Monday, October 18, 2010

History of a game that flailed, or "Dungeons and Dragons: The Quest for More Money"

Sometimes I greatly dislike Wizards of the Coast (WoTC).

More specifically, I dislike their business model, which over the years I compare to the Once-ler from "The Lorax," who retorted "A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!" whenever questioned about the utility of his product. I'm sitting here, having leafed through their new Red Box Edition, still sort of shaking my head. It's like someone re-released the original Rubik's Cube, and even though you solved it way back in the 80s, it's some new edition with 'vintage' colors, the original feel of the twisting/turning mechanism, but also, alas, outdated by a slew of successive Rubik-type puzzle games intended to draw the attention of older or more-clever players wanting a challenge.

See, I cut my teeth on this version of the game back in 1983: basicboxed11th.jpg.

I enjoyed coloring in the numbers on the dice with my black Crayola. I remember the simple character sheet mock-up and the Keep on the Borderlands module. I was also 13 years old, fighting significant Catholic school ennui and having to deal with my unrequited feelings for the girl in our class who sprouted 34Ds seemingly overnight. Testosterone + Catholic guilt is a recipe for disaster, and slaying orcs by the metric shitload was apparently the only alleviation for the army of horny orcs inside me. But I digress...

Regardless, there was a space of not more than 2 months before I cut my teeth on the first edition of AD&D which was what all my buddies had since gravitated towards, whether it was more of an appeal to our nerdy minds or the semi-naked female drawings I can't say for sure. Fast forward 27 years later, I saw little need to update to this version (which cleverly, ha ha, re-used the original Larry Elmore art of the first "Red Box" edition--smooth move, Ex-Lax, as they used to say in the high school parlance):


I understand their reasoning, I really do: Issue a less-complex rule set aimed at younger or newer players wanting the "feel" of D&D without the hassle of having to buy a slew of core rulebooks. The idea was also to draw in players who wanted the experience of their weekly 4-5 hour sessions but with slightly faster game dynamics that allowed shorter encounter times. Believe me, I get this. After numerous gaming sessions where our 5-6 hours of play crept into the 7-7.5 hour territory simply because we wanted to get in one last encounter before the next monthly session (read: Adulthood sometimes sucks), you often want a rock/paper/scissors/lizard/Spock turnaround for a given battle.

The confusion for me stems from the fact that the 4th edition ruleset was already "dumbed down" a bit to appeal to (a) the experienced online RPG gamer, (b) someone who disliked the extremes of 3rd edition rules, where every action had 15 different modifiers, (c) someone who appreciated the concept of Power Cards being added in (getting Magic: The Gathering chocolate into their pen/paper RPG peanut butter as it were), and/or (d) appeal to the 21st century mindset by building character development through a snazzy new application interface. They even released a preview of the 4th edition rules designed to introduce them to the changes in the core rules. With all these aspects designed to draw in new players and to suck existing, experienced players into a new style of game play, the box set re-release is mainly an appeal to nostalgia. My pessimistic opinion is it's an unnecessary and blatantly shitty way of squeezing more money out of a gamer, many of whom are already taxed in their hobby with a rough economy and an already 20+ rulebook/supplement heavy 4th edition.

Remember that in the beginning, there were just two dudes (Gygax and Arneson) using a homegrown ruleset to expand on their wargaming hobby. When you read the history of the game it's at times amazing to witness the evolution of a worldwide phenomenon and later a perfect example of how greed and a questionable business model can screw up a franchise. D&D is at it's most basic an appeal to introverted, imaginative role-playing. The archetypal nerd is the staple image because simply, it's often the truth. Screw that whole "Vin Diesel plays D&D so nanny-nanny boo-boo" shit; Vin Diesel also used to sport an afro and made breakdancing instructional videos before he became the musclebound action star, plus I am certain few of us can snap their fingers to summon hot women instantly.

As a public service message for thems who want a nice history of the game, here then is my general overview of the Wizards of the Coast business model for RPGs, from about 4 years back to current:

1) This is a niche market which is relatively easy to exploit despite the usually argumentative and intelligent nature of the target audience-- in essence operating on a "hate the dealer, need his drug" dynamic. To quote High Fidelity, "fetish properties are not unlike porn. I'd feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn't... well... kinda one of them." While I will grant a few gamers have matured beyond the 'buy everything' phase, I am still certain R.A. Salvatore could publish "Drizzt and Guenhwyvar Go Quantity Surveying" and get on the NYT Bestseller's list.

