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4 Hours w/ RSD: Who Am I?

Who Am I & How Did I Get Here?

Greetings! It’s been a while since I’ve been an active member of the ENWorld community or actively involved with publishing tabletop RPGs so I may need to make a few introductions.

Almost 20 years ago I created one of the first ecommerce businesses, RPG International, to supply tabletop hobby games to players without easy access to a local game store. While running that business I ran advertisements in Shadis magazine, published by John Zinser and Jolly Blackburn. John & I became close friends that lead to our co-creating the Legend of the Five Rings world and the collectible card game of the same name. In 1996 we co-founded Five Rings Publishing Group, and in 1997 that company was acquired by Wizards of the Coast as a part of the same deal that brought TSR to Wizards.

In late 1998 I became the VP of Tabletop Roleplaying and the Dungeons & Dragons brand manager. In 2000, I guided the 3rd Edition of D&D into production. I also wrote the Open Gaming License, the D20 System Trademark License, created the 3.0 System Reference Document and hosted the Open Gaming Foundation and its two email lists, ogf-l and ogf-d20-l to support the community of 3rd party developers created by the OGL and D20.

I left Wizards in 2001 to found a new venture, OrganizedPlay, which developed tools to aide publishers in adding Wizards-style player network support to their websites. In 2003, I wound that down and started a consulting company with Luke Peterschmidt, co-designer of the Guardians CCG and ex-brand manager at Wizards as well. In 2007 I was recruited to become the Chief Marketing Officer of CCP, the Icelandic company that purchased White Wolf Game Studio in 2006, and develops and publishes the EVE Online MMO. I left CCP at the end of 2010 and now I’m planning my next move in the gaming space.

I’ve had a long history with ENWorld. Eric Noah was instrumental in creating an on-line community for 3rd Edition during a time when Wizards was struggling to deliver web based tools for our use. My brand and business team, including Keith Strohm, Cindi Rice, David Wise, Jim Butler, Anthony Valterra and Lisa Stevens practically lived on the ENWorld forums throughout most of 2000. I have always tried to keep abreast of the goings on here, watching with great pleasure as the ENies became an industry standard for recognizing excellence, and seeing the site transition first to supporting 3.5, and then to the 4th edition of D&D.

I’ve been asked occasionally in the past to work more formally with ENWorld, and other than a couple of opportunities to MC the ENies, professional entanglements have made that impossible. Luckily, my window of opportunity coincided with another generous outreach, and this time I was able to happily accept.

The plan is to write an essay each month, focusing on ways that you can improve the experience of running your game sessions (either as a player or as a GM). From time to time, I may digress into a discussion of industry topics – my days as a pundit are mostly behind me as I lack the open channels of information flow I enjoyed when I was running the TRPG business at Wizards, or actively consulting for gaming companies, but I still have some connections to the grapevine and rarely lack for opinions on the things I see going on around me.

Some Thoughts About The Past 10 Years

People often ask me if I think the OGL was a success. Its detractors most commonly suggest that the “glut” of D20 product and the “crash” of D20 sales seem to indicate that it was not. I kind of laugh at that, both from the insider perspective and from the hobbyist perspective.

In all of 1989, when TSR transitioned from the 1st to the 2nd Edition of D&D, it sold 289,000 copies of the Players Handbook. In 2000 when Wizards of the Coast did that transition from 2nd to 3rd, it sold 300,000 Player’s handbooks in one month. And then, sales continued to grow. The core idea behind the OGL was that Wizards of the Coast should focus on the highest value part of the D&D ecology – the core books and a handful of core adventures, while the rest of the industry explored and exploited all the niches and genres that Wizards couldn’t do profitability.

By 2001, that initiative was in full bloom and there were D20 offerings galore. I called that year’s GenCon “The Year of D20”. Some of the companies featured, including Mongoose, Goodman Games, and Green Ronin, were started specifically to ride the wave of D20 and are still going concerns today. Other companies with deeper roots in the industry, like Atlas, White Wolf, Fantasy Flight, and AEG were able to diversify into the D20 segment and leverage their existing expertise in new and innovative ways.

