Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Color of Money

Let's hit pause for a moment.

Consider (if you'll indulge me) a hypothetical universe, very similar to our own, in which the best way to play the Dungeons & Dragons game is something like the way its originators stated waaaay back in the days of yore, before it became the cornerstone of an industry and gaming empire. Back before there were published game settings and adventure paths but (instead) an idea that each individual Dungeon Master would create his or her own world ("campaign setting") and develop his or her own additional rules (to cover things that were not already covered in the limited instructions provided).

Imagine, as best you can, a reality in which the popularity of the game was driven by two, major components: firstly, it's ability to be customized to the imaginations and whims of the players (especially the referee, or "dungeon master") and, secondly, by the experience that was provided to the participants in actual play (especially those we commonly refer to as "players").

NOW...still holding this idea in your head...consider if the founding D&D's creators had stopped developing the game, only updating it by issuing a cleaned up, well edited, technically written set of instructions/rules essence...simply polished the original, amateurish product found in those saddle-stitched pamphlets, those Little Brown Books cobbled together by hand using artwork cribbed from the pages of Marvel comics. Something perhaps available in both hard and soft cover, perhaps in a box (as most table games are sold)...maybe including dice and other play aids, though probably NOT any sort of multi-volume set adding hundreds of additional pages.

Allowing that the popularity of the game might (in this imaginary world I propose) send up a hue and cry for more material, perhaps the publishers might create some type of periodical...a newsletter or magazine...that provides additional (non-official) options for use in one's home game, or that contributes advice and instruction on the two things driving the interest in playing the game, i.e. methods on how to create one's own campaign settings and on how to provide a more powerful game experience. And, sure, perhaps also the odd example "adventure."

Hell, the company might even publish the occasional "modular" adventure to be dropped into one's home campaign setting.

Ccertainly one might expect other fan-related communities, periodicals, and (later, with the internet) blogs and forums to pop up over time discussing the game and sharing tips, ideas, and material, but these would be tolerated by the publishers as helping to promote the game and keep it living and breathing.

Because the main point and industry of the designers and publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons game would be (in this imaginary universe I posit) to simply be the keepers and publishers of the game. To make it available to the public, perhaps in different languages, just as (for example) Parker Brothers was responsible for publishing and selling the game of Monopoly from the 1930s until the company was acquired by Hasbro in '91 (thus conferring actual responsibility to the latter company).

Just consider this possible, parallel universe. Roll it around in your brain a bit.

Do you think (in this imaginary universe I describe) that the Dungeons & Dragons game would have faded into obscurity after ten or twenty years? Do you think it would continue to sell, forty years today (2018), forty years after its initial publication? Do you think it could continue to hold the attention of people for decades the way other tabletop Monopoly or Scrabble or Sorry...have managed to do? Enough that parents would introduce it to their children, teach them the rules, buy new copies when old copies need replacement?

More than half a century in the same format.
Consider that until Hasbro acquired Monopoly in 1991 the board game was only published in two formats (standard and "deluxe"). While I couldn't find sales totals for Monopoly prior to its Hasbro acquisition, it was selling at least a million copies per year following World War II (according to Wikipedia anyway). Would a simple business model (like the imaginary one I propose) have allowed Dungeons & Dragons to sell even a tenth as many copies as "the world's most popular board game?"

Would that have been enough money to comfortably sustain the game's publishers?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the profit margin necessary to maintain and publish the game would have, over time, necessitated a diversification of product, the need to publish different editions, similar to the way Hasbro continues to create different varieties of the Monopoly game. Perhaps. But then, Monopoly (to my mind) is a much more static game than Dungeons & Dragons. While I prefer its classic version (duh...I'm old), I can see how folks might like to "tart it up."

Of course, some might say that Dungeons & Dragons lacks the universal appeal of a game like Monopoly. I'm not sure I agree. Thematically? Are more people really interested in playing ruthless real estate tycoons than heroic fantasy adventurers? The former smacks too much of our harsh reality, while the latter provides a pleasant diversion and escape.

