Monday, April 23, 2012

S is for Serendipity

Serendipity is digging a hole to plant a tree and finding a chest of pirate silver. Serendipity is buying a used book and finding a near-mint Honus Wagner baseball card stuck between the pages.

As the Nineties wound down, and Wizards of the Coast was preparing to release the third(-ish) edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a manager named Ryan Dancey proposed that Whizbros release the new edition under an open gaming license.

We make more revenue and more profit from our core rulebooks than any other part of our product lines. In a sense, every other RPG product we sell other than the core rulebooks is a giant, self-financing marketing program to drive sales of those core books. At an extreme view, you could say that the core >book< of the PHB is the focus of all this activity, and in fact, the PHB is the #1 best selling, and most profitable RPG product Wizards of the Coast makes year in and year out. The logical conclusion says that reducing the "cost" to other people to publishing and supporting the core D&D game to zero should eventually drive support for all other game systems to the lowest level possible in the market, create customer resistance to the introduction of new systems, and the result of all that "support" redirected to the D&D game will be to steadily increase the number of people who play D&D, thus driving sales of the core books. This is a feedback cycle -- the more effective the support is, the more people play D&D. The more people play D&D, the more effective the support is. The other great effect of Open Gaming should be a rapid, constant improvement in the quality of the rules. With lots of people able to work on them in public, problems with math, with ease of use, of variance from standard forms, etc. should all be improved over time. The great thing about Open Gaming is that it is interactive -- someone figures out a way to make something work better, and everyone who uses that part of the rules is free to incorporate it into their products. Including us. So D&D as a game should benefit from the shared development of all the people who work on the Open Gaming derivative of D&D.
Ryan Dancey overcame objections from others at Whizbros, and 3e Dungeons and Dragons was released with an open license, allowing other developers to write original products using the core rules as set out in the system reference document, in accordance with the terms of the license.

A 'boom' followed the release of 3e D&D - here was an unprecedented opportunity to commercially publish supplements, settings, and adventures for the World's Most Popular Roleplaying Game. As years passed, however, sales dropped and Whizbros decided it was time for a new edition of the game. This new edition, 4e D&D, would not be released under the open game license like the previous edition and half-edition, 3.5 D&D, however, but rather under a new license.

Meanwhile, the Open Game License remained in effect. It was still possible to publish materials for 3e D&D, and when many gamers expressed reservations about the early releases of 4e rules, one gaming publisher, Paizo, elected not to make the jump to the new edition, instead continuing support for their own house version of the 3.5 game, released under the OGL, called Pathfinder. This, arguably, drove an even deeper wedge between those who liked the new edition of D&D and those who wanted to stay with the current, third(-ish) iteration of the game.

But before 4e and Pathfinder arrived on the scene, there was another twist to the tale.

A segment of D&D gamers still played even earlier, out-of-print editions of D&D. Some were 3e and d20 gamers dissatisfied with the rules, while others simply never stopped playing the older games in the first place. These gamers still enjoyed the experience which playing original, basic, 1e and 2e D&D provide.

What they didn't have was a supply of new material.

Enter OSRIC.

Released in 2006, OSRIC - the Old School Reference and Index Compilation - was ". . . intended to reproduce underlying rules used in the late 1970s to early 1980s, granting publishers a common base for the creation of new "first edition-style" products." It allowed game desigers, for the first time in many years, to legally sell new adventures and other materials for out-of-print versions of D&D.

So while 3e and 4e battled for their share of the roleplaying pie, another branch of gamers appeared, growing at right angles to the 3e/4e axis. Dubbed the Old School Renaissance, these gamers-slash-designers produced not only new adventures et al for the older editions, but also new approaches to gaming using the early rules, from thirty-one flavors of D&D to games in different genres like the post-apocalyptic Mutant Future, sci-fi Stars Without Number, and wuxia Flying Swordsmen.

One of my favorite products to come out of the OSR is Backswords and Bucklers, "[i]nspired by works such as Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana and Sir Walter Scott’s Kennilworth," a game I plan to talk about in more detail in coming months.

When I think about the history of D&D over the past decade or so, I'm struck by how the saga of the OGL played out. By some measures Pathfinder came to outsell 4e D&D, something which I expect wasn't in the plan outlined by Ryan Dancey* more than a decade ago. I believe the rise of the OSR from the OGL was even more improbable, with roots-gamers enjoying new commercially published products for their favorite games and the exploration of new genres using old rules.

Serendipity can be a beautiful thing.

* According to Justin Alexander, that was, in fact, part of the plan from the start.

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