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D&D 5E Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Official Campaign Settings

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I am often asking inconvenient questions of myself. Things like, "What is the one part of your body that disappears when you stand up? And why do people always want to have their own favorite setting made into an OFFICIAL SETTING?"

And while the first answer is obvious (lap), the second one? Not so much.

I have to ask again- why, oh why, do people keep saying that they want an official campaign setting? There are so many great third-party campaign settings already out there that they could use! Why does it have to be official? What does the imprimatur of WOTC mean, anyway? This seems to keep coming up, whether it's a desire to see Birthright, or Planescape, or even just a full treatment of the Forgotten Realms. Heck, some people even might notice it comes up when people are totally right and awesome and talkin' 'bout Greyhawk, like me!

I have previously opined about the punk and/or DIY aesthetic of early D&D, but I was hoping to really drill down into why people desire official branded product, as opposed to third-party product (you down with 3PP yeah you know me) or homebrew. I happen to think that this is an interesting topic because it comes up fairly often in discussions, and not just #SPELLJAMMER CONFIRMED!

My belief is that there are the following factors that are driving that unquenchable thirst for official product; we can usefully separate them into those that are common among all products and brands, those that are more specific to fan culture, and those that are specific to TTRPGs.


Outside of a dog, the internet is man's best friend. Inside of a dog I can't get good Wi-Fi.
Official product from a named brand usually carries with it certain signifiers that are attractive to consumers- quality, consistency, interoperability, authority, and prestige.

Quality. If you're in a supermarket (probably a Piggly Wiggly- this seems like a Piggly Wiggly crowd), and you see a name brand as opposed to a store brand, you will often assume that there is some amount of quality with the name brand. After all, that's one reason brands advertise; so that consumers have heard of them and believe that they provide a quality product. Even when the products are exactly the same (such as a store-brand acetaminophen as opposed to Tylenol) some consumer will gravitate toward the brand name product solely on the basis of assumed quality.

Consistency. The primary factor for many brands is consistency; both consistency within the product line (a Coke is a Coke is a Coke; a Whopper in Los Angeles will taste the same as a Whopper in Boston- TERRIBLE) and consistency between products (there will be similar styling cues for every Audi; you expect a similar level of competence, if not greatness, at a Cheesecake Factory that will be greater than you get at Wendy's). If you buy a generic store-brand "Cola," you won't get the exact same corn-syrupy goodness that Coke has, and if you go to McDowell's instead of McDonald's, you're going to miss out on the sesame seeds. And then you can't sing the song .... you get all the way to the end ... lettuce, cheese, pickles, onion, on a ... DANG IT! YOU GO TO HECK, MCDOWELL'S!!!!!

Interoperability. A lot of syllables, but it's easy to comprehend. If you buy a Canon printer, you know that Canon ink will work. If you buy a Toyota, you know that Toyota parts will work. Buying the official products ensures interoperability. Sure, it's possible that the off-brand ink will work in your printer .... but maybe it won't. Or maybe it won't work as well. Are you going to take that chance to save a few bucks?

Authority. "If you use anything other than official Apple parts or Apple service, you will void your Apple warranty. If you come into the Apple store after using anything other than the official Apple parts, the Apple people will point and laugh at you for your foolishness." Name products from a brand carry with them the authority of that brand.

Prestige. And finally I come to the most important factor when it comes to name brands. This is what brands spend the major money on; associating the brand with prestige, with a good life, with a luxury lifestyle. Why buy the off-brand sugar water when you can buy Coca Cola and its Polar Bears? Don't you know that buying off-brand sugar water kills Santa? But you usually see this effect more with true luxury goods; if you've ever been in the market for a luxury car, expensive bottle of booze, high-end leather goods, watches, or anything, you understand that you are paying partly for the increased cost of production, but partly for the exclusivity; only certain people can afford to have it. Prestige matters. Buying an off-brand Rolex is cheaper than a real Rolex, and drinking good sippin' tequila will cost you a lot more than drinking Mr. Boston's well liquor.


Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you're probably reading one of my threads.
Next, when it comes to the issues that matter for fans, and more specifically matters to nerd culture.

Canon. This is always a topic that brings up a LOT of debate ... especially recently ... but fans care about canon. What is, and isn't, true or meaningful within the setting of the story? What is for Star Trek? For the MCU? For Star Wars? For the Orville? Given that there is usually a distinction between official product and fan product (and the hazy area of 3PP) the desire for official product that will provide canon - more information about what is true and meaningful within the story - is always there.

Validation. This is canon's (occasionally) ugly sibling. Fans can often assert a type of angry ownership (or, more generously, a loving stewardship) over properties, and will look to have their ideas about the property validated in the future; if the property moves in the direction that the fan likes, or that the fan predicted (validates what the fan wanted) then it's great! But if it doesn't .... ouch. That's when bad things happen. But a fan's desire for more official product, of a particular type, can often be a desire for the validation of the fan's wants and desires as to what the product should be.