No, it is the experiential gameplay of Monopoly (handling money...wisely or unwisely, wheeling and dealing, and cursing the whims of fate in the forms of dice rolls and card draws) that makes it appealing to people, and it is readily accessible: easy to learn, easy to set-up, easy to play. Dungeons & Dragons over the decades has rarely ever approached the type of accessibility found in Monopoly, being either too obscure in its presentation (the earliest editions) or two large in scope and page count (most of the later editions). For the most part, D&D over the years has relied on mentorship for the teaching of its rules rather than "out-of-the-box" instruction. And the support for such mentorship has been weak to nonexistent.

Which is too bad, for a number of reasons.

BUT (stopping our hypothetic imagining for now) that is, unfortunately, the actual reality. My little dreamscape isn't true history...and even considering such "alternative history" may seem a wasted effort. Unless, you're feeling hopeless and looking for some way out of our current state of affairs.

[I know Alexis is actually made of pretty strong stuff, but it was his post that prompted my train of thought here, even if he has since backed up from the ledge]

I don't think that the actual game, nor its potential, has been lost quite yet. In fact, if there's any good that's come out of the amorphous OSR and it's backward-looking nostalgia (and, yes, I think there's a LOT of good that has come out of it), the greatest of its offerings may have been the re-kindled interest in the "home game" that has come about because of it.

And there's more I want to say on this subject, really. I want to talk about the present reality (so much as I can) and talk about possible roads to the future. And about finding a way back to something ...some track that we wandered off a long time ago.

But that's will have to wait for the future. Right now, I've got a hot game of Axis and Allies with my boy that I simply must get back to. More later.
; )


  1. For me; having started with the Rules Cyclopaedia, it is the book that I have passed down to my 10+ y/o daughter. That, plus a carefully cultivated set of tv shows (ST:TNG, DS9, VOY; X-Files; Dark Matter; Star Wars; Willow; LotRs; etc) to inspire some imagery, and of course some CS Lewis, Tolkein, Bradbury, Spider Robinson, Gemmel, Eddings, etc. to add the other imagery. All comes tpgethef to offer, I think, a chance to experiment with D&D.
    As far as experimentation, ppersonal interpretation; for many I think the Cyclopaedia is close to what you describe. I'm not old enough to remember any coloured box editions, but I hear lots of complaints; and really, Ad&d and 2ed are pretty intense for a beginner (they were for me).
    So yeah; I believe that the Rules Cyclopaedia could achieve what you describe here. Is that enough for a company to thrive and prosper...robably not, but like you say, the zine option, periodicals, comics (a la Pathfinders' excellent comics) could fill that gap. The company would have to remain small and sustainable that posdible these days...or will chaos always throw greed in the mix eventually?...hmm

    1. Having owned the RC for years (and running at least two long campaigns with it), I know it’s an excellent set of rules that, with a little mentoring, can take a lot of folks a long way.

      It’s not enough.

      I don’t like the phrase “experimenting with D&D” like someone might dabble in recreational pharmaceuticals. Do we “experiment” with baseball? Or poker? Not really. We learn to play them, try them out, discover if they are agreeable to our taste as a leisure activity, and then pursue them or not.

      [i suppose one could “pursue” a study in marijuana or inebriation but, well...I digress]

      Still, when I say “not enough,” I mean “not enough on its own.” It’s the latter part of the phrase I want to dissect.

      As for your last question (assuming it’s not rhetorical): I think it’s safe to say greed has already entered the mix, inflating an industry to a point where such a model does NOT appear sustainable. But maybe I’m wrong. There’s an insider or two that I know and would like to talk to on the subject.

  2. I don't want to take anything away from the OSR ~ the community needed a push there ~ but I don't think you can assign a homebrew renaissance to that movement. The re-emergence of the homebrew occurred in tandem with the OSR movement, because they were both driven by the same catalyst: the dead certainty that the company was exploiting the DM and player with yet another edition and yet more ridiculously priced and badly written content.

    I'm a home brew guy, always have been, but even I know that if the purchased content starts to fail even those people who love purchased content, something is definitely rotting from the fish head down.

    Mmmph. Back from the ledge. Funny, that. Actually, I'm starting this podcast ...

    1. just want to clarify: I’m not crediting the OSR with a “home brew renaissance” so much as saying the OSR has helped bring such home brews into the light of day (from the dark basements where they’Vero been secluded for a couple decades), and into discussion. Such discussion, I think, has been lacking from the industry leader(s) who are instead pushing an agenda of “rely on us for all your adventuring needs.”

