I’ve been hearing a lot of comments lately about how WOTC are pandering to the grognards who pine for a return to the days of old-school gaming. One person with whom I have corresponded on the subject through Twitter suggested that the divide was too great for it to possibly be bridged, and that WOTC were damned if the did and damned if they didn’t – that it would in fact be utterly impossible to satisfy everyone.

Another correspondent suggested that they should simply repackage and reprint AD&D to satisfy those longing for the days gone by and keep faith with those who have bought into the 4e community.

In short, the nay-sayers appear to be in the ascendancy, at least in terms of those making a lot of noise on the subject.

Those hostile to the entire concept of the philosophic approach to DnDNext announced by WOTC decry the return of infinite tables and unbalanced character classes and the Imperial Gamemaster. Those in favor rant with equal vehemence about reuniting players of the game under one banner, and complain that their debating opponents are speaking of hypothetical situations from a position of prejudice without judging the material being tested on its own merits, and – furthermore – that they are judging those materials against the standard of polished and playtested games.

I often think both sides are missing the point.

Old doesn’t mean it’s bad

When D&D, and AD&D, first came out, there was a wonderful sense of freedom in the air in gaming communities. If there wasn’t a rule to cover it, GMs were encouraged to create one. Rules lawyers were automatically ruled out of order, because the GM had created the game world and knew what worked and what didn’t, within it. There wasn’t a lot of money in gaming and game products, so publishers were less inclined to reach for the lawyers – and speed-dial wasn’t around yet, anyway. The games were, as a result, very open, and very varied. There were masses of 3rd party supplements out there for those who knew where to look. Often amateurish or flawed, but available, nevertheless. Every game had its house rules.

But there were always those who resented the power of the GM over the rules, who demanded to be able to know where they stood, who wanted everything in black and white.

New doesn’t mean it’s better

As time passed, the latter group won ground off the former, inch by inch, game iteration by game iteration. They achieved this by having a valid point or two – it’s all well and good for the GM to always be right because of his status at the game table, but without players, his game is an empty shell. At some point, an invisible line was crossed, and the game design priority became about putting the published rules ahead of the unrestrained creativity of the GM.

Then TSR went up in smoke, or got bought out (depending on who you ask), and WOTC set out to reinvent the game, with high-quality publishing. D&D suddenly represented quite a lot of invested money, and to have the maximum potential to capitalize on that investment, they wanted to encourage professional-standard game supplements – because each one required the purchase of (at the very least) the core rules set. It was “one for you, and three for me” – and then ‘four for me’, ‘five for me’, and so on, as additional ‘official’ expansions began to appear.

WOTC have openly admitted that the OGL was not what they intended, it was too open and unrestrained. The far more restrictive policies of 4e were what they were aiming for. But the serendipitous result was a huge mass of third party material that contributed to making D&D 3.0 the biggest game in town, and a huge success for them. So much so that WOTC was bought up for even larger sums of money by Hasbro – and they DID have the lawyers on speed-dial. They started by releasing version 3.5, correcting many of the errors, typos and other errata that had survived the initial publication – and at the same time, clamped down on the OGL just that little bit tighter.

The result was far fewer third party supplements and expansions aimed at 3.5 specifically – and the continuing publication of supplements aimed at 3.0, which were mostly compatible with the newer game anyway. The genie was out of the bottle, and not inclined to go quietly back into confinement.

Fourth edition followed in due course, with FAR more restrictive terms and conditions – and strict enforcement, backed up by the lawyers. This completely ignored the scale of the investment that most people now had in their 3.x collections – hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth – and declared them all ‘out of date’.

Unsurprisingly, the fan-base that had built up for D&D fractured – there were those who remained loyal to 3.x, there were those who sought to update and further clarify the 3.x into a new generation of d20 game system while preserving the openness of 3.x and eventually produced Pathfinder and Savage Lands and all the other variations out there. And few of these were minded to buy 4e products, and even fewer after purchasing the new game’s core rules and discovering that the spirit of openness that had characterized the game had been resoundingly ignored.

So far as these people were concerned, New certainly did not necessarily mean better. They went looking for the familiar, creating a demand – and some people were smart enough to fill that demand.

At the same time, 4e represented the ultimate achievement for those who wanted written rules and game balance and everything in black-and-white. Most of the criticism at the time seemed to focus on trivial manifestations such as the absence of gnomes or some such, while ignoring the deeper issue, and because that issue went unaddressed, even attempts to placate the complainers had little-to-no effect. Hasbro had what they wished for in the first place – but the result was hardly a resounding success on the scale of the heady 3.x days.

In part, this was because the licensing was so restrictive that it virtually penalized anyone wishing to publish an authorized 4e supplement, while Hasbro made darned sure that no-one went around publishing unofficial ones. In fact, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen more than half-a-dozen 3rd party supplements for 4e in total. Many of the companies that signed up to the restrictive programme tied their fortunes to it being a success – and went down with the ship, as a very large market segment stayed away in droves.

DnDNext: The Second Coming?

So now, WOTC are back to try again. Full of Mea Culpa’s for past sins (and rightfully so), they are looking to try and recapture at least some of the market that deserted them with the ill-judged release of 4e and one flawed plan after another that followed. Who can blame them?

But it does them no good to try and recapture the core 3.x/d20 crowd, there are other games out there now to cater to their wants and needs. Their only hope is to find something that might hold an even greater appeal, and that’s to recapture the spirit of independence, fun, and freedom that preceded the 3.x edition. That means harkening back to 2nd Ed, and to AD&D before that.

Not to emulate the past, or simply reprint it, or to ignore the mistakes that were made back then and all the lessons learned about game design since – but to recapture that spirit and embed it into a new generation of rules that would contain something that would appeal to everyone. If they are at all realistic, they would know that this will be impossible to achieve completely; the goal is to see how close to this ideal they can come.

