Just over a year ago, I wrote about the 5e content strategy, discussing the confluence of the DM’s Guild, the OGL, and the incredibly slow rate of official 5e releases. In this article, I’m exploring what we’ve seen from WotC in the past year, including announced but not yet released products, with particular focus on the newly-announced Guild Adept program. What I have to say on that topic comes out of my experience as a freelance writer, with a fair number of paid published articles through EN5IDER, and four PDFs published through Tribality.
Just so we’re clear, I’m going to write this as if you read the article I linked above. Oh, and some parts of this article get really alphabet-soup-y, so I’ll try to make sure I spell out each acronym the first time I mention the thing.
We’ve had three big product releases since 21 July 2016, and announcements of two more. Storm King’s Thunder, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Tales from the Yawning Portal have come out, and we’re looking toward Tomb of Annihilation and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything in the remaining months of 2017. We’re also expecting Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate as a licensed product from Avalon Hill and the “Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated.” D&D Beyond is the news of the moment – the latest in a long history of more misses than hits in TSR’s and WotC’s digital toolset offerings. Oh, and Planescape: Torment Enhanced Edition came out, which neatly checks off one of my suggestions from last year in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.
Storm King’s Thunder
This book is a great example of relying on some of the strongest, most involved lore in D&D – Forgotten Realms’ giants. I may not have a lot of remaining praise for the mechanics of 2e’s Giantcraft, but the lore compiled there has survived essentially unchanged into 5e, and that’s all to the good. I own a copy of SKT, but I’ve largely avoided reading it in any depth for the same reason I own but have only skimmed Curse of Strahd – I haven’t quite given up hoping that someone in my gaming community will run them at such times and places that I can play in them. As far as I know, the community reception of SKT has been pretty glowing, if not quite as over-the-moon as CoS. I’d love to know what percentage of gaming groups have played each of the hardback adventures.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters
This book is part of their one-per-year series of non-adventure releases – first was Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, then this, and soon we’ll have Xanathar’s Guide in our hot little hands. With so few extant data points, it’s tough to say anything definitive about what to expect in this line. SCAG emphasized setting content and subclasses, while VGtM offers monster lore, more monster lore, monster stat blocks, and some PC races. But mainly all the monster lore. The stat blocks also do a lot to flesh out the Monster Manual’s collection of NPCs. That section of the book might be my favorite thing that WotC has published for money since the core three.
I talked before about how the non-adventure books would probably continue with a blend of player-facing and DM-facing content. That is certainly in evidence here. The new races have been pretty popular among players, seemingly on par with the races of Elemental Evil Player’s Companion (if only because DMs aren’t obligated to solve for flight…)
None of the monster stats or new races here are part of the Open Gaming License (OGL) System Reference Document (SRD), so the net result for the third-party-publishing community is:
It gets harder to sell monsters and new races for a little while. In the longer term, the userbase has a bottomless need for new and interesting monster stats, but in the short term, official content sates demand.
It’s a marginal value add for publishing in the DM’s Guild, since this is more content that they can use. Any impetus to publish within the DM’s Guild is good for WotC. Whether it’s good for the writer is an open question, on which more later. Even within the DM’s Guild, it’s harder to sell monsters and races in the lead-up to and immediately following an official release of same.
Tales from the Yawning Portal
Rather than a campaign-length series of adventures, this book updates classic dungeon crawls to 5e. Most of the community reaction I’ve seen boils down to “why are you re-releasing old content?” and “oh good, shorter pieces for when we can’t commit to a long campaign.” The first question is easy to answer: nostalgia sells, and when that nostalgia is also good content that isn’t easily acquired anymore and would be a lot of work to update, they’re probably going to do real well in sales. 5e is as popular as they could have possibly dreamed, they’re pushing a strategy to bring back lapsed gamers at the same time as they proselytize to new audiences, and old content updated to 5e can appeal to both.
