Thursday, January 19, 2012

Oil and Water

I have been pondering 5E these last few days. Now comes the news that AD&D 1E will be available for a limited time starting this April. This started me to thinking.

D&D was born as a hobby, not a business. It is blatantly obvious that the LBBs were written for hobbyists. There was virtually no attempt to explain the terminology. It was assumed that anyone reading D&D also owned Chainmail. It was like your buddy's house rules. You got a copy of his house rules knowing full well that you were getting, basically, a shortcut and guidepost to creating your own game. The LBBs were sparse to the point of being terse because they were simply one way to do it. It was like they were saying, "This is how we use Chainmail to play out fantasy adventures in Lake Geneva. YMMV."

It occurred to me today: You can not market a hobby. You market products, not hobbies. Or, I guess, more to the point, hobbyists can't market their own hobby. But, corporations can market support for the hobby. At least while there's money in it.

I'm a creative person by nature. I can tell you that it is my belief that it is in the nature of human creativity that we want to create things of interest to us. For example, I have absolutely zero interest in working up Vive Liberte: The RPG of the French Revolution. No offense to anyone interested in the French Revolution, it's just not my thing. It doesn't matter to me if there was a media wave of interest that could capsize the Poseidon, I'm not writing that game. I'm a hobbyist and I do what interests me.

I think that's where TSR started to unravel. They had passionate people writing things that no one else cared much about, and they had people dispassionately developing things simply because they decided that was where the money was. They were completely out of touch with their audience. There is an article by Ryan Dancey here which discusses the WotC acquisition of TSR. In it he notes the disconnect between corporation and consumer that almost meant the end of D&D. In the end, it did mean the end of D&D, I guess, at least as we had known it.

From that article it is clear that Mr. Dancey is a passionate hobbyist with a heartfelt and emotional desire to save the company that meant so much to him as a youth. Which of us wouldn't feel the same way, if put in a position to save D&D circa 1997? It was, I believe, his hobbyist's heart that created the OGL. In the halcyon days of D&D's youth companies like Judge's Guild created wonderful supplements, setting, adventures, and play aids. They were heady times, exciting times, to be a gamer. I miss those days of wonder, of exploring just how far we could push this limitless hobby. I miss those days to the core of my soul.

Then, history repeated itself, and into the garden a serpent did come. 3E, and 3.5E, trod the same ruinous path as its forebears. Too many "splatbooks", too many supplements touted as necessary, too much crap. After 35 + years in this hobby, watching it grow and evolve, I can assure you of one thing: Nothing will erode gamer trust as fast as treating us like a bottomless pocket. The attitude "They'll buy it because they're geeks and we'll tell them they have to have it" is extremely alienating. So, WotC took D&D to the same precipice TSR did, and once again, it took a corporation to save it.

Here at last we come to the point of my metaphoric title. Hasbro is a corporation, dedicated to making money. They came in and remade D&D. I personally believe that it was done to distance their product (4E) from the WotC product that existed under the OGL. Hasbro repeated another mistake of the past. TSR eventually became extremely restrictive about out-of-house products, which was perhaps the first tolling of the death-bell. Now, Hasbro did the same thing. Release a new edition that is free from the OGL. Reestablish control. Then, they did the unthinkable: they released a bazillion splatbooks, supplements, settings, and adventures. They tried to apply the same peer-pressure bullshit "All the other geeks are doing it. You won't be playing D&D if you don't." Was there really any question how that would play out?

Now comes 5E. I was optimistic at first, hopeful even. The more I think about it, though, the more it seems too ambitious to me. That means that either they are telling us what they think we want to hear, or they really do plan on trying to blend all editions and playstyles, which is as doomed as the Tower of Babel. I'm sorry to be so pessimistic about it, but I think if a fifth edition ever does see release, it will be a big box of goodies and cards, like the Hasbro Gamma World. Hasbro is a toy company run by lawyers and MBAs. They will operate under the old baseball adage "Dance with the one that brung you".

Lastly, I believe the pending re-release of the AD&D 1E core is a bone being thrown to us by some hobbyist still in the ranks at WotC. It is the great beast spewing up one last piece of treasure before it breathes its last. This events lead me to a sad contention: We are living in the last days of D&D as a living, vibrant product line. I hope I'm wrong about this, I really do.


  1. Well from the (admittedly) little I've heard from the journo's play-test it sounds much more like TSR era D&D than new Gamma world. We'll see what snippets we get from the play-test at DDXP at the end of the month. Anyway, I'm pretty sure there will be a 5e released.

  2. I sincerely hope I'm wrong. I'm hoping for the best, but fearing the worst. It just seems odd to me that 4E wasn't doing so well, so they complete revamped it into Essentials (NOT 4.5). It still isn't fairing so well, so they decide it is necessary to completely redesign the system. In an extremely ambitious manner, so ambitious that who knows how long the playtest will take? It will definitely take a few tries to iron out the wrinkles of integrating all those editions. Then, into this maelstrom, they announce a limited print run of a long out of print set of core books.

    But, I'm a paranoid conspiracy theorist anyway. So, this is what I do ;-)