D&D General Edition Changes and Brand Identity: Remembering New Coke

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One D&D is more like a bunch of different flavors of coke being released.


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
We had the "New Coke" analogy back in 4e days, including the bit where they moved back to a much more classic formulation and enjoyed a huge bump in sales. They even had a major competitor starting with 'P'.

I don't see the current situation as comparable, partly because they aren't changing anything like enough, and partly because I simply think they've learned the lessons from it. (Which doesn't mean they're not making a whole bunch of new and exciting mistakes, of course. :) )

So to briefly address this, and to somewhat move back on to topic ... as much as I enjoy discussing old beverages and have been disappointed that no one has mentioned Crystal Pepsi.

I want to make sure that this isn't construed as discussing prior edition changes. I think that it would be both reductive and too simple (not to mention edition war-y) to say that any particular edition change did or did not resemble this.

Instead, I am more interested in the way that this is an instructive example in terms of what it means to design for a brand. We have a lot of good conversations about proposed changes to D&D. What many people don't fully understand, and what I think WoTC continually grapples with, is the extent to which they can make changes. Designing for a brand is, in many ways, a gilded cage. It is never sufficient for someone to propose a change that makes the game "better." The change always has to be something that is not only better, but also consistent with the brand identity.

That's why, for example, when discussing aspects of the "legacy inclusions" of D&D, changes tend to be slow and deliberate. Take alignment, for example. The overall trend in D&D has been to move away from alignment. In 5e, alignment has been almost completely decoupled from all mechanics. We're now seeing alignment largely decoupled from monster descriptions. And yet, it has been difficult to jettison alignment completely from the game- and this isn't about the merits (or lack thereof) of alignment. It's about the strong associations and pop culture references and years of silly memes (what alignment is Batman???!!) that have built up around alignment and D&D.

Overall, I think that people tend to view D&D design in a vacuum; as I wrote above, there is the belief that you can literally slap any game with the name "D&D" and it would sell just the same. But that's not it at all. It's the other way around. D&D is a brand which does provide this massive inherent advantage, but it also is a huge constraint on design. In making "D&D," you are necessarily limited in terms of what you can change.

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