D20 was used as the basis for some amazing original games: Spycraft, Midnight, Silver Age Sentinels, Mutants & Masterminds and Dragonstar, to name just a few. And it was the skeleton of some incredible licensed work, like EverQuest, Babylon 5, Stargate and World of Warcraft. Publishers used D20 to produce unique and diverse setting material like Nyambe, Oathbound, Testament, Ptolus, and The World’s Largest Dungeon. Many of those works would not have been done were it not for D20 because prior to D20 there wasn’t a good enough economic case to publish them. After D20, there was.

Over time, the OGL itself became a driver of innovation. The Action! System was the first 3rd party game to publish with the OGL. After FUDGE was released with the OGL, the FUDGE-derived FATE system followed soon thereafter and enjoyed a critical success with Spirit of the Century. BESM D20 was a hybrid work combining the original Big Eyes Small Mouth rules with D20 mechanics. Still later West End Games put the D6 game under the OGL. One of the ideas behind the OGL was that by sharing a common license many different game systems could “share DNA” with each other and the common pool of design would improve the many derivative works that drew from it.

It may be a bit difficult to remember now, but on its inception the OGL in particular faced widespread skepticism both from the community of players and the community of publishers. Fears that this was some kind of Trojan horse designed to “trap” publishers by Wizards of the Coast were rampant. Many believed that the perceived risks would make it impossible for any serious investment to be based on the OGL. There were even those who suggested that nobody would use it.

Around the middle of September 2000, I received a fat package from White Wolf, by way of their imprint Sword & Sorcery, containing the hardback Creature Collection. While it wasn’t the first D20 product from a 3rd party (that award goes jointly to Atlas Games Three Days to Kill and Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport which debuted at GenCon the same day as the 3e Player’s Handbook), Creature Collection proved all the doubters wrong. Holding it in my hands like a proud new father I walked all over the Wizards HQ showing it off - physical proof that other publishers “got it” and saw the opportunity before them.

Some will now shout “but what about all the crap!?” To which I respond, Sturgeon’s Law reminds us that “Ninety percent of everything is crap!” No creative publishing business is immune from this Law – not music, not comics, not chick lit, not reality TV – nothing. If “crap” was a crippling factor in creative work there wouldn’t be any businesses based on creativity.

The hobby gaming industry has a 4-stage process to deal with crap. First, someone has to pay to publish it in the first place. That weeds out a lot of the worst ideas – they’re so obviously bad that nobody will fund their production. Second, the publishers have to sell to the distributors. The distributors will take just about anything, but for new publishers and untested products they’ll only agree to pay for it if it sells, and they’ll order very small amounts of anything they perceive as risky. Even multiplied across all the potential publications these policies minimize the amount of dross that enters the system. Third, the distributors sell to retailers. The retailers usually expect to sell what they order within 30 days and they order accordingly creating another hurdle that product must overcome. Finally, there are the consumers – you & me, the people who have to put our money down on the counter and fund the whole industry by looking at something and deciding to take it home. I’m constantly reminded at how sophisticated a market we operate in – most customers can discriminate between the good work and the bad at a glance.

Another thing people tend to forget is that the D20 “boom” happened in the shadow of the biggest expansion of the industry ever – the rise of mass market collectible card games. First Pokèmon, then Yu-Gi-Oh! poured revenue into the hobby gaming channel in hundred million dollar increments. The D20 products were a trickle compared to this deluge. If anything, the mass market CCG wave empowered distributors and retailers to become a little lax on their gatekeeping duties because with profits so high they could absorb more losses.

