The Keys to the D&D Kingdom

Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro, seems unlikely to give me the keys to their D&D kingdom, but some events in D&D-ville (Monte Cook leaving Wizards of the Coast, rumors of a reprint of 3.5 coming in September in addition to this summer's 1st edition reprints) along with some discussions in Google+ got me wondering what I'd do if they did..

Wizards of the Coast is in the process of preparing a 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I've not been overly engaged in the development process. Life's been busy with work and children and I have less time to follow such things than I did prior to the 3rd edition when I had no kids and less responsibilities at my job.

However, what I've gleaned thus far is one of the main objectives is to embrace all styles of play, from super-optimized character builds and very detailed tactical combat down to very simple character classes and non-tactical dungeon crawls with several encounters in a given game session. While I think their goal is laudable, I'm not certain it is practical. D&D 3rd edition represented a big break from its previous versions and D&D 4th edition was largely an entirely new game. This isn't to say those were bad games, rather it is to say that there may be just too much variety to accomplish what they are shooting for. I wish them well but I worry they are doing something close to designing something by committee - I keep visualizing "The Itchy & Scratchy and Poochie Show" from The Simpsons and fear that will be the end product.

So, now that Wizards of the Coast has given me the keys to the D&D Kingdom, what do I do with it? Now, I understand the objective is to make money. However, while I'd continue development on a 5th edition, I would not try to make it the grand unifying edition. I would determine who the audience for the game is and have developers make the best game they could for that audience. Obviously I'm going to need to use some market research to do so but at the same time my directive to my designers would be "do not try to please everyone". This is something I experience in my job as a software developer. I work in the storage industry (if you've ever wondered how data in "the cloud" is stored, the devices that allow it is what I help develop). The data storage product that is useful for a giant bank or a company the size of Amazon or eBay is not going to be the same product that a small business relies on.

So I'm making 5th edition to have the best appeal I can, but that means there are certain consumers I'm not capturing. This is where I take advantage of the huge legacy of old TSR products that Wizards of the Coast has the rights to. I go ahead and make the old products available again.

This needs to be done carefully. I don't simply make the PDFs that used to be available on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG/Paizo available again. Instead I take a page from White Wolf. White Wolf has pretty much its entire catalog of "Classic" World of Darkness products from the 90s and early 200s available again via download. Moreover they have worked to make certain the PDFs they provide are the best quality they can make, with selectable and searchable text, tables of contents, etc. Their products are all available via print on demand as well. I've made use of this and the books you receive are of comparable quality to the original versions.

Now if I'm re-releasing TSRs old catalogue I'm going to have the PDFs cleaned up. Some of the downloads that used to be available (before Wizards of the Coast decided the best way to avoid piracy of their books was to make it so there's no legal way to buy them digitally) were of extremely poor quality so this is going to require some investment to clean them up. Re-releasing them all at once would just be too expensive. Instead I release my back-catalog slowly. This gives me the chance properly market the back-catalog that is being made available again. Where possible I feature on the D&D website interviews with people who were involved in making the old products or, if that is not possible, articles on the impact those products had.

I also would produce "special editions" for some of the old product lines. Again, I'd take a page from White Wolf. For Vampire: The Masquerade's 20th anniversary they brought back the classic game in a new edition that was a "super-corebook" featuring the classic rules and as much material as could be fit in. I would occasionally do similar products for TSR's product lines. For example, there are a number of retro-clones in the style of the original (pre-AD&D)  D&D game. Wizards of the Coast owns the original D&D game. I would release a deluxe version of it, making it better organized with sidebars for various rules which were vague or poorly understood. For example, to this day there's some debate as to just what it meant for an elf to dynamically change class. I'd leave the rules as the were written with sidebars explaining various interpretations as to what this meant.

There is some concern about spreading oneself to thin. This is something TSR ran into in the 90s, supporting multiple settings which competed with each other. I believe this would be less of a danger when it comes to supporting a back-catalog - you don't need to pay for new research and development, you don't need to pay for a printer's costs up-front, and you don't need to risk producing more copies of a product than you need. This doesn't mean you can be careless - there will be an expense in cleaning up the old product and in making it available. This is why I would have it released slowly and would be careful about what sorts of "special editions" I would release - the goal is still to make money after all.

Keeping in mind this is a business, that does bring into question the problem of piracy. This is not an imaginary problem. I just did a Google search for "AD&D 1st edition Monster Manual pdf" and the first page of the results included several links to filesharing sites. One thing to keep in mind however - those pirated copies are already out there and Wizards of the Coast is making no money at all from them. So fear of piracy would not stop me from releasing these products.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to ignore the problem of piracy. I don't believe embedding the products with Digital Rights Management (DRM) would be an optimal solution. The biggest problem with it, in my opinion, is it is far too easy for pirates to crack while at the same time it provides a major inconvenience for your law-abiding customers. My inclination is that the best deterrent to piracy is going after those who pirate your products. This unfortunately means making an example out of people. I would therefore probably have in all of my products some sort of "publisher manifesto" explaining how this product is being released without DRM so as not to hinder its use by law-abiding consumers. I would also state that because of that the company would be extremely vigilant as to protecting its rights and going after those who illegally distribute the product, including to other members of the group. (I would also think that making discounts available to gaming groups who buy multiple copies of a book would be a good gesture towards law-abiding consumers).

So that's what I'd be doing with my keys to the D&D Kingdom. I hope it would make my company some money and also benefit the hobby. Though I'm an engineer, not a businessman. For all I know I've just driven the company straight into the ground and subjected my family name to disgrace for generations to come...


  1. When I buy game PDFs online, they frequently have my name watermarked on the bottom of each page. If I want to send my friend a copy - for example, to help her make a character for the game I'm running - I have no problem doing that. But I always explain about my name being on it and ask her not to share with anyone else. I could lend someone a Player's Handbook without violating any laws, and I don't see why I'd have to hand my friend a flash drive with my sole copy of the game on it to emulate that experience. Frankly, the watermark is my preferred solution. It embraces a measure of personal responsibility and solves the problem in a very simple manner.


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