Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part Three

I’m looking at Fourth Edition D&D through the lens of a years’ worth of gaming experience with a critical eye on what it needed to do and what it’s done. This is a long-term test review spread over several posts covering both the theoretical and practical sides of 4e D&D. Welcome to Part Three.

Here’s Parts One and Two.

I ended the last post in this series with these words:

Wizards’ of the Coast abandoning the Open Game License was a good thing for the industry, and I’ll tell you why.

That’s something which hit me pretty early following WoTC’s announcement of their dropping the license, but thought it wise to keep quiet for fear of raging hordes of pitchfork wielding OGL supporters at my door. Now enough hindsight has passed under the bridge that I think it’s safe. If hindisght passed under bridges, that is. Way to mix metaphors, Grey.

Note that while I say it’s a good thing for the industry, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily good for Wizards of the Coast themselves. Dropping the OGL for 4e D&D was a downright risky move as it shut down third party support overnight and it’s taken a long, painfully slow process to claw any of that back. Without the support of the third parties WoTC had to plough a lonely and narrow field indeed.

What the OGL brought to the 3/3.5e scene was diversity. Other, smaller, publishers could experiment and broaden the scope of D&D in ways that WoTC couldn’t and that brought far more gamers to the D&D scene – a net win for the Coastal Wizards. The occassional poor quality product with an OGL badge was surely a fair price to pay. People generally do a good job of voting with their wallets and companies that consistently failed to deliver the goods floundered and died. The cream rose to the top and gave us such companies as Green Ronin, Malhavoc Press and many more.

Take that away, and Wizards had to pick up the slack themselves. This has meant a shedload of new products in a short space of time and no slowdown of the pace for the foreseeable future. Under the OGL banner, Third Edition D&D was a highly visible market presence with loads of products from many companies coming out every month. With 4e D&D and the GSL the only time you’ll see a new release is from Wizards themselves or one of a small (but slowly growing) list of third parties. That can’t be good for WoTC’s bottom line. As far as we can tell though, D&D Insider’s much deserved popularity should have more than made up for any losses. More on D&D Insider, another time.

It was also a staggeringly unpopular move with the vocal hobby fans – myself included. The Open Game License was one of the best things ever to happen to the RPG industry and WoTC dropping it from their core line felt like they’d commited suicide and delivered a deathblow to the industry itself, all at the same time. Area-effect seppuku, if you will.

We were wrong, I’m happy to say.

While the Open Game License was a Good Thing, it also made the game industry lazy – and by “industry” I mean designers and we gamers alike. Back when Third Edition was top of the D&D tree if a company wanted to create a pirate campaign setting and sourcebook (for example) they would release it in D&D compliant OGL friendly terms. This made their lives easier – no need to restate and reinterpret the rules or (Heaven forbid) actually provide rpg rules themselves. It also maximised their sales potential as we gamers are a notoriously lazy good-for-nothing lot and would likely only buy the thing if it came in D&D friendly form.

In short: if it wasn’t d20/OGL, it wouldn’t sell well.

4e’s shift from OGL to the GSL made us get up off our sorry asses and look at the alternatives. I can guarantee that the sales and popularity of Savage Worlds would be fractional compared to what it is today had 4e D&D been under the Open Game License. Now I don’t think I know of a single gamer who hasn’t got a copy on their bookshelves or who hasn’t played it at least once, let alone made it their main game (and if you’re The One without a copy, you’re missing out. Seriously.). Dropping the OGL made us collectively think “Wizards are screwed. What else is there?”. Even if you didn’t think that personally enough people did to spark a renewed interest in other systems, retro-clones and the like, and word of mouth did the rest.

It also meant that the game designers were open to try other things. They had to, in the main, in order to survive. Would Pathfinder even exist if 4e D&D was OGL, or would Paizo instead have released some kind of supplement to bring Fourth Edition closer to Third Edition roots? I dunno. Quite possibly. How about Fantasy Craft? Or Warriors & Warlocks for Mutants & Masterminds?

These are all world-class systems and supplements that paradoxically owe their existence both to the OGL and the loss of the OGL at the same time. They are Schrödinger’s Rulebooks.

So what Wizards of the Coast’s decision to drop the OGL from Fourth Edition has done is, strangely enough, improved the quality of gaming. It’s meant more choice for we gamers and more freedom for the publishers who are no longer having to carefully watch Wizard of the Coast’s every move.

Next time: Powers. What they are, and what they aren’t.

8 Comments on “Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part Three”

  1. If 4E had been as radical a departure with the OGL as it was with, then yes, I think you’d have seen Pathfinder regardless.

