Tag Archives: wotc

Why Paizo Still Has An Edge Over WotC

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is out – and it’s pretty good!  I hated Fourth Edition and, like many folks, defected to Paizo’s 3e-derived branch called Pathfinder and Paizo rose to the top of the sales charts for a long period. But now with a viable product, good community engagement, and the nostalgia factor (Drizzle the elf! Space hamsters!) WotC is back in the game.  Will Paizo just fade away, only beloved by a fringe of the old guard?  No, and here’s why.

Let me preface this by saying these are “big boy” reasons, not game system details – how many hit points a bard gets is very meaningful to some ultrageeks but is not relevant to market position. If you wanted to hear something about 5e gnomes vs Pathfinder gnomes, please go play and let the grownups talk for a minute. With that preamble, here are the three major edges Paizo has over WotC and why those will help them maintain their market position.

1. The subscription model. Paizo’s subscription model of selling is like printing money. You’ve heard how comics subscriptions are basically the single largest factor in keeping comics and comic stores afloat right? Well, same effect applies with Pathfinder subscriptions.  The convenience wrenches the money right out of me and many other customers automatically without requiring us to re-make purchasing decisions each month (and to be at the mercy of stores just happening to stock products we want). It’s the same reason why WoW always made huge bank and that model became very compelling to video game producers. Paizo keeps quiet about how much of a big deal this is, probably deliberately so folks like WotC don’t get the memo. But from a business point of view, this is probably the single biggest innovation and leverage point they have from a revenue model perspective. And it’s a big one. I work in software, where we desperately try to get people into subscription models – maintenance, SaaS, etc. because it’s so financially productive.

2. The iconics. With their iconic characters – an idea enhanced from 3e D&D – Paizo doesn’t just have a game system, they have intellectual property. They have then used those iconics to fuel their comics, audio dramas, card games, mini-figs – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see movies or TV in the future. I thought it would be a no-brainer for WotC to have a strong stable of iconic characters in 5e but they completely didn’t for reasons that elude me. Sure, they have some older recognizable characters from their campaign settings – Elminster, Drizz’t, the Dragonlance characters – but they’re not capitalizing on them. One big reason why the D&D movies sucked was that both the good guys and the bad guys were just new made-up generic folks.  “I have purple lips and am evil!” Screw you. Call me when you make Strahd or  Bargle or Vecna or someone the bad guy. Hasbro is supposed to be “branding” geniuses, but even Paizo’s unique visual take on goblins generates stuffed animals and cute comic spinoffs and miniatures while with the 5e launch WotC’s critter of choice, kobolds, has pretty much zero sizzle and visual styling. [Normal] People relate to characters way more than setting way more than rules. Companies work very hard to get good commonalities to use to push customers across product boundaries inside brands, and that’s a great way to do it that WotC doesn’t seem to have an answer for, making it much harder to really capitalize on cross-media opportunities.

3. The adventures. “It’s the adventures, stupid.” Why do people have such nostalgia-love for the old days of Basic D&D/1e AD&D? Do they go back and talk about their love for weapon speed factors and to-hit tables? No, they talk about THE ADVENTURES. Temple of Elemental Evil, Ravenloft, Scourge of the Slavelords, Isle of Dread… These were the shared experiences people had and what they find compelling about the hobby.  Adventuring is the entire point of all the rules and setting content, it’s the actual activity of the game. WotC gets this enough to keep revisiting those classic adventures every edition (Now – Return to the Return to the Keep of the Elemental Hill Giants!) but not enough to actually put out frequent and compelling adventure content themselves except for a smattering of mostly indifferent products. In 3e, the Open Gaming License covered this gap and new adventures are what propelled third party companies like Green Ronin and Atlas Games into the larger businesses they are today. In 4e, they kicked off with a couple and then slid into nowhere and now with 5e, they managed to get two out – but frankly, they’re not all that good, and again, it’s a matter of amount.  Paizo gets out an Adventure Path chapter per month, every 6 months it’s a new one, there’s previous ones where if you want to do gothic horror or Arabian Nights or whatever there’s something to scratch that itch – WotC’s just planning to retread the same old properties, at a plodding pace. And as they are still farting around on licensing, third parties aren’t filling that gap as avidly as they could be. That is leaving player engagement on the table and providing fewer shared experiences to build the nostalgia that’d drive their sales in the future, especially in other media.

