template.

At the heart of this problem- almost none of it is really about economics or "Hasbroooo" or whatever bogeyman has entered the room. The heart of this is the people-network. And here's where I think it really gets interesting:

Until recently the guy that really - I suspect (with very little evidence, I admit) was setting things up for D&D to have gone the strategic way they went, from about mid-season of D&D3 to D&D4, was a guy named Bill Slavicek. He has around since the TSR days (1993 or so). He was the guy who directed RPG "Research and development" for Wizards.

Well, Bill Slavicek is gone now, as of June 2011. I can't tell you what will change, but I can tell you that things /can't be the same/- Bill was the guy pulling a lot of the strings for that entire period.

Kudos on your blog, and say hi to the ladies for me.


Anonymous said...

Amen to all five points, but especially #2 and #3. I wanted to like 4e. I was so excited when it was announced that I pre-ordered the complete set of core books. I DMed a brief campaign and was a player in a couple of others. And then I gave up. Aside from mechanical nitpicks and the like, I have two main problems with 4e, and your post gets at both of them.

The first problem corresponds to suggestion #2 above: 4e is very different from previous editions. Not only is it largely mechanically incompatible, it's different enough that it just doesn't feel like D&D to me. I started in the tail end of the 2e era, which shaped my idea of what D&D was. 3e was mechanically different from its predecessors in many ways, but at its core it felt like the same game, just implemented differently. 4e pushed the changes even farther, to the point that it's no longer recognizable to me as D&D.

The second, not entirely unrelated problem is that 4e doesn't inspire me. With every previous edition of D&D, I could flip through the books and be filled with ideas and excitement. Flipping through the 4e book, I mostly just go, "Meh." Suggestion #3 gets at the reason why: the 4e books are unrelentingly generic. There are almost no new (non-game-mechanical) ideas in them. Everything idea is something that has already been executed better elsewhere by somebody else. Sure, unlike the older editions of the game, there's very little in 4e that makes me think "What were they smoking?" or "Who would ever use that?" But there's also very little that makes me think, "Wow, I wish I had come up with that idea!" There are no surprises, good or bad, and in the end it's surprises that keep me playing the game.

WotC hasn't gotten any of my money in years. If they want that to change, implementing these suggestions would be a great start.

Matthew Miller said...

Tour-de-force post, Zak.

The Vintage D&D coffee table book is brilliant and seems like your most immediately do-able proposal.

Based on Mearls' comments on Google+, I suspect there are warring factions at WotC. The Old School faction (if such a thing exists per se) should push for your Vintage Reprint idea. If it sells, that would be a tactical victory. It would prove their market and put them in a better position to push for the invasive surgery of your more radical suggestions (which involve messing with the Type IV strategy they already have a lot invested in). Or perhaps it could lead to the launch of a second product line (more system-neutral, more DM DIY friendly, etc).

Oh yeah... the old PDFs should be re-released STAT! That should be low-hanging fruit for WOTC.

P.S. Where are the WOTC commenters?

Zak Sabbath said...


I doubt there are "factions". My guess is it's just a buncha people who want to do different things in a million ways most of us don't even think about.

Matthew Miller said...


Yeah, for all we know the "old school faction" might be... Mike Mearls.

And inter-office memos with links to your blog are his propaganda leaflets :-)

Adamantyr said...

I think the main reason the PDF's were pulled was because too much of the 4E product offered that way was getting pirated.

In all honestly, the PDF's of the old-school materials was a gift. Any money they got for it was welcome. I don't subscribe to the paranoid belief that it was removed to try and "force" old-school gamers to use the new edition... It would be a silly tactic anyway, most OSG's I know already own all the books and modules anyway, the PDF's were just convenient.

I like the idea of a reprint of the old modules in a "massive coffee table book" form, they did it for Paranoia! Then again, we haven't seen Dungeon magazine adventures released either... I think there's some legal problems involved with republishing the old material which may extend to some of the modules as well.

Erin Smale said...

Thanks, Zak. The most cogent appeal to WotC I've seen in response to their (ostensibly) errant ways. I despair that your recommendations will be given due consideration, but that's based on their past track record and I'd love to be proven wrong on that point.

Daniel Dean said...

Can I say that as a gaming toddler it drives me bananas when I run into this conversation:

"So what are you playing?"
"Some Awesome Game"
"Oh really? Where can I get that?"
"You can't, really. Try eBay or 4shared."
"Although, really you could do the same thing with Old Awesome Game That Was Key Piece Of Gaming History."
"Wow awesome where can I get THAT?"
"eBay or 4shared. Or torrent. Or here, you can make copies at Kinkos."

I will give you people my money. I really really want to. And in a publishing economy where eBooks, PDFs, and print-to-order or print-on-demand aren't just options but the lifeblood of the industry, to constantly run into situations where I am not allowed to give money to the people who made a game in exchange for the games boggles my mind.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I would totally buy #1.

But TSR/WotC has published "art" books in the past and I am not sure they did well. Granted they are not of the caliber you are talking about, but they may not have the incentive to do it. I know it is not the same thing, but it would be the closest they have had experience with.

pookie said...

So excellent points, all well made. I would certainly buy the coffee table style book of scenarios, even though I own many of them.

It always felt to me that part of the reason for WotC moving to 4e was to make D&D a game that came from WotC and not the game that had been released by TSR. Whilst I like the fact that I could play character who always had a means of attack, I disliked the fact that all of the characters essentially felt the same and I really disliked that 4e supported one style of play -- combat.

John said...

@Pookie: True, WoTC has made a point of moving away from TSR-era design. Which is why it bemuses me that they should be the focus for so much demand to cater to old school gamers. Surely there are other people in a better position to fulfil that need? Yet people get quite angry at Wizards.

HDA said...

Hell of win. I would buy #1 in a split second.

likefunbutnot said...

I've never actually *played* a Pen and Paper role playing game. But I collect the rulebooks, love the art and I find the mechanics of the games fascinating.

Anyway, I would kill for a hardbound set of old school D&D modules filled with awesome Erol Otis pen and ink drawings and cool maps. That's the best idea in ever. Somebody should do that.

Pere Ubu said...

"I think the main reason the PDF's were pulled was because too much of the 4E product offered that way was getting pirated."

Well, the gut-wrenching funny part about this is that IT'S STILL BEING PIRATED. What they supposedly set out to do has totally, totally failed. So why continue the charade?

Anonymous said...

I think the PDF thing is partially due to piracy and partially due to limiting access to the older product. But not due to the earlier suggested reasons, of trying to force the old schoolers into 4E, but to limit access to their new 4th Ed only players.

Honestly, I'm pretty sure we(Old School) don't really factor into their strategy one way or the other. All of the things they seem to be doing with 4ed kind meshes with an overall strategy of trying to lock in the new players. The ones that have no experience with anything else. They're not used to any other game system and they have no baggage with regards to how they pay for the games, so they aren't resistant to different payment schemes such as the subscription based stuff.

John Johnson said...

I stopped playing D&D with 3.5 and haven't touched it for years, but I would absolutely buy a deluxe collection of the TSR adventures.

Zak's other ideas may or may not be genius but the first one definitely is.

mkhall said...

I'm not even a D&D player, but I would buy the coffee table book in a heartbeat, just to remind me of my days running a game store in 1979-82. [fights off urge to wax nostalgic about the arrival of the first Deities & Demigods book]