Tag Archives: Wizards of the Coast

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.

Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return

As a kid playing sports, I had no role other than the goat—the guy who screwed up and caused everyone to lose. When people talk about the magic of youth sports, about how they build teamwork and character and leaders, I want to wretch. All those people touting the magic of sports have one thing in common: They were good at sports. They never realize how much their talent contributed to their glowing feelings. For klutzes like me, being part of a team competition meant humiliation and scorn. “Thanks for making us lose. You suck.”

By the time I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I had experienced all the losing I could stomach. Some of what drew me to D&D was that I could play without losing. In D&D, you can join some friends, roll some dice, and have fun. Everyone won and I liked it.

A typical D&D game stacks the odds to assure the players victory. Dungeon masters select and adjust the monsters to give the players fights they can win. DMs shy away from player-killing tactics like focusing fire. Some DMs secretly guarantee victory by making hidden rolls that they can fudge. In the interest of story, some DMs never let characters die without their players’ agreement.

I like story and I like seeing characters succeed, so I enjoy this style of play. Through a year of D&D, all the games I play will stack the odds for the player.

Except for one glorious event.

Now I will tell you how wonderful team competition can be.

Between 1977 through 2013, Gen Con featured an event originally called the D&D Open and renamed the D&D Championship. The Championship runs as a tournament, with teams of players racing to complete objectives while surviving a difficult adventure. Successful teams advance to later rounds until one team wins.  Classic adventures such as the Vault of the Drow and the Against the Slave Lords series came from this competition. Every year I played, the Championship ranked as the most fun I had playing D&D all year.

What makes the Championship such a blast? It starts with the fun of D&D,  then adds elements that most D&D games lack: challenge, high stakes, and urgency.

In the Championship, challenge is high because the odds favor the monsters. A Championship DM can do things that would cause hard feelings in a regular game. Focus fire. Single out healers and spellcasters. Coup de grâce. Championship DMs are expected to finish fallen characters. No hard feelings. In the Championship, I don’t care how tough a DM plays the monsters. Bring it on! All I care is that the DM plays efficiently.

Never tell me the odds!

Never tell me the odds! The finals of the 2012 Championship.

This challenge makes the threat of failure real, and it offers a reward: When you triumph against long odds rather than against a stacked deck, the victory tastes so much sweeter.

Yes, PCs fail sometimes. Luckily in D&D, failure can be fun too. My teammates still tell stories of some characters’ deaths.

The competition creates high stakes in the real world. At the start, everyone wants to perform well to earn a spot in the next round. By the final round, everyone plays for the glory of a win. These stakes create more suspense than anyone feels in a typical game.

Because a fast pace enables teams to complete more objectives, the Championship rewards efficient play. Players in the Championship show an urgency that casual games lack. No one disappears into their phone. No one rouses on their turn, and then makes everyone wait while they examine the map and ruminate. The event’s pace makes the game hurtle ahead. Everyone spends more time playing.

I’m no D&D-playing star, but unlike those sports teams where I found humiliation, I can join a D&D party and contribute. At last, I get a sense of what the jocks always blathered about. Sitting on a team and contributing to success to can be glorious.

You can succeed in the Championship without bringing a team. I know multiple players who have joined a bunch of strangers, and then reached the finals. On two occasions, that was my story.

Championship DMs rank as the best of the best. They must master the rules and play quickly and fairly. Only the elite can handle the intense demands of the event. We players benefit.

Last year, for the first time since 1977, the D&D Championship was not held. The Championship’s elite DMs became a reason for its demise. When Wizards of the Coast launched fifth edition, they wanted these proven dungeon masters to help run the D&D All Access program.

The organizers wanted to push the Adventurers League over the older, tournament-style play. Ironically, when Wizards launched a version of D&D that aimed to embrace all the play styles of D&D, they killed the game’s oldest style of public-play.

