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How the end of lonely fun leads to today’s trickle of D&D books

Role-playing gaming must rate as the cheapest entertainment around. Even if a game master buys an adventure to run, five other people get hours of fun from the purchase. And those hours come from a slim packet of pages. A hardcover adventure will sustain a campaign for a year. A few bucks spent on dice and maybe on a core book can sustain a player for years. Compare that to the price of comic books or collectable card games or, heaven forbid, golf.

The low cost of role playing makes selling RPGs a tough business. Players can only spend so much time at the game table, and a few purchases will fill all those hours.

Back in the 80s and into the 90s, role-playing games seemed like a better business. Every major RPG line produced a new book or box every month, and TSR produced several. Sure TSR suffered setbacks, but their problem came from wild spending on things like company cars and needlepoint companies. The RPG products sold.

Moonsea_settingMost of the folks buying those books and box sets probably used a tiny fraction in play. Who had the time? Even if real life never interfered with your gaming, you didn’t have four friends who shared your passion and freedom.

During all the hours you wanted to play games like Dungeons & Dragons but couldn’t, you settled for exploring the game world by reading its source books. So the Complete Guide to the Tribes of the Southeast Highlands of S’norr sold to be read rather than played.

In those days, gaming used to be what D&D boss Mike Mearls called “a hobby of not playing the game you wanted to play.” Fate designer Fred Hicks calls time spent creating characters or reading game books “lonely fun.”

Electronic games took away the appeal of lonely fun. Now wherever you have a laptop or phone, you can game. “People are just playing games now,” Mearls says.

By the 90s, too few gamers bought game books to fill time between games. Nonetheless, TSR kept publishing until the cost of unsold books brought the company near bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast. The sale spared D&D from becoming a mere brand, a once-proud name like Atari, now used by a winning bidder to sell video games.

When Wizards’ executive Ryan Dancey took charge of reviving D&D, he wondered how to build a business on a cheap pastime. Only D&D’s core books made much money. Dancey saw profit in selling the Player’s Handbook and character options to players, but D&D needed adventures and settings to attract dungeon masters. Dancey plotted a strategy around opening the game: Companies could support D&D with low-margin settings and adventures based on the d20 license, while Wizards reaped the real money selling the core.

Under this new plan, Wizards launched D&D’s third edition. For a year, core books and player-option books dominated the game’s releases. But the new game succeeded beyond expectations. Its sales boom lured the company back to printing settings and setting books. Once again, DMs faced more books than they could use.

When the boom ended, the D&D team began suffering annual layoffs.

By D&D’s fourth edition, everyone knew too few players bought campaign-setting books to make much money, and that few DMs bought more books than they could use in play. So fourth edition limited each campaign setting to two books: one for DMs and one with player options.

The 4E team refocused on selling books for players. The D&D team hoped every player would spend hours tinkering with character options, making a hobby of not playing the game that they wanted to play. Every month, hardcovers filled with new options reached stores.

But the strategy fizzled. Too few players wanted to devote time to lonely fun sitting around making characters.

Now, streaming and video offers a new way to watch people play D&D—and a new way to enjoy D&D while not playing D&D and not buying D&D books.

World of Warcraft and Acquisitions Incorporated may not replace all the joy of rolling dice with live people. However, for most folks, such substitutes make a better alternative to the D&D table than either pouring over Martial Power 2 for character options or reading The Great Glacier to explore a game world.

The D&D brand extends beyond the game table to things like novels and electronic games. Today, tabletop gamers add to D&D’s profit margin by buying core books. Wizards publishes other D&D game books to support sales of the core.

Mike Mearls and his D&D team see little market for game materials that won’t reach play. This shows in their focus on the adventures required by DMs and destined for the game table. The team produces just enough adventures to sustain weekly sessions. More adventures would tempt DMs to buy just the one they’ll play. Such choices stretch the profit of one sale over the cost of publishing more adventures.

In the years since the fifth edition’s release, only the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide caters to folks who want to read about D&D worlds or spend time tinkering with character builds.

For those of us who crave more monsters and classes, fifth edition’s few releases leave us hungry for more, but the Wizards team thinks they have a D&D strategy that can last.

Dead in Thay Player’s Handout

I’m interrupting my series of advice on observation and perception to present a player’s handout that anyone running the Dead in Thay Encounters season will need last week.

Dead in Thay features teams of adventures raiding the sprawling Doomvault dungeon compound. The adventure stands as a great idea for an Encounters season, because multiple parties can simultaneously raid as they seek and destroy Szass Tam’s Phylactery Vault. Each week, groups can reform and stage forays into the complex. This premise delivers the fun of multi-group play, while avoiding the usual Encounters issues caused by a changing cast of players.

