D&D (2024) RPG Evolution: The Brand Risks of Infinite Compatibility

The upside of backwards compatibility means retaining old fans while welcoming new ones. It also comes with a lot of baggage.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The Value of Backwards Compatibility​

Wizards learned a tough lesson when it transitioned between editions. The transition of Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons to 3.5 blew up the industry as consumers grew confused as to what products were compatible, and companies became concerned about publishing content at all when the license owner could issue a new edition without warning. The transition from 3.5 to Fourth Edition was even more traumatic, as WOTC attempted to leave 3.5 behind only to discover that Paizo filled the gap with Pathfinder.

Before a new edition comes out, the existing edition takes a hit: D&D gradually lost market share to Pathfinder, dipping to third place according to ICv2 in 2012 (when Fifth Edition was announced). The drop was not solely attributable to D&D's edition change of course. The issues with Fourth Edition and Pathfinder's popularity certainly had something to do with the shift in positions, but it seems likely the steep drop to third place was accelerated by the edition announcement. We have further data that bears this out in Pathfinder's Second Edition launch, in which Pathfinder First Edition slipped to fifth place in Spring 2019, just before the Summer launch of the new edition.

In short, radically new editions are disruptive: to supporting businesses, to customers, and to the market overall. No wonder WOTC is insisting that "One D&D" will be backwards compatible and therefore not part of the edition cycle. There's just one problem.

Bringing the Baggage​

If the latest rules iteration of D&D is truly backwards compatible with Fifth, it means that all the content produced for the game is still relevant. This includes the rich tapestry of content created under the Open Game License by thousands of small game companies, all taking advantage of being "brand adjacent" -- unable to declare being a D&D product but compatible with it. And yet, judging by WOTC's recent noise around the Open Game License, the company is much less comfortable with that compatibility:
We can't use the protective options in 1.2 if someone can just choose to publish harmful, discriminatory, or illegal content under 1.0a. And again, any content you have already published under OGL 1.0a will still always be licensed under OGL 1.0a.
Given the fact that WOTC only wanted to deauthorize the OGL for new products, it seems the company was less concerned about the existing product base. WOTC's worst fears already happened with an older version of the OGL, when a former WOTC employee published The Book of Erotic Fantasy:
When gaming company The Valar Project, under former Wizards of the Coast brand manager Anthony Valtera, attempted to publish the d20 Book of Erotic Fantasy (BoEF), which focused on sexual content, Wizards of the Coast altered the d20 System Trademark License in advance of publication of BoEF by adding a "quality standards" provision that required publishers comply with "community standards of decency." This subsequently prevented the book's publication under the D20STL. Wizards of the Coast said this was done to protect its d20 System trademark.
The damage was done. That book's debut triggered a movement away from the D20 System Trademark License (STL) to the Open Game License. Twenty years later, that risk aversion reared its head once more, as Kyle Brinks explained in multiple interviews that the faster the D&D audience grows, the bigger the risk that hateful content or scams might arise.

And yet there are plenty of ways to manage risk using the existing tools that don't require guardrails built into the license, not the least of which being the standards of conduct established by distribution platforms (DriveThruRPG, DMs Guild, and D&D Beyond, among others) that manage the bulk of the content.

Given that WOTC recently issued injunctions against certain publishers, it's understandable why this is top of mind. Even in those cases, the OGL was not at issue. And yet WOTC seemed more concerned about an existential threat, future-proofing D&D against the possibility of something that has yet to happen.

In part, this is because the future of D&D plans to not have editions at all, such that older versions will be indistinguishable from the latest iteration. And that's a problem from a brand perspective, because a perpetual brand that's not fully owned or controlled by a company is a vulnerable brand.

The Sideshow Returns​

Hasbro has been transparent about its desire to mimic Disney's success with its Marvel licenses, spinning massive movie franchises out of comic books. And yet, the enormous mainstream popularity hasn't translated into an equally massive number of comic fans. This became particularly apparent when there was pushback from comic book stores around the diversification of superheroes. While the movies had the full force of Disney's support in rolling out these diverse narratives, the comics were left to flounder:
For all of the cultural preeminence of Spider-Man or The Avengers, the superhero-comics industry remains a sideshow. The media conglomerates that own DC and Marvel use both publishers largely as intellectual-property farms, capitalizing on and adapting creators’ work for movies, television shows, licensing, and merchandise. That’s where the money is. Disney has very little incentive to invest in the future of the comic-book industry, or to attempt to help Marvel Comics reach new audiences, when they’re making millions on the latest Marvel film.
It's disappointing for fans when they don't benefit despite their hobby going mainstream. It's worse when that popularity eclipses the hobby itself, such that it's seen as more risk than benefit:
The only real explanation here, aside from office politics, is that, to Disney (and perhaps to Marvel itself), Marvel equals superheroes sold to superhero fans through comic shops, full stop. They are the legacy story platform for MCU properties and an occasional source of PR headaches, getting just a small enough slice of the Star Wars pie to avoid embarrassing questions.
If tabletop games are now being seen as "an occasional source of PR headaches," WOTC's failed attempt to deauthorize the OGL was all about future proofing not the D&D game, but the D&D brand.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

aco175

Legend
I'm not sure if the D&D movie can make an MCU amount of cash. Not sure if the number of people that play(ed) D&D is the same or more that read(ed) comics to whatever extent. I do not think the name recognition is there for a D&D character (even Drizzt). The characters in the D&D movie do not come to mind like Thor or Captain America. Granted I now see the Marvel movies reaching deep for new characters and bad guys, which may explain some of there recent decisions and backlash. Maybe Hasbro is planning to built names for the characters and introduce more. Hope it works.