    2. I would credit the OSR for a home-brew renaissance. It shined a light on multiple aspects of traditional RPGs, allowing them to expand and evolve.

    3. As would I. There wouldn't be a thriving DIY scene in old-school gaming right now without the OSR. The two movements are one and the same.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hmm. I don’t know Sly (I’m not big into Twitter), but there’s been a lot of “judging the book by its cover” the last few years (or more). That is to say, I’m not terribly surprised and I stand by my earlier assertion: there’s just no use trying to talk with some folks.

      Yeah, woe.

    2. It can be done, but spending money on art, layout, and maps objectively improves RPG products. Unless, you decide on god-awful art and so on.

  4. I look forward to your future post on this subject, JB, but before I can fully understand the thrust of what you're saying here, I have to ask for one point of clarification:

    >And about finding a way back to something ...some track that we wandered off a long time ago.

    Who is "we"? Which cohort, exactly, has strayed from the path you speak of? I'm having trouble grokking all of the angst floating around the OSR blogosphere lately, and I think this gets at why.

    We all get that the present owner of the name and trademark of "D&D" publishes a shambling zombie-game that doesn't resemble the genuine article. I think we all get that TSR itself stopped really supporting the homebrew DM around the time it discovered it could sell adventure modules and people would actually pay for them. And, yes, it would be nice to live in a world where the original D&D rules had stayed evergreen like Monopoly and Scrabble.

    But… what does it really matter? What's the down-side to the present state of things? I see a fairly vibrant old-school gaming community with plenty of players and DMs rolling their own home campaigns, creating and sharing material for Swords & Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord… Honestly, just standing back and taking a look at the times we live in, gaming-wise they ain't half bad.

    1. I’ll try to get my manifesto organized and posted sometime this month.

      [not being facetious]

      I’ve written before that we are living in a great, blessed time for self-publishing and gaming...especially “old school” gaming. But maybe I was being a little too rosy. For the self-publishers? Sure, yes, emphatically yes. For folks looking for Old School systems, yes (PDFs and freebies abound). For folks with a solid head looking for additional material? Yep, lots of that, too.

      BUT...there is a LOT about role-playing (and D&D specifically), that has been missed, glossed over, or straight misunderstood. There are areas of the game (not the game world) that have been left, for the most part, unexplained and unexplored. There have been missed opportunities and squandered potential. Even though there are lots of folks enjoying the hobby, there have been...well, issues. There have been miseries. There have been problems.

      I realize that all looks cryptic. I should probably address that in a different post. It reminds me of my study of Aleister Crowley and “magik” back in the mid-90s.

      As to your requested clarification: I use the term “we” to mean the hobby as a whole...those of us who play and invest in the game and who, thus, bear some responsibility for the shape and form it takes.

    2. That's what I thought you meant.

      My own solution to the present woes is one, I'm sure, you and Lexy both will find tremendously unsatisfying, but it's the only one I have: we must acknowledge that "the hobby as a whole" the way gamers usually speak of it just isn't a thing. People who are playing Pathfinder and 5th edition and Fate and Dungeon World are no more participating in our hobby than Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer 40K players. Maybe they don't know about our hobby; maybe they'd reject it if they did; possibly they do know and already have rejected it, whether due to experience or repute.

      And we can say that it's sad, if some new """D&D""" player only knows 4th and 5th edition and would never touch B/X because "race as class is stupid" or "level drain is unfair." We can say that it's sad that 95% of role-players will never know how fun it is to play a tabletop adventure game where the dice rolls matter, the DM doesn't fudge or manipulate, and the game itself takes priority over empty thespianism, because they've been indoctrinated into a culture that values Plot Armor & Play Acting.

      But we're not entitled to a world where OUR hobby is the dominant one, or a world where (facetiously) OUR favorite board game is popular. Because that's not the world we've built. And it might have been impossible to effect that outcome in the first place, because ours was always a niche hobby and it may very well have been destined to suck if it ever made the transition to mass appeal. Most niche hobbies degrade if they make that transition, and D&D (as a text, as a set of game rules) was particularly, perhaps uniquely vulnerable to this kind of degradation already.

