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.


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

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
The fact that the D&D 4e system design shared little in common with proceeding editions has nothing to do with whether it is a fun system on its own merits. I have a long history of outlining both the strengths and weaknesses of D&D 4th edition in an evenhanded manner.

If you have a specific point about why Pathfinder 1e overtook D&D 4e prior to the announcement of a new edition then make it.
4e wasn't really allowed to be enjoyed on its own merits though. It was always handcuffed to being "Dungeons & Dragons".

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Community Supporter
This is how corporate execs that manage IPs think. They want total control and ownership over everything associated with the brand. They don't get that RPG rules are meant to be toolkits, not board game experiences where everything is out-of-the-box or commercial-off-the-shelf.
Just to build on this point, once you dig into the thinking behind this it becomes clear that tabletop D&D is viewed as potentially more damaging to the parent brand than it can contribute in profit to the parent brand compared to movies and videogames. This is the "sideshow" reference to how Disney/Marvel treats comics.

In contrast, the Flash trailer from DC during the Superbowl ended with an ad for the comics!

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