So though 5e is a fine game – I’m not sure that as part of the overall package, Paizo has a lot to worry about.  Sure, Hasbro can pump in marketing dollars and get things into bookstores, but a) do they care enough about a small line to do so, as opposed to making more Iron Man doodads, and b) can they really successfully capitalize on multiple product lines and the D&D IP? You’d think that’s where they would be Vikings, but so far early results don’t show a lot of spark there. Anyone that’s listened to Paizo employees talk about behind-the-scenes stuff at Gen Con/PaizoCon seminars (all available on various podcasts) know that they are very smart, squared away professionals who tightly manage their own work, freelancers, licensed products, everything. They’re a well-tuned machine producing huge amounts of product across various channels and product types – Hasbro/WotC could probably do the same – but they don’t seem to be. So sure, brand recognition and deep pockets and being a decent game product will help push 5e into the limelight, but their execution isn’t crisp enough to push Paizo out, is my prediction.

Paizo Violates WotC’s Corpse – Again

There I was about to go to bed when I decided to check up on the latest gaming news.  Well, in a bizarre 1-2 punch,

  1. Wizards of the Coast announces they’re giving up on their virtual tabletop
  2. Paizo announces they’re launching a virtual tabletop that sounds 1000% better

Oh, snap! Wizards has been promising a VTT since the beginning of 4e and has had infinite trouble in delivering. But check out the news on Paizo’s!  Runs in a Web browser and is totally cross-platform; will have content from the Adventure Paths and all; and will be free (you’ll pay for some kind of extras). It doesn’t try to enforce rules (which is great), it just does tokens and map and initiative tracker duty.

I tell you what… Everything I hear about the PF MMO makes me think it’s going to suck, but since they are doing EVERY OTHER THING perfectly, it’s making me doubt myself – maybe it will rule too!

Monte Cook Leaves Wizards/D&D 5e Design Team

In surprising news on his Livejournal, Monte Cook has announced he’s leaving the D&D Next design team. He says it’s not a disagreement with his fellow designers, but with the company.

This is bad news, very bad news, for D&D Next.  Monte was providing external credibility, as someone who had worked on Pathfinder and has been outside the WotC/Hasbro echo chamber, to the process. Mike Mearls has been talking all old school but he’s been in charge of 4e for a long time and many of its missteps belong directly at his feet. I was willing to believe the combined team, I’m not so sure I’m willing to believe “Now it’ll be even better!’ backpedaling/spin from the same old characters.

I wonder what ‘corporate disagreement’ is in this case. Did they not want to pay him enough?  Or did he see the business plan and think “this is crap on toast?” The Examiner has some speculation. Mearls’ post does have a little bit of a lightly disguised slap-back in it so I’m not sure the “company not the designers” thing is entirely forthcoming.

I guess we’ll see; Wizards took the opportunity to announce that the 5e playtest will start on May 24. Maybe we’ll see something good… But the person with the most experience working with actual players and getting playtest information on products just left. And I’m worried that they’ll just show off some core mechanic that will seem fine…  When I did my initial 4e PHB readthrough, the core mechanic itself seemed fine, it was what they did on top of it that (IMNSHO) ruined the game.

Well, good luck to Monte, and good luck to the 5e team.  (The latter needs it!)

D&D 5e Coming Along… Nicely?

I think it’s no surprise to anyone that WotC has burned every bit of their credibility with me over 4e. And I am a little dubious about the “multiple coexisting levels of complexity” plan they have espoused for 5e.

But so far what I’m hearing about the specific for 5e are really positive. At DDXP they had some seminars, let’s evaluate what they’re saying!

