Only the Lonely: Why We Demand Official Product

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I had a recent exchange with @Hussar and he asked a question, which, roughly paraphrased, was this:

Why is it that people keep saying that they want official campaign settings that reflect what they want? There are so many great third-party campaign settings already out there!

And my reply was this:
A combination of a weird identification with a corporate identity and a belief that validation occurs through someone else?
But, of course, that's not just it, is it? I have previously opined about the punk/DIY aesthetic of early D&D, but I wanted to really drill down into what makes people desire official branded product, as opposed to "just" third-party product ("3PP" yeah you know me) or homebrew. It's an interesting topic because it tends to come up fairly often in discussions.

My personal belief is that there are the following primary driving factors behind the desire for official product; we can usefully separate them into those that are common among all brands, those that are specific to fan/nerd culture, and those specific to TTRPGs.

Official product from a brand carries with it certain signifiers, such as quality, consistency, interoperability, authority, and prestige.


Quality. When you go to the store, and you see a "name brand" as opposed to a "store brand," you assume a certain amount of quality associated with the name brand. It's the same with anything else; after all, that's one reason brands advertise; to give you the belief that they are big enough to provide a quality product. Even when the products are the same (store-brand ibuprofen or Advil, for example) there are those that will gravitate toward the "official" product solely on the basis of assumed quality. Which leads to the next issue ...

Consistency. A primary driving factor for many brands is consistency; both consistency within products (a Coke is a Coke is a Coke; a Big Mac in Seattle will taste the same as a Big Mac in Miami) and consistency between products (similar styling cues, like terribly ugly grills, for the Toyota and Lexus cars). If you buy a store-brand "Cola," you won't get the exact same corn-syrupy taste that Coke has, and if you go to McDowell's instead of McDonald's, you're going to miss out on the sesame seeds.

Interoperability. This might be a mouthful, but it's pretty easy to understand. If you buy an HP printer, you know that HP ink will work. If you buy a Ford car, you know that Ford parts will work. Purchasing official products ensures interoperability. Sure, maybe that off-brand ink will work in your printer .... but maybe it won't. Or maybe it won't work as well.

Authority. "If you use anything other than official Apple parts or Apple service, you will void your Apple warranty." Official products carry with them the authority of the brand.

Prestige. And finally there is the most important factor. This is what brands spend the big bucks on; associating their brand with prestige, with a good life, with a luxury lifestyle. Why buy off-brand sugar water when you can buy Coca Cola? But we see this more with true luxury goods; if you've ever been in the market for an expensive car, bottle of booze, handbag, or anything, you know that you are paying partly for the increased cost to make it, but partly because you can now say that you can spend that much for the good. Prestige matters. And buying an off-brand Rolex is cheaper than the real thing.

Next, when it comes to thing that matter for fans, and more specifically to nerd culture.

Canon. This is always a touchy issue, but fans care deeply about this. What is, and isn't, "true" within the setting of the story? What is canon for the Buffyverse? For Star Trek? For Star Wars? For the Orville? Given the distinction between "official product" and "fan product" (and the hazy area of 3PP) the desire for official product that will provide more (and updated) "canon" is always there.

Validation. ...and this is canon's (sometimes) ugly cousin. More and more, fans assert a type of vicious ownership (or, more generously, a loving stewardship) over properties, and look to have their ideas about the property validated in the future; if the property moves in the direction they like, or predicted (validates what they wanted) then it's great, if it doesn't .... oof. But the desire for more official product, of a particular type, is often a desire for validation of the individual's wants and desires.

Convenience. This is the easiest one. Making stuff is hard. Finding stuff is hard. Having someone create things for you? Much, much easier. Convenience includes availability. (h/t @prabe ). Official product is more likely to be available to everyone.


And this ties into D&D ....

D&D emerged as a DIY hobbyist game. Famously, TSR was late to the whole "module" thing because, hey, who would want to run someone else's adventures? Early on, it was common to mix and match between official product, different rulesets (OD&D, AD&D, B/X, BECMI, Gamma World), homebrew, semi-official product (Dragon Magazine), 3PP (The Compleat X, Grimtooth's, etc.) and so on.