    3. Agreed on all counts. That being said, doesn’t mean I can’t try pumping someone life into the old girl (said girl being the hobby).
      ; )

    4. Fair enough. :)

      But I just don't see the "Auld Girl" lacking for life in the first place.

  5. Higgins.

    We're entitled to anything we can make happen.

    1. That and two bucks will get you a cup of coffee, or so I hear tell.

    2. John, where the hell can you get coffee for two dollars?!

  6. Okay, this has devolved.

    JB, change is energy. The possibility of producing a change depends upon how much energy you're prepared to apply to that change. There will always be voices who claim that it's impossible, or not worth the effort, or beyond the means of man, refashioning the problem in ways that make it seem larger or less cohesive or otherwise incomprehensible.

    But these voices are speaking only according to their own experience, as they measure themselves against the question and register apathy, or doubt, or the feeling of being overwhelmed. In turn, they are using that experience to discourage others, because they think discouragement is the RIGHT agenda. But that's just an opinion. There are no Right agendas; there are only the changes we want, that we're willing to work for, and to stick to our guns on those things.

    Those who claim that it is not our world to change to our point of view forget that every point of view we have came about because of those who made that claim.

    And I drink coffee at home.

  7. Hi, JB! Long time listener, first time caller!

    (I hate when people say that on the radio.)

    A few points that occurred during my perusal of your post:

    1. As a game design teacher at a middle school, I point out to my students that the reputation for Monopoly as a 'bad game'are largely overblown. Why? Because, like D&D, almost no one plays by the RAW. They use house rules, like Free Parking, and totally ignore other actual, in the instruction book mechanics, like the very important Auction rules. This is the primary reason the game goes on forever and pisses people off.

    Not only that, but the reason that these house rules are so prevalent is because almost no one reads the rules to learn how to play the game. They learn by being taught be someone else, who was taught by some one else , and so on, in an oral tradition older than D&D itself.

    So, technically, you have a workable example of what D&D would have been like if there were only the original edition, with the occasional new printing to fall back on.

    2. That argument having been made, the two are very different in style of gameplay, and (more importantly) investment of time and energy. Some would say that the evolution of boardgames, as computer games have co-opted the mechanically complex simulation type games of our past and made them imminently more playable, have been forced to evolve into quicker, easier, more social games, with RPGs and more involved boardgames becoming a small niche within that market.

    There's a reason Exploding Kittens made $2 million dollars on Kickstarter, party games like Werewolf and Speak Out outsell Axis & Allies, and Warhammer Fantasy Battle is a shell of its former self (and 40k is following close behind). The tabletop gaming industry is, in a way more about quick, social, toys for adults, than the serious hobby it was in the pre-90's.

    So, I think it would have been incredibly hard for D&D to remain as it was.

    3. And let's not forget, the change we are discussing wasn't just a result of TSR gaining ground and needing to generate more cash to keep the company going. Gygax is also partly to blame.

    It is VERY clear from the history of the game that Gygax didn't just see D&D as another type of game. He had serious plans for it. He wanted to use it to make Wargaming (nee Role-playing) a serious competitive activity along the lines of Chess. He saw the commercial possibilities from the beginning and started writing the AD&D rules precisely to accomplish that goal. If he had succeeded to the degree I think he was shooting for, D&D would, indeed, have reached name status along with Monopoly and Scrabble (his ultimate goal).

    His game (along with Star wars) managed to change the entire face of culture and entertainment and it's reverberations are felt to this very day, but it isn't understood, in the everyday vernacular, in the same way that a lot of those other games are. So in a way, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but not in the way he imagined. But it was always his intention to take it well beyond it's humble beginnings.

    1. Hey, Mr. T: always happy to hear from someone steeped in game design!
      : )

      Regarding your specific points:

      I don't strongly disagree with anything you've written here (especially I agree Gygax is as culpable as anyone in the game's developmental direction), but I feel you may have (somewhat) missed the point of my post...which isn't surprising, considering I haven't yet had the time to get around to my planned follow-up.

      For me, the question isn't whether or not D&D could be made as easy, convenient, and salable as Exploding Kittens, but whether or not it could be packaged as an easily accessible experience, allowing it to achieve the longevity of something like, say, Contract Bridge.

      Hmm...I'm probably still failing to explain this right. Let me consider my words and get my other post up here.