Convenience. This one is easy. Making stuff? TOO HARD. Finding stuff? TOO HARD. Having the official maker create things for you? THAT'S JUST GOLDILOCKS RIGHT! Convenience also means availability. Official product is usually more likely to be available as well, and you don't have to sort through other products.

Broken promises never upset me. After all, why did they believe me?
And those thoughts tie into D&D ....

D&D emerged in the 1970s as a hobbyist game. TSR was late to the idea of selling adventures because, in their estimation, what D&D gamer would want to run someone else's adventures? It used to be common to mix & match between official product, different rulesets (OD&D, B/X, AD&D, Boot Hill, Gamma World), semi-official product (Dragon Magazine), homebrew, 3PP (The Compleat Alchemist, Arduin Grimoire, Grimtooth's, etc.) and so on.

But there are very good reasons for D&D players to want an official product; looking at the factors I listed above:
Quality, consistency, interoperability, prestige, and convenience are all easily understood within the context of wanting an official product.
"I want the Powers that Be to make X (a campaign setting, additional monster manual, class, feat, etc.) because I know that this new thing will be playtested (QUALITY), will work with the rest of the game (CONSISTENCY), will be allowed in AL and any given convention or even home table without much fuss (INTEROPERABILITY)."

Usually, the arguments that we have on the thread are caused because of the more specific fan issues that we see in anything from the Buffyverse to the Forgotten Realms; canon and validation. A lot of people strongly identify with D&D, they love D&D, and because of that love for D&D (and/or particular things within it) the fans have strong beliefs as to what should be included. Or what a campaign setting should look like. Or sometimes they will go the other way and argue about what needs to be excluded.

So after all of that, I come to the thoroughly banal conclusion that ... people want official product because that's what people do.
 
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Yora

Legend
I think there's probably two driving factors. First one is that people don't just want the same stuff repackaged for a new edition, but it is a prerequisite to get more new stuff for that setting. Can't have expansions when there's currently no base package in retail.

The other thing is the expectation of increased exposure. If big company publishes new content for a setting, then that setting will become known to more people, leading to the possibility of more new content, and there will be more games in that setting that players can play in, and there would be more people interesting to discuss cool parts of it and exchange ideas on how to get the most out of it.
You don't get that with fan content, even when it's big stuff made by dozens of people over years.

An expectation of quality might be there, but that's a pretty long shot when looking at publically traded corporate entities. I think there is more hope in fans creating good content because they love the sertting, not because people in accounting told them to.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
There may be a couple of additional factors you leave out.

Everything Old is New Again
Often (very often - even usually), the desired "official" setting is one previously produced by WotC/TSR, and the only way they get to see print again is if they are official, as WotC isn't going to farm out the IP to other companies.

You've got ONE JOB
And that job pays the bills, which homebrewing doesn't. So while there's a tradition of do-it-yourself out there, we also have to recognize that coming up with an entire setting is one metric donkeyload of work. We want them to do the job so we don't have to.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think you missed one aspect: shared experience.

If there's one "official" setting in general use (particularly AL) then players from different games/cities/countries have - pun intended - common ground to talk about when they meet and interact. To some (many?) people, this is important even if not consciously realized as such.

Time was, that shared experience came from the adventure modules: everyone had been through the G-Series and-or KotB and-or Hommlet and could talk about (and laugh at!) their experiences. But those days are largely gone simply because there's so many thousand different adventures out there; and today the only real adventure-based shared experiences come from the first one or two official modules for each new edition (e.g. 3e: Sunless Citadel, Forge of Fury; 4e: Keep on the Shadowfell; 5e: Lost Mines of Phandelver).

So, if there's to be a shared experience today then an in-common setting is most likely where it's going to come from.
 


MarkB

Legend
There's one thing you left out: Ubiquity.

When you're buying a D&D supplement, you're not just buying for yourself. You're buying for a game you participate in with others, potentially others you haven't met yet, and it's a lot easier to sell them on something they may be familiar with or even own themselves - and a lot easier to drop in and play with a new group if you're already familiar with what they're playing.

Practically nothing aside from an official product gets that kind of widespread take-up and recognition.
 

TheAlkaizer

Game Designer
Another one: Price.

I'm talking Canadian dollars. I can order a D&D book on Amazon or buy it at my local gamestore for around 40-50$, no shipping. For example, I bought the Ravenloft book for 36$ on Amazon at launch.

In most cases, third-party books are vastly pricier and in some cases will cost a serious amount in shipping and/or customs. I remember taking a look at some of Kobold Press's books a little while back, and everything considered, it was more than double the Monster Manual.

I'm not very big on PDFs, so for me price is a huge factor. That third-party book better be quite amazing if I can get two official books for its price.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
There's one thing you left out: Ubiquity.

When you're buying a D&D supplement, you're not just buying for yourself. You're buying for a game you participate in with others, potentially others you haven't met yet, and it's a lot easier to sell them on something they may be familiar with or even own themselves - and a lot easier to drop in and play with a new group if you're already familiar with what they're playing.

