Fifth Edition’s Content Strategy
In various communities around the internet, I’ve seen a lot of people complain about WotC’s glacially slow publication schedule for 5e, often suggesting that they do not understand why WotC is making these choices. I don’t have any insider knowledge, but I pay attention to what people like Mike Mearls, Monte Cook, and Ryan Dancey have said, and I’ve watched the successes and failures of other content models.
If it helps my credibility, I did successfully predict the DM’s Guild back in 2012. Considering that RPGNow got its start in 2001, this wasn’t exactly a revolutionary idea! It was just the right combination of WotC and OneBookShelf getting paid. I’ll come back to this.
Content Models, 2013 and Earlier
In the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, David “Zeb” Cook explains why they even bothered to make a Second Edition:
“The AD&D game evolved over the course of 16 years. During that time, the game grew tremendously through play. Changes and improvements (and a few mistakes) were made. These were published in subsequent volumes. By 1988, the game consisted of 12 hardcover rule books. It was physically and intellectually unwieldy (but still a lot of fun).”
Change the details, and you could apply this quote to OD&D, 3e, 3.5, 4e, Pathfinder (sorry, PF fans! Paizo’s publishing model makes it clear that they know this is an issue), all of White Wolf’s core product lines, RIFTS… really, we can just say it’s how tabletop gaming has worked up to this point. The lifecycle of editions varies – Call of Cthulhu has published more editions than D&D has – but just about any game that meets with any level of success (and isn’t already an offshoot edition of another game – hi, Pathfinder and 13th Age!) releases multiple editions as they go along.
Thanks to various factors, most of which are the internet, the lifecycle of D&D editions (ignoring revised or “half” editions for a moment) grows shorter over time, though OD&D and 1e are a complicated case of simultaneous support. That is, one of the most popular version of OD&D, Frank Mentzer’s BECMI in the early ‘80s (and its Rules Cyclopedia re-release in ’94) are well after 1e was published and strongly embraced by the community of the day.
2e came out in 1989, and began the Age of the Splatbook – Complete Fighter’s Handbook and all of its cousins, and a similar approach to Forgotten Realms, and so on. Skills & Powers – which I wouldn’t be too shy about calling 2.5e – released in ’95.
This undersells the content cycle of 2e and 3.x, though. There are so many settings. Forgotten Realms is the cash cow, but there’s also Birthright, Planescape, Dark Sun, Council of Wyrms, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Al-Qadim, Kara-Tur, and approximately seven hojillion more – just within 2e.
It will never stop being weird to me that 3.x didn’t fully embrace Planescape, of all things – they even created an alternate Sigil, called Union, for the Epic-Level Handbook. They had good reasons not to support all of their settings, though: too many settings splits the fanbase, because some portion of your fanbase stops purchasing Setting A when they fall in love with Setting B. There’s a problem with this reasoning, though – if it was that easy for them to fall out of love with Setting A, the odds are pretty good that they were going to taper off their support. On the gripping hand, most customers have non-infinite wealth to spend, so even a multiclassed superfan of Birthright, Ravenloft, Planescape, and Dark Sun (you know who you are) has to pick and choose.
3e came out in 2000 and did the same. (It was a real good time to be in college, with lots of spare time and an on-campus gaming store. Hail to thee, Tyche’s Games!)
3.5 came out in 2003 – conveniently, just as my college campaign was ending, so there was no danger of trying to convert. This is the point at which I started hearing the average fan grumble about D&D’s edition cycle and the need to buy the White album the core books again, to say nothing of keeping up with the splatbook content (as Complete Warrior replaces Sword and Fist, etc.) 3.0 was intensive; 3.5 was a whirlwind. Oh, and there was this OGL thing. See my link above for more detail on that.