For the second part, shorter pieces for shorter campaigns, the big adventures take longer to play out in full than the approximately 6-month space between releases, unless you have an aggressive and focused gaming schedule. More power to the folks that do, but I suspect you’re in a minority. This book offers something like a break in the schedule, since you don’t need to play it in full to feel like you’ve gotten some value out of it. Because it’s so dungeon-focused, it’s also a code library for high-prep-but-busy DMs. Several of the adventures are ideal for deeper retooling.
The surprising element is that it uses content from Greyhawk and other settings without specifically re-homing it to the Forgotten Realms. There’s sidebar guidance for relocating it in the Realms, but the other thing they needed to do was knock down some walls that were stopping them from using their nigh-Disney-like vaults of non-FR content. Since we also know they’re planning books two years or more in advance, I’m guessing that they wanted to name-drop Acererak in preparation for Tomb of Annihilation. In last year’s article I mentioned that they should develop a broader stable of recognizable characters, especially villains, and I think that’s why Acererak is here. As liches go, only Vecna is more widely known to gamers (so they made him a god several editions back).
I wonder if this book had any impact on the sales of PDFs of magic items (there’s a modest number here) or dungeon-crawling adventures. I don’t have any certainties or data here, just a hunch that you can’t really glut the market on those two areas of content.
Tomb of Annihilation
Since this book is still in my subjective future and no time travelers have shown up to do me a solid (selfish bastards), I’m as interested in how WotC announced this product as I am in what they’ve said. Most importantly, WotC went all-out to turn this product announcement into an Event. It was two days of streaming actual play, announcements of multiple products, developer interviews, and content teasers. In the comments thread of last year’s article, we touched on how streaming was starting to influence design. Colin expounded upon this topic in much greater depth in e-D&D and Parallel Experiences. What we’re seeing here is WotC capitalizing on internet-celebrity actual-play streams and podcasts. Much as White Wolf tried to make its developers into celebrities in the early heyday of the World of Darkness, WotC takes streamers (especially in groups) and lends them further celebrity by making them the face of this new product announcement.
Other things we know about Tomb of Annihilation:
- Acererak is the main villain, and he’s unleashing some kind of zombie plague. Now, Acererak isn’t a villain with any FR-specific lore at all. As I mentioned above, he’s a Greyhawk villain with a recognizable name, so he gets imported.
- It’s set in Chult, which is notable for not being the Sword Coast. It’s still the Realms, sure, but this means they’re releasing FR setting material for a region somewhat further abroad.
Chult has always been a Lost-World kind of place, where dinosaurs are a common sight. I can’t find the reference right now, but I seem to recall dinosaur racing as a potential minigame, and zombie-spewing dinosaurs to fight. I’m excited to see minigames and other ways to spend time in the world. I would hope that helps the players develop connections to NPCs and care more about what they’re fighting for.
- The death plague that is the adventure’s core threat includes a variant mode of play they’ve labeled “meat-grinder.” Increasing the death save DC is a nice shorthand here; I’ll be curious to see if there are more elements not yet discussed. (It’s hardly surprising that I like this take, since I folded it into the Wounds system I posted a few weeks ago.) I expect this will gain a lot of traction in the community once ToA comes out, as people love hardmodes even when the only payoff is bragging rights.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
The 2017 non-adventure book promises to go deep on player-facing content – new feats, new spells, new backstory system (?), and new subclasses. You know, all of the stuff they spent late 2016 and Q1 of 2017 showing off in weekly UAs.
If for some reason you’re new to Tribality, I wrote breakdowns of these. Use our search function and the keyword “breakdown.” I’ll wait.
For DMs, it also has systems and tools to “personalize their home games,” while also offering something for organized-play and shared-world games. Increasing the number of “canonical” game modes seems like a good thing to me – it may reduce the 1:1 sharing of experience between players in different groups, but it builds a common language for the many ways people enjoy D&D. I suspect it also means that gaming communities that find time for a second concurrent tabletop campaign are more likely to stay within D&D than to look to other publishers, even in D&D-adjacent games like 13th Age (sorry, 13th Age fans) or Pathfinder or what have you. It increases the sense of D&D as a container of multitudes.