Class Design

The Good

  • Taking Vancian magic back to casters from everyone – in other words, removing “dailies” and crap from fighters
  • Not using so much “jargon” like the power keywords in favor of natural language (thank you!!!)
  • Quick chargen
  • Power not escalating as quickly, for example the fighter BAB not going up so fast, instead just getting more other options, so iconic monsters like ogres are interesting longer
  • No mandatory magic item economy!!!  YAY!
  • Including all the PHB1 classes from all editions, 1-4
  • Easy 3e style multiclassing, which obviates the need for too many variant classes that should just be multiclassing (like every gish ever).

The Questionable

  • Although they are talking about balancing classes not strictly on DPS, which is great – like if the bard does 70% of the damage of a fighter, they get charm and stuff as compensation – but those sample percentages still seem to say that everyone needs to be a combat guy.  That’s not very 1e.

The Bad

  • Nothing? I have to admit except for me being dubious about the true effectiveness of mixing various complexity levels in one game I don’t see anything here that makes me crap myself in rage, which is more than any 2 pages of the 4e PHB can say.

Skills & Ability Scores

The Good

  • Removing rolls in favor of “yeah, your stat is high enough, you’re good”
  • Use of stat checks for saves
  • 4d6 drop lowest as basic stat gen method
  • skills as smaller tweaks to ability scores
  • interaction first, checks come second
  • No set skill list, something can give you +2 to opening jars
  • non-adventuring skills sound like they work kinda like 2e NWPs, which is good
  • Bringing the Great Wheel cosmology back
  • Maybe stat boosting magic, but with caps
  • Silver standard
  • Wider categories of weapon specialization (e.g. axes, not “battleaxe”)
  • Less scaling while leveling
  • Quick prep
  • More power to the DM
  • grittier low levels (not quite 1e, but not superheroes like 4e)
  • skill challenges should “die in a fire” because they mess up the narrative
  • grid-based combat optional in core books

The Questionable

  • Both race and class give you a stat bump, which is fine in the abstract but I worry about it feeding the bad, below.
  • Themes.  They seem to be focusing a lot on these new themes, which is fine, kinda like 2e kits which I liked – but I worry they’re going to put too much power in them (some 2e kits were quite unbalanced too). But later they talk about them limiting class sprawl which is nice.

The Bad

  • I’m worried about the intense stat dependency.  Stat min-maxing wasn’t so important in 1e but it’s all super important in 3e and that sucks. It makes people cry about rolling stats and makes them too min-maxable as they stack their race/class/point buy/etc on top to give themselves +5 to hit and 20 dps at first level.
  • NPCs not being built like PCs. That’s 4e-ism and it sucks.
  • Still talking about their “virtual table” and hedging about PDFs.  Sigh. They’ll never write good software but they need to wake up and join the 2000’s in terms of digital content.

Summary

So… Awesome? Bringing simulation back to the game? Making sure you can do iconic 1e things? I have to admit, I am not convinced they can wean themselves off rules-heavy and take it to more of a 2e-ish approach. But I like 90% of what they’re saying!  If they can restrain their impulse to write 500 pages of fucking rules, and keep the stat dependency in check so there’s not the big hassle of min-maxing and stat dumping, this has potential. Maybe even potential to be better than Pathfinder – I love Pathfinder, their flavor and art and everything is nice, but  it suffers from its 3.5e legacy of being so rules heavy – people try “cap at level six” variants like E6 to try to avoid the worst of the power inflation and craziness.  Will 5e be the best yet? I still am not to the point where I’d bet money on it, but it seems like WotC has learned the lesson that Microsoft learned with Windows Vista – giving people what you want them to have instead of what they want never works out well for you.

All Inclusive D&D 5e?

Well, as you heard recently, D&D 5e (or “D&D Next,” as they are styling it) has been announced. There were hints about how it would be some kind of “includes every version everywhere RPG toolkit!” and Monte Cook confirms both that he’s been working on 5e and that that’s their intent.

