Friday, February 27, 2015

The Curious State of WOTC D&D

5th Edition is complete.  We have all the core books - a Player's Handbook, DM Guide, and Monster Manual.  An adventure path style campaign was released last fall (Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat) with a second one on the way in April.  And that's about it as far as the official release schedule.  Are those crickets chirping at WOTC headquarters?

If we dig a little deeper, the picture gets even grayer.  There were layoffs with the D&D team in the past few months.  The campaign books are being developed by 3rd parties and printed under the WOTC label.  There is no sign of any online magazines, although a few quality articles are coming out per month on the WOTC D&D site.  Meanwhile, competing game lines like Pathfinder continue to flood the faithful with material.

What the heck is going on here?

This is fascinating for me to observe.  The combination of layoffs, outsourcing, and limited release schedule can be interpreted in multiple ways, but I'm reading into this a new approach towards sustainability.  The latest version of D&D is the most old school friendly of the recent iterations, with the easiest path to conversion of older materials to 5E.  Wizards continues to release their back catalog as PDF's on the D&D Classics site.  Why should they invest in rehashing existing materials like campaign settings or adventures, when they can direct players to 30+ years of materials in PDF for easy conversion.

The layoffs and re-tooling of the team in WOTC also appear to suggest aligning for the long haul.  The brand is still a valuable property for licensing, with continued interest in 3rd party computer games, movie rights, board games, and miniatures.  If you ran a company and decided that the table top RPG "glory days" were in the past, but you wanted to keep an evergreen roleplaying game product in the market and take advantage of your 30+ years of historical products, I bet your strategy would look quite a bit like WOTC's.  You could keep a smaller in-house crew, shift the labor of new adventure development to 3rd parties, and retool the internal team for long term support of the brand and licensing.

Chaosium has been successful keeping Call of Cthulhu alive as a property for 30+ years with a similar model.  They seem to run a skeleton crew, keep most of their back catalog available as PDF, and keep everything widely compatible with newer versions of the rules.  Many of the major new products are work-for-hire or independent contractors.

Anyway, that's how I'm reading into the lack of a market flood of 5E products coming out of Wizards.  Somewhere along the line, they made a conscious effort to get into 5E for the long haul while they try and leverage the D&D name in other venues, like the rumored movie rights.  Unfortunately, the modern crowd seems to equate 'market flood of products' with success, and so there are rumblings on the left that D&D 5E must be unsuccessful.  And WOTC hasn't done a fantastic job marketing the ability to convert older stuff to 5E or going after the old school demographic with 5E's friendliness to older style of play.  One of the recent positions they added was a communications manager, so perhaps we're going to see more fan outreach on the horizon.

I'm pretty happy with the current state of things.  I'd like to see a formal OGL or similar license for 3rd party publishers, although stalwarts like Frog God Games are still finding a way under some of their older agreements.  Maybe in a couple of years I'd like to see a 5E treatment for Oriental Adventures or wuxia friendly 5E, but no rush.