This is part of my RPG series of entries here at SOB. See the inaugural entry in the series for more details.
Bear with me. There’s a lot of set-up before I get to the point.
Suspension of Disbelief
I know, I know . . . a fantasy roleplaying game isn’t the most realistic basis for a setting. In the real world, people don’t fire lightning bolts out of their fingertips. In the real world, gigantic, winged, talking, firebreathing lizards don’t hoard gold in remote caverns, occasionally popping up to demand tribute in the form of virgin sacrifices (and how do they know the women are virgins, anyway?). In the real world, there’s no such thing as a bear/owl hybrid that always fights to the death — or, for that matter, any animal that always fights to the death.
These things work within the context of an FRPG, though. They work because they fit within the common set of assumptions that form the basis for the game setting. They’re the reason it’s called “fantasy”, after all.
Some of the otherwise difficult to believe characteristics of a game world must be presented as specific rules, and those rules must provide some kind of internally consistent rationale for how and why they work the way they do. If you accept the founding assumptions of the gameworld, you should find the way the rules operate, and the way certain aspects of the setting and behavior of its denizens play out, entirely believable. It is this ability to rationalize setting details and game mechanics that we call “suspension of disbelief”.
FRPGs must abstract away a lot of realistic detail in their rules systems to make themselves playable, of course. For instance, the system of saving throws has never been entirely realistic, even given D&D’s fantastical premises. The idea that there is a basic probability that determines whether a fireball affects you as much as everyone else or affects you exactly half as much comes across as a trifle arbitrary. The spell lists and memorization paradigm for spellcasting, with arbitrary numbers of spells you can cast per day from among arbitrarily determined “spell levels” is so thoroughly abstracted from any reasonable kind of believable in-game rationale that literally dozens — if not hundreds — of competing FRPGs have risen and fallen in the RPG market almost entirely on the strength or weakness of their attempts to fix that little problem with suspension of disbelief.
Frankly, many of these problems arise because there’s a need for something like “game balance” — a concept whereby nobody too badly outclasses anyone else by default, assuming the same character experience level (another arbitrary and mostly unbelievable game mechanic). Spell levels, per-level limits on spells that can be cast, the need to “memorize” spells, and so on, are largely mechanisms for balancing dramatic magical variety against magical power so that a wizard can actually coexist with a swordsman without one character totally overshadowing the other, without either player feeling like his or hers is the useless redundant character. Many of these rules were created in the early days of gaming, as modifications of the tactical wargame approach to game systems, and have remained largely true to their roots because people still liked playing the game even if the rules weren’t perfectly suited to this new (relative to tactical wargames) and evolving gaming paradigm.
A new RPG may not solve all the suspension of disbelief problems of a preceding game — and that’s fine. Even if the purpose of creating a new game is little more than just creating an official collection of previous house rules that improve on the game mechanics’ support for suspension of disbelief can rely on a few old familiar rules that aren’t anywhere near perfect, and the game may still be a significant improvement on the original for most purposes.
One thing that can spell doom for a new RPG is introducing new problems with suspension of disbelief. Even if your game does a remarkable job of fixing up most of the internal contradictions and arbitrary power limits that make it difficult to suspend disbelief, introducing new internal contradictions and arbitrary power limits that create new problems with suspension of disbelief can just destroy the viability of the game. People have become used to ignoring the old, familiar problems with D&D’s game system, and find it easier to suspend disbelief in the face of such problems than new problems that might crop up and surprise players with their unfamiliarity.
There are exceptions to this “rule” that introducing new problems with suspension of disbelief pretty much guarantees commercial failure, of course. D&D 4E is one of the examples of this — and possibly the best example. In the case of D&D 4E, of course, the reason for the exception is the fact that it bears the D&D name.
Dungeons and Dragons is the original RPG. Even more, there’s a general perception of an unbroken line of development for D&D from its earliest days, from TSR through the company that bought it (Wizards of the Coast). This might be weakened somewhat if WotC had just bought the game, and not the whole TSR company, and TSR continued to exist as an independent game company — and the transition from TSR to WotC did weaken this perception somewhat, though not much more than simply replacing the CEO of TSR would have done. In fact, transferring control of TSR from Lorraine Williams to Peter Adkison may have helped in many respects, because Adkison was an enthusiastic fan of D&D while Lorraine Williams took pride in the fact she had never played the game and was rumored to have decreed that no D&D playing would be allowed in the offices under any circumstances (including playtesting).
