Chad Perrin: SOB

20 June 2008

How Paizo Fixed D&D

Filed under: Geek,RPG — Tags: — apotheon @ 03:47

This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.

The title of this SOB entry is a little misleading, I guess. The truth is that Paizo seems to increasingly fix the problems that have arisen with the Wizards of the Coast Dungeons and Dragons product lines in a series of major changes, each with a broader scope than the last. It’s like a cyclical process of accepting a change, making the best of the change, and significantly improving on the flawed state of affairs that preceded these changes.

The “end” of Dragon and Dungeon magazines:

Paizo really was started by a former Wizards of the Coast employee when the opportunity came up to print the Dragon Magazine and Dungeon Adventures magazines under license from WotC, along with Star Wars Insider. In other words, Paizo was created solely as a magazine printing business, taking over where WotC left off when its purchaser (Hasbro) decided the magazine lines weren’t profitable enough.

Under Paizo management, the general consensus is that Dragon and Dungeon improved in quality, as their formats and contents were adjusted to the needs and desires of the fanbase, the printing quality was attended to with loving care, and in general the fact that magazine publishing was being handled by a company whose sole business line was magazine publishing ensured that Dragon and Dungeon weren’t treated like the red-headed stepchild of corporate strategy.

This is a simplified explanation of what happened, of course. There’s some complexity involving Polyhedron — another magazine line — and I don’t know (nor care much) what happened with Star Wars Insider, for instance. Paizo eventually created the Undefeated magazine and licensed Amazing Stories as well, the latter of which was reinvented as a periodical with much broader appeal than the format it had under the original vision of its creation. The reinvention of Dungeon was really the most successful change, however.

Paizo was actually making a pretty good go of it in the RPG-support periodicals business, expanding on the base to do things like sublicense the magazine lines for Italian, Spanish, and German editions of the magazines. More interestingly for those of us who are in the English-speaking RPG world, Paizo also started publishing Adventure Paths, series of major adventure modules in the pages of Dungeon that fit together into overarching, epic campaigns. A sense of cohesive plot progression was imparted by lines — paths, really — of adventures tied together by a central plot and singular gameworld environment assumptions. The quality of the adventures was widely appreciated by subscribers to Dungeon.

While all of this may not have revolutionized the D&D game itself, it certainly improved the gaming lives of many D&D players, providing them with rich, interesting, fresh ideas, well presented in a relatively inexpensive format — and it made a success of Paizo itself at the same time.

What many feared would be a major blow to certain segments of the D&D fanbase (Hasbro dictating the end of the WotC-published — formerly TSR-published — Dragon and Dungeon magazines) turned out to be of great benefit to everyone involved. Well, maybe not “great benefit” exactly for WotC/Hasbro, but at least it didn’t really hurt WotC. Former WotC employee Lisa Stevens rode to the rescue, holding the reins of Paizo. Paizo proved that periodicals and adventure modules are a natural fit for each other and, well-managed, they can not only fit together well but provide for across the board improvements in both the periodical business and the adventure module business — which had been primarily held as separate businesses before that. All it took was a bit of dedication and loving care, which Lisa Stevens and her team clearly lavished on the whole enterprise with enthusiasm.

Very dramatic.

The real end of Dragon and Dungeon magazines:

While Dungeon‘s appeal was growing, and Dragon was at least a success in its own right — a reversal of the comparative state of affairs for these core gaming magazines from when I read them in the early ’90s, when Dragon was the better periodical — some of the additional magazines didn’t fare quite as well. Both Undefeated and Amazing Stories, while each more successful in some respects than Amazing Stories had been just before Paizo got its hands on the title, simply weren’t successful enough for a magazine-only business to keep pouring money into them. Since Paizo didn’t have another, more important business line than magazines, it couldn’t just write off any losses on its magazines as “marketing” for other revenue streams.

Eventually, however, word came down that the license contract for Dragon and Dungeon magazines would not be renewed. At that point (September 2007), Wizards of the Coast appears to have decided that it could take back control of the magazines and actually make them profitable somehow (probably as revenue support for its non-periodical RPG product lines) by offering them online. As things have shaped up since then, it seems likely that WotC/Hasbro wanted complete control over the content of both magazines in preparation for its release of 4E D&D.