2) Profit. Many nerds (or their parents) are well-employed or have some measure of disposable income to spend on said gaming products. Even if liquid cash isn't available, the nerds are more than willing to forego food, sex, hygiene, sex, sleep and sex in order to obtain the Preciouss. I was watching a documentary on Todd MacFarlane once, and one of the kids interviewed was a pizza delivery guy in his early 20s, living in his parent's house, with a basement room full literally floor-to-ceiling of mint-in-box McFarlane toys. The same could be said for collectors of comic books or movie memorabilia. WoTC uses this to their advantage.

3) Issue rule set revision. Make it 100% incompatible with the previous rules, and use the revised approach to roll out the new business model to an Internet-savvy crowd at Gen Con. Tease us with a demo of a 3d character/dungeon visualizer that will never become reality. As a donkey punch, get rid of the paper-based game periodicals to further prop up your new web-based enterprise. It's as if a thousand guys reading Dragon on the shitter suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

4) Proceed to break the Player's Handbook into 3-4 sizeable chunks to allow timely dissolution of new classes, races and powers and reduced savings account balances.

5) Ditto for Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manuals.

6) Issue secondary materials to appeal to each class group (e.g., divine, martial, psionic). Make them ungodly expensive.

7) Take Forgotten Realms and totally fuck it up the ass. Seriously, Greenwood isn't dead yet, can we refrain from pissing on his grave, please? Why do fantasy designers feel the need to revamp/withdraw magic use as if it's some sort of steampunk effect? Did we learn how not to do this from Dragonlance?

8) To their credit, create incredibly sweet application to manage character design, coupled with a reasonably-priced website to obtain rule updates which seamlessly integrate with the builder application. This alone is why I often give issues 1-7 a pass. Character Builder rocks like a chair, issues aside. Regardless, I still like a hardcover book to read when I'm in the bathroom, so this perk isn't always ideal.

9) As a further slap in the face, refuse to introduce new artists by re-using annoying and often inconsistent artwork lifted from the 3rd edition books. I'm talking to you, the guy who keeps reusing the pointy-nosed monsters (not everything looks like a troll) and who thinks everyone runs and fights at 45 degree angles.

10) After your new ruleset is firmly ingrained into the public mindset, create recruitment, erm, social gatherings designed to integrate Facebook and Twitter with weekly gaming experiences while also drumming up business for game shops. While I was never involved in Encounters (some of us have kids), it looks like a very fun diversion assuming you could get into a "good" group.

11) After your new gaming model and Internet communication mechanisms are firmly ingrained in the social milieu, issue the new "back to basics" homage to the original D&D box set with a stripped down rule set designed to appeal to younger, less-experienced gamers. Immediately conceal your obvious "Fuck you" to experienced gamers by appealing to their sense of nostalgia and aforementioned disposable income. As I said before, some of us went to Advanced D&D because the basic stuff was too basic. Also roll the new boxed set out at Gen Con and subsequent events as if it's a well-made trailer for an ultimately crappy movie. Use the catchphrase "Essentials" to make it seem this basic set integrates seamlessly with existing 4th edition core rules.

12) Simultaneously redeem yourself slightly with a truly kick-ass reboot of the Dark Sun campaign setting. I'm not getting heavy into it now, but I'm liking what I see. My concern is their scheduled lack of meaningful 4E products for the next six months (given the focus on board games and Gamma World).

13) Piss off the Gothic fantasy RPG crowd by rolling out the Ravenloft reboot as a board game. For sixty fucking dollars. With no coupons. Come on, people, if I want to play Mousetrap, I'll go buy friggin' Mousetrap. I want my original I6 module with my quasi-3d maps and my card game integrated with my pen and paper D&D.

14) Space your release of new miniature sets as far apart as possible, tease us with fears of a new manufacturer which sucks, then dangle the ginormous Orcus figure carrot as if it's going to make it all worthwhile. Would it kill you to roll out a new series of player minis in the interim?

15) Demonstrate occasional coolness with totally cool audio podcasts with Wil Wheaton and the Penny Arcade/PVP dudes, then screw it up with a boring-as-Hell "video" podcast featuring all the overweight, unattractive writers/actors from Robot Chicken who aren't Seth Green, and who obviously make learning D&D as interesting as watching paint dry. Son, I am disappoint. I still give props to Andy Collins regardless because the dude rocks, even in the face of apparent DM boredom and player naivete.

15) Profit.

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