And Wizards had a pretty big impact too. They decided to release 3.5 about 2 years ahead of the planned schedule. And the 3.5 they released was just a bit too incompatible with 3.0 to make conversions of pre-existing work easy enough to do on the fly by GMs. The result was that overnight a lot of existing material became obsolete – I would say “unexpectedly obsolete” because the 3rd party publishers didn’t as a group seem to have their act together on how widespread the changes to the core game would be. The result was the spectacle of a lot of pages of content being dumped on the market at deep discounts – not the kind of thing likely to inspire confidence in anyone.

But there is a silver lining in every cloud. Pathfinder from Paizo couldn’t exist without the OGL and the D20 System Reference Document. And according to my industry sources, it’s outselling Dungeons & Dragons a feat (no pun intended) I would have considered almost impossible 10 years ago. Furthermore the older generation of tabletop RPG players have been asserting their own passion through the “Old School Renaissance”, essentially rebuilding a very frayed social network around a particular style of play that the industry hasn’t well served for nearly 25 years using the OGL and the various Reference Documents to reverse engineer games in the style of the 70’s and early 80s.

As for what Wizards thinks of it, I can’t really speak for anyone there today. I know that 3.x lasted nearly a decade, and a lot of credit for that has to be laid at the feet of the OGL/D20 project. If you compare how thin TSR had to spread itself at the tail end of the 2nd Edition era to the robust work Wizards was producing up until the end of 3.5, you can see the hand of the OGL at work – keeping the company focused on high-value core projects and away (mostly) from profitless detours into the niches.

And no door is ever closed. Another feature of the OGL is that it is permanent. There’s absolutely no reason that Wizards could not choose to embrace either in whole or in part the many great designs produced over the past decade by 3rd party publishers and add them back into the Dungeons & Dragons canon. I had high hopes that this would be the standard practice at the company, and even though they haven’t really done so until now, they can always change course. That door never closes.

How I Named This Column

One of the wives of a member of my brand team at Wizards famously remarked, on watching her husband’s weekly D&D game, that it was “20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours”.

That comment has always resonated with me. I think it speaks to a fundamental truth about our hobby – that there’s a lot of room for improvement. Rather than taking it as a dismissive critique, I’ve always seen it in a positive light – there’s at least 20 minutes of something in those 4 hours that has kept 3 generations of players (at least) enthralled enough to keep coming back week after week.

So my objective here is to explore ways to expand those 20 minutes to fill more of those 4 hours. In the past decade I’ve spent a lot of time researching this topic and I’ve got lots of ideas I’d like to share with you, and get your feedback on.

I’ll be happy to respond to commentary based on these columns. I may not be able to address every question or comment, but I pledge to do my best to read them all. Community interaction is at the heart of my passion for this hobby, and it’s the central force that drives ENWorld.

Thanks again to the ENWorld team for hosting these essays, and I’m looking forward to speaking with you all again soon!

--RSD / Atlanta, Jan 2011
 
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Ryan S. Dancey

Comments

olshanski

Villager
I played RPGs from 1975-1988, then quit because of college and work and life, but I cam back in 2000 with the release of 3.0 D&D. I believe I owe 11 plus years of fun (and still going strong) to you. This past year I have taught my 2 sons to play roleplaying games based on my personal houseruled version of D&D cribbed from the SRD.

Thank you, Ryan Dancey.
 
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Cergorach

The Laughing One
I'm still very grateful for the OGL, it removed the legal mess that often followed fan publications (TSR was rather nasty with that at one time). I'm also impressed with the amount of cool things your associated with: L5R (RPG), Dune RPG, D&D, OGL, EVE, you sir lead a charmed live! ;-)

I'm also interested on more of your thoughts on Pathfinder, you indicate that you never thought it was possible that a (rebranded) fork would pass D&D sales or seriously affect D&D sales, did that conviction change during the 3.5E era? GPL projects (like Mambo vs. Joomla! for example in 2005) did a (rebranded) fork succesfully, so why not for D&D? Has the rise of Pathfinder more to do with the fall of D&D (4E) or a natural evolution of the D20 system and the OGL?
 