3.x duplicates the 2e approach to settings, though with fewer settings to support overall. For… reasons… I don’t really know why, Greyhawk was the default setting. I’m not sure why they thought the fanbase was thirsty for Greyhawk, when it hadn’t seen a word of support (outside of Dungeon and Dragon magazines) in 2e. The product lines for FR and Eberron are robust; there are also individual books for a number of other settings (Ghostwalk, et al.), and licensed third-party support for Ravenloft and Dragonlance. Maybe others also? It was a wild time. The early OGL was a hell of a drug.
The 3.x era also saw the invention of Adventure Paths, starting with Sunless Citadel. In a lot of ways these look back to the unifying common experiences of 1e – White Plume Mountain, Temple of Elemental Evil, and so on.
4e was announced at GenCon in 2007, and came out in 2008. It launched into the same content cycle as 3.x had, in generally the same order. There were a lot of divisive things about 4e, but its content cycle wasn’t particularly strong among them. By this point, the people who were upset about the content cycle weren’t buying into 4e in the first place. I’m sure that a percentage of the fanbase didn’t even give 4e a try because they didn’t want to buy the core books again, never mind any differences in mechanics.
4e had the GSL rather than an OGL. See my link above for analysis of its issues.
4e’s Essentials line is another case of a 4.5 edition, launching just two years into 4e’s lifecycle (Q3 2010). In brief, I’ll say that 4e Essentials was a way to use 4e’s excellent, clear data presentation with content and gameplay dynamics a little more like earlier editions. 4e Essentials had a comparatively small content line, and an even shorter run – I believe they had stopped all production of new 4e Essentials books when the D&D Next public playtests started in 2012.
4e did have a big shift in its content approach to settings, though. Forgotten Realms was originally going to be two books, the Setting and the Player’s Guide, just as they did for Dark Sun and Eberron. Instead, they started some of their cross-promotion and exploitation (not in a bad way) of fan favorites, with Neverwinter and Menzoberranzan. Neverwinter has been a centerpiece of Forgotten Realms content, especially in non-tabletop media, going all the way back to the 1991 AOL game, and continuing to the Neverwinter free-to-play MMO.
Throughout this history, there has also been sideline business in other media – board games, video games, Facebook games (not a great game, but far better than the average run of FB games), card games, movies, novels, a TV show. The less we say about the movies, the better. The big shift in recent history is toward high-production-value board games. I’ve played two of them myself, Castle Ravenloft and Lords of Waterdeep. I enjoyed both, but I think it’s very safe to say that LoW was the better received – by virtue of being a runaway success, including a mobile translation. Of all the board games, LoW is the deepest dive into setting canon and the greatest distance from actual D&D mechanics. I’m going to assume that that’s not specifically causative for its success, and instead it’s just a very well-designed worker placement game.
Especially in the early ‘80s, at the first peak of D&D’s popularity, Gygax explored all kinds of merchandising and diverse streams of revenue. These didn’t all pan out, and overreach led to serious issues and a company takeover. It wasn’t pretty, but this isn’t the article to explore that history – others have done it much better than I can.
In January of 2013, WotC partners with DriveThruRPG to create DnDClassics.com, which proves to be a key sign of things to come. In all seriousness, it is like the lightbulb finally went on over someone’s head and they realized that they had thirty-nine years of content from an enormous number of writers, which WotC owned free and clear, but had not made legally available to fans. They even re-released the core books of earlier editions. This from a company that, five years earlier, stopped releasing legal PDFs of their core books because they wanted to twist your arm into a DDI membership.
Which Brings Us, After Diverse Misadventures, To Fifth Edition
At long last it is 2014 and, in August, 5e launches and brings me to the point of this article. At the time of its launch, there were three major video games active – the surprisingly tenacious Dungeons & Dragons Online (I wouldn’t have guessed that game would be going strong 10 years in!), Neverwinter, and Sword Coast Legends. Even though their rules systems have nothing to do with each other at this point, the big-event adventures provided an interconnected experience between each of these games and 5e.