Modern mechanics with the old-style sensibilities and freedom – that’s the primary goal.

So, what if they succeed?

Let’s be honest, here: Each of the disparate niche markets – 4e, Pathfinder, etc – has its die-hards who will not switch loyalties, no matter what. Some of these felt betrayed by WOTC when 4e was released, others feel burned by the fact that DnDNext will not be 100% 4e compatible. Heck, there are still a few die-hard AD&D and 2nd Ed players out there.

This market share is lost, and will not be recaptured. The rest are swinging voters, who could be swayed by a good product, with varying degrees of resistance. Some will be exceedingly reluctant, either due to past disputes with the approach of WOTC/Hasbro, while others will automatically sign up simply because it’s the latest, and (theoretically, in their minds), the greatest.

The real area for disagreement is over the relative sizes of these fractional markets. No-one has any data on which to base reasonable estimates, so we are equally ignorant, and anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else. What can be said definitively is that the new game cannot be perfect (nothing made by humans ever is) and therefore it will not succeed in capturing the entirety of the possible market share, even excluding those who will stand by their current systems of choice.

What, then, are the standards by which success can be guaged? The minimum standard of success has to be sales in excess of those for the all-too-divisive 4e. No matter by how little, ANY increase on that measure has to represent not only forgiveness of past sins but redemption and absolution. It will mean that WOTC will have more than replaced the sales lost to the 4e die-hards, and those will have to have come from elsewhere – in other words, be fans recaptured from other market segments. Anything better than a break even represents a success.

With Pathfinder supplements now out-selling 4e, the next benchmark has to be reclaiming the lost number one slot – not for the core rules, or even the first extra-game supplement or two, but with the third or the fourth. Sustained good sales will indicate that they have not only recaptured lost market share, they have recaptured the loyalties of those gamers. Achieving this will state that the new game is on a solid foundation.

Beyond these minimum standards, any improvement has to be considered a noteworthy success, and the sky is the limit.

And, if they are less than completely successful?

An awful lot will depend on WOTC’s unreliable – to say the least – love/hate relationship with third party publishers. Driving them off was literally the killing the goose that layed the golden eggs, causing a dramatic decline in public acceptance of 4e. Consider that every 3rd party product not only mandated the sale of copies of the core rules from WOTC, but provided free advertising for the official product; and, by refreshing and invigorating the market, kept demand for WOTC’s own products high. If DnDNext is to have any serious hope of exceeding those bare minimum standards of success, they must recapture the attention and affiliation of third party publishers. This is one promise that they have made to the market in general, but we are – quite obviously – a long way short of seeing any details as yet.

The first indicator of how well WOTC think they have done will be those detailed licenses. If they have backslid into the arrogance of old, these will be deeply restrictive and DnDNext will be dead in the water, awaiting only the last rites. If these are less than generous, but still workable, then the question of ultimate success will linger, unanswered, until the game actually goes on sale; but it will show some hesitation and uncertainty about their success. But if they are as generous and open as the original OGL, then it will show two things: that WOTC have, indeed, learned from the mistakes of the past, and that they are genuinely confident in the success of their product.

The Message For Now

The point that I am hoping to get across right now is that it is far too early to be passing judgment. DnDNext is still a work in development; it cannot be measured against finished products, for this is holding it to an unfair standard. And, if we don’t know what it is that we are judging, it is impossible to predict how successful it will be in the open marketplace. It is fair to predict that WOTC’s rivals will not let go of their market share without a fight – but a single misstep in that defense will have massive repercussions. All we can say for certain is that exciting times for the gaming industry lie ahead…

So, getting back to the question at hand

“Old-school” gaming can mean many things to many different people. To those viewing it with a negative perspective, it’s easy to accentuate the negative connotations of the term. To those viewing it with a positive disposition, it is all too easy to see only the beneficial aspects that have become muted or lost in recent generations of game. The term itself is so general that it can be twisted to whatever meaning the speaker desires. It is therefore neither good nor evil, neither positive or negative, but is the compound of many different concepts, each of which beings its own benefits and has its own price to exact. If the benefits outweigh the cost, then it is a positive contribution; if not, then the concept should be abandoned.

This is where the lessons learned in more modern gaming times have their part to play. It may be that the price that in the past was associated with a given benefit is no longer mandated, that we have found a better way to achieve an end. It may, in short, be possible to salvage that which would otherwise be abandoned. The second question that must be asked in the design process is whether or not something should be salvaged just because it can be. For those expecting any one game system to be all things to all gamers, they are doomed to be disappointed.

The ambition of uniting the best of the past with the lessons of recent times is a laudable one. But those who focus on the negatives are actively undermining the prospects of success, poisoning the atmosphere with small-minded criticisms that are unworthy of them, and of the ambition itself, whether out of pettiness, or bitterness, or resentment; mistrust, or ill-will, or vanity; genuine concern, or sincere doubt, or peer pressure. It is good to be ambitious, and to attempt to create something that is better than what has gone before. They may fail, but if they do, at least I will be able to say that it was not because I undermined their attempts at doing so. The next time you sound off about the difficulties faced by the designers at WOTC, whatever you may think of them personally, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether you are really saving “roleplaying as we know it” by doing so. In years to come, will you really be proud of your behavior? Will you remember with pride the support you gave to the ambition, regardless of the outcome? Or will you remember being a naysayer, a critic, a cynic, a prophet of doom – an enemy of the goal of bettering the roleplaying game?

Regardless of the success or failure of the endeavor, I can be proud of the part I’ve played in the attempt. Can others say the same?

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