Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Providing Value

For those of you who don't hang breathlessly on every development of the forthcoming new edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game, you may not be aware that, er, there is one. But there is. This is the fourth new edition of the game, sort of. Anyway, they call it Fourth Edition.

AND Wizards of the Coast (a very tiny division of Hasbro, which owns D&D) is publishing little updates on the design and development process as part of their marketing efforts for this new edition.

Which, predictably enough, has a certain portion of the Internet in an uproar.

Is there ANYTHING that doesn't cause an uproar on a certain portion of the Internet? I mean, besides my blog posts?

Honestly, I have a point in here. Stay with me.

So the latest of these little marketing "Inside Peeks" came out yesterday, and it outlined how demons and devils are going to be treated in the new version. A little cosmology, a little campaign setting history, and some basic ideas on what's fun in gaming. All reasonable stuff, actually. Pretty good ideas, to my thinking.

But here's the thing: it's just one possible way of handling such things. It's not a bad way, in fact it's a pretty good way. But there are plenty of pretty good ways. I'm absolutely certain that just about anyone I've gamed with in the past few years could come up with a cosmology and a history just as good.

So how much value is there, really, in Wizards providing this for us? Maybe I'm off, but I'm thinking, not a lot. Even for folks who don't want to do all that thinking, is there really an advantage here? I mean, there was already a pretty good idea in place from the last edition. Is it just novelty for novelty's sake?

And is THAT a viable business plan? I know it works for the fashion industry (now THERE'S a parallel), but really?

Thing is, if I want some good ideas on a new way to handle demons and devils, honestly, I go online and ask the folks there. I'll get half-a-dozen sharp, creative (and probably play-tested) ideas in a day. That even goes for rules, not just fluffy stuff like this. And the situation is only going to get worse (or rather, better) as time goes by. My interest in paying $40 for a hardcover book full of rules I can get elsewise isn't going to rise, I'm pretty sure.

So where is the value? What is a viable business plan for this industry?

I think the good folks at Paizo are onto something. Their new monthly publication, Pathfinder, offers up a host of useful stuff -- a fully detailed adventure (for those of you not in the know but gamely keeping up, that means that all the math I would normally need to to do before running a game is already done for me -- this is a good thing) (and yes, doing lots of math is actually part of these games), new monsters I can drop into my own games, no matter what the setting (or the ruleset, to some degree), pages upon pages of gorgeous art...

Now, much of this sort of thing I'm sure I'll find in the new D&D books, but those are going to be immense hard-bound volumes selling for $40 a pop. Ish. These Pathfinder books are ten bucks.

And they're more SPECIFIC, and I think that's really where the value is going to be in the future. For better or worse, the Open Gaming License has released the basics of solid rules design into the world for all to observe and make use of. Providing large-scale generic-ish rulesets just doesn't strike me as a solid play for the future. Not compared to providing detailed, specific value.

Heck, I don't even play D&D and I love Pathfinder already.

Remember my original goal with my Mini-Games? Well, that didn't end so well, honestly, but not, I think, because the idea itself was flawed. I think the value in this industry is in making it easier for folks to get together and have fun. The obstacles to me running a game aren't in the rules. I got rules coming out my ears. They aren't in the cosmology and big-picture setting details. The obstacles I face are in getting characters generated, in having some notion of what's behind that door RIGHT THERE, and having some sort of answer when my players ask, "What happens if we just, you know, SET IT ON FIRE?"

Paizo seems to be helping me help my players set things on fire. I appreciate that.


  1. Honestly, I've had some very similar thoughts. As much as I prefer some of these new ideas to status quo ideas, I still find few of them as compelling as ideas I already have.

    So, the cosmology is changing from the Great Wheel to tiny islands in a vast sea of "astralness" or whatever is an improvement, but it still lags behind what I've already done.

    This isn't to say that all fluff isn't bad, though. You say that you can ask a question and within a few hours get a ton of decent ideas. Sometimes that happens, but sometimes it doesn't, and in any case, it will always need a bit of fleshing out.

    What I like is to be bombarded with ideas, and fleshed out ones too. I want my gaming experience to resemble eating at a gigantic, varied and diverse salad bar where I can pick and choose elements to create what I want with a minimum of fuss. I like creating stuff on my own, too, but honestly I think my strength is synthesizing diverse ideas that someone else had rather than coming up with new ideas myself.

