Musings on Wizards of the Coast, D&D and Failure, Part 1

It’s a been a tumultuous year for D&D. Last year’s Gen Con presentations were full of big ideas and a release schedule packed with ambition, including the beginner-friendly Essentials line. Eleven months later the release schedule has been trimmed, long-time Wizards’ employees have been laid off, and Essentials appears to have crashed and burned in the marketplace. Why is WotC having such a hard time selling D&D?

It’s terribly hard talking about this stuff because I know that the people who actually create and write D&D books love the game and put their hearts and souls into the work. They make some damn fine RPG products, and there are some things coming up on the release schedule that I’m very excited about. Still, I can’t help but notice that lately the D&D flag is looking tattered enough that it’s hard to tell which way the wind is blowing. That said, I’ll be talking here about business decisions and broader design goals. I’m not here to nitpick whether the Hexblade is better than the Avenger or whatever.

First, the evidence that D&D isn’t doing well: the layoffs are a fairly obvious signpost. Bill Slavicsek is the biggest name on the list, but everyone who was let go played a large role in the development of D&D books. You don’t generally lay people off when things are going well. The decimation of the release schedule is another clue. Some months after the Essentials books were released (and one might speculate long enough after that they had some firm sales figures), quite a few previously announced products were cancelled. It’s very clear that Wizards’ D&D wing is struggling, and this despite the fact that the overall RPG industry seems to be doing pretty well, with Pathfinder a success and other companies creating excellent, highly regarded games.

A few odd business decisions play into this impression that Wizards is having a hard time figuring out how to sell their flagship property. The end of prepainted plastic minis, or D&D minis of any kind, is baffling. The replacement pogs are nice, for pogs. But they’re not minis. When the plastic minis were introduced, it was at the height of popularity for collectible minis games, and with the competitive skirmish game, random distribution sort of made sense. Once the skirmish game was canned, collectible D&D minis made zero sense. Wizards dabbled in non-random releases, which is a great idea, but then they killed minis altogether.

Then there are the Fortune Cards, which are just terrible. That product feels so half-assed and lame that I genuinely think it was pushed by some accountant who saw that Magic has been doing gangbuster sales lately. “D&D sales are down. Magic sales are up. Magic is a card game. Why don’t you guys make D&D more like a card game?”

This brings us to Essentials. I don’t care about Essentials being 4.5, or not compatible with the older books, or any of that. The concept of redesigning the 4E books in a way that makes them appealing and easy to understand for new players is a great idea. The hobby needs new players, especially young players. But then Wizards went about executing that idea in the most haphazard, slapdash, half-baked way possbile. You might say they executed the idea perfectly, because that idea is clearly dead.

Look at the original three core books for 4E: Player’s Handbook, DM’s Guide and a Monster Manual. If you walk into a book store knowing little more than the name “D&D,” you can roughly grasp that you should pick up that PHB first. I’m not saying this can’t be improved upon, but it’s all right there. Three books. Simple.

Now look at the Essentials books. You’ve got Heroes of the Fallen lands, and Heroes of the Some Other Thing. Do either of those titles say to you, “I’m the first book you need to get to play D&D. I’m a basic guide and intro to the game.”? Not in the least. On top of that, you’ve got a DM’s Kit and a Rules Compendium. Where do those fit in? I’m still not really sure. People in book stores were utterly confused and had no idea how to shelve these, how they related to the other 4E books on the shelves, or, worst of all, how to sell them to customers. Imagine walking into B&N and trying to figure this mess out, particularly if there were still some old copies of the PHB lying around.

As if things weren’t bad enough, you’ve got the Red Box. Now, I love the idea of the Red Box, and as an independent product it’s wonderful. Well designed, beautiful nostalgia value, fun and easy to use. As part of the Essentials lineup? It’s a massive blunder. It’s supposed to be the intro to D&D for brand new players, one that would lead them into purchasing other products in the Essentials line. Great. Then why does it have a cover that looks nothing like any other Essentials product and is only recognizable to people who played D&D 25 years ago? Why are the characters you create using it mostly incompatible with the other Essentials products? Why not just sell people a small section of wall to bang their heads against instead?