Practically nothing aside from an official product gets that kind of widespread take-up and recognition.
Exactly this. "Come play in my game based on my personal notes from a setting that hasn't been published in 25 years" is a hard sell. "Come play in my game based on the shiny new book you can pick up from Amazon" is a much easier one.
 

There's one thing you left out: Ubiquity.

When you're buying a D&D supplement, you're not just buying for yourself. You're buying for a game you participate in with others, potentially others you haven't met yet, and it's a lot easier to sell them on something they may be familiar with or even own themselves - and a lot easier to drop in and play with a new group if you're already familiar with what they're playing.

Practically nothing aside from an official product gets that kind of widespread take-up and recognition.

Yep, that's where my mind went immediately as the chief value in "officialness". Honestly it is a lot of the reason to play 5e D&D in general right now.

And there are further "network utilities" in playing the same product everyone else is, including the "shared experience" between your group and the greater community that Lanefan evokes above, the fact that supplimentary products and materials (official and otherwise) are likely to appear alongside an official product, and the fact that if you have questions about or issues with an rpg product lots of other people bought recently there are websites like this one full of people who are also familiar with it ready to answer your questions or offer suggestions about how to fix what you don't like, some of whom probably had the same issues.
 


jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
A comment I made on a similar thread last year:
It even goes beyond desire for official product: there has also been a sense that a product doesn't "count" unless it's a printed, hardcover book. I remember before Tales from the Yawning Portal came out, there were frequent complaints that WotC had not published any short, stand-alone adventures. Whenever I or someone else pointed out that WotC had published dozens of short, stand-alone adventures in the form of AL modules, it never seemed to make the complainers happy.
 
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BookTenTiger

He / Him
Okay, for real this time:

I think Validity is a real big thing, especially thinking about a Favorite Setting being like your Home Team.

My family loves the San Francisco Giants. They love the Giants no matter who is playing on the team. But if the Giants moved to Florida, they probably wouldn't love them anymore. They love the Giants because their proximity makes them the "local team."

Let's say TSR used to publish a campaign setting called Fannyshire. Let's say I played in this setting with my friends for years. Then WotC buys D&D, and Fannyshire is no longer supported.

Oh, there's a 3rd Party that has updated the old Fannyshire books, but D&D lived at WotC! Oh, I still have my old Fannyshire books, but they're not 5e, and D&D is 5e now! So my favorite campaign setting isn't in my hometown and it's not even the same sport anymore.

If WotC published a new Fannyshire Campaign Guide, it's like my favorite setting has moved back to my hometown! I can wear the jersey and see other people wearing ball caps and say "go Fannyshire!"

That's what I figure.

Keep in mind I never use published settings, I'm a Homebrew Campaigner for life!
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/They)
I think you missed one aspect: shared experience.

If there's one "official" setting in general use (particularly AL) then players from different games/cities/countries have - pun intended - common ground to talk about when they meet and interact. To some (many?) people, this is important even if not consciously realized as such.

Time was, that shared experience came from the adventure modules: everyone had been through the G-Series and-or KotB and-or Hommlet and could talk about (and laugh at!) their experiences. But those days are largely gone simply because there's so many thousand different adventures out there; and today the only real adventure-based shared experiences come from the first one or two official modules for each new edition (e.g. 3e: Sunless Citadel, Forge of Fury; 4e: Keep on the Shadowfell; 5e: Lost Mines of Phandelver).

So, if there's to be a shared experience today then an in-common setting is most likely where it's going to come from.
Isn’t that covered by consistency?
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
What a crazy coincidence.

You know what, Twosix? I LIKE YOU. You're not like the other people here, in the trailer park.

A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidents and things. They don't realize that there's this, like, lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. Give you an example, Twosix; show you what I mean: suppose you're thinking about a night manager. Suddenly someone will say, like, night, or manager, or night manager out of the blue, no explanation.

No point in looking for one, either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
 


if it is a truly new setting then it can be the validation of your tastes, like let's say they make a setting with guns then suddenly it is less odd for guns to be a thing in dnd and if you have settings with guns in you home game you are looked at less oddly.
 

I understand the desire to have certain settings reprinted and/or expanded. Popular ones are obvious, such as Realms and Eberron (although I feel Realms didn't get much). Ones with specialized rules that need updating are usually good choices, like Dark Sun, Planescape, and Spelljammer. Others... it doesn't make too much sense to bother with, although I can see the argument of outsourcing it by licensing it to others.

Personally, I don't want WotC to reprint my favorite setting, Greyhawk. I can use the existing material to my satisfaction without any "official" books countermanding my vision. Nothing about Greyhawk needs a mechanical update, as most things have already been covered in the core rules. The only thing that's probably important is dealing with new races in the setting, which is probably best determined by individual DMs (some may ban, some may incorporate, some may make radical changes).
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Exactly this. "Come play in my game based on my personal notes from a setting that hasn't been published in 25 years" is a hard sell. "Come play in my game based on the shiny new book you can pick up from Amazon" is a much easier one.
How is this any harder to pitch to players than "Come play in my homebrew setting?" IME, homebrew isn't any harder to pitch/sell than something canonical.
 


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