OgreCave

D&D Next and limits to growth

January 31st, 2012: Mike Sugarbaker says...
D&D Next and limits to growth

From a somewhat disturbing post over on Story Games:

And yet another different D&D freelancer friend said:

“This is why D&D 4E is called an indie game. It tells you how to play. Many of us know that the rules are better than they have ever been design wise but that’s not the point. Look at Iron Heroes designed by Mike Mearls. The same people who loved that game, a game which was similar to 4E in many ways, hated 4E. Why? They actually like the rules in many cases. But they don’t want to be told this is the way to play. These games are about people. They are about friends. And you don’t know my friends better than I do.”

Now, that’s just the opinion of one alleged freelancer, and even if we took it as truth, it doesn’t pose a large problem… unless you’re interested in the accessibility of D&D. The trouble with not telling people how to play is it limits the game’s growth to the oral tradition. A new group, as in people who don’t know (or don’t know they know) anyone else who plays, must fill in that deliberately larger gap between the rules and the table all on their own, which A) has a lot of known bad side effects, and B) simply fails more often – often enough that I’d guess it doesn’t replace players faster than they drop out.

By returning to not (fully) telling you how to play, Wizards is accepting that D&D is inaccessible from the outside and that the best it can do is reclaim some old players. As we’ve discussed, with D&D Next they’re likely really just aiming to win back recent converts to Pathfinder. That’ll do, corporately speaking; that’ll hold the line. It disappoints those of us who’d rather that D&D were closer to a living part of gaming culture than an archival piece, but it does suit Hasbro’s general M.O. and stated reason for investing in D&D at all: getting value out of a brand through an array of ancillary products. Hell, I kind of don’t know why they don’t just distribute the core RPG books for free. (They haven’t said they won’t, of course; in my view it’d be a smart way to return to the PDF market.)

There are ways, though, that Wizards could make the oral tradition more effective. They’ve announced that they are revamping the D&D website, which is good, but my confidence is a little low that they’ll be able to do what’s really required: utterly changing their online corporate voice. If they did manage it, they could be the oral tradition, the place people go to see and hear what this hobby is and what it looks like when people live it. The right selection of official YouTube videos alone would be a great step towards clearing away the annoyingly persistent confusion about just exactly what it is you do when you play D&D.

That would possibly reopen the door to the world at large. But from what we know right now, that isn’t a goal.

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