This is the fourth non-adventure content book (EEPC, SCAG, VGtM, and XGtE – titles that explain why I always want to call it the Elemental Evil Player’s Guide rather than Companion), and the core-plus-one policy of the Adventurer’s League is looking better and better when it comes to keeping content manageable during character creation. It also acts as a kind of brake on power creep, since a single overpowered element probably still won’t explode everything the way three or four would. That said, XGtE is the test of that idea, since it promises a greater volume of player-facing content than any other non-core book. Of the three campaigns I play and the one I run, none of them use strictly by-the-book races, and only one even allows PH races as written. Still, for everyone else out there, I’d strongly suggest adopting core-plus-one-supplement until you’re really sure you want to open the floodgates. On that note, though, we have some great supplements to sell you on DriveThruRPG!
So, look, I can’t actually know why one PDF sells and another doesn’t. My budget for marketing data is the same as my budget for purchasing a private jet. This isn’t about my fragile ego (so fragile); this is about sales-as-data-point. To take this personal for a moment, my third release, “Three Sorcerous Arts,” came out in the midst of the UA blitz. I picked a bad time for it, plain and simple, because third-party content just cannot compete with playtest-official content in the community’s eyes. The run-up to playtest-official content becoming published-official content is no better, and it’s going to stay bad for a good while yet. (By way of disclaimer, there are a lot of other ways to interpret this data point; I’ve just gone with the one that seems most likely. If I thought it was a content-quality problem, I would have fixed thaeady.)
I’m skipping blithely past deep discussion of D&D Beyond, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, or the new DM screen. To summarize:
- BaBG should be another good example of diversifying the brand and getting people to engage with D&D content even when they don’t have time or inclination to play the tabletop game. It also tells stories in the Realms that group-focused action-adventure roleplaying doesn’t do all that well.
- D&D Beyond is struggling with the same problems that 4e’s D&D Insider faced, and it’s solving them by charging a pile of money for content beyond the SRD. The great majority of the reactions I’ve seen so far are people balking at the electronic price point of content they’ve (probably) already purchased in dead-tree format. Supporting and proliferating homebrew content could make this a killer app… if its prices don’t prevent it from finding an audience.
- DM Screens. Sure, whatever? I don’t use them and I haven’t heard a ton of reactions to this either way.
The Guild Adept Program
Okay, all of that was prologue so that I could talk about the Guild Adept program. It’s a new element of the DM’s Guild that, in essence, establishes the pipeline from fan-content creator to WotC-supported internet celeb. Now, if you’ve paid close attention, it’s been clear that some variant of this was always in the works. Think back to the UA article that showcased three DM’s Guild releases: an attempt to accelerate sales of strong products by commissioning UA as a marketing arm. (“X as marketing arm” is only a slam if you are profoundly naïve. This was just a more overt application.) But the community doesn’t like overt marketing, because no one likes overt marketing and because it felt like skipping an anticipated piece of content in favor of summarizing other people’s work. Mearls has also said all along that the way to chase recognition and actual WotC work is to excel in the DM’s Guild.
Chris Lindsay explains the whole deal, presenting the Guild Adept program as a mark of quality beyond a product’s ratings and reviews, for the benefit of the fans. Those who receive the Guild Adept badge also gain some free promotion from WotC’s Twitch channel and the Dragon Talk podcast. That’s face and voice recognition and (relatively speaking) some celebrity status. You’re a small fish in an even smaller pond, but hey.
There’s also a chance to get some work from WotC in writing materials connected to their published adventures – Day One DLC, as he calls it. Now we’re talking about something like a real leg up as a game writer; any kind of significant position with TSR or WotC has long been a huge boost to a resume when you want to get into the much more lucrative video game writing jobs. It’s not clear just how much money or significance you can hope for out of Guild Adept work, but this is the real lure for the not-yet-established writer.
Recognition, a likely boost in sales, and the promise of future work that also gets promoted… that’s a heady mix, and from WotC’s point of view, it’s win-win-win. Good on them.