The product model for 5e is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Years before there was an SRD, they released D&D Basic for free. Sure, it’s stripped down, but you could play an unlimited amount of D&D for free – and more importantly, you don’t need to shell out $90-150 to in order to start buying adventures. The adventures work fine on free rules! You also don’t need the core books in order to make most DM’s Guild content work, though there are some caveats to go with that (no beholders, mind flayers, or other Product Identity monsters that are part of why you would release through the DM’s Guild rather than just using the OGL).
After the core three, there have been two releases with any substantial amount of rules content: the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. We’re a month shy of two years in. Remember, by this point in 4e’s lifecycle, Essentials was on the horizon. There’s no sign of anything remotely similar for 5e. Instead, they’ve hugely pushed the sense of unified community experience with Tyranny of Dragons, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, and Curse of Strahd.
But didn’t all of the deep content of earlier editions make money? Sure it did. It also cost money and represented risk. The D&D department of present-day WotC is tiny in terms of headcount. Curse of Strahd is the only adventure written in-house, with Tracy Hickman; the others were created through partnerships, usually with companies full of former WotC and TSR writers.
An intense content cycle burns itself out and causes the need for new editions, on both a design level (because rules have become clunky through expansion) and a financial level (because those are the books that absolutely won’t lose money). There’s some speculation here, but it sounds to me like Hasbro wants D&D to cut costs as far as possible, while maintaining a high profit margin through other means. This is called “how you keep a business afloat 101.” More than that, though, D&D is the Big Dog of tabletop games (D&D and its derivatives are a far bigger market-share than all other games put together) – but a teensy little nothing to a behemoth like Hasbro. This makes a lot of sense if you’re D&D and would not like to be sold.
The D&D Next playtest cost money for more than two years, without earning a penny back during that time. Announcing that there would be a new edition was, for most people I would guess, a knife in the heart for sales of 4e and 4e Essentials material. (All respect to those who still play and love 4e Essentials. You do you.) Opening the back catalog through DnDClassics.com kept them afloat, though most measures of D&D’s market share showed them getting kicked to death by Pathfinder during this time. The point here is that they took a really long time making this game, and now they don’t want to make new core rulebooks for a really long time. I know I would be happy if I’m still using the same core books ten or fifteen years from now, and I suspect that the D&D devs feel the same way.
The DM’s Guild is just about as clear an example of a low-cost revenue stream as you could want. What WotC brings to the table is decades of content: “anything with a Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft label,” which incidentally also opens Al-Qadim and – presumably, though I haven’t seen it confirmed – Kara-Tur and Maztica. I’m also curious about the Masque of the Red Death.
Anyway, in exchange for using – but never canonically changing – WotC’s content, the third-party publisher grants a 50% cut that OneBookShelf and WotC presumably split. I don’t know the backstage details, but if publishing through DriveThruRPG is a yardstick, I assume that’s 25% to OBS and 25% to WotC. There’s maintenance-level work that goes into the DM’s Guild, but let’s be real, OBS covers that out of their share. Other than that, Mearls stumps for a few DM’s Guild products in UA. Considering that he’d be spending that time writing a UA column anyway, that is damn close to no cost at all. I don’t have access to any kind of data on how well the DM’s Guild is doing, but any situation where you’re making money when someone else does work, and not accruing costs… that’s a good place to be!
They’ve been open about the fact that they are kind of crowdsourcing a lot of their content development – letting the cream rise to the top of the DM’s Guild, that is. They expect users to go to the DM’s Guild for a portion of their new-content fix, and to the hardback adventures for the rest of it. Once upon a time, the writers of Adventurer’s League adventures got paid as work-for-hire. Now the DM’s Guild is their distribution channel too; getting 50% royalties might be a really good deal, but only if the community goes for it.
Cutting the official D&D forums is an element of this too, and a much more dangerous one. I happen to know something about the dangers of companies completely outsourcing their community management – a few years ago I worked with a company that did this. You’ll be shocked to learn that the community became a hive of scum and villainy. This is what happens when the moderators don’t moderate because they have no incentive. WotC is lucky, then, that there were several pre-existing communities with their own standards of behavior. Even better, there are differing standards of behavior in each community. Still, I wonder if they saw this as the risk that it looks like to me. If 5e had been a weaker release, I think the decision would have been a nail in their coffin.