The thing is, there’s ways in which I think that’s possible and ways in which I think it’s not. On the one hand, if they return to publishing real content in setting books and adventures, that is somewhat “cross editions” – one of the main weaknesses of the 4e products was that they were useless for anyone not playing 4e, whereas editions 1-3 tend to freely exchange adventures, setting info books, etc.

It is also possible to have different levels of complexity of the same rules.  I actually played around with a game system with three levels of granularity called “The Third Degree” a while back, it was inspired actually by the action movie RPG Feng Shui.  There you had cascaded stats – like you might have Body 5, but below that Str, Con, Mov, and Tgh of varying amounts. For mooks their stat blocks would just say “Bod 5,” and you would use 5 for any sub-stats that came up.  I realized you could maybe please everyone if you had three degrees of complexity of each mechanic. Where it fell down is that you essentially needed technology to be able to print a custom RPG book for each player in the game so that they’d know what level of everything a given campaign was using!

I mean, earlier D&Ds had all kinds of optional rules and also rules not marked as optional but that were so fiddly everyone ignored them (weapon speeds, weapon types vs. armor, declaring actions, and other such lameness). So that sounds difficult but not impossible.

What is impossible is actually unifying 1e, 2e, 3e, PF, and 4e as they stand into a single rules framework.  It just won’t work. There’s too much crufty little crap that is not just “levels of complexity” but “different.” And I think they know this; in Monte’s article he uses circumlocutions like “your 3E-style game”. In fact, he says a 1e-loving player can play in your 3e-style game and ignore the options they don’t like – I think that’s probably overreaching; just having the level of granularity be the campaign is probably about as much that’s achievable. And the GM is going to have to have control.  “You are all starving!” “I ignore the starvation rules, they don’t come in till 3e!” But the real question is, will this really bring the players back in?  “Here, you can play at this level that’s 1e…ish?”

I also worry that their attempt to pander to all versions will make them not really innovate with this game. If all they do is try to glue all the old versions together in some demented Multiverser kind of way, in the end is that compelling? Shouldn’t such a game include a new “5e” as well which is an actual improvement on the game?

Here’s a secret.  We grognards don’t love Pathfinder, and 2e, and 1e (in my preferred order) because they are perfect. There’s a lot of BS and cruft in them. Except for the total nostalgia whores who demand everything be as Gygax originally spit it out because they are into that, the reason we like those old games is the level of hassle they give or don’t give us and the mode of gameplay they promote.

Here’s what I like and dislike about all the editions, let’s see if they can include all the good and remove all the bad.

