Friday, May 25, 2012

D&D RIP

I admit that I was pretty pessimistic about whether 5e would actually end up being "old-school." In part I suppose that is because I've made peace with my breakup with the D&D brand. When I heard about the D&D 5e preview material I didn't feel disappointment or even frustration that the game was not old-school. Ok, so they've finally totally done away with even the illusion that characters might die. Fine, I was expecting something like that. I wouldn't even have been surprised if characters "respawned" upon death, at full hit points (5e is just one step away from that).

I guess the predominant thing I was feeling was pity for Mike Mearls. I've never met Mike, but from all accounts I've ever heard he is a nice guy. I wouldn't wish him any ill will at all. Think of the problem he faces. It's his job to revitalize the D&D brand. Bring people back to the game, away from all of the other options out there today. He's got to try to turn the next version of D&D into something that appeals enough to a wide segment of fantasy gamers that they will come back into the fold. I bet even Mike knows and knew all along that would be an impossible task.

The problem with needing to stand out is that D&D has to compete with all the other 3.x spinoffs that have been evolving for many years. What can 5e meaningfully add that hasn't already been done? I think that's why D&D 5e feels like an also-ran at this point. The days where the Brand alone was enough are past. D&D 5e could be a descendent of Castles & Crusades, or a cousin to any of the latest in the glut of 3e-lite spinoffs. As I consider 5e there is nothing much to distinguish it from any of those other 3e-derived games out there. 5e is a fantasy heartbreaker that even the brand can't save. I find myself feeling an emotion I wasn't even expecting--sadness.

Even though I had moved on maybe there was some small part of me that took comfort that "D&D" the brand is still there, enjoyed by others if not by myself. But what we have now just feels to me like the last failing gasp before the brand either dies completely or jumps to an entirely new medium. D&D is lost, not just to me philosophically, but probably soon to everyone. There are too many diametrically opposed expectations from the fantasy gamer audience, and the D&D brand can't possibly please them all. The fracturing is irreparable, and unfortunately, D&D isn't like so many of the competing brands that will be happy to chug along with a small piece of the pie. To appease the corporate owners D&D needs a much larger piece of that pie, but while WotC was away from the table it's already been divided up. What's left for them may be big by some standards, but not by their own. The majority goes to Pathfinder, and too large a chunk is divided by the various 3e-lite games and the old-school clone(like) games.

In the end I'm not sure where the blame goes. I can't help but think at least some of the blame has to go to the edition treadmill philosophy. Criticize 3rd edition all you like (and I have), but it was a pretty successful edition. The problem is that when WotC left an edition behind they didn't just revise the game into something else, they torched and salted the fields behind them each time. Each time they tell their customers that there is something fundamentally broken and bad with the previous edition, and in doing so they create a rift between the people who stay behind with the old edition and the people who take the bait for the new edition. How can you possibly convince the people who have followed you all along that, "No, wait a second, there was something salvageable back there after all"? You can't. That's why the 4e players will resent 5e because of how much it resembles 3e.

Sadly, I think we're witnessing D&D's last resurrection survival roll. From where we're sitting it isn't clear yet, but I think we might be seeing double-aught on the dice. Will it carry on in some new form? Who knows. But in the meantime--D&D, RIP.

14 comments:

Chris Wellings said...

Really? That's a shame. I see a lot of potential in it. In fact, it might be the perfect D&D for me, much as I enjoy Labyrinth Lord.

Kiltedyaksman said...

Really well said, this is as plausible a conclusion as any at this point.

This just speaks to what a lot of us have been saying all along - support more than one edition and give the people what they want, rather than what WotC wants to give them.

JasonZavoda said...

When Ryan Dancey talked about the profit in a game being the sale of rulebooks and not adventures back when 3e was first ruminated the wheels were set in motion. From there on it was one short term rulebook selling fix to another in a descending spiral. With this business model they had to burn their bridges and salt the ground behind them because they needed to maximize the profits from their latest edition.

5e needs to turn around and say to the 4e supporters, ya-boo sucks to you, because WotC needs every cent it can raise for the new edition and they see any money going to a previous edition as a loss.

WotC had a successful game in their 3.5 edition. It wasn't anything I cared for but it was popular. What they need to do is to say, we screwed up and go back to 3.5. At the same time they are sitting on a huge amount of old material that they could offer as pdfs or pods or even prefund in a kickstarter kind of way (though on their own website and avoid the kickstarter fees).

I don't know if this is the death of D&D the Brand Name. I think that happend already with Pathfinder. This may be the last incarnation of D&D the Brand Name we see for quite awhile and I wonder who will survive the annual winter purge at WotC.

James Maliszewski said...

This post more or less mirrors my own feelings, which is no surprise, but I'm not the target audience for 5e and I haven't been a WotC customer in five or more years, so my opinion on the matter doesn't count for me.

Dan of Earth said...

@James: I'm not so sure about that. When they invoked "old-school" and talked about uniting fans of all editions, that tells me they actually were trying (at least lip service) to include us in their target audience. I think we are allowed to have an opinion about it.

James Maliszewski said...

I suspect, but have no proof, that the talk of "uniting fans of all editions" was a sincere early goal of the 5e design but was largely abandoned in favor of creating a "bridge" between 3e and 4e with some esthetic nods to TSR era stuff. I also suspect that the abandonment of that goal, probably for very pragmatic reasons, played a role in Monte Cook's departure from the project.

jaerdaph said...

It dawns on me that this is going to be the first edition of D&D that Gary and Dave won't be around to see. There's something about that which leaves me feeling a little melancholy.

JB said...

@ jaerdaph:

Really? Do you think they'd be happy to see the latest incarnation?

Gavin Norman said...

@Kiltedyaksman This just speaks to what a lot of us have been saying all along - support more than one edition and give the people what they want, rather than what WotC wants to give them.

That would be awesome!

xredjayx said...

All I can go by is how much fun my group has at the table. And we've had more fun in the last couple days with the playtest rules than we've had in a long, long time.

DHBoggs said...

I dunno Dan I find I have no emotional investment in the "D&D Brand" at all. At this point, it's just a name after all. When TSR died, and some would argue even before then, D&D and AD&D ceased to be the heart and soul of the company founded around them, and became a label put on some other companies' house rules. Frankly I wish they would stop using the label for games that are a far cry from being "real" D&D in my opinion.

LucidDion said...

I think it's really premature to make such a bold proclamation at such an early phase of play testing.

Ludanto said...

I think 5e is off to a good start, and I'll probably buy it, but I agree that the brand has been backed into a corner and will probably never recover.

Will Hasbro / WotC abandon the brand when it's no longer profitable?

Carter Soles said...

I agree completely with your assessment. The core of the problem, which you accurately identify, started with the transition from 3.5 to 4th Ed.: "The problem is that when WotC left an edition behind they didn't just revise the game into something else, they torched and salted the fields behind them each time. Each time they tell their customers that there is something fundamentally broken and bad with the previous edition, and in doing so they create a rift between the people who stay behind with the old edition and the people who take the bait for the new edition." Well put.