RPG Rants: Pathfinder and Periodicals

Part of Paizo's appeal? A very permissive community-use policy that allows things like me posting this image from their blog.Previously when I’ve discussed the history of Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve been pretty complimentary toward Wizards of the Coast, who saved the game after bad management at TSR nearly drove it into the ground. No one’s perfect, though, and this time I’m going to discuss how the desire to fix things that weren’t broken eventually led to the creation of the Pathfinder role-playing game, which is the one RPG that might be outselling D&D these days. The key word in that sentence is might. Sales estimates based on interviews with hobby shop owners have placed Pathfinder ahead of D&D in recent quarters, but not only is that estimates instead of solid numbers but it doesn’t take into account online business. A huge part of D&D’s business model is now their D&D Insider subscription service, while Pathfinder does a lot of their sales through their online stores and Paizo Publishing’s subscription service. Since neither company is going to release full sales figures, the status of what is actually the “world’s most popular role-playing game” is up in the air, and speculating on it is a really good way to start a flame war on any RPG message board. What I’m focusing on here is that whether it is outselling D&D or not, Pathfinder is competing with the world’s oldest RPG in a way that nobody ever has. The only other time that any game ever came close to dethroning D&D was in the 1990s when Vampire: the Masquerade temporarily took the top spot, but that was during a period when TSR was going bankrupt and there were no D&D products at all for a period of about six months. Once Wizards of the Coast took over and the presses started rolling again, D&D reclaimed its top spot. By comparison, Pathfinder is giving D&D some real competition in a market that used to be dominated by one game, and it is doing so while the owners of the D&D brand are still putting out products and have good backing from Hasbro, which owns Wizards of the Coast. And the funny thing is that it didn’t even have to be this way – Hasbro/WotC basically created their own chief competitor. Back in the days of 3rd edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast came to the realization that their popular magazine lines, Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Adventures, were not particularly profitable. Dropping them outright would have caused a lot of hurt feelings with fans, so they licensed the magazines out to a small company called Paizo Publishing, which was largely composed of former WotC employees or those who at least had some history with the D&D brand. Paizo revitalized the magazines and boosted their popularity immensely over the years, and WotC benefited greatly from the fact that all the material produced therein required people to buy their products in order to use. This was much the same way that the Open Gaming License operated. In a move that seemed ridiculous at the time, WotC allowed people to use many of the D&D rules for their own products, creating adventures and even spin-off games with the system they had designed. The result meant that many companies who might have created separate RPG systems instead used the D&D mechanics for their products, creating adventures, supplements, and additional rules sets that generally required gamers to go back to the products produced by WotC to fully used. A prime example would be Goodman Games, which created the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, a group of adventure modules themed around a “1st edition feel.” Not only was the line very successful, but it also helped lure in older players who didn’t like 3rd edition as it was originally presented. But to use any of the modules, you needed a copy of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, meaning that WotC was getting customers from people who would normally have no interest in their products but who were intrigued by another company’s offering in the same line. While it did have its pitfalls, the Open Gaming License was a good thing. So was licensing out the magazines to a publisher that made them both popular and profitable. Somewhere along the line, though, Wizards of the Coast or, more likely, some execs at Hasbro, decided that there was a better way of doing things. Particularly the Open Gaming License was a hard sell to the guys at Hasbro, who themselves are pretty far removed from the actual goings-on within the RPG industry. So, as D&D prepared for a 4th edition, some changes were made. In terms of the Open Gaming License, it’s just my guess but I’m thinking that someone in Hasbro’s hierarchy overruled WotC’s desire to make 4th edition as open as 3rd edition. What am I basing this on? Mostly chats from the forums at ENworld.org. From higher-ups within Paizo Publishing, Necromancer Games, and Green Ronin Games to WotC’s own brand manager of Dungeons & Dragons, it seemed that there was a general desire to make 4th edition as open to other companies as 3rd edition had been. (Yes, this is anecdotal evidence on my part, but when has not knowing the full story stopped somebody from pretending they’re an expert on the Internet?) Ultimately, though, there was a lot of hand-wringing somewhere about the actual language that such a license should include, and there seems to have been the general feeling in Hasbro that the OGL (a license that came about before WotC was acquired by Hasbro) was too open. Ultimately, Wizards of the Coast turned out the Game System License, which was very restrictive and caused a lot of publishers to pursue their own games. Even OGL publishers