Repeating D&D History

A multitude of recent announcements from Wizards of The Coast has altered the landscape for the immediate future. The first involved the release schedule of D&D Next (or is it 5E, I’ve honestly lost track) while the other heralded an eventual Open Gaming License. The staggered release of the upcoming core books was a surprising revelation, followed by the reveal that any open gaming license wouldn’t go into effect until 2015. When I weighed this information with a healthy dose of perspective, it confirmed an aged business model which WOTC has returned to—designing a game not to embolden players or encourage original campaigns, but to merchandise and sell adventures.

Yes, I know that read as incredibly obvious—I’m going somewhere with this.

Also, at some point, I’m going to lament 4th Edition again. I wanted to open with that spoiler early so as not to upset any of you later.

The upcoming schedule for 5E books closely replicates one fourteen years ago with the release of 3rd Edition. Like 3rd Edition, 5th Edition’s first publication is not the Player’s Handbook but a quick-start adventure. Back in 2000, it was the Dungeon Master’s Guide which followed a month behind the Player’s Handbook, with the Monster Manual the month after. Fast forward to 2008, it was a very different situation; 4th Edition released all three core books simultaneously. Said edition had also planned on inviting 3rd party support early in the development, but then stumbled through a critically-flawed public relations nightmare after the release. 5th Edition is returning to a previous business model which encouraged the purchasing pf adventures at the cost of DM freedom and 3rd party entrepreneurship.

It’s actually a brilliant case of historical irony: The delays in core-books in favor of adventures would have been frustrating for 3rd party publishers back in 2000…except there really weren’t any 3rd party publishers back then, not until the liberating OGL was released. Later with 4th Edition, while a virtual mob of 3rd party publishers waited in the wings, WOTC brilliantly released all the tools required for 3rd party development at once, only to stumble at the end with a bizarre back-peddling license which was nearly uniformly misinterpreted and vilified by the very companies that formed in the wake of the previous edition. Now here we are in 2014, those under the license umbrella have dwindled, and WOTC has staggered the release date of the upcoming core books. One could expect then that the release of a 5E OGL would be embraced, following by 3rd party products flooding the market, ignoring the initial frustration when no one could write anything due to core book delays.

The core book delays are not only frustrating to me as a developer but as a homebrew campaign game master. You certainly can’t develop a fully realized 3rd party publication without the trinity of core books, but additionally, it makes developing an original fan-based campaign extremely difficulty as well. Granted, I’ve designed games without the DMG, but rarely without the Monster Manual. I was once told by Joseph Goodman from Goodman Games that GM’s that design homebrew games from whole cloth (with encounters, histories, and maps) are an extreme rarity. It was even implied that to cater to such a niche market would be economically unwise. Maybe 4th Edition proved this. One only needs to look at Goodman’s own release schedule for Dungeon Crawl Classics, counting 50+ modules since the original DCC rulebook release. As for me, I’ve purchased one D&D module in the past twenty years.

Apparently, I’m a lowballer—acquiring the essentials and finishing the rest on my own. I build my own computers, paint my own miniatures. Hell, I even bake my own bread. The famous line from Glengarry Glen Ross is “Don’t sell a guy one car. Sell him five cars over fifteen years.” Wizards wants people to buy modules, not 3rd party products, and not the tools for game masters to create their own worlds. Their objective is not to enable players to create their own adventures but to supply the adventures themselves. It obviously worked for 3rd Edition and the apparent failure of 4E has shown that it wasn’t broken, so they shouldn’t have fixed it.

Yes, I know that does read as a little sarcastic.

Which brings up the issue with the OGL. The recent Mike Mearls blog post was carefully worded to include the words “OGL” but lack specific mention of 3rd party publishing. However, the OGL is a very specific term with very specific legal implications applied to it. I think it’s a false assumption to think a future OGL would cut out 3rd party support. If the OGL is released and somehow breaks away from the expectations set by the first OGL in 2000, it will be as vilified as 2008 GSL, regardless of interpretation. So let’s assume the OGL is a true open system, disregarding Mearl’s wording, and it allows royalty free licensing; why is WOTC waiting? Obviously, they want to control the release of 5th Edition products, proven again by the delaying of critical rules required for 3rd party development. However, my theory points to an eventual WOTC storefront allowing users to sell their content at the cost of a percentage of the sale. In my opinion, if it was simply a legality issue, the OGL would be released a week after the DMG. To hold it back to 2015 indicates to me that there is something much larger in store for the market. Despite the announcement of the OGL, some people have immediately turned alarmist, stating this odd wording shows the OGL will prevent 3rd party development. I don’t think it will. I am sure there are dozens of publishers who will wait for the official announcement and maybe even the OGL’s legal conditions before making a decision. Considering my lethargic work pace, I can’t afford such obstacles, and I’ll be developing 5E material the moment the PHB hits the stands.

Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

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