Once again, an apparent death knell for something everyone loved (in this case, the Paizo era of Dragon and Dungeon publication) was turned on its head, and became a significant improvement in fantasy RPGs — because Paizo was forced to transform its business model to stay afloat. Examining the circumstances, Paizo decided to do something unprecedented: it printed adventure modules under a subscription periodical format. Rather than creating a magazine with articles about GMing and (more importantly) at least three adventure modules per issue, Paizo spun off a couple of lines of adventure module subscriptions and an accessories subscription. In the GameMastery subscription, you can get regular releases of gaming accessories delivered regularly, while with the Pathfinder Adventure Path subscription you can get adventure modules from ongoing development of Adventure Paths and with the Pathfinder Modules subscription you get stand-alone modules, in each case as high-quality stand-alone adventure module books. Add to that the Pathfinder Chronicles, which is a subscription that focuses on books that present source material developing the official Pathfinder adventure modules gameworld, and there’s a heck of a lot available from Paizo of very high quality materials, still available as periodical publications, even if the magazine format of Dragon and Dungeon magazines has been abandoned.

That’s not to say that Paizo is out of the magazine business — the company is still publishing magazines, though not Dragon or Dungeon themselves any longer. It’s also not the case that you can’t get these things as stand-alone purchases in stores (whether they be in brick-and-mortar game shops or e-commerce stores like Paizo’s own online store) — you can, but there are definite advantages for those who really like Paizo’s product lines to subscribe to the lines they like best. The really important ongoing change in the area of periodical publication, in terms of Paizo’s effect on the RPG market, is its non-magazine periodical subscriptions, however. In short, Paizo has reinvented the RPG-oriented periodical subscription business model, and the end result is the creation of high quality materials that appeal to a lot of people.

As for Dragon and Dungeon magazines in their new online life under WotC’s direction — well, I’m not sure anyone other than people rushing to adopt 4E cares. There’s the Dragon portal and the Dungeon portal, but it’s likely that, for people still playing D&D 3.5 and likely to continue in that vein for a while (whether simply with old 3.5 books, via the SRD, or through the advances promised by the Pathfinder RPG and the forks presented by other game publishers), Paizo’s periodical and stand-alone materials will prove much more palatable. What WotC/Hasbro has done is not to bring the fantasy RPG fanbase more closely under its control, but to split it down the middle, and its transformation of Dragon and Dungeon from periodicals into subsections of the main WotC Website is a major part of that change.

The end of Dungeons & Dragons as we know it:

The most central, most key element of that bifurcation of its fanbase, and surely the underlying purpose in reassumption of control of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, is the manner in which the release of 4E was handled. The standard set by the release of the core rules (and select additional rules) of D&D 3.x under the OGL was unprecedented in the RPG industry, and revitalized the core of the industry (which, aside from stiff competition from White Wolf for a few years and a scattering of “second tier” game publishers, has always really been about D&D).

While 3.5 brought some much-needed improvements to the game after the transformation of the game that occurred in the migration from 2nd Edition AD&D to 3rd Edition D&D, it didn’t fix enough, and it came too early for many gamers to feel comfortable with it. Eventually, pretty much everyone made the switch, however. Only small pockets of gamers who already own the 3.0 books and never really felt like shifting to a slightly different, but substantially identical system, at a nontrivial cost, resisted the “upgrade”. If I hadn’t started dating someone who owned 3.5 books, I may never have even gotten around to playing D&D 3.5, let alone Pathfinder, for instance.

Fast-forward a few years from the release of 3.5, and we see WotC/Hasbro making the same mistake they did with the too-early and too-minimal alteration of the 3rd Edition rules — but they’re doing it in a novel way. This time, they’re throwing out the old rules entirely rather than improving on them at all, but still doing so much more quickly after the publication of the last edition upgrade (D&D 3.5) than most of the fanbase would like. 4E not only doesn’t directly and substantially draw on any of the game system basis of 3E, which was closer to 2E than 4E is to 3.5, but it came out a mere five years after 3.5 did in 2003. Considering it took 21 years to get to 3E, and much of the fanbase was quite annoyed at how “quickly” 3E came out after 2E, that should tell you something about the apparent philosophy of product churn for the sake of squeezing revenue out of customers that has been adopted by WotC/Hasbro.