  • Basic D&D – low hassle, low rules, low character customization (side note – comparing this new toolkit plan to BECMI is largely incorrect;  in BECMI you got newer higher levels added on and a couple rules, but the ruleset didn’t transform or anything.) Lightly handled all styles of play really. I just lump 0e into here because I can’t understand how anyone actually does still like 0e. Very rules light and dungeon/exploration focused.
    I love this edition because it gives you the basics and then gets out of your way and lets you go adventuring.
    I hate this edition because once you’ve played it a while you tend to “want more” though.
  • 1e AD&D – somewhat crufty and arcane, but usually not during combat itself. Low powered, you had to fight hard to stay alive, no level appropriate kid gloves. Exploration focus still. Not much character customization supported by the rules, mainly by personality plus whatever mutation White Plume Mountain inflicted on you. The golden age of the adventure module.
    I love this edition because it is very easy to write a diverse set of adventures for and to house rule.
    I hate this edition because there’s a charming level of wonkiness to the rules, but it’s underlaid by a not charming at all level of cruftiness you need to house rule away.
  • 2e AD&D – not all that different, more of a streamlined 1e (I like it better than 1e), but the supplements and adventures that came out for it promoted more of a storytelling and roleplaying experience. Not as much focus on the dungeon, but kinda like Basic had nods to wilderness, dungeon, city, planar, etc. You were a fraction tougher than in 1e but still weren’t a superhero. Lots more character customization via kits etc. (Those who say kits were unbalanced haven’t played subsequent games – “Oh lordy he gets a +1 to something!” was a big deal back then, but nowadays they all seem like short bus prestige classes.) NWPs provide a very, very loose skill system. (I actually added Perception and Luck stats to my 2e games.) The golden age of the boxed set. TSR adventures were not that good and were often retreads.
    I love this edition because it hits a great midpoint of rules complexity – it has the more rules content of 1e but via THAC0 and other streamlining, makes it less work than 1e to play, but more satisfying over a long time than Basic.
    I hate this edition – well, mainly for historical reasons.  Death of TSR, Lorraine Williams, giant space hamsters, Castle Greyhawk, bad adventures.
  • 3e AD&D – you start off a Billy Badass. 3.5e and Pathfinder cranked that up even more. Lots of character customization, arguably too much. Lots of helpful slash painful rules for everything.  3.0 core I actually really love, but am more ambivalent when you say 3.5 or PF with all the splatbooks. You stopped being able to house rule as much in this version because of how many rules they were and how much they interacted – you kinda had to just allow/disallow things and maybe if you spent a lot of time balancing it, introduce a new prestige class or whatever. Balance became a lot more of a concern in this edition, mainly because with the customization you could have wildly varying power levels at the same character level. More of a combat focus than 2e, especially with all the minis-requiring flanking/AoO/etc rules. The golden age of the adventure module come again, but from all those third party OGL folks. WotC adventures were not that good and often retreads.
    I love this edition because it lets you craft much more detailed and realistic characters, with the multiclassing and feats and all.
    I hate this edition because there are all these damn rules, and your players think it’s their place to grouse when you don’t use them or change them.
  • 4e AD&D – purely tactical combat. Less character customization choice but highly balanced. “I just like moving minis around and playing a board game.” There are actual good changes to the core ruleset in there, but then they layer goofy stuff all over it so that combats are a four hour long exercise in marking tokens with other tokens.
    I hate this edition because it removes nearly everything I enjoy in roleplaying.
    I love this edition because its flat reception has caused Wizards to pull their heads out of their asses and reassess what it is people liked out of D&D in the first place.

D&D 5e is Coming!

It’s official! It was obvious from all the Mearls/Cook noise from over there in WotC land, but now the New York Times is reporting that Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is planned to be announced by WotC today! They cite the MMO pressure and the split to Pathfinder and muse – as do we all – about whether WotC can bring D&D back together again.

If nothing else, despite its “dwindling market” it’s good news that the NYT considers this part of all the news that’s fit to print!

For those who consider this to be dubious news and part of the Great Media Conspiracy, Mike Mearls has responded on wizards.com to say it’s true and that they’re going to take a big hint from Paizo and do an open playtest of the new rules! You can sign up at that link.

This isn’t really surprising for those who have been watching. The Escapist recently published three articles on D&D’s past, present, & future that inform the landscape behind it very well.

Well, this is good news I think.  I’m one of the many who told WotC from the first steps of 4e that they were about to really mess up and fragment the hobby, and look, that’s exactly what happened. This is a big chance, and Mike Mearls and Monte Cook might be the right people, to un-screw up Wizards and D&D.  This is a hard task  given their corporate setup; here’s an interesting article on ENWorld from insider Ryan Dancey about how the Hasbro financial reporting structure and internal politics has really smacked D&D down hard and basically drove them to their ill-considered “let’s make it all depend on DDI and then not deliver” strategy.

Also, I like the open playtest idea.  Now, there are problems with open playtests – with Pathfinder, they got a lot of flack from some folks from not being willing to change too much despite fan feedback. D&D could fall into this trap too, and consider 4e (or 3e, depending how much they’re willing to admit their mistakes) too much of a must-have baseline. But if they take too much “fan input,” you get something designed by committee, which always sucks more than something designed by a small set of skilled artists. But the open playtest is no longer a rarity – Paizo has made sure of that; Goodman Games is using it for their Dungeon Crawl Classics, 6d6 does it routinely, and even those not doing truly open playtests seem to be doing more closed playtests (if the number of invites I get for such things is any guide).