Their content model for published books is interesting, too – for virtue of having rarely been tried! As we all know, they’ve slowed their roll… but D&D Basic, the 5e SRD, and the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion are all free-as-in-beer. I still don’t quite get why they made the EEPC free but didn’t continue that approach on into the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. SCAG is mainly a setting book, but has some rules crunch that DMs won’t care about all that much (at least I don’t, when thinking as a DM; when thinking as a player, banneret is All That), but which will get players to consider buying it. Okay, that’s nothing really new – just about every campaign setting has had some rules crunch, because players won’t really believe it’s a different setting if the mechanics don’t do something new. No, it’s Volo’s Guide to Monsters that shows that they might be doing something new – it’s not exactly a monster book, it’s not exactly a setting book, it has some new player races. Previous editions have had monster books (so many monster books), setting books, even books doing a deep dive on a single monster type (Draconomicon; I, Beholder; the one on illithids, etc.). This is more like a grab bag of content that is trying to make sure more than one person in any group of five or six wants a copy of it.
That’s really the problem they’re facing and need to solve. In previous editions, there were clear delineations (players get red or brown, DMs get blue or green, plus whatever the monster books look like) of whether a book was for players or DMs. On one hand, there’s a lot to be said for players not digging through the setting books, and maintaining a sense of surprise. On the other hand, if you’re going to spend all of this time and money making a book, it would be nice to sell it to as much of your customer base as possible! I believe that that’s the crux of their strategy: keep the demand for each individual book high by not glutting the market (but making money off the glutting of the third-party market), and wherever possible, fold in content that is for everyone. This strategy has worked on me, at least: I own more adventures for 5e (four, including “Lost Mine of Phandelver”) than for all of 3.x and 4e put together (uh, maybe three, not counting starter adventures in setting books).
Oh, and they’ve partnered with Fantasy Grounds, a paid online tabletop. I don’t know anything about the default state of that partnership, but now that they’re integrating Adventurer’s League content into Fantasy Grounds through the DM’s Guild… congratulations, you’ve got a house rake on a whole other medium of gameplay. Solid move, and leaving money on the table not to do that.
Thinking for a moment as an occasional OGL publisher, they’re scrupulously avoiding references to the OGL and content published through it, while taking every opportunity to push the DM’s Guild. For all that doing otherwise could benefit me personally, they’re not stupid, they get no cut of OGL work, and their message control is strong. The DM’s Guild has become a kind of inner-circle marketplace for third-party 5e content – it’s just a little easier to be heard above the din there. So many shoppers start there, because WotC’s articles and press releases – and even Mike Mearls’s Twitter feed – tell them to.
Ludus Quondam Ludusque Futurus
As it happens, WotC has a brand new president, Chris Cocks, so who knows what the future will hold? All I’m saying is, stop wondering why D&D has a glacially slow content cycle, and stop wondering when we’ll hear about a big book of rules getting released – they’re doing this with forethought. I mean, Mearls is still working on revising the ranger, we don’t have an announcement of a product that would contain a new version, and we’re less than two months shy of a year since the last alternate version. They’re measuring nine times and cutting once.
Even at two new big adventures per year, I’m betting that plenty of the customer base who are interested know that they’ll never get around to running or playing those campaigns. I don’t expect to see that accelerate, because once they do that, they’re rushing out filler content – why bother, when there are so many third-party publishers meeting that demand and, like as not, paying them for the privilege? They want a community in which players across the country can talk about their experience of the same adventure. On the digital side, they want to sell content that has user recognition and buy-in, earned through the tabletop market if possible.