    As an example---one of the discussions about 4e that caught my attention was some changes to the fluff on hobgoblins. They decided that they like to breed dangerous beasts (like monstrous spiders) to keep around as guards for their settlements, troops in their army, or whatever.

    OK, not a bad idea. However, not nearly as good as the fully fleshed out skorne culture in Privateer Press's Monsternomicon II. As far as I'm concerned, if I ever use hobgoblins again (and I am currently doing so) they'll come from a militaristic and expansionist society that is---essentially---the skorne with the Iron Kingdoms serial numbers filed off.

    So good fluff still has a lot of value. I can still use it. However, mediocre fluff---not so much. And with the OGL and heck, even just the internet as a whole, which brings ideas together in a way never possible before, it's not hard to find fluff that's often considerably better than the snippets that Wizards of the Coast gives us.

    To me, that's the real risk they run; not that fluff doesn't provide value, but that their fluff doesn't provide value, because I've already got a source with much better fluff.

  2. "That's the real risk they run; not that fluff doesn't provide value, but that their fluff doesn't provide value, because I've already got a source with much better fluff."

    I agree -- I'll say that I have sources of better fluff -- but my point is most specifically that one of the qualities of good (and by good I really mean useful) fluff is that it is SPECIFIC.

    Having a god cast into the elemental plane is a cool story, but what I really need are the particular spells he likes to grant, the religious groups that have sprung around his casting, the elemental beasties that have been twisted by his presence, etc. Stuff that I can more or less drop whole-cloth into my campaign.

    Not big over-arching ideas; little poignant details that I can build an ENCOUNTER around, rather than a campaign.

    Maybe that's the right way to discuss this -- my problem isn't generating CAMPAIGN-level ideas, it's generating ENCOUNTER-level ideas. That's where the bulk of my DMing chores come in. Making up the big ideas is pure fun. Making up encounters is often tedious.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Whoops! I sure wish this had an edit feature, so I wouldn't have to delete the original comment and redo it just to get rid of some formatting gaffes.

    Sounds like we're on pretty much the same page (again.)

    That's the reason I like, say, the Iron Kingdoms fluff. Because I can use it without too much trouble as is. My Freeport game is going to have the Skorne Empire (although with a different name, and they're going to be hobgoblins) and it's going to have Cryx with some of the mechanika toned down. The latter is going to play a major role in the longterm development of the campaign. But the reason I chose those is because it's not just an idea. "Yeah, how about an island kingdom of necromancers ruled by a dragon-god." That's a cool idea, but that's not all Cryx is---Cryx is all the detail; the specific ports, pirates, liches, satyxis raiders, etc. that is something I can use. If that was all Cryx was, that wouldn't be compelling enough. At that level, like you say, almost anyone can come up with that idea.

  5. Oh, and you should cross post this blog to CM or ENW and let folks hash it out there.

  6. diaglo12:23 PM

    OD&D(1974) is the only true game. All the other editions (this new one coming too) are just crap.

  7. Bagpuss12:49 PM

    Still their isn't much getting away from the fact that rulebooks sell better than setting books.

    The setting stuff for 4.0 really isn't what's going to sell the books anyway, it's what they do to make DM's job easier, what they do to make player's options (both in play and in leveling up) better, and the brand, mainly the brand.

    Now admittedly published adventures and setting material like the stuff Paizo and Privateer produce does make a certain aspect of a DM's job easier, read it then play it, not much work for a DM there.

    But for a whole load of DM's they are offering nothing, because the DM's write their own adventures in their own settings.

    Pathfinder might well be great but it isn't going to sell as well because A) Doesn't have the brand power, B) Can't be used by as many people.

    A rulebook can be used by everyone.

  8. One of the things about encounter-level detail is that it's actually EASIER to fit into any campaign. Which seems counter-intuitive to me -- you'd think that the more detail something had, the HARDER it would be to adapt it to a particular cosmology or culture, but it turns out, no. Changing the skorne into hobgoblins is dead easy, as you mention. Transforming a Dungeon magazine adventure so that it fit into my Barsoom campaign's rather idiosyncratic physics was equally straightforward.

  9. bagpuss, you really think Pathfinder won't sell well? I kind of doubt that prediction -- I don't think Paizo would be investing the resources they have into something that they didn't have reason to believe would do well. Their record is pretty good on this front, so I suspect Pathfinder is going to do very well indeed.