Jeff Wilder

Villager
3rd Edition -- and the fascinating idea of the OGL -- brought me back to D&D after an eight-year absence I had thought would be permanent. (I quit 2E in disgust in the early 90s.) As it happens, GenCon 2000 was one of only two GenCons I've missed since 1984, but my buddy bought PHBs for both of us, and we've been exclusively playing OGL-derived games since. (Currently PFRPG and M&M, both of which we love the way we loved 3E. The exclusivity isn't purposeful ... it's just that these are the games we love.)

Thanks very much for your part in shaping my lifestyle hobby into what it is for me today. I sincerely appreciate it.
 

darjr

I crit!
I owe you a lot of thanks. It was the Black Company campaign setting that brought me back to the hobby and D&D since it was an D20 derivative. The life that the D20 scene and the OSR are a fantastic development of what you started. Thank you.
 

WizarDru

Villager
Ryan, glad to have you here. I look forward to your insights both on the game and the industry. Folks tend to forget what D&D was like pre-3E; People like me who never went to 2E but flocked back when 3E arrived tend to have a better memory of it. I do not exaggerate to say that you and WotC returned one of my hobbies to me.

So, Thank you to you and the 3E team and Welcome Back to ENWorld. :)
 
It is great to have you here, Ryan, and I will add my gratitude for the innovation that you helped midwife into the industry all those 11 years ago.

I will ask a question that, I would guess, many here are curious about, especially in light of your now (in)famous "Death Spiral" comments on RPGPundit's blog. And that is: what do you think about the recent goings-on with WotC and how they've been handling D&D? Specifically, the roll-out of the Red Box and Essentials line, the change of Character Builder to online only, the lack of new material and cancellations of planned books, etc.

The general view is that WotC is focusing on D&D Insider, which would seemingly be the most lucrative aspect of D&D. My personal fear is that this will lead to the gradual whittling away of actual books, even the outright demise of D&D books altogether except for an "evergreen" line like Essentials, with the new, true core of D&D being DDI. If this is true, one wonders what will happen with the RPG industry as a whole - whether it can survive and thrive without WotC producing books, or whether we tabletop RPGers will soon be as outdated and anachronistic as model railroaders, stamp collectors, and fans of Big Band music. On the other hand, I also wonder if tabletop RPGs downsize a bit, the industry may return to a more "for the people, by the people" feeling, which may in turn improve its health and vitality and sense of community (Paizo's "mom and pop" moderate-sized company approach, as compared to WotC slick big businessy feel, comes to mind).

So what do you think? Is the sky truly and finally falling? If we can all agree that, at the least, the industry is undergoing a major transformation, what is the nature and likely outcome of that transformation? After Yeats, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Lake Geneva to be born?

I look forward to your response.
 

RyanD

Villager
So what do you think? Is the sky truly and finally falling?
Well you're asking several inter-related questions. I'll try to answer as best I can. Remember, I don't have access to unit volume or revenue figures anymore so I have to treat the TRPG business as a black box and do my analysis from the outside.

First, I honestly believe that there's no way we'll see anything close to the 3.x era of sales for D&D ever again. The whole TRPG market is being affected by the rise of MMOs and that's an external factor that no company, not even Hasbro, can really resist. So the fact that 4e isn't outselling 3.x shouldn't surprise anyone, and that isn't a commentary on its quality or lack thereof.

Second, I have no clue what Wizards thinks it is doing with the "red box". The Intro product for D&D has one, and only one purpose: To introduce 12-14 year old kids to the roleplaying hobby and start them on the path to become purchasers of the core books. That product must be designed to sell in mass market stores where it can get the widest possible distribution outside of the hobby core (where you can safely assume that gamers are teaching gamers without the need of a special product to do it). It must be priced correctly vs. the other games it is shelved with, and it must be packaged and presented in a way that a mother would be comfortable buying as a gift for the son or daughter of a friend.