Expect to see them get better and better at turning their back catalog into money, both inside and outside of tabletop gaming. Expect to see more settings open up to DM’s Guild use – Dark Sun next, if the work on the Mystic is any measure, followed (I dare to hope) by Planescape. Honestly, Planescape is a lot more likely than Dark Sun, because FR and PS are canonically joined (well, if you ignore 3.x FR’s World-Tree cosmology in favor the Great Wheel), while Athas is as cosmically isolated as it is possible to be. They’re going to keep going back to their FR base for a long time to come, because they don’t want to abandon Neverwinter, even if Sword Coast Legends’s developer n-Space has closed its doors.
Dragon+ is, very slowly, getting better, thanks to their exclusive access to James Wyatt’s Plane Shift series. Otherwise, it’s much too bald of a marketing tool. For reasons surpassing my understanding, marketers think people want to absorb marketing, having confused it for content. The magazines of yesteryear provided a steady stream of content, paid for as work-for-hire. The DM’s Guild and OGL publishers, such as Tribality Publishing and EN5IDER, have replaced it utterly for that. As a result, the majority of Dragon+’s content is a collection of all the content posted to dnd.wizards.com, but later and read on a smaller screen. I see it as the lone fumble in a sea of judicious decisions.
The very long-game goal here is becoming a lesser version of Marvel Comics or Detective Comics. Famously, DC can sell anything with Superman’s or Batman’s logos on them… except comic books. The same is now true for Cap’s shield, Iron Man’s mask, Bruce Banner’s angry friend, and especially for Spider-Man. Marvel has created one of the biggest and most profitable media storms in history, really starting with Iron Man, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it hasn’t been the mighty renaissance of the comic book that one might think. Vast portions of the public enjoy the MCU without giving a rat’s ass about the comic books. At the same time, Marvel doesn’t ditch its comic book creation, because it’s still the ideal hothouse for new character designs and backstories, and it creates a hardcore fan base who can help sell movies through the magic of the internet. I think Hasbro has twigged to the fact that D&D could, and by all rights really should, eventually be that for them.
ETA: I should have looked for actual data. The Washington Post reports that the last five years have, in fact, been very kind to Marvel. Many thanks to Al Sotack for illuminating my ignorance.
The dark elf and his kittycat have a big fanbase as genre fiction goes, but dark elves as a concept have serious racial baggage. They have – wisely, I think – decided that they’re going to keep making money off of him steadily, without trying to go bigger and break out of the existing fanbase. (I could be wrong – they could just be waiting for the right script and a heavyweight investor. If that’s the case, I don’t think they should, for the reason I listed above.)
If I could give one piece of advice to them, it would be to look for a developer who had the chops to give them a new Planescape: Torment or Baldur’s Gate… and to see if Niantic is open to any more Ingress reskins. Admittedly, those are all high-cost, high-risk products – but Baldur’s Gate in particular defined a generation’s D&D in-jokes (go for the eyes, Boo!) and their expectations of D&D, while Planescape: Torment became a watchword for writing quality in a video game, even seventeen years later.
Okay, one more: figure out how to develop a broader stable of characters that you can sell to the public. Game of Thrones gets the kind of free media coverage that makes marketing folks deliriously happy. Thread the needle between GoT-level grimdarkness and the tropey, shallow D&D movies of the past. More than anything, make sure your screenwriter and director respect the material and the target audience. The early details of the next D&D movie sound promising, but I’ve been hurt too many times before. (Seriously, you guys managed to make Jeremy Irons terrible. FFS.)
ETA: Thinking about this a bit more today, I don’t think WotC is likely to have great luck, in the long-term, in popularizing enough protagonists to support a franchise. What they need to do, then, is flip the script: do everything in their power to increase the cultural penetration of their villains (as they have arguably done with Strahd and Lord Soth), and hang the movie on a team of new heroes fighting them. That has worked for years at the gaming table, and I bet it could work in the hands of the right screenwriter and director, too.
If you know something I don’t, if you think I’ve overlooked key details – comment!