I hate to be the type of person who complains about something without offering any viable solutions. Last week I explained that the D&D brand is not financially healthy these days, and how the Essentials line was a great example of how not to make products that appeal to new players. Here’s how I’d make a D&D that new, young players can get into.
A caveat before we start — I’m really talking about marketing and very broad design decisions here, so, again, I’m not getting into the mechanics of the editions. That’s, to put it mildly, a whole other can of worms.
The first, most important thing that D&D needs is a clear introductory product that is inexpensive, appealing to new and younger players, and won’t look out of place on the toy shelf at a big box retailer. It has to have clear D&D branding on the cover. It has to have basic rules and explanations of what an RPG is and how it works. It has to have an adventure. It has to have dice. It has to have a few prepainted plastic minis, non-random, visible through clear plastic on the front of the box. It has to have a map. It has to cost $9.99. It has to be on the shelf right next to the Transformers and the Hot Wheels, so that a 12-year-old can see it, and want it. And convince mom or dad to buy it.
That’s a lot to ask of a single product. It’s a lot to fit in for ten bucks. But I suggest that it is the single most important product in gaming history, one that could single-handedly create an entire new generation of gamers. Work on that design for a long time to make sure it’s right. Test it. Test the box to make sure it catches kids’ eyes. And keep the price down! I don’t care if WotC/Hasbro has to lose money on each one they sell — they’ll be creating a continuous revenue stream for literally decades to come if they do it right.
This intro product faces a lot of challenges beyond price. You need to sell it to kids, but you don’t want to create the perception that D&D is a kids’ game only. The back of the box (and the book inside) has to convey to parents the possibilities of role-playing games, how it’s a game they should play with their kids, and how much of a learning tool it can be. It should emphasize the heroic side of the game, and the creative storytelling aspect. The book also needs to be understandable to kids, but not so simple that adults who read it feel talked down to. That’s not an easy writing task, but it’s not impossible.
Now you’ve got your intro product in K-Mart and Target, and kids are buying it in droves. This boxed set will take you to level three or so — enough to see how character progression works and play a few adventures. The back of the book will helpfully suggest, “To explore higher levels, deeper dungeons and scarier monsters, get…”
The Core Rule Book.
D&D needs one single book that lets you play the game. Clearly labeled. Obviously branded. And for @$&#’s sake put a @#&$ing dragon on the cover. Now imagine how simple it is for a person who’s interested in playing D&D to walk into a game store, or whatever book stores still exist in five years, and see that sitting on a shelf. “Oh, the D&D Core Rule Book. Look, it even has a small blurb on the cover, ‘All the information you need to play the classic role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons.’ Cool.”
Now obviously the Core Rule Book isn’t going to come with maps and minis. It’s just a magnificent hardcover book (with a less expensive softcover version printed only in black and white) that contains all the rules. All the core classes. Treasures. Progression. Combat. Skills. Magic. Everything. There’d be no need for some rules being in a separate book for DMs, because that’s idiotic. It’s one set of rules. Put them all in one book. Sure, there’d be a DM’s section with advice on creating adventures and campaigns, and even a mini-adventure so people can dive right in. But no separate DM’s book. The Core Rule Book would even have monsters in it, really basic stuff. Here’s a zombie, an orc, a low-level dragon and an evil wizard. Give ‘em maybe a dozen with a few variants. They want more? Direct them to…
The Monster Manual. I have no problem with monsters being in a separate book. Maybe it’s just because I love books of monsters. Maybe you could cram an entire basic Monster Manual into the Core Rule Book. I’d be open to that. But then, while most players at the table like having their own copy of the rules to look at, only one person needs the monster book. It makes more sense to separate it.
So that’s it. That’s my D&D plan. Intro product for kids, one rule book, plus a monster book. Really, really simple. And yet…they’ve never quite managed to do it that way, and certainly not lately.
Wait, that’s not all, because there’s so much more that can be done with this. Obviously, bring back prepainted plastic minis. Don’t sell them randomly, that’s dumb. Put them in clear blister packs, like Wizards did ever so briefly. Group them as “party packs,” with one of each of the core classes in each pack. Do a mix of male and female minis, then do another pack with the same classes, but opposite genders (don’t do all one gender in each pack). Also do monster packs. A nice assortment of five orcs, or some undead, or group them by environment, like dungeon monsters, forest monsters, etc.
When it comes to maps, well…just keep doing what Wizards is doing right now. WotC’s map tiles are one of the best products in gaming. Great idea, brilliantly executed, very reasonable price point. You want your basic map tiles always in print, as they do now, but more exotic tile sets are awesome. As they do now. But take that idea and carry it farther. Copy the success of Paizo’s Gamemastery line, full of cool accessories useful for players and DMs. Compleat Encounters are great — imagine picking up a WotC adventure that has map tiles for key locations and prepainted plastic minis of the Big Bad, some unique monsters and an NPC or two.
Beyond those core books you can do all the advanced books you want. Players options, campaign guides, DM-focused books, themed rules for settings, whatever. I like Mike Mearls’ modular idea (i.e., if you’re running a maritime campaign, get the Ships and Sails book; PCs got involved in a war? Get the Armies and Battles book). Maybe even bring back the AD&D label for those books. That would be kind of cool.
We’re in the middle of what you might call the Golden Age of Nerds. D&D should be flying off the shelves. There should be a club in every school. Celebrity endorsements. A Sportscenter show devoted to gaming. The stigma is fading. RPGs are doing well as niche industries go (Pathfinder and a few other games are quite successful). Yet D&D is struggling. It doesn’t have to.