But there are reasons for wanting official product; looking at the factors listed above, quality, consistency, interoperability, prestige, and convenience can all be understood fairly easily within the context of wanting an official product. "I want WoTC to make X (campaign setting, class, feat, crunch, etc.) because I know it will be playtested, should work with everything else, and should be allowed in AL and any given convention or even home table without much fuss. Heck, other than Elves peeing into the wind (NO SHAME!) it should be edited really well too!"

Usually, the arguments ensure because of the more common fan issues that we see in anything from Star Wars to Forgotten Realms; canon and validation. People strongly identify with D&D, people love D&D, and because of that love for D&D (and/or particular things within it) they have strong beliefs as to what should be included. Or even what a campaign setting should look like.

So the long and the short of it is ... people will want official product because that's what people do.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker
Something you might have missed (or you might consider it to be included in what you have) is availability. As a DM, I strongly prefer for my players to be able to go to roughly any convenient game store and find the books I'm allowing options from. While there are some third-party sources that are pretty easy to find, they're more the exception than the rule. I've found a few things online that I'm allowing in, but I've found it easier to put the player options or other rules into a GDrive folder and share it, as opposed to trying to point them at the specific sources. Which I guess also suggests efficiency as a reason, for lack of a better word, so the players have fewer places they need to look. One could also say something about being playtested with similar premises and expectations, but that's probably included in your consistency and quality points.
 
There is certainly a particular type of player who wants official product because there's an expectation that anything from the canon is 'allowed' which frees their inner munchkin to power game and optimize the crap out of something, thereby proving their system mastery and fitness as gatekeepers to the one true way.

:cautious:
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
There is certainly a particular type of player who wants official product because there's an expectation that anything from the canon is 'allowed' which frees their inner munchkin to power game and optimize the crap out of something, thereby proving their system mastery and fitness as gatekeepers to the one true way.

:cautious:
Speaking as a powergamer, this is absolutely true. When I want to go with a strong build, I pull out the PHB. When I want to self-police my power level and play more to concept, I use 3PP.

This isn't to say there isn't plenty of problematic 3PP (there is!), but when I've gone to the trouble of finding something I like and getting DM buy-in, I'm going to make extra sure I'm not being a donkey-hole about it.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Quality. Have you seen the binders on some the books?
Consistency. Did you every look at Rise of Tiamat vs Tomb? The writing and encounters are not consistent.
Interoperability. HMM What book changed how counterspell worked? It when from counterspell to using an action to know what spell. So WOTC now uses Apple interoperability. We have upgraded our OS you must upgrade too.
Authority. I was sick of this argument back in 2E. It is an official product the DM must allow it.
Canon. ONLY TRUE FAN GIVE A DARN ABOUT CANON. And some of those should be shot out of air cannon at the next convention and have no catch net.
Convenience can’t snark or argue with that.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Something you might have missed (or you might consider it to be included in what you have) is availability. As a DM, I strongly prefer for my players to be able to go to roughly any convenient game store and find the books I'm allowing options from. While there are some third-party sources that are pretty easy to find, they're more the exception than the rule.
Go to a store for RPG stuff? This is 2020! We have DriveThruRPG.com! It's all right there, man!
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Canon. This is always a touchy issue, but fans care deeply about this. What is, and isn't, "true" within the setting of the story? What is canon for the Buffyverse? For Star Trek? For Star Wars? For the Orville? Given the distinction between "official product" and "fan product" (and the hazy area of 3PP) the desire for official product that will provide more (and updated) "canon" is always there.
First off, great post.

I think somewhat related to the idea of "canon" is the idea of a "shared experience". Official material is really the only material you can be sure you have discussion points on with other D&D fans and nerd out over. I can think of several homebrew products I like much more than the current WotC artificer, for example, but I can't really log onto ENWorld and ask for advice about how to best use them in the campaign or for shared play experience. I have to go onto custom Discords for that kind of discussion.
 
Speaking as a powergamer, this is absolutely true. When I want to go with a strong build, I pull out the PHB. When I want to self-police my power level and play more to concept, I use 3PP.