were free to do so, since the Open Gaming License is something that cannot be rescinded – someone at WotC let the genie out of the bottle, and Hasbro is powerless to put it back in, regardless of what they might want. Even with the times changing and WotC-supported open gaming becoming a thing of the past, there’s a chance that Paizo would have remained on-board with the 4th edition change. After all, the official Dungeons & Dragons magazines would have to work with the official Dungeons & Dragons rules. But here’s where the fixing something that isn’t broken thing really kicks in. A large part of 4th edition’s promotion was the online component. Through D&D Insider, folks would be able to create characters, design encounters, and play online with their friends on a virtual tabletop. WotC decided that the magazines should be part of this digital initiative and ended their license with Paizo. Unfortunately, while D&D Insider has apparently been a success, it’s due mostly to applications like the Character Creator tool, not the presence of the magazines, which have by and large dropped significantly in terms of quality. Many other promised functions that were supposed to be delivered to D&D Insider on launch of 4th edition either got delayed for years or outright canceled – something that was easy to predict for anyone who remembers WotC’s hideous track record with software support for D&D dating all the way back to 3rd edition, which debuted with a demo disk for a character creator that never got finished. That’s not to say that WotC’s digital initiative is a failure – in fact, it seems to be their main source of D&D-related income these days. But it definitely fell short of what was promised, and the magazines have diminished significantly in quality, going from what were excellent periodicals to poorly-supported online newsletters. On Paizo’s end, the loss of their license could have potentially led them to close their doors. But their success with the magazines had given them a reputation of folks who listened to their customers and produced very high-quality products. During the company’s run with Dungeon Adventures, they had introduced the idea of an “Adventure Path” – a series of monthly adventures that took characters from 1st to 20th level. These Adventure Paths were wildly popular, and upon being set into the world without a D&D license, Paizo created the Pathfinder line, which began as a monthly series of adventures that presented a complete campaign. These adventure paths proved popular enough that the Pathfinder line expanded into other products, including one-shot adventure modules and supplements that fleshed out their campaign setting. Still, Pathfinder ran on the 3rd edition rules, utilizing the OGL and requiring people to have a copy of the three D&D core books in order to play. The coming of 4th edition meant that those books would go out of print soon, and the new license being offered for 4th edition compatibility was far too restrictive for Paizo to want a part of. Furthermore, 4th edition was a radical departure from the 3rd edition rules, which meant that unlike most previous editions, players couldn’t just tweak some numbers here and there to easily convert modules from one edition to another. Enter the OGL. While it didn’t include every part of the D&D game, it had the meat of the system right there and free for anybody to use. And since they had to change the system slightly anyway to include things like experience tables, the developers at Paizo figured it would be a good chance to tweak the system and fix some things that people had complained about for years. Thus the D&D got a new edition not named Dungeons & Dragons. Pathfinder is effectively an alternate version of 4th edition that hews to a different philosophy. And it’s become one of, if not the, best-selling RPGs on the market. There were other factors in Paizo’s success, largely attributed to the niche in the market of people who weren’t quite ready to abandon 3rd edition quite yet. Wizards of the Coast hurt themselves a bit through a marketing strategy that emphasized the bad points of 3rd edition almost as much as they played up the good parts of 4th edition, which turned a lot of fans off. Even with the marketing blunder, it is quite probable that most gamers would have eventually switched over to the new edition, were it not for an alternative being presented by guys who had built their reputation on the D&D license to begin with. This is not to say that D&D is failing or that 4th edition is a dud. In fact, both D&D and Pathfinder seem to be doing quite well, and the same reports that have Pathfinder listed on top also indicate that tabletop RPGs in general are selling better this year, suggesting that maybe both games are pulling in more customers than before. However, it’s pretty remarkable that WotC (or possible Hasbro’s interference in WotC) created their own greatest competition. They could have gone with a more permissive open gaming policy that would have had a lot of companies producing 4th edition material. (By comparison, Pathfinder operates under the OGL and has a decent amount of third-party support.) They could have kept the periodicals with the company that had turned them from duds back into golden standards in the D&D world, thus having Paizo create content for D&D rather than their spinoff game – and keeping the magazines on shelves, instead of turning them into an afterthought of an online endeavor that had eyes were bigger than its stomach. They could have done a number of things, but instead they chose to try to fix things that were not broken and created the first real competitor that D&D has ever had.

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