Tag Archives: Wizards of the Coast

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

Despite the alarmists warning that things like ascending armor classes, women, or fourth edition would ruin Dungeons & Dragons, the game has only faced one serious threat. Ascending ACs are just easier, woman have been improving the game at least since Lee Gold, and fourth edition once seemed like exactly the savior D&D needed. The real threat to D&D came from the way the game combined cheap entertainment with a valuable brand.

For a sample of D&D’s potential demise, witness the fate of another successful role-playing game: Vampire: The Masquerade. In the 90s, the popularity of Vampire seemed ready to eclipse D&D.

On its introduction by White Wolf Publishing in 1991, Vampire surged in popularity, attracting a new generation of players and more women. The game spawned a franchise of World of Darkness games.

But once the player community peaked, White Wolf saw its income slow until books barely broke even.

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. 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. Role-playing gaming rates as the cheapest entertainment around. See How the End of Lonely Fun Leads to Today’s Trickle of D&D Books.

By 1998, White Wolf was canceling games in the World of Darkness franchise. The company rode the d20 boom with D&D-related supplements, but that boon went bust too.

In 2006, CCP Games, the Icelandic company behind EVE Online, acquired White Wolf just to gain rights for a potential online game. White Wolf’s tabletop publishing schedule slowed a few PDF and print-on-demand products. When CCP’s plans for an MMO fizzled, White Wolf sold to another computer game company, Paradox Interactive. Now, the White Wolf web site calls the outfit a licensing company. In an interview, Martin Elricsson, the company’s Brand Architect explained the publisher’s status. “The economic center of the company will be computer games. As things are now, tabletop publishing hardly breaks even.”

Vampire: The Masquerade now rates as an entry in an IP portfolio, a brand to license or to apply to an online game. Paradox Interactive stands as the accidental owner of a tabletop RPG. If they bother to publish it, the action will hardly affect the corporate bottom line and stockholders will call tabletop a distraction.

At two points in D&D’s history, D&D could easily have met a similar fate.

The first threat came in 1997, when TSR neared bankruptcy. TSR sold itself to Wizards of the Coast, a company run by Peter Adkison, a D&D fan with big dreams for the game. A few years earlier, Adkison had asked designer Richard Garfield for a portable game suitable for passing time in a convention line. Garfield’s game, Magic the Gathering, captured lightning in the bottle, landing Wizards enough cash to buy TSR. Without this happenstance, TSRs assets could have been picked over and sold piecemeal to companies looking for intellectual property for computer games and movie licenses.

In 1999, Hasbro bought WotC for Magic the Gathering and the Pokémon card game. The waning profits from D&D’s second edition certainly didn’t help the acquisition. Like many folks in 1999, Hasbro executives probably wondered if people had to dress up to play D&D. Would remnants of the satanic panic stain Hasbro?

When Hasbro acquired WotC, they brought a big corporate cost structure and return on investment expectations set by Magic and Pokémon. If D&D failed to meet those expectations, imagine a D&D product line like the one today—but without any tabletop products—just an assortment of licensed video games, a D&D-themed Monopoly game, some t-shirts, and a movie a few years out. Maybe they would license the tabletop game to third party, where, like other high-profile licenses, a barely break-even business could struggle under oppressive license fees and stifling brand oversight. For a Hasbro executive cutting such a tabletop license, the deal offers little upside. A modest success barely registers; a runaway success embarrasses the exec who let a valuable asset leave the company.

In 2000, D&D proved a temporary asset to Hasbro. The new, third edition sparked a boom in sales, mainly by inspiring the same players who found the game in the 80s.

By 2005, D&D settled into a familiar pattern for a mature edition. After a big debut, players embrace character options, creatures, and adventures. Game companies have employees to pay, and only a steady income keeps the lights on, so they publish to meet demand. Before long, even the most passionate customers own more supplements than they can play. Players stop adding to the unused volumes already on their shelves. Meanwhile, the wealth of volumes on game store shelves overwhelms and scares away newcomers. Potential new customers wonder if they need to fill a bookshelf to play. Is the Player’s Handbook 2 required or is it an updated version of the original book?