On the other hand, it’s also WotC doing everything they can to pressure people writing under the OGL to come in from the cold and write for the DM’s Guild. We’re starting to see a lot more big OGL-based settings and books from third-party publishers (such as Tribality’s very own J.M. Perkins or Kobold Press), and those are projects where WotC’s income is more of a potential side effect than a steady royalty. Naturally, they respond by sweetening the pot of the DM’s Guild, while also encouraging a sense of competition by giving writers something to chase… that costs them negligible money.
If you’ve already built a broad audience on DriveThruRPG or Patreon, then no, this won’t affect you at all. If, like me, you’re not sure how to expand your audience or get your name in front of the people who hire for the better-paying work, and especially if you’re hearing other writers sneer at more money per word than you’ve ever been offered, the DM’s Guild looks like a pay-to-play opportunity. That is, you still get to write and absorb all of the risk of the project while giving WotC 25% of the take, but you might rise to the top and get a cookie for it.
Don’t get your hopes up about writing for other companies and other games to avoid this. Just as most games released since 2000 have had an OGL and an SRD, more companies have their own version of the DM’s Guild – 7th Sea’s Explorer’s Society, Unknown Armies’ Statosphere, and so on. I don’t have hard data on which companies are doing the most direct hiring of freelancers, though the paucity of WotC’s release schedule make them unlikely. If I knew one best path to rise from “struggling” to “benevolently passing off my excess work to friends to get them a foot in the door,” I’d eventually even share it here. Honest.
Until Next Year
I concluded last year’s article with recommendations to WotC. Since I have no direct line to them, these are more like predictions, I guess. Let’s do that again.
- Acererak is a good start on recognizable villains that PCs care about defeating. Every major release that goes by without headlining Lord Soth is time wasted on that front, though.
- A main villain that dies for the last time in the same encounter that you meet them for the first time is an under-used main villain. Strahd is an example of doing it right, from most of the stories I’m hearing. Look for ways for PCs to interact with villains, ally with them out of short-term necessity, play two villains against each other… whatever it takes to make the memorable characters that are under WotC’s control into as strong of an experience as they can be.
- Every new major release that stays in the Forgotten Realms is souring a few more fans. Mearls has offered a new round of solemn oaths (his hand on a stack of DMGs) that they really are going to support settings other than FR, eventually. At this point, even people who are moderate fans of FR are looking to explore something else.
- There’s one last step to supercharging the creative strength of the DM’s Guild: erode the sense that all official content is categorically superior to unofficial content. Twitch and Dragon Talk are powerful platforms; let Mearls, Crawford, Perkins, and anyone else with a pulse and a WotC paystub talk about using a third-party supplement in actual play. You don’t have to do this too many times before the community starts to change.
- Go further afield with adventure format. The DM’s Guild and OGL-based writers ape the official content because that’s what the community expects. Knock down walls, open windows, go for real surprise. Here, I’ll help you (and it’s something I’m planning to do myself, once I have time): go rip off The Armitage Files’ structure just as energetically as The Dracula Dossier did.
- It’s great to see new licensed boardgames. I’d love to see card games (what the hell does WotC know about card games anyway?) that engaged with the story arcs. I’d love to see lightweight, fast-playing boardgames. There are a lot of lightweight, fast-playing dungeon crawl boardgames already, so this is just about what WotC or its partners can do in that space. Colin has quite correctly pointed out to me that TSR repeatedly pursued this space in the 80s and 90s, including such titles as The Great Khan Game and Blood Wars CCG. I’ll hope that WotC can learn from the successes and failures of TSR’s past.
- If the marketing says that campaigns are shorter, maybe release a campaign that starts at 10th level and runs to 20th. There is a phenomenal amount of wasted text on the teased promise of high-level play. The whole psychological hook of D&D depends on all of those high-level goodies (class features, spells, magic items, feats, whatever) sitting just out of reach – all you have to do is survive. Every time the campaign ends because the adventure is over and the DM doesn’t shift from running a published adventure to writing their own, D&D is reneging on its promise. Starting over at 1st again is just a bait and switch.
Let’s meet here again next year and see how things look.