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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

danbuter1

First Post
I'm not really surprised that PF would tie with 4e in sales. It had a built in audience.

I think it's funny that some people actually think 4e is outselling 3e, though.

The future will be very interesting at WotC. I suspect 5e, if it is ever published, has been bumped up based on sales alone.
 

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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.
Indeed. I knew they were tied; what I found surprising was the assertion that Pathfinder was outselling 4e.

Whether or not anyone is adding in PF or DDI subscriptions is another matter, since those are Paizo and WotC internal numbers.
This is a very important factor. Both Pathfinder and 4e do a huge proportion of their business directly now. (4e probably does more, but will also have significantly higher costs.)

Interesting times.
 

cibet

First Post
Mr Dancey,

I look forward to your column. Great to have you back in the RPG public space.

Did you ever think you would see this day and the state of the current version of D&D as compared to the previous versions and one 3.5 clone particularly? You probably did.

I hope your next professional position puts you back in the RPG publishing space.
 


Mercurius

Legend
Thanks RyanD, that pretty much resonates with my perspective. In some sense it seems that WotC has become a kind of tragedy of errors - they just keep on making similar mistakes, errors of judgment, etc, as if they're really out of touch with reality. Make one mistake? OK, might as well compound it with another.

As an anecdote, I got the Red Box for my 10-year old nephew for Christmas; he also received Castle Ravenloft from his father. He was very excited about the latter product but after flipping through the contents of the Red Box, his response was "Do I have to read all of this?" Obviously this is just one child and he isn't necessarily exemplary of all 10-year olds, but it does say something and points to the kind of identity confusion that is exemplified by the Red Box.

Now while I agree with you that D&D cannot compete with MMOs, I think it is a mistake to even try, that WotC should instead focus their energies on making and advertising a game as a kind of antidote or alternative to the simulative virtual experience of MMOs. Stuff like this: Dungeons & Dragons: A Game of Story, Adventure, and Imagination. That last word is key: D&D is primarily a game of imagination and it should be designed and marketed as such. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't enhance that game with technology, but that it should be just that: enhancement and thus secondary, not primary.

I honestly think that D&D could remain a strong product for years to come, but I unfortunately doubt that WotC has the right staff to really make it shine. Hopefully I'm wrong, but the last couple years isn't all that encouraging.

Anyhow, thanks for your response - I look forward to your columns.
 


pawsplay

First Post
Ryan, thanks for leading us to the promised land. Before 3e, I hadn't played AD&D in years, now look at me playing and writing for Pathfinder and Fantasy Craft and digging M&M big-time.
 

xechnao

First Post
Ryan, many people and many gamers are very glad for giving D&D to the OGL.

Personally, I suspect that it harmed the hobby but nobody can really evaluate this matter in a clear and strict way, so I let it pass.

It is very interesting though that Pathfinder is outselling D&D and this fact creates thoughts about an environment of opportunities for expanding the hobby since all people's horizons may finally rise above the shadows of a 800lb gorilla.

But more importantly I can't but feel a great respect for Paizo, because if it were not for their efforts, I believe that the hobby would have lost many.
 

Dark Mistress

First Post
Welcome back Ryan Dancey, I look forward to reading more of your stuff. I mean you are the main reason I came back to DnD and stayed with D20. The OGL was perfect from my point of view. It gave us a core framework game to build off of and any niche products that might appeal to me but not big enough for big companies to sell. Let 3pp make, which let me plug and play with tons of options to create the type of game that fit me and my group perfectly. I personally think the OGL was the best thing to ever happen to the hobby.

Hope to see you more active in the forums too.
 


Croesus

Adventurer
Interesting comments so far - thanks.

And on the off chance that you're accepting ideas for future essays... :)

I've often felt my dream RPG system would be very simple at its core. Basic rules and play that a 10 year old can learn, but with enough flexibility that anyone can create good game sessions using just the base rules. No massive 300+ page tomes need apply.

Then layer on options. More robust magic systems. More detailed skill system. Martial maneuvers for combat. Psionics. World-building. And so on. The idea is each gaming group can mix and match whichever options they want, all around the (relatively) simple core rules.

I'm not referring to a "red box" intro game, but a way of designing the RPG rules so that individual groups can select the level of complexity they want, while still playing essentially the same game as all the other groups.

From a game publisher's point of view - what are the pros and cons of such an approach? Could it be a viable business model for a TRPG? And if so, any idea why no one seems to have done this? (The closest I've seen are the 5E and 6E Hero Sidekick rules, but even those are just stripped-down from the much heavier "real" rules of the game.)
 


digitaldraco

First Post
Now while I agree with you that D&D cannot compete with MMOs, I think it is a mistake to even try, that WotC should instead focus their energies on making and advertising a game as a kind of antidote or alternative to the simulative virtual experience of MMOs.
Something like this, maybe? B-)





(This was an actual Wizards of the Coast ad, published in magazines to promote 3e.)
 
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Matt James

Game Developer
Hey Ryan, welcome to ENworld! I look forward to reading your future columns. I was just curious what you were up to these days. What is your current role when it comes to the RPG industry?
 

ashockney

First Post
Welcome back, old friend. We said, "see you later". Now we will renew our friendship as if you had never left. We'll both be richer for our journeys during our times apart. We'll let the longing that filled our hearts, renew our bonds. I look forward to laughter, stories, and rekindling old memories. Welcome back, indeed.
 

amnuxoll

First Post
Ryan:

FYI, I enjoyed Ruins of Ravens Bluff. I was sorry Organized Play had such a short and frustrating run.

Much more importantly, I can't thank you enough for creating the OGL. You saved my game!

:AMN:
 

RyanD

First Post
FYI, I enjoyed Ruins of Ravens Bluff. I was sorry Organized Play had such a short and frustrating run.:
I should have known better than to go up against Living Greyhawk. It was such a better solution than Living City. I learned a lot about large social campaigns but also spent way too much money trying to fight the tide.

Ruins wasn't a good idea but it was the only one I had. I should probably have shut the campaign down rather than try a reboot. Hindsight is 20/20, and the biggest lesson learned was that the constrained resource was quality scenario writers not event organizers. When the design community switched to Living Greyhawk it sucked the oxygen out of Living City. I was kidding myse.f to think I could keep writing enough content all by myself to keep the game alive.
 

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