Of course, that doesn’t mean business won’t go well for WotC/Hasbro with the release of 4E. Maybe they’ll make a lot of money at it. They’ll sacrifice their hold on a substantial population of hard-core, long-time gamers in the process, however. While that may be fine for their bottom line, it leaves a lot of us with a bad taste in our mouths.

In the process, other problems were introduced, too. For instance, WotC/Hasbro is moving to a more restrictive licensing scheme for third-party publishers of D&D materials — from the OGL to the GSL, forcing publishers in many cases to make a hard decision between “old” and “new” D&D game system support for specific product lines. Worse, the actual uses you may make of GSL materials is substantially restricted as compared with OGL materials. Whereas the OGL was essentially an “open source” license for gaming materials, the GSL is simply a limited licensing system that allows you to refer to WotC materials and support them directly. You can’t even describe character creation, including alternate creation systems (such as alternative systems for determining starting attributes) in anything based on GSL materials.

This can potentially kill off a lot of companies that had been happily providing supporting materials for D&D under the OGL, if 4E effectively replaces 3E and its spin-off products across the board. A number of companies are, understandably, not chasing after the 4E/GSL approach to publication of supporting materials.

So . . . what did Paizo do?

In short, it created D&D 3.6 (though, because of trademark issues, it must of course call it something else — thus the Pathfinder RPG, which some are calling 3P in the spirit of 3E/3.x and 4E). It’s my belief (of course, I’m not an employee of Paizo, so I can only speak of my beliefs in the matter) that Paizo intends the Pathfinder RPG to serve for now as support for its own Adventure Paths, Pathfinder Chronicles source books, and other materials — again, reversing a long-standing traditional relationship between specific product types, generally to good effect. Rather than make the core rulebooks the bread-and-butter (reasonably priced) center of its business model, with ancillary books as their (more expensive per unit) supporting materials, Paizo is intent on the expansion materials as the bread-and-butter (reasonably priced) center of its revenue stream with its own improvement on the core rulebooks (more expensive per unit) as a way to cement its place in the RPG industry.

Looking at the Paizo game materials I’ve come across in stores, they’re obviously of higher quality — both quality of content and design, and printing quality — than the majority of WotC books. Even just downloading the Pathfinder RPG Alpha playtest PDFs, the PRPG rules seem more well considered, balanced, and clearly presented than those in WotC D&D 3E materials, ignoring for the moment minor issues like a problem with one of the fonts in the PDFs — issues that might prevent me from committing actual money to getting their PDFs, but won’t in any way dissuade me from buying “dead tree” hardcopy books. One of these days, I’ll get around to writing up my review of 4E, so you can see my take on how it compares with 3E and Pathfinder, too.

Even better, depending on how well-received the Pathfinder RPG is, Paizo may eventually produce a true edition upgrade in the rules. Having seen the quality and care invested in its products thus far, I’m convinced that such a second edition of PRPG would just continue the company’s tradition of excellent advances in the state of the art in fantasy RPG publishing. Of course, I’ll just have to wait and see.

They all lived happily ever after:

. . . but in any case, if I’m going to make the transition from D&D 3.5 to another edition, the choice seems clear to me: avoid 4E, and go with PRPG, aka 3P, aka D&D 3.6, which (unlike WotC/Hasbro’s new confection) actually represents a significant improvement for the gamer, rather than simply a chance at greater improvement in market growth statistics for WotC/Hasbro.

Otherwise, I might be tempted to pursue other RPGs when interest in 3.5 waned, taking a long-term hiatus from D&D in general as I did with 3E back in its early days when nobody wanted to play 2E any longer and 3E hadn’t been slightly improved by the release of 3.5.

Credit where it’s due, though — the incredible advancements offered by Paizo wouldn’t be possible without WotC/Hasbro’s many serendipitous mistakes, and its biggest consciously positive contribution: the OGL.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License