As much as I like the concept, Dead in Thay presents players with a daunting amount of background information that they must understand. During my first session, as I tried to explain how the Doomvault operates, and as my players struggled to digest a fraction of it, I realized that the adventure screams for a player’s handout.

So I created one.

You can read the content of the handout at the end of this post. You can download a PDF version of the handout here.

Next: We return to our regularly scheduled posts on observation and perception at the game table.

Dead in Thay Player’s Handout

The Doomvault

You begin in an unmapped Gatehouse with teleportation circles that provide access to the Doomvault.

The Doomvault hides a Phylactery Vault containing the souls of the liches who serve the Thayan leader, Szass Tam. Groups assaulting the Bloodgate slew the lich Tarul Var, one of these undead servants. Tarul Var may have reformed in the Doomvault, near his phylactery. He poses a deadly threat. In the Doomvault, you must gain access to the Phylactery Vault and destroy it. As you explore, seize opportunities to destroy the Red Wizards’ monstrous creations.

Dread warriors patrol the Doomvault. After one round, even from a distance, Tarul Var can take control of any dread warrior not accompanied by other Red Wizards. Not only does this alert the lich to your presence, but he can also cast spells through the dread warrior.

Your ally, the paladin Isteval, has lent each party a circlet of limited telepathy, which enables you to communicate with the other parties inside the Doomvault.

The Doomvault consists of 9 sectors, each subdivided into 4 zones. To begin, each party may choose to enter a zone through the black gates mapped in areas 1, 23, 33, 38, 49, 61, and 77.

Glyph Keys

Glyph keys are crystal pendants on bronze chains, which open magical gates in the Doomvault. Glyph keys can be attuned to the zones in the Doomvault complex.

Syranna gives each party one glyph key attuned to the zone they choose to enter first.

Somewhere in each zone is a Contact Stone marked by a circle of magic glyphs. Someone at a contact zone holding a glyph key can speak to Syranna in the Gatehouse.

You can attune a glyph key to a zone in one of two ways:

  • Copy an attunement from one key to another. A different creature must hold each key, and then one of the holders must spend an action to make a successful Intelligence (Arcana) check.
  • Bring a glyph key to a Contact Stone, where Syranna can attune the key to the zone where the stone is located.

A glyph key can be attuned to more than one zone.

White and Black Gates

The Doomvault includes two types of magical gates.

White gates create walls of force that bar passage. To open a white gate, you must carry a glyph key attuned to one of the zones bordering the gate.

Black gates enable teleportation to other black gates in the Doomvault. Black gates follow these rules:

  • To enter a black gate, you must hold a key attuned to the zone where the gate is located.
  • To teleport using a black gate, you enter the gate and think of your destination.
  • Anyone who enters a black gate may teleport to the Gatehouse.
  • Anyone who enters a black gate may teleport to the Seclusion Crypt, a demiplane only accessible by your characters, which offers you a place to rest and recover.
  • To teleport from the black gate to a black gate in another zone, you must have a glyph key attuned to the destination zone.

You can teleport from the gatehouse to black gates in the complex using a glyph key attuned to the destination zone.

With either type of gate, someone holding a properly attuned key can stand in the gate and hold it open so others can pass. With black gates, the person holding the key decides on the destination.

The Seclusion Crypt

The Seclusion Crypt appears as an empty chamber, isolated in time and space. While time passes in this demiplane, no time passes in the world. This magic causes you to age one month for each hour spent in the crypt. Each time after the first time a character visits the crypt, the character’s hit point maximum drops by 5 until the character can complete a long rest outside the crypt.

9 popular things in D&D that I fail to appreciate

I love Dungeons & Dragons enough to spend money to write a blog about it, but I dislike some elements of fantasy role playing. Perhaps “dislike” is too strong. I don’t want to squash your fun. This is not a rant; this is a cry for help. Help me understand the appeal of these 9 aspects of our hobby.

Real world cultures with different names. In the 1930s, authors helped readers swallow the fantasy of places like Hyboria and Middle Earth by setting them in ages lost to history. We’ve now grown so accustomed to fantasy versions of Europe that we can take them without the sugar of a lost age. But I, for one, can only stomach one analogue culture at a time. In the 1980s, every TSR staffer who read a book on the Aztecs or Mongols felt compelled to write a campaign box. Now, every corner of Faerûn and Greyhawk offers more cheap knock offs than the guy selling Rollex and Guccee at the flea market. My problem comes from my compulsion to invent explanations for some cultural farrago, a problem I share with the authors of Banestorm. (Young persons: If “farrago” appears on your SAT, you’re welcome. Gary did the same for me.)