ENWorld has three articles on the new edition: WotC Seeks Unity With a New Edition, The Day Wizards Showed Me 5th Edition, and Bet You Wish Your Workplace Looked Like Wizards of the Coast (this last is the most unlikely, unless you love being laid off). They are also keeping up a 5e Info Page with all reveals to date. Best quote so far is from former D&D Brand Manager Scott Rouse – “4e is broken as a game and business and it needs to go away.” The weirdest thing is all the news coverage it’s getting- from the Huffington Post to PerezHilton.com to HispanicBusiness.com.

Also, there’s an article on Forbes from a playtester – he got to play in an early draft of 5e and liked it.

The blogosphere results are in and there’s a lot of dubiousness.  GeekDad from Wired’s article on the new edition is probably a good representative response. I have to admit I’m dubious but hopeful.  If they could carry off Pathfinder compatibility, that would be a coup. WotC needs to realize they’re not the 900 lb gorilla any more, Paizo’s been eating their lunch in sales for a year now and is expanding into novels, comics, minis, MMOs… If they could come up with some plan to merge the two instead of leaving them divided, then BOOM goes the dynamite! If they don’t… 5e would have to be super amazingly good to sway me from Pathfinder, and I don’t just mean the rules – all the good content people have (usually after being laid off my Wizards) gone to Paizo, which is why the 4e adventures have reportedly been largely tripe. We’ll see if they can really swallow their pride and unify…

Many people are chiming in with what they want 5e to be like but frankly most strike me as confused and sucky. I really like Zak’s (before the announcement!) ideas on what 5e should be like though…

State of the RPG Union: Wizards of the Coast

Well, Wizards of the Coast is still plugging along, but it’s not looking good.

They have performed their traditional annual Christmas layoffs, this time tossing super-veterans Rich Baker (read his goodbye on the Wizards forums) and Steve Winter.

Rich had been with TSR/WotC more than 20 years and worked on Alternity, Spelljammer, Birthright, Forgotten Realms, Axis & Allies,and much more.

Steve had been with TSR/WotC for 30 years!!! He worked on Marvel Super Heroes, Star Frontiers (my first RPG), the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set (my favorite setting), Pool of Radiance…

Of course long tenure and loyalty mean nothing to Hasbro, they are happy to fire people right before Christmas (it’s good for them financially since it’s their end of fiscal year) even when they’ve been there 20 or 30 years.  Stay classy, guys. Of course older employees make more money, so clear them out for young guys you can get to work for half the amount.

As everyone no doubt knows, they’ve hired Monte Cook and signs point to him and Mike Mearls working on D&D 5e, possibly for a 2013 release. Which I guess could be good since Mearls has been trying to make conciliatory noises at the “alienated by 4e” crowd. However, I see two bad signs.  One, Monte’s columns so far have been – strangely lackluster.  As in “fourth grade reading level” lackluster.  I don’t know why, he’s more talented than that, I wonder if there’s some strange restriction in place, but they really have been drivel.

But from what him and Mearls seem to be saying – instead of one well-designed game, it seems like they want to try to make everyone happy by making a “make your own D&D kit” instead of just making one D&D.  Which worked out so well for FUDGE. I think accommodating DIY and house rulers is great – but just be careful not to require it, guys. D&D has gone from a nice simple streamlined game in early D&D days to a hideous 500 page beast – cut that shit back. Someone should be able to play the game – not some dumbed down “beginner’s” version, but the real game – without a law degree. I like Pathfinder but the diarrhea of the rules there is getting me down too.

Also, they just got done suing Atari to get the rights back for D&D computer games, despite Atari being the best thing that’s happened to them since the Gold Box games.

Has anyone else noticed that when they go to wizards.com, the popdown at the top even says “Brands” now?  Not “Games.”  Not even “Products.”  Just “Brands.” How shit-tastic. That doesn’t bode well.