The D&D team started enduring annual, Christmas-season layoffs as management expected slowing sales in each coming fiscal year.

Hasbro’s experience in the toy business made them familiar with such booms and busts. Except for a few core toy lines, they would roll out a toy like G.I. Joe, ride a surge in sales, and then sideline the toy for 15 or so years until a new generation of children seemed ready for it. Perhaps Hasbro execs wondered if a similar strategy suited D&D. Instead of losing money between generational releases, why not just retire the tabletop product during those 15-year lulls?

Peter Adkison had left Wizards, so no guardian angel would save the game this time.

For D&D to qualify as a core game brand, the game needed to match its best-ever year of sales in 2000, but this time the game needed sustained sales at that level.

Without a new edition, the game could never approach such numbers. A new edition could be easy, but it had to bring a profitable, sustainable strategy that would meet stockholder’s expectations for profit. So far, no tabletop publisher had found such a strategy.

As sales withered, the D&D team searched a way to save the tabletop game they loved. By 2008, they thought they found a way.

Next: Why Fourth Edition Seemed Like the Savior Dungeons & Dragons Needed

Basic and Advanced—Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game (Part 6)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1975, a surging number of Dungeons & Dragons players craved products for the game. TSR head Gary Gygax hired his Dungeons & Dragons co-author to assist. In January of 1976, Dave Arneson moved to Lake Geneva and joined the staff. Gygax seemed eager for the help.

Dave Arneson (photo Kevin McColl)

During Arneson’s time at TSR, he produced little for the company and nothing for D&D. Through all of 1976, Arneson earned just three credits: for an article on WWII naval combat that appeared in Little Wars magazine, for an introduction to the Valley Forge war game, and for ‘special effort’ on the Lankmhar board game.

Arneson did manage to publish several issues of a newsletter for his Napoleonic miniature campaign. He even printed the March 1976 edition on TSR’s mimeograph. For Arneson, the Blackmoor campaign that turned into D&D just provided a break from his true passion: Napoleonic armies and especially sailing ships. He could not match Gygax’s fervor for fantasy or role-playing games.

At the same time, booming demand for D&D products left the rest of TSR’s tiny staff frantically busy. While Arneson took a big cut of D&D’s profits and contributed nothing new, TSR needed money to grow and struggled with cash flow.

Gygax had welcomed his long-time collaborator, but the relationship between D&D’s creators soured.

After 10 months, Arneson left TSR. Arneson’s friend Dave Wesely told one account of Arneson’s exit. When Arneson refused to accept a reduction in royalties, TSR demoted him to shipping clerk, leading him to quit. (See Empire of Imagination by Michael Witner.) Even if the account isn’t accurate, it probably reflects Arneson’s take.

Gary Gygax (photo Alan De Smet)

From Gary Gygax’s perspective, he had labored for years on D&D. He had turned 20 pages of notes into the original rules. He had bet every cent he could scrape together on publishing an odd, risky game. In supplements and magazine articles, he enriched D&D. He defended it in letters and editorials. His friend Frank Mentzer wrote that for D&D, Gygax “paid the costs in stress on himself, his marriage, family, and friends.” Arneson had only planted an idea.

Gygax wondered why Arneson should get a cut of royalties for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even while working at TSR, Arneson had given nothing new to D&D or AD&D. “Gygax felt that Arneson was but one of many contributors, and felt that the revenues should go to those who built the company and fueled the D&D boom…himself first and foremost.”

When the AD&D Monster Manual reached print in December 1977, the book gave no credit to Dave Arneson. Perhaps Gygax considered the book a supplement. D&D supplements only credited their writers.