Puzzles that depend on English letters, words, and spelling. Nobody who dwells in the Forgotten Realms speaks English, except Ed Greenwood under an assumed name. When the adventurers stop at the Old Inn, we just imagine its name is translated from “Ye Olde Inne” or something. I accept this, but when a D&D puzzle depends on English spelling, I feel like ye olde innkeeper just offered me a Bud Lite. The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb feels a lot less bizarre and menacing after [Spoilers!] you enter by keying “WELCOME” at the door. Don’t forget to wipe your feet. (Note: Despite my peeve, I liked the puzzles in the 2013 D&D Championship, so I’m not unreasonable.)

Underwater adventures. At some point, every dungeon master desperate for a new idea hits upon the underwater adventure. Many are so hard up for material that the concept seems promising. Don’t feel bad; in 1977 similar desperation reached the professionals in the Happy Days writers’ room. Soon, players are fighting seafood and creatures in seashell bras. Resist this impulse.

Underwater adventures can go two ways:

  • You treat the sea with a measure of respect, and you wind up with guys in flooded armor swallowing “air pills” or something, but still unable to speak and thrashing as uselessly as fish in a boat. Even the chainmail bikinis rust.
  • You use magic and hand waving to simplify the environment to the Spongebob version of underwater. Spongebob is the guy who lives under the sea, lights fires, and has a bathtub.

I can tell you what underwater adventures would really be like. You would drown.

Mounts. I get that your warhorse has intelligence 6, uses the litterbox, and takes sugar with his tea, but must you insist on riding it underground? Do you know how tall a warhorse and rider is? How will you fit the damn thing through the doors? Whenever I DM for a guy with a mount, he insists I decide between (a) making the dungeon into the equestrian version of handicap accessible with 15-foot-tall doors and ramps between levels or (b) being TOTALLY UNREASONABLE and NERFING HIS ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT. I know that some specialized D&D campaigns offer plenty of opportunities for Silver to join the fun, but folks who want to bring their horse in the house should probably be playing Bella Sera.

Druids. Let’s see. I can select a class that can turn invisible and throw fireballs, or I can play a druid and cast Warp Wood and Shillelagh. I’ll stick with spells I can pronounce and that also damage more than the woodwork. To make things worse, druids become ineffectual underground—in a game with a name that starts with Dungeons. Do druids sound good to you anyway? In original D&D, you had to battle other druids to reach high levels—as if there were a shortage of trees to hug. Oh, and all the other players have to put up with all your tiresome tree hugging.

Pets. Young people love having imaginary pets that fight for them. This accounts for Anne McCaffry’s bestsellers and the Pokémon millions lining the pockets of ground-floor Wizards of the Coast shareholders. Young person, I appreciate that 4E makes your woodland friends playable as familiar spirit animal companions. I only make two requests:

  1. Limit your retinue to one pal. I have literally run tables where the pets outnumbered the characters. If I had attempted to realistically role play the scene where the zoo enters the tavern, the campaign never would have reached scene 1 with the patron at the bar.
  2. Know the rules for your creature. If rule (2) where actually enforced, no one in the history of D&D would have ever played a character with a pet.

Bards This. Enough said? I played a bard once in a 3E game. My character stood in the background and I had to imagine that my lute strumming helped the party. To be clear, “lute strumming” is not a euphemism, but if it were, my contribution would have been just as useful. No one remembered to apply the bonuses coming from my musical inspiration. Fourth edition improved matters by making bards into musical spell weavers who pretty much operate like every other PC in 4E. I once played with a guy who re-skinned all his bard powers with the titles of Metallica songs. At least I think that’s what he did. In 4E, (a) no one understands what the hell anyone else is doing on their turn and (b) in 4E most power names already overlap with the titles of metal songs.

Stupid word play from game authors. (Note: Stupid word play from players is a-okay.) The MOST SERIOUS FANTASY GAME EVER, Chivalry & Sorcery, suggests this dungeon trap: “The Case of Nerves, a box which falls on the hapless intruder, inside of which are—‘nerves.’ [The intruder] immediately checks morale -20%, and failure sends him screaming down the hall.” Get it? A case of ‘nerves!’ I want game authors to save their comedy riffs for their HBO specials. I am not alone. Everyone knows the first role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Ken St. Andre created the second RPG, Tunnels & Trolls. T&T featured concise and understandable rules, which, unlike original D&D, didn’t have to be deciphered by word of mouth and then held together by spit and house rules. In an alternate universe, T&T was a smash and D&D is a curiosity like the Landlord’s Game. In that universe, Ken St. Andre did not fill his smash hit with spell names like Rock-a-Bye, Whammy, and Take That, You Fiend! Meanwhile, in our world, T&T just thrived for solo play because alone, you never had to say aloud, “I cast Yassa-Massa.”