As far as backwards compatible, I'm not sure how far that means or to what extent. I know they have come out and said that a 5.0 player can play in the same table as the new 5.5 PHB, but you need to pick one and not 'cherry pick' feats from one and classes from another, while taking spells from both to meet your level of power. At some point, they stop printing the 5.0 PHB and only the new 5.5- which is replaced in 5 years with the new, new 5.75. At some point I feel that D&D will feel a lot different that what we play now.
 

We know Hasbro wants D&D to be their own multimedia franchise + cash cow in the same way than Star Wars or Transformers. But almost all the D&D videogames have fallen into the oblivion.

I have said several times the challengue for the game designers is to create an "universal" system for all the different genres: sci-fi, superheroes, far west, pulp horror, war.. Of course WotC could publish a d20 Modern 2.0. but if this being totally retrocompatible with D&D is a different thing.

The current strategy could change acording to the success of the action-live movie, the future (mini)serie or even because the global economy.

Other point is the possible intercompany crossovers. We have seen Ricky&Morty or with Stranger Things, but players don't want to buy again a new player handbook only because it the licenced version of X videogame franchise.
 

A couple of things set our situation apart
  • There is nothing that Wizards can do that a single talented individual can't do in the time they have for a hobby. This is true now for comics books as well with the advent of digital technology and the internet for distribution. But....
  • Unlike comic books, we had access to the core IP of the D&D brand. So competitors are able to develop near-perfect substitutions. Comics book in contrast has to come up with their unique IP. And even then they have to be careful given the historical litigation DC and Marvel have launched to protect their IP.
  • The situation with Nu-TSR is not somebody using open content under an open licenses. It is somebody trying to game IP law to make a quick buck.
  • The situation with Pathfinder and 4e had little to do with Paizo taking advantage of a change from 4e to the next edition. It has to do with the fact that D&D 4e was its own unique system that happened to be branded as D&D. In terms of design had as much to do D&D as Runquest or Palladium Fantasy 1e had to do with D&D. The new system failed to have the same legs as D&D 3.X and market turned to Pathfinder as the successor.
  • Based on the few bits of playtest material released for OneD&D it represents the same shift that occurred from 3.0 to 3.5. 3.5 overall was the same system as 3.0. But there were dozens of small changes that made 3.0 material difficult to use particularly if it involved any type of options for the players. To make this situation unique compared to 3.0/3.5 is the fact there is so much content for D&D 5e 'as is'. Thirty One thousand works on the DM's Guild alone. If we get this "compatible yet not compatible" change in OneD&D who knows what will happen?
Wrapping it up
All of this leads up to the question of why we need D&D's brand and Wizard's participation in the first place? I think the various editions of the D&D system will continue to occupy a special place in the industry and hobby. But the D&D brand will increasingly be its own thing separate from the rest of the hobby and industry unless there is new management at Hasbro and Wizards who understand how the tabletop RPG market works.
 
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mamba

Legend
WOTC's failed attempt to deauthorize the OGL was all about future proofing not the D&D game, but the D&D brand.
that feels like a given to me, regardless of whether they stick to a ‘forever’ edition or there will be a true 6e in 10 years
 
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Reynard

Legend
This article feels like a weird stream of consciousness. It doesn't actually talk about its subject much at all, and relies on linked support articles ranging from months to years old. It does not seem to acknowledge that WotC reversed course and ultimately released the 5.1 SRD into Creative Commons. And, frankly, the parallels between game publishing and comic publishing are pretty weak -- but not quite as weak as the comparison between Disney ($200B) and Hasbro ($8B).

I think the subject eluded to in the title is worth discussing, though. If we look at Call of Cthulhu, for example, what can we glean about backward compatibility over the course of decades?
 

Horwath

Legend
I believe that 1D&D will be more or less same change as 3.0 to 3.5.
Basic ruleset will be the same. But you will not be able to mix and match both system, or you will be able with house ruling and some printed guidance from WotC documents.

most of the feats have been changed in published playtests and I don't see how both sets can be used at the same game without power issues or as I mentioned, house ruling.
 

mamba

Legend
They have never before and I've not seen anything that indicates that's about to change...
agreed, but the MCU also did not get there with one movie. Iron Man was a great start at 585M, but Hulk only made 265M gross.

Curious where the D&D movie will end up.
 

I think change is good. D&D was basically the same through OD&D, 1e, and 2e. I know I started drifting to other games after 20+ years of the same rules. Then 3.5 came out and D&D was fresh and new with a burst of energy.

The great thing is I can still play the old eddtions. So bring on big changes with 6e. If I don't like it I can keep playing B/X.
 

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