There are some good things about Essentials. The master tile sets are great, despite the lack of minis to put on them. The Monster Vault is a nice alternative to the Monster Manual — I don’t love the pogs, but if they aren’t making minis, they’re nice to have and the design was handled well. But the bottom line is, Essentials fails miserably at its primary intended purpose: to provide a clear, simple path for new players to enter the game. And the result of that failure is playing out now for Wizards of the Coast and their employees.

How would I have done it differently? I’ll get to that next week, in part 2.



12 Responses to Musings on Wizards of the Coast, D&D and Failure, Part 1

  1. I feel like they just didn’t…evolve? They made a very skirmish product– which is fine, skirmish combat is okay– but then…stopped supporting the minis? Which you…need to play the game? & when people said “These are our problems” they…didn’t listen? I don’t get it. I just don’t.

  2. Plus, they do these encounters thing which HAVE to be done on Wednesday night. God forbid they try to accommodate players with less flexible schedules. Just seems like a limitation thrown in for no good reason.

  3. One thing I want to address in part two is the weird limitations of Encounters. As someone who has no desire to go to a game store and play D&D with random strangers, it is something I have never had any interest in.

    Mordicai — that’s the really striking thing to me, that the company seems to be actively working to defeat itself at times.

  4. One thing that could’ve saved the minis line was Adventuring Party Boxes. I don’t need a box of three guys with Melee weapons, we’ve only got three guys playing and they’re the stereotypical Fighter, Mage, Archer trio. I’d love a set of boxes with representatives of the different classes in one box, or if that’s too many, give me: A heavy melee fighter, A wizardy type, and a guy with a bow. Then have a different box with a two weapon fighter, a cleric-ish dude, and a monk. Repeat as necessary when a new PHB comes out.

    These would represent the average party pretty well, and the wizardy guy is even interchangeable with the clericy guy. They just need to look like casters. Also, Rogues are all rares. Why is that? Are they just that much better in the skirmish game that no one played?

    I’ve never touched any of the essentials stuff, simply because it came out after my time, and the guys I know who play 4E said that vanilla 4e still got support, or something? This whole thing just confuses me to no end. I like playing 4E, I think it has delicious skirmish rules, I wish it had more crunch for stuff outside combat just to bridge combat and not a bit more. I LOVE THE MINIS! How can they market it so badly that I either can’t get what I want, or don’t want what I want?

    That was more ranty than I expected.

  5. Well, 4e killed the game for me anyhow…but I was trying to get my 12 year old to a)GTFO of the house and b)Get some gaming time in but the Wednesday schedule was so inflexible that he pretty much gave up on the idea after only a handful of sessions.

  6. Here’s another thing about encounters… actually, a few more things….

    1) Now, let me preface this by saying I only went to a few sessions at the same game store. Maybe other stores are different. I hope they are. The sessions I went to, every single person (of the four of us, lol) was an experienced D&D player who had other games on different nights. I had gone with the expectation that I would be able to help along some kids or folks who hadn’t played 4e before. Nope. Everyone there had at least as much experience as me. Since Encounters was supposed to be a way for new players to taste the game, it was an absolute failure here.

    2) Quality control. Seriously. WotC sends premade character sheets to the store with the rest of the adventure stuff. In the beginning, they required you to use a premade sheet (now I’m pretty sure you can use RPGA compliant characters). If you’re going pay to develop, print out, and ship cardstock characters, you should probably do two things: Make sure they are somewhat optimized; Make sure they are correct.

    Optimized? Pshaw. My character has CHARACTER!

    That’s nice, but this is Encounters. These are tactical encounters meant to take a couple hours. You aren’t exploring city streets or bribing castle guards. You’re moving from one map to the next, looking for a fight. Ta da. The weak premades were a joke.

    And the incorrect number crunching is just sad and also kind of what I expect from WotC now. There’s a reason they have monthly errata.