Excuse me while I ward off the evil eye. I don’t want to be struck down for invoking the dread name of Lorraine Williams.
Anyway . . . because it’s the new “official” D&D, 4E won’t lose anywhere near the kind of market share and fanbase goodwill it would otherwise have likely lost for its blunders. Just as there was from AD&D to AD&D 2E, and from AD&D 2E to D&D 3E, there will be a gradual mass migration to D&D 4E. I believe there are enough major mistakes being made, however, that the migration will not be nearly as complete as WotC will hope. While some of the most egregious such mistakes are not related to game mechanics, the vast majority of them are, and this will play a part in whittling down the fanbase.
Part of the reason for this danger to D&D’s dominant market share is alternatives. There are now, in a way there never really were before, alternatives to “upgrading” that provide not just an equally palatable substitute for many, but an actually superior replacement. The most notable of these may be the new Pathfinder RPG, which you can actually download in its Alpha test release as a PDF, for free — and you’ll be able to do the same withe the more complete Beta test release after this year’s GenCon. While many gamers will simply stick with 3E for a long time, eventually drifting into either 4E or essentially unrelated games (Traveller, maybe?), or even into not playing RPGs at all when it simply becomes too difficult to get together a group who haven’t moved on to newer editions of D&D, many others will choose Pathfinder or some other alternative instead. Pathfinder itself is basically the spiritual successor of D&D 3.5, in fact; those who most liked 3.5 but still want a game that doesn’t stagnate both commercially and socially will probably find Pathfinder an inviting proposition (if they give it an honest chance, of course).
I’m convinced that a lot of what WotC and Hasbro are doing is, from a business standpoint, downright stupid — completely aside from the things they’re doing that are essentially damaging the game as it exists in the hearts and minds of its long-term fans. Some of it isn’t as stupid, of course, but some of it just seems downright moronic. I’m also convinced this will not damage D&D market share enough that anyone can use declining market share as a strong argument that these decisions are that stupid. About the only way that would work out is if the OGL game ecosystem ends up essentially taking over D&D’s dominant market position in the near future, and I think it will take a few years for that to happen if it happens at all. In the midst of all the damage WotC and Hasbro are doing to their D&D business, they have one huge advantage that nobody else has: the D&D brand.
Getting Away With Murder
Many gamers seem to be looking at 4E as something akin to murder, where the D&D they’ve known and loved for thirty years is the victim. Regardless of that, it’s blindingly obvious that the WotC/Hasbro collective is trying to “murder” open gaming as a potential source of competition for dollars and market share — and considering how many of us believe the OGL is in many ways the best thing that has happened to RPGs in decades, that can really sting. The power of the D&D brand, however, means that — as far as WotC/Hasbro will be able to tell — they’re going to get away with it. As Monte Cook once observed, it might be generous to suggest there’s an RPG industry at all aside from D&D.
This is a short-term analysis, of course. Longer term, a lot of things can change. Just as in the software industry, I think that in the long run the closer something is to a Copyfree state, the more successful it will be — all else being equal, of course. That means that games published under licenses like the OGL have greater potential for long-term success, especially if efforts like the Free RPG Community, the Open Gaming Foundation, and OpenRoleplaying.org gain traction. Pathfinder RPG, if it is commercially successful (at least enough so that it would be carried on by a gaming community even if it were commercially EOLed), could give that sort of thing a big boost.
It’s even possible that, largely on the strength of it being truer to traditional D&D flavor while still advancing the state of the art in D&D game mechanics, Pathfinder might gradually usurp D&D market share and mindshare. That would require a strong following for PRPG relatively early on, so that there’s a solid base, and that people tire of 4E’s differences from 3.5, of course. PRPG needs to be successful enough to survive and become a sustainable game of its own before that can happen, barring nigh-miraculous shifts in distribution of market share in the next couple of years.
. . . but, at least as far as the business analysts are concerned, I’m sure WotC/Hasbro will “get away with murder” this time around. Time will tell, I suppose.