We saw an audience that had been divided by differences in editions and play styles, and wanted to design a version of D&D that all players could experience and enjoy.” – Mike Mearls, co-designer of fifth-edition D&D

Will the Championship return? Perhaps. It doesn’t appear among the official D&D events sponsored by Wizards of the Coast. They seem content to keep the Championship dungeon masters for the All Access event. Rumors say that some of the Championship’s long-time organizers are working to bring back the event. In light of Wizards’ tepid support and their eagerness to commit DMs to All Access, D&D’s oldest event faces a difficult chapter.

Do you love the D&D Championship? Have you played or run it? Do you want to try this thrilling event for the first time?

Related: Gen Con 2013 recap and the D&D Championship visits the Lost City Little-known D&D classics: Fez

The new D&D miniatures line should add these figures that have never been done before

Drizzt Do'Urden D&D Miniature

Drizzt Do’Urden D&D Miniature

Last week, Wizards of the Coast announced a deal with WizKids to produce pre-painted, plastic miniatures for Dungeons & Dragons. These new figures will accompany the D&D Next release this summer. As with the Pathfinder Battles miniatures, also from WizKids, the line will include both blind, randomly-assorted boosters and visible starter packs. The visible Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures Heroes starter packs include 6-figures priced at $19.95, and will reach stores in July.  In August, the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Miniatures: Set One Boosters go on sale. These packs will include 4 figures drawn from a set of around 54 figures, likely priced at $15.99. The same sculptors who do HeroClix and Pathfinder Battles will sculpt the D&D line, so the quality will rank just as high. The sample photos show Drizzt Do’Urden as one upcoming figure.

I loved the original D&D miniatures, so when rising costs forced WotC out of the miniatures market, I felt dismayed. No alternatives suited me as well. I have boxes full of Reaper Bones, and while I’ve painted a few, I’m not ready to make painting another hobby. The Pathfinder Battles line boasts quality, pre-painted figures, but the line includes too many figures specific to the adventure paths and to the Pathfinder bestiary.

If I had the ear of someone planning a D&D miniature release, I would give my list of useful miniatures that have never appeared in plastic.

  • cave fisher wind-upCave fisher – I realize that this odd monster seems like it would hardly see use as a miniature, but I keep running published adventures that include cave fishers. Obviously, adventure authors fancy cave fishers because of their interesting mode of attack and because they can fit logically into the caverns where adventures happen.

  • Pixie – When Heroes of the Feywild added pixies as an available race, they became a surprisingly popular choice at my tables. But no pixie figures exist. We need a tiny pixie on a clear plastic flight stand similar to all the bats, birds, and stirges in earlier sets.

  • City guard with crossbow – I listed city guards among my 11 most useful types of miniatures, but none of the available figures hold a bow. Just about every type of humanoid needs to be represented with more figures with bows.

  • Medium displacer beast – Many folks love complimenting their character with pets, and in fourth edition, the displacer beast ranks as a most popular choice. Too bad no medium-sized displacer beast figure exists.

  • Mushroom – Towards the end of the original run of D&D plastic miniatures, each set seemed to include an inanimate object such as a ballista, treasure chest, or magic portal. I want to see this theme continued with a giant mushroom ready to be added to my collection of dungeon decor.

    Update: A mushroom figure escaped my notice. Thanks Shawn!

  • Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur's Gate

    Ulder Ravengard card from Murder in Baldur’s Gate

  • Dark-skinned, armored fighter – When I ran Murder in Baldur’s Gate, I looked for a figure to represent the brown-skinned Ulder Ravengard, but I discovered that nothing suitable existed.

  • Translucent green slime – Another monster that adds easily to an encounter, I want a green slime miniature sculpted from translucent plastic.

  • Goblin spellcaster – Every low-level D&D adventure includes a battle with goblins or kobolds–encounters that typically include a shaman or spellcaster of some sort. Kobolds have spellcaster figures, but no suitable goblin exists.

What figure would you like to see?