This isn't to say there isn't plenty of problematic 3PP (there is!), but when I've gone to the trouble of finding something I like and getting DM buy-in, I'm going to make extra sure I'm not being a donkey-hole about it.
Yup, pretty much. I've mostly gotten bored with 5e optimization honestly. It's not that complicated, and I really don't find it immensely fun any more. Now, if I have a new idea about how to power some awesome synergy that's different, but I'm pretty done pairing GWM and PAM to max DPR and a bunch of other three letter acronyms. My concept builds are generally acronym free.

Last night for example, I had a ton of fun discussing with my son how we could take a Loxodon Artificer Alchemist and have the most fun possible with Poison Spray and using Catapult to huck things like acid and oil. Optimized? Not at all. Fun? Hell yeah.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
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.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
I cut my teeth on the Black Box, and one of the things I loved about it was that it taught newbie DMs how to D-I-Y. You'd stock part of your first dungeon... and then you were given a map with almost everything (except the dragon and the treasure hoard) to stock... and then given pages of directions on how to brew your own.

I've been doing the same since with everything. I have yet to meet an RPG system I haven't wanted to hack in some way... to me that's as much fun as actually playing the game. And with 28 years experience and a background in stats, probability, writing and publishing, I consider myself as "qualified" as anyone at TSR/WotC to create my own materials. Maybe someday I'll make something for publication.

Some third-party materials are as good or better than WotC. Kobold Press - run by ex-WotC/TSR guys - is a mark of quality above WotC in my book. Sandy Petersen's 5e Cthulhu Mythos book is a masterpiece. Several others I could name too.

Darn kids! You want everything handed to you in a shiny book! Don't you realize that making it up - or at least editing it, combining it, messing around with it to see what happens - is all part of the fun?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker
There is still some lingering idea that it's not really official unless it's hard copy. A very interesting anachronism in this digital age.
Sure, it's an anachronism. OTOH, I run everything pencil-and-paper, and I've found that when I'm putting together adventures the stuff I've downloaded sits on my powered-off computer and falls out of my head, while the stuff in books goes in. If I have to print out all the PDFs I want to use, so I remember to use them, why wouldn't I prefer to purchase actual books?
 

Undrave

Hero
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.
Yeah but the AL modules kinda stink :p
 

MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
It may also be worth bringing up how the current media landscape seems absolutely obsessed with nostalgia. The Marvel and Star Wars movies feature characters originally created in the 60s and 70s. When is the last time a hit new tv series wasn't based on a novel? And any time we get a new video game console you know that Skyrim and Resident Evil 4 will soon be available for it. Basically our media currently loves reboots and remakes of old properties that have proven to be reliable. So I don't think it's odd that some people expect the same sort of treatment in their RPGs, even if it doesn't quite make sense business wise.

Wizards holds the IP to Planescape, Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Greyhawk, Mystara, etc. and are unlikely to just release them to the public domain. So only they are able to release that nostalgic content that people crave. Sure there are probably third party settings that are based on the settings of old. But based on doesn't give us the same comfort as the real thing.
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Sure, it's an anachronism. OTOH, I run everything pencil-and-paper, and I've found that when I'm putting together adventures the stuff I've downloaded sits on my powered-off computer and falls out of my head, while the stuff in books goes in. If I have to print out all the PDFs I want to use, so I remember to use them, why wouldn't I prefer to purchase actual books?
Well, being a laptop-using DM I find PDF more convenient - particularly for adventure modules and monster books - I often can't resist the lure of print, either, especially when such beautiful books are being produced today. For my 38th birthday on Sunday, I just treated myself to the print editions of 5e Cthulhu Mythos and the Warlock Grimoire - while I have all of the materials in PDF, and usually wouldn't get a hardcopy of a book that is mostly DM's-eyes-only, I just found them too attractive to pass up.

(And it's always fun to intimidate my players by slapping two big, heavy books filled with pure NOPE on the table.)
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
It may also be worth bringing up how the current media landscape seems absolutely obsessed with nostalgia. The Marvel and Star Wars movies feature characters originally created in the 60s and 70s. When is the last time a hit new tv series wasn't based on a novel?
That is partly due to the fact that high-quality movies and TV series are so expensive to make that those with the money to invest are reluctant to shell out for something that doesn't already have a proven, built-in audience. Which probably also applies to WotC and published books.

I'm not convinced that the actual consumers are so focused on nostalgia that they would reject something new just because it's new.
 

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