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

Backwards compatibility comes with a lot of baggage.

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

Vincent55

Adventurer
I think that many older players of editions past will bring up a new generation's interest in their editions but will view or use the newer ones to make home options of their own. Then you have the current ones who only know 5e and never played or wanted to play the older hardcore versions and love to be basically superheroes. They will flock to one D&D as less time reading books and quicker digital online support for the iPhones their moms and dads got them. This will widen the gap between and create a sub-set of old-school gamers, which we are currently seeing, and the new digital gamers who have a short attention span and tend to leave if they don't get their way. I have seen this first hand in person and online trying to DM these people who need to have hands held and lacking in critical thought. But with what WotC did and the influx of people trying new games and systems maybe there is hope of saving this role-play industry from the temptation of full-on digital. I see digital as a tool, like the old random tables and list of names I would keep on hand as a dm to help fill in the gaps in case players did something unexpected. I have many web pages for such things and digital books so it takes less time to find a rule or make a check to see if something can be done or find info on a creature I had come up with unexpectedly. But on the player side, online character maker is good, but not if the player doesn't read and understand what the abilities and stuff they have are, this happened in a game recently when a player got an item and forgot he had it. As a DM I sometimes give things and many adventures later their use is needed, and if the player doesn't use it it can make that encounter deadly. In this case was a wand of light, that had daylight ability, and they were in a magical darkness effect with shadows, which was deadly but not if the wand was used then it became much more easy. Any way they died two of the 4 others survived due to the other's sacrifice.
 

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Parmandur

Book-Friend
In terms of brand protection, WotC has to keep making an RPG even if the money ends up coming from other sources, because it is the prestige of the brand.

To protect their brand now, they have settled on a one-two combo of Creative Commons and a forthcoming contents standards document. The OGL, to the untrained eye, implies that the content is licensed through WotC, which means a relationship. By putting the material into Creative Commons, which is broadly understood to be the same as public domain, no relationship is implied to WotC. When they put out a contents standard, and stick to it themselves, they can simply disavow any objectionable content that may threaten their family friendly brand.

Easier and cheaper than playing publishing police to 1500 vendors.
 

Von Ether

Legend
"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."

And to be honest, making movies is supposed to be a strength of Disney. To them, novels and comic books probably fall into merchandizing for their mind set.

People forget Disney is sitting on the entire CrossGen comics library. They bought it lock, stock, and barrel and did ... nothing with it.

Well nothing the public has seen. Perhaps they ran the number of getting into comics and changed their mind? This was also the time they were trying to find a franchise like Star Wars before they bought Star Wars.

And if want to know how happy they were to finally get Star Wars, you can read how that sucked all the oxygen out of the John Carter (of Mars) movie.


Incidentally, the book is written by the guys who's fan trailer did a much better job of putting the movie in context.
 

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.
Not to dispute your larger point, but part of what makes the MCU such an envious business case (and why everyone hopes to match their success) is that it built a multi billion dollar mega-franchise on the backs of C-list characters. Prior to 2008-2011, most people outside of comics fandom didn’t really know who Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor were—most of the public only knew the “big” heroes: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and maybe Wolverine. (Hulk, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman were B-listers that some folks would recognize from media, but they weren’t mainstream at the time either.) Even the entire Avengers comic franchise has its roots in trying to get more traction for less-popular characters. MCU’s Iron Man was a huge gamble: “damaged” actor (RDJ) + relatively unknown super hero… but it was a home run. Thor and Cpt America movies likewise boosted those heroes’ recognizability—culminating in The Avengers film, which cemented it. (MCU showed this wasn’t a one-off phenomenon when they likewise took Guardians of the Galaxy, a series with a character called “Rocket Raccoon”, and actually made it hugely successful. Rinse and repeat for many of their other characters.)

My point is that 15 years ago, Thor and Cpt America and Iron Man were pretty unknown, just like Drizzt is now. A truly solid media hit could hypothetically make Drizzt into a household name—if everything goes right. My first question is whether it’s possible to make a fantasy world like Forgotten Realms relatable enough to mimic that success, and I’m not confident about the answer.
 

Xohar17

Explorer
. Prior to 2008-2011, most people outside of comics fandom didn’t really know who Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor were—most of the public only knew the “big” heroes: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and maybe Wolverine. (Hulk, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman were B-listers that some folks would recognize from media, but they weren’t mainstream at the time either.)
Its that really the case though? I have seen this repeated a few times, and it foesnt align with my experience, maybe in mexico (where im from) it was different, but back in those years a whole generation knew of those heroes because of the marvel and dc cartoons. Yeah of course spiderman, superman and wolverine (and most of the xmen by the way) where the most recognizable heroes. But the cartoons had made reconizable and oretty know in the mainstream most heroes you mention. People may not have known a lot about them, but most at least knew who they were.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Not to dispute your larger point, but part of what makes the MCU such an envious business case (and why everyone hopes to match their success) is that it built a multi billion dollar mega-franchise on the backs of C-list characters. Prior to 2008-2011, most people outside of comics fandom didn’t really know who Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor were—most of the public only knew the “big” heroes: Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and maybe Wolverine. (Hulk, Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman were B-listers that some folks would recognize from media, but they weren’t mainstream at the time either.) Even the entire Avengers comic franchise has its roots in trying to get more traction for less-popular characters. MCU’s Iron Man was a huge gamble: “damaged” actor (RDJ) + relatively unknown super hero… but it was a home run. Thor and Cpt America movies likewise boosted those heroes’ recognizability—culminating in The Avengers film, which cemented it. (MCU showed this wasn’t a one-off phenomenon when they likewise took Guardians of the Galaxy, a series with a character called “Rocket Raccoon”, and actually made it hugely successful. Rinse and repeat for many of their other characters.)

My point is that 15 years ago, Thor and Cpt America and Iron Man were pretty unknown, just like Drizzt is now. A truly solid media hit could hypothetically make Drizzt into a household name—if everything goes right. My first question is whether it’s possible to make a fantasy world like Forgotten Realms relatable enough to mimic that success, and I’m not confident about the answer.
It's a pretty tough case to make to say that Captain America, Hulk and Wonder Woman were as obscure as Iron Man.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
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.
Here's my favorite part of the article.

Kyle Brinks: you're either with us, or you're with the terrists.

Talien: actually, we know that's not true.
 

My point is that 15 years ago, Thor and Cpt America and Iron Man were pretty unknown, just like Drizzt is now. A truly solid media hit could hypothetically make Drizzt into a household name—if everything goes right. My first question is whether it’s possible to make a fantasy world like Forgotten Realms relatable enough to mimic that success, and I’m not confident about the answer.
I don't know about this. My grandmother could tell me who Wonder Woman, Hulk and Captain America were, though she might have trouble with Iron Man or Thor. To this day if I am not playing with a dedicated tabletop gamer there is no way they know who Drizzt is. Maybe if Drizzt had thousands of comic books and appearances going back in print media to the sixties or even the forties, sure....but that is most definitely not the case.

In another decade or two there most definitely will be plenty of grandmothers who can tell their grandchildren who Drizzt is, of course....but the question is, will those kids care when they are designing their own unique iterative AI-driven worlds in some future VRscape we can't yet imagine?
 



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