    Now, I understand that encounters has improved, but I still hear about typos, omissions, and math errors on the premade sheets. I haven’t looked the adventures, so I will hesitantly reserve judgment.

    The stories were somewhat interesting however. I will give them that. For a weeks long railroad, I wasn’t left disinterested. So they have that going for them, I guess.

  7. I find that the 4e rules are very comprehensive, particularly for a skirmish oriented system. And honestly the rules were always built around the combat. But now there is a different ‘feel’ to it. Its a bit too egalitarian for my taste. While I love that fighters have more combat options than ‘i hit it as many times as my level and specialization allow,’ I still expect my wizards to kick a lot of ass. Now when I’m looking at the wizard spells, I find myself frequently thinking ‘that’s all the damage it does?’

    I miss the story element that derived from the mechanics. Like ‘oh crap they have a wizard. We better plan how to deal with him before he fireballs us.’ Now its ‘they have a wizard or one of 15 other types of arcanists? well he’s not going to be much more effective than the other guys on the table, so don’t worry about him unless he’s an elite or solo.’

    I know that’s not quite how it works in 4e but I feel like something is still missing. Plus the 4e system is designed for a lot of balance. I recognize the need for a certain amount of that but the rules feel like they are more designed for head to head play (which we have tried rather effectively) at the expense of a certain amount of rationality and verisimilitude.

    For instance, 3e (both versions) took a fantasy world and tried to create game mechanics that described how the world worked. That created a level of detail that was itself unwieldy at times but it made sense. 4e feels more like a set of game mechanics that wears its game world like an ill-fitting coat. hence complaints about the rituals and lack of support for activities outside of combat. Monsters have nothing at all to do with their ability scores which actually hearkens back to 1st edition where monsters had no ability scores at all (usually-except a general notation of intelligence).

    Monsters now are just manifestations of their level. sometimes that’s no problem, but when I run into a huge monster with my medium character I expect to get batted around. like literally pushed after every attack, unless it smashes me into the floor. I mean it’s HUGE after all!

    I don’t think that it would have been too hard to build a simplified 4e engine on the well thought out mechanics of 3e. In a lot of instances, simple is much more useful, but the simple should be a simplification of the much more complex rules that are designed to explain the world, rather than rules that are simple for the sake of simplicity with the world is just draped over the top of it. The world is going to get torn that way.

    Burst fire crossbows?! seriously?

  8. Ryk, I think one of the nice things 4e did was add more pushes and such to big guys, at least in the MM 2&3. I remember looking at a few of the older big guys and aside from reach they have nothing to control the field. It’s terribly boring when everything can be cornered or surrounded and beaten to death. I know that a lot of high level big guys had more abilities, but most of those were hyper deadly area attacks. Of course, the 4e MM1 seemed to be entirely lacking those control elements but, they’re learning?

  9. Billy I think its correct that they are evolving their monsters, some of which are getting to be pretty good, but the MM1 monsters, the staples, were pretty anemic. It wasn’t so obvious when I first looked through the book, but now that our party is up at 20-23rd level, i create almost all of my own monsters because the standards just don’t cut it for me.

    I think I actually make mine pretty dangerous but the party still chutneys them with a quickness . . . . I guess I should make them even more dangerous.

  10. See I was just reading Mike Mearl’s column:

    I really think he seems to get it. Does this mean a new edition ? I don’t know, but clearly pathfinder is taking away some players from 3e who never transitioned to 4e or didn’t like it and went back to a updated version of 3e. It really only makes sense to try to plug that gap, and a game with a simple baseline but with sensible detail for those who want it really sounds like the way to go to me.

  11. I’ve never had a campaign get past Level Ten. Mostly this is because I have limited time span, but also because I have trouble writing adventures that get that powerful. I really dislike a lot of the higher level monsters D&D uses for fluff purposes, and I really dislike the god-punching-ness of Epic Levels. On positive thing about 4e’s paragon paths is they make me want to play a high level campaign just so I can have a wizard with Last Call.

    “Fuego, PYROFUEGO!”

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