    Now if 4E was more like Star Wars: Saga Edition, then maybe not (there are changes, but they aren’t nearly as huge). Right now Pathfinder is the standard bearer for a certain style of play; as long as 4E remains an exceptions-based, powers-focused rule bay, there’s going to be strong demand for an alternative.

    I think the proliferation of d20 systems under the OGL was generally a good thing (both the consolidation of rule sets and the inevitable diaspora that followed).

    d20 got my gaming group playing systems and settings it never would have if we’d had to learn new rules (Mutants & Masterminds, Star Wars, Fading Suns) and now 8 years of hyper-familiarity have some of us trying out new rules (4E, Savage Worlds, Spirit of the Century, etc.).

    That process began before the GSL came out — the big year for us was probably 2007, when Savage Worlds Explorers Edition came out — but it has continued unabated by 4E.
    .-= Kenneth Newquist´s last blog ..Radio Active #82: Invasion of the Mario Brothers =-.

  2. There is no doubt that the OGL was a good thing for D&D in general and WotC in particular. It brought a new lease of life to D&D and a gaming industry that was flagging.

    The D20 system allowed game makers to concentrate on settings and adventures rather than the mechanics of the game. It also made players more willing to try different games as they already knew the rules.

    Not surprisingly, there was a boom in D20 games and OGL content. Which in turn lead to a glut of products and consumers getting bored with D20 and the extremely variable quality of the products. The market then crashed and only the strong / good survived.

    This is natural market behaviour and not a flaw with the D20/ OGL concept.

    It is also a myth to think that the OGL/D20 stopped people creating their own rules. Plenty of game designers were ignoring the D20 fashion and doing their own thing.

    But was WotC decision to drop the OGL a good thing? No – not for the market.

    It does force game produces to innovate more but it also means they have to do more work. This reduces the number of products on the market and increases the cost.

    Fewer products at higher prices are bad for any market.

    The marmite nature of 4e does give Pathfinder a boast from the anti-4e crowd but this is just a reactionary force. It is not innovation or an expansion the market. The market as a whole gains nothing from it.

    The games market, like all markets, is healthiest when there are large range of products available from a large range of producers operating with limited restrictions. A market dominated by a single large producer is not healthy.

    4e/GSL is an attempt by WotC to assert its dominance. It may be or may not be good for D&D and WotC but it is certainly bad for the market.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Last Chance to Download ‘Sanctum …’ =-.

  3. @Chris I agree – the OGL didn’t stop people creating their own rules, but it did cause the larger companies (“larger”, of course, being relative here) to jump on the d20/OGL bandwagon and stay there. For good reason too – that’s what consumers wanted.

    Yes, some folks did continue to write their own rules – and more power to them! – but that’s not where the money was. Net result: d20/OGL rose in popularity while non-d20 products dropped in popularity.

    I’m not seeing “Fewer products at higher prices” at all right now – Savage Worlds and Pathfinder in particular are very reasonably priced and they’re the ones setting price-point that others follow. I’d suggest that just as many products are coming out right now as they did in any given month in the d20/OGL days, but spread over a wider product base. That’s a good thing, right?

    “The games market, like all markets, is healthiest when there are large range of products available from a large range of producers operating with limited restrictions. A market dominated by a single large producer is not healthy.”

    That’s my point, exactly. That’s what we had (or risked having) with d20/OGL. The RPG market grew – thanks to d20/OGL – but the glut of products were for d20/OGL.

    Now, it’s diversifying. Bad for Wizards of the Coast, but good for the industry as a whole.

  4. Let the voice of a raging pitchfork wielding OGL supporter not go unheard! Raargh! :)

    What I liked was OGL products with very little or no Product Identity. That would have been a cool — reuse, remix, republish, redistribute… I’m a Free Software guy and I’m saddened by the fact that the fourth edition of D&D gives users less rights than the third edition did.

    Sure, not everybody wanted these rights. And not all of those who did were able to produce stuff I liked. But it was your right.

    Having the right to do something is better than relying on Fair Use or similar copyright exceptions.

    I am in fact saddened by this.
    .-= Alex Schroeder´s last blog ..Rewards =-.

  5. @Grey

    Its very hard to judge the size and range of RPG market. Certainly online, in PDF stores, there appears to be a large number of products and a steady supply of new producers. Plus large numbers of free products such as Microlite20.

    However, most of these are basically fan or semi-pro products. They have no real presence or impact on the market.

    If you visit shops carrying RPG products, you will see very little variety. Mostly 4e, maybe some World of Darkness or Pathfinder. Compare this to ten years ago, when you could expect to find a number of different products.
    .-= Chris Tregenza´s last blog ..Last Chance to Download ‘Sanctum …’ =-.

  6. I really enjoy these posts about the “guts” of gaming. I wish I had something to add, but all I can think of is, “keep up the good work.”

    The artwork is great too.

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