    Understand I'm not suggesting that it will outsell the PHB 4e; that's crazy talk. But the writing on the walls near me suggests that selling big rulebooks is a business model with a limited lifespan. As more and more rules become available for free, and as online capacities to find rules and participate (or profit from) hobbyist development efforts expand, it's going to get harder and harder to justify spending large amounts of money on rulebooks.

    Maybe I'm looking a little further down the road than you, but I see a better future for Paizo's approach than Wizards. I would predict that five to ten years from now the Paizo model will be the dominant one in the industry.

  10. I've stopped trying to keep up with all the marketing bones WoTC keeps throwing our way. And the idea that these nuggets will continue to fly for the next (*counts fingers*) 8 months is a bit mind-numbing.

    I can see your point, but it's possible that they're doing these rules as part of a separate book which won't necessarily make it into the core three. But even if it is core, you're making the mistaken assumption that other gamers out there A) have access to the internet and the diverse resources available therein, or B) (and this is the biggy) folks actually like tinkering with their game worlds and/or actually go out of their way to find third party material to alter their cosmology in some way.

    I believe many gamers tend to be very lazy when it comes to their world-building and are quite happy playing as generic/core a game as they possibly can, and like the good sheep that they are, will take whatever rules supplement comes out and will add those rules to their game happily as the game progresses in that way.

    Lastly, I find it refreshing that the designers are so willing to change the "sacred cows" of the game. I'm not tied into the cosmology/game as it is, and if they end up giving me more good ideas then I'm all for it.

  11. "You're making the mistaken assumption that other gamers out there A) have access to the internet and the diverse resources available therein, or B) (and this is the biggy) folks actually like tinkering with their game worlds."

    Actually, no. I am making the prediction that internet usage will continue to increase as it has. That's all. Given that it will continue to increase, the value of offering campaign-level value (generic rulesets and large-scale cosmologies) will continue to decrease.

    Whereas the value of offering encounter-level value will carry on as it is, unaffected by connectivity.

  12. The idea that Pathfinder is the future somehow is bunk.

    Wizards' books have the best writing, art and production values in the business.


    That's why they have 90%+ market share and why everyone else drops what they're doing to check out a new edition of the game.

    Wizards doesn't need a new format, they already invented the one the rest of us are copying.

    Now as for the furor over Wizards' fluff and the way they're "changing" the game.

    People are WAY over reacting to this shit.

    They might be getting away from the Big Wheel, but all the planes are there. Put them in any order you want, have them riding on the backs of freaking turtles, they'll still have an Abyss, a Hell, an Astral Plane etc.

    As for the "points of light" thing, something tells me we'll still, somehow, beyond all reason, wind up with an Eberron book, a FR book and a Greyhawk book.

    In other words, the changes that matter in the core rules will be mechanical, and that's where the vast majority of the book will be focused.

  13. Absolutely not interested in the question of how good or bad the new fluff is. Don't even care enough to have an opinion. So I really don't want to be hosting that conversation. Plenty of that going on over ENWorld way.

    But the point that Wizards has the best writing, art and production values seems to miss the point a little. Maybe I've been unclear.

    I am not arguing that Paizo is going to overtake Wizards. Ever. Somebody will, someday, and it will probably happen sooner than we expect, but I expect things will stay much as they are for years to come.

    But I do think that encounter-level design is becoming more and more valuable, and that campaign-level design is becoming less and less a viable basis for a business plan.

    Eventually we're going to get to a point where assembling a ruleset that's playable and customized to a particular style of game is so easy that selling such products is going to become difficult. It's already more difficult now than it used to be, and as more fans create more online SRDs for their favourite OGL games that trend will continue.

    What will never change is that DMs need encounters. They need maps, they need monsters statted out, they need dungeons detailed and they need cities and town outlined for them. They need great art and writing that inspires. They will pay for these things, because the best hobbyists still won't be as good as the professionals.

    I guess I'm just saying I see a trend that indicates campaign-level design is going to be less profitable, but encounter-level design is going to remain as profitable as it is now.

  14. Insightful comments, as always. Thanks!

    My gaming group plays D&D almost exclusively. Several of our players are rabidly reporting every new word from Wizards about the new edition. I am ambivalent. I'd like to see the new content and rules.

    If we convert, it will be an all or nothing thing. We have a handful of house rules and that's it. I don't want to start picking and choosing between editions. It's too confusing and takes a lot of the fun out of the game for the players.

    For me, this may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I may move into the True 20 world and push for our group to do the same. We purchased fun new books at GenCon like Qin and Hollow Earth Expeditions.

    Maybe we'll start campaigns using some of that material soon.