Thursday, 12 January 2012

What can we learn from D&D?

So Wizards of the Coast have announced a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Although not a wargame as such, Dungeons & Dragons is very much a descendant of the same tradition and it has influenced and been influenced by wargames. Plus there is considerable overlap in the audiences for wargaming and roleplaying (and of course in the early days Games Workshop was the UK distributor of D&D).

It's fair to say that 4th edition D&D divided its fan base (and slightly less fair to say that it actively sought to alienate them). It was a radical departure from its predecessors and many of its innovations were, supposedly, focused on the fans of PC MMORPGS. The goal was, apparently, to introduce a new audience to the game, though it also succeeded in driving much of the existing fan base away.

The announcement of the new edition has been seen many of 4th editions harshest critics as an admission of defeat. Certainly the statement "we want this to be a version of the game that embraces the entirety of D&D’s history" suggests a reaching out to those players of earlier editions put off by 4th. There seems to be a genuine desire to get back the players that 4th edition lost.

The interesting question, and the one relevant to wargaming, that this raises for me is who exactly Wizards of the Coast should be trying to attract with their new edition. Should a new edition focus on existing players or should they cast the net wide in attempt to grow their market?

I have seen some argue that WOTC should be trying to appeal to a more mainstream audience and even that they should be looking at the same players as Cluedo or Monopoly. This strikes me as ambitious to the point of foolhardy, but if roleplaying is in decline, what else can be done attempt to attract new players?

The problem for roleplaying is that there was once a time, during the very early years of D&D, when it was avowedly mainstream, particularly in the US. D&D was available in high street shops, appeared on television and lead to spin offs like the D&D cartoon and range of action figures. There is still a part of the fanbase, and probably within Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro as well, that hearkens back to that time and even feels that it could be achieved again if the game were only marketed correctly.

It's hard to know whether roleplaying really can be a mainstream pass time or whether it is a fad in slow but irrevocable decline. As a pass time it has only existed for thirty five years or so, the blink of an eye in historical terms.

Wargaming never had Roleplaying's main stream appeal, but has had a longer and more stable history. That said, much of the concerns of Wargame publishers mirror those of WOTC. Do they appeal to an existing fan base or risk trying to grow the industry? Chasing an established fan base may be more secure, but can lead to companies competing for ever smaller slices of what may be a shrinking pie.

In contrast, one of many criticisms levelled at Games Workshop has been that they chase new players and ignore, or are even hostile to, veterans. This is part of the reason why, in the UK at least, so many wargamers start with GW, but can bite them badly, as happened when Pokemon certainly took a huge chunk out of their market or when the Lord of the Rings bubble burst and  they suddenly found they had a much smaller fan base than they thought.

I don't have any answers to these questions, but I will be watching the development of fifth edition D&D with interest to see what lessons, if any, can be learned by the Wargaming industry.


  1. Good post and I generally agree. I will make one distinction though, 3.0-4e is much the same in terms of a big departure from what D&D was originally. When 3.0 came out it forced D&D to be played with a grid and if not minis at least chits for characters and monsters. Some people claim that you can play 3.0-4e era D&D without the grid, but that is like playing 40K without terrain or something. Sure you can, but your going to be altering the game and not using a good hunk of the rules and strategy of the game. So the "grid" era has been the MMORPG era of D&D. 4e changed things more with "cooldown" powers so ya the game even plays more like WoW, but 3.0 played very much like WoW already.

    I really 100% agree though with your comparison between WoTC and GW though. Amalgamation and capital I guess ... they are corporations run by bean counters, lawyers, and business school stooges. The old guard at GW has left and long, long ago that happened at WoTC (hell that happened back when they were still TSR really). I blame the corporate structure for GW and WoTC. For me I'm returning to games I can "own" I've vowed in 2012 to move more into historical minis and small press/indie/mom and pop RPGs. I've just come to the end of my rope with corporate run gaming companies. It was a long glorious run I had with GW and with WoTC and I'm sure they'll put things out that I'll buy and play ... I don't think I'll ever fully give up 40K or D&D and I'm never selling my Warhammer Fantasy figs or my 2nd edition WHFRP stuff ... so they'll always be a part of my gaming life I guess. I just am no longer a focused GW and/or D&D gamer it has just become too frustrating (and too expensive on the GW side honestly).

  2. From what I have heard, it sounds like the story of TSR was that it started out being run by passionate amateurs with limited business sense to cynical bean-counters with no business sense.

    I take your point about Games Workshop, though I maintain that in some ways we have benefitted from a more professionally run company. But to some extent, it's a factor of age. I have so many models now I am unlikely to buy many more, regardless of my feelings about the company. I just don't need them. For that reason, I am a pretty poor marketing opportunity for Games Workshop and so I can understand why they are not chasing my business.

    Why would they care if they alienate someone who is unlikely to buy from them anyway?