When the Player’s Handbook arrived August 1978, Arneson only gets a thank you among 20 other contributors. The Dungeon Master’s Guide never mentions Arneson. As it reached stores in 1979, Dragon published Gygax’s editorials positioning AD&D as a new and incompatible game. Soon, the TSR catalog featured listings for an “Expert” extension of the basic rules. Before, the basic rules led to AD&D; now they lead to a separate game.

In 1979, Dave Arneson sued TSR for royalties.

From Dave Arneson’s perspective, D&D came from his ideas. He had started with a sort of miniature game that had existed for generations and that appealed to nobody (rounding down). Then he had added the concepts that made a revolutionary game. With some help from Dave Wesely, Arneson invented a game where each player controlled a single character, and where a referee enabled players to attempt any action. With some help from Dave Megarry, Arneson discovered the fun of looting dungeons. Arneson’s fantasy game added characters defined by numeric attributes, and characters who could improve through experience.

Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax each argued that D&D’s success rested on his contribution. Both were correct, but that didn’t make sharing the wealth any easier. The court fight lasted until March 1981. The settlement granted Arneson a royalty of 2.5% of the cover price of core AD&D books. (In 1985, Arneson sued TSR again. His lawyers argued that the Monster Manual II—a collection of new monsters—rated as a “revision” of the Monster Manual. Stop laughing. The court agreed.)

Despite the legal battles, TSR gave basic D&D as much support as AD&D. Early in the 80s, the basic game outsold the advanced version. Even as players in the States started to dismiss basic D&D as a kiddie version, the basic line thrived internationally.

Creatively, D&D thrived too. While D&D played well as written, AD&D suffered from cumbersome rules that most ignored. Also, Gygax treated AD&D as his baby and kept strict control over its products, but when designers worked on basic D&D, they enjoyed more creative freedom.

In 1985, Gary Gygax set aside any animosity left in the wake of lawsuits and approached Dave Arneson to do modules for D&D. Arneson submitted 4, starting with DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor. The series sold well, but Gary soon lost control of TSR. According to Arneson, new TSR president Lorraine Williams “did not want Gary or me involved with TSR in any way anymore. So, no more Blackmoor modules.”

Many tout the Rules Cyclopedia as the best version of D&D ever to come from TSR.

In 1991, the last of the basic D&D product line, the Rules Cyclopedia, reached stores. TSR vice president James Ward later explained that the reasons for dropping the line were “mainly financial ones. TSR didn’t have to give a royalty to Dave Arneson if no product was made for D&D.”

Until 2000, all D&D products would appear as part of the AD&D line. After Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they dropped the “Advanced” brand for the game’s third edition. In 30 Years of Adventure, Wizards CEO Peter Adkison wrote, Arneson “was supposed to get a royalty off of any product TSR published in the Dungeons & Dragons line. Previous owners ‘got around’ this royalty by publishing everything as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. To me this seemed silly. I talked with Dave, and we agreed that he would release all claims to Dungeons & Dragons if I simply gave him a big check. I did.”

The split between basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons showed an unflattering side of Gary Gygax. But that side didn’t last. Gary founded TSR as a passionate gamer eager to collaborate—and share credit—with any fellow gamer in a tiny hobby. D&D’s success fostered an ugly side. James Maliszewski from Grognardia calls this persona TSR Gary. During this era, TSR Gary became a shameless promoter of TSR interests, a scornful dictator whose proclamations often defied common sense. In the early 80s, I saw TSR Gary at Gen Con, rushing through crowds, flanked by an entourage. My memory my be off, but I recall hearing the Imperial March play.

In his later years, Gary grew open and generous. Despite his standing, he always gave time to interact with gamers. On enworld, he humbly acknowledged every grateful fan and answered every question. At Gen Con, I spied him at an open table, behind the DM screen, taking fellow gamers into a dungeon. The man even invited random gamers from the Internet to drop by his house to game.

Sometimes, when I feel cynical, I suspect that people never really change. But aside from working with Dave to give D&D to us, the thing I like best about Gary is that he changed, and for the better.

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?