Apple Lane for Runequest

Apple Lane for Runequest

Furry races. Exhibit A: Spelljammer. This setting includes anthropomorphic hippos and space hamsters.  Jeff Grubb writes, “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs. The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddlewheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster. So I’m not taking the fall for that one by myself.” Exhibit B: Runequest. This game featured the most sober, serious world building this side of Empire of the Petal Throne. I love Runequest and would probably be writing a Runequest blog now except that the setting included anthropomorphic ducks like Donald and Howard. Ducks! Sorry. Deal breaker. I like to dress in character, so according to THE MAN, I need to choose a character wearing pants.

A spot in the Great Blog Role Call, plus Dungeon Tile reference pages

I once asked fellow-blogger Radiating Gnome about how he wrote to maximize page views. He told me his most-read posts included disagreeable material that inspired readers to tell him just how wrong he was (not that I’ve known him to be wrong). Since then, I’ve wondered if I failed to stake out enough controversy in this blog. As if to calm my concerns, Charles Akins at Dyvers cites DM David as a blog he tends to argue with. Thanks for the mention Charles! And thanks for compiling a trove of blogs for me to explore. (Someone needs to devise an easy way to catch up on a blog in chronological order.)

Enhanced Dungeon Tiles Gallery

I enhanced my gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets with reference pages devoted to each set, starting with the first.

DT2 Arcane Corridors sample dungeon 1

DT2 Arcane Corridors sample dungeon 1

This addition reveals my glaring lack of photos for any of the three master tiles sets.
I punched and scrambled my own copies of the master sets before I thought of my photo gallery. I’m reluctant to buy second copies, because I seem to have a lot of dungeon tiles already. So I’m calling for help. If you have an unpunched copy of a master set that you could photograph for this reference, please let me know in the comments.

Next: 5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests

One year of DMDavid

One year ago, I made my first post to the DMDavid blog. I itched to sound off about a few Dungeons & Dragons topics, such as metagamey mechanics, skill challenges, and a design error that still lurks at the core of D&D Next. Writing the posts proved such a kick, that I’ve kept at it for a year now.

Mini dungeon master's screen on table

When I started writing I speculated on where the blog might lead. I hoped that a post might garner some attention in the D&D community, but that has never happened. I blame my discomfort with self promotion. No other blog has ever linked to my site, but a tweet called out “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” earning that page some looks. I wondered if someone at a convention game might sometime recognize me for this blog. That never happened, but a couple of real-world friends stumbled across the blog and recognized me as the author. I worried that I might stir up some of the sort of nasty criticism that comes with the GIFT, but the site’s occasional comments have always added welcome insights.

Most popular post. Every time I searched the web for a gallery of the various dungeon tiles sets, I failed to find even a comprehensive list of tile sets, much less a gallery. Seeing a need, I spent an afternoon snapping shots of my collection, and reassembling some punched sets like jigsaw puzzles. This resulted in my most popular post ever, “A complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets.” I’m pleased that others find the resource helpful, and hope a few visitors find other items of interest.

Biggest surprise. The early role-playing games that followed D&D always reacted to the “failings” of D&D. The games came with big helpings of the designer’s comments on how their game addressed D&D’s problems—either in magazine-published designer’s notes, or often in the game itself. When I set down to research a retrospective of Chivalry & Sorcery, I uncovered an unexpected treasure of early RPG-play philosophy, which I lovingly ridiculed in “Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?” I did never intended to write anything so long, but the more I read the rules, the more wonders I uncovered. Still, as the post grew longer, I figured that I was wasting my time exploring overlong, ancient history that would interest no one but me. I’m happy to have been wrong.

Least popular post. In “But how do you win,” I reminisced about the questions people asked about D&D way back when I started playing. No readers cared. Nonetheless, the question “but how do you win” reveals how differently most people understood games in the days before D&D.

Snappy title award.D&D Next trades to-hit bonuses for enhanced damage” stands as one post buried in a series exploring the evolving D&D combat system. The post goes off in a tangent, and the title summarizes a point made earlier in the series, yet somehow this post garners all the hits. Even though the title doesn’t seem that compelling to me, I started trying to do a better job writing titles that draw interest.

Best of DMDavid. I’m most proud of my three series of articles on D&D design.

  • What does D&D have to do with ironclad ships?” began an exploration how the math behind to-hit and damage rolls changed from original D&D through D&D next.
  • Evolution of the skill challenge” showed how the skill challenge changed quickly after the introduction of fourth edition, and how the original conception of the skill challenge left some baggage which made them harder to use.
  • Spells that can ruin adventures” talked about spells that worked fine with D&D’s original dungeon-bashing play style, but which started ruining adventures as the game matured.

The research and thought that went into each of these series led me to new and unexpected insights into the game.

Thanks for reading!