The "red box" looks like a nostalgia product designed to be sold to 40 year-olds who want to relive a moment of their childhoods. I don't get the art or the font - neither will appeal to either kids or moms in CE2011. It doesn't look like any other products in the 4E line so how will people know that it connects? Doesn't even matter what's inside the box - this is one of those things that has to sell on its presentation on the shelf.

As to 4e as a product line, I'm equally confused. If I want to start playing this game today, what do I buy? How "Essential" is "Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms"? Is there still a Player's Handbook? Is it more or less "Essential" than the Rules Compendium? Wait, there's three Player's Handbooks? And 2 Dungeon Master Guides? Do I need to buy 5 300+ page books to play this game? And is the "Essentials" game the same game, or a dumbed down game?

Oh, there's an on-line product too? Is that an MMO? No? What is it then? Magazines? Can I read them on my iPad? No? So it's digital tools. OK, that sounds interesting. Can I use those tools on my iPad? No? Requires Silverlight? You gotta be kidding me! Do I get PDF or eBook versions of the physical books? No? In fact, Wizards removed all the PDF support from D&D from the internet? Srsly? How about a way to organize my campaign, track my NPCs, record the actions of my player characters, manage their inventories and experience points, and make clear what parts of the game are and are not used in my game? No? But there's a "Virtual Table" in Beta? The irony of a tabletop hobby making a digital playspace doesn't seem to have produced any cognitive dissonance...

(The above might sound sarcastic, but it's the closest I could come to my stream of consciousness thoughts as I read through Wizards' DDI pages just now...)

Three years ago I told people that it didn't matter if 4e was successful or not, because it was likely to be the last version of D&D that would be based on paper based tabletop gaming. I've seen nothing so far that changes my opinion about that. How it can become a digital product and still compete with MMOs is something I'd be happy to have Wizards pay me a lot of money to research but again, nothing I've seen yet shows me that they're on the right path so far.

RyanD
 
So the fact that 4e isn't outselling 3.x shouldn't surprise anyone, and that isn't a commentary on its quality or lack thereof.
How reliable are your sources that 4e isn't outselling 3e, and indeed that Pathfinder is outselling 4e? The former would seem to contradict direct statements we've had about the relative sizes of the print runs, while the latter is fairly seismic.

(I know you're almost certainly not going to share who they are. But is there any reason we should consider them any more reliable than the random internet dweller?)
 
Great first post, my fellow Ryan.

--RSD / Atlanta, Jan 2011
You're at CCP|White Wolf now? Man, I need to find a way to get invited to some of their parties. I'm always finding new cool people who work there.

Also, I wish you were still had a say in WotC's production. I don't know why there aren't iPad or smart phone apps for D&D.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
I also wrote the Open Gaming License, the D20 System Trademark License, created the 3.0 System Reference Document and hosted the Open Gaming Foundation and its two email lists, ogf-l and ogf-d20-l to support the community of 3rd party developers created by the OGL and D20.
Best dang idea in RPG's...EVER
 

prosfilaes

Villager
indeed that Pathfinder is outselling 4e?
It's been discussed several places on the board; an industry magazine published that D&D 4 was tied with Pathfinder as the best selling RPG in game stories, and Erik Mona said that matched the data he had. I've been watching the Amazon data Amazon.com Bestsellers: The most popular items in Fantasy Gaming since this thread, and Pathfinder has been competitive with D&D whenever I've looked. Right now, after removing the miscategorized fantasy, PF Bestiary 2 ($27) and PF Corebook ($32) are #1 and #2, with the Red Box ($14) and Monster Vault ($20) being #3 and #4. I don't recall PF having #1 and #2 before, but it's never not had an expensive book in the top 5.

Whether or not anyone is adding in PF or DDI subscriptions is another matter, since those are Paizo and WotC internal numbers.
 
Ryan, I'm very much interested in your column and look forward to future articles. As an OSR publisher I'm infinitely grateful for your work on the OGL and SRD, which is why I mention you in the acknowledgments of my core books. Thanks again!
 

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