Wednesday, July 13, 2011

WOTC, 4E, and a Loss of Momentum.

Now I'm not one who needs to the machine to feed me to keep the interest level going but the completely deflated feeling coming from WOTC & D&D currently is hitting me more than I ever thought that kind of thing would. There is next to no air in 4E production-wise now. This year has seen one new player supplement type book about Shadow, and there is a new monster book scheduled for later this year, plus one setting book, and that's about it. No, novels and boardgames and computer games do not count! The relaunch in 2008 saw a bunch of books come out, with even more in 2009 and then maybe the single greatest burst of production I have ever seen in the RPG field in 2010 with the PHB3, Psionic Power, the Demonomicon, Tome of Horrors, and the Monster Manual 3 in the first half of the year, Dark Sun with its campaign guide, monster book and adventure in the middle of the year, and then the Essentials explosion in the second half of the year. It was a firehose of material and I think most of it was quite good. Plus they worked in a Gamma World relaunch and two boxed expansions for that! Since the beginning of 2011 though not much has been happening and it does make me wonder what the future plans for the game are - with a solid new foundation in place there just hasn't been much forward movement. The Living Forgotten Realms thing seems to be largely over and that was a pretty big deal for a while. All those "Pathfinder is outselling D&D" articles that looked iffy to me last year look a lot more likely this year. Pathfinder is on a roll with a bunch of new stuff coming out and D&D has dropped to a trickle at best.

Again it's not that I care so much about having new shiny books to read - I tend to run way behind anyway - but it's partly inspiration and partly what I wil lcall momentum, oddly enough.

Inspiration-wise I sometimes see a new book that's coming out and start getting ideas for ways a campaign could go. The Draconomicons were like that (in older editions too) and the Demonomicon was too. Before I even read the book, the knowledge that there's going to be a sizeable volume on them might stir some ideas and make me drop some lore or links into the campaign to be followed up later.

The momentum aspect is a mental thing with me sometimes and with other people too. If I put the word out that I'm thinking about running a 1E Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, well, I have to approach it differently than I do if I put the word out that I'm running a 4E TOEE campaign. If I put out notice that I want to run a Shadowrun 3E game, or a Champions 4th game, or LBB Traveller it's the same. If you're not running the Current Version then there's some extra or at least different baggage that goes along with that, even with good players, and one of the nice things about 4E D&D, controversial as it has been, is that there's been very little of that kind of thing. I'm not really worried about it being cancelled - not until 5E is announced anyway - but I am worried about it dying on the vine with minimal support. They let Bill Slavicsek go a few weeks ago too and that doesn't fill me with confidence either. There are a lot of names I don't recognize working there now and while there's a chance someone steps up and hits a home run the game has spent the last 10-15 years tied to names I did recognize and mostly liked, going back to the designers of 3rd Edition. Now in this time of controversy as Pathfinder ramps up, the OSR continues to roll along, a new version of Hackmaster prepares to launch, and even Goodman Games, staunch supporters of 3E, launches its own retro D&D style game, we have a bunch of unknowns running the biggest name & game in the business.  How did it come to this? Is it penny-pinching, a loss of direction, corporate power struggles, or what? How can the biggest company in the hobby lose its way with the flagship project of the hobby?

I don't have detailed answers as I don't know the internal specifics or the causes - all I know are the symptoms. To get it restarted one simple answer would be neo-retro: WOTC has a huge back catalog of D&D worlds and adventures. Start converting those to 4E! That's the low-hanging fruit that could generate some forward motion for the game and some interest. Paizo can't do "Birthright 4E" but WOTC could. Goodman can't do "Slavers 4E" but WOTC could! You're doing a city book for the Realms this year - do a regional or city book for Eberron too! Dig into Epic a little more and put out the DMG 3 and "Epic Power" with a bunch of new Epic Destinies and Artifacts! How about another "Dungeon Delve" book - that thing is pretty handy!   There are a ton of obvious and not-so-obvious products that could be released, yet they aren;t doing much in that department so I assume there is a good reason. Still, new books on the shelf is what tells people the game is still a going concern - not web articles, not new dungeon tiles, not more beta tests of the online play aid - books! They could have redone Expedition to the Barrier Peaks as a big hardback adventure tie-in with Gamma World earlier this year and maybe added the "Tech" power source to the game (no I'm not sure how that would work) and that would have been cool. Heck just coming up with a theme for the year and supporting it ("2011 is all about mixing technology into your D&D game, from steam power to laser pstols") would be cooler than what we're seeing now.

So anyway there's my occasional rant on WOTC for the summer. Halfway through the year and it feels like it's the lowest ebb by far since 4E was launched, with virtually no excitement about what's coming next and a lot of questions about what they are thinking. Fortunately I can play whatever I want regardless of the company's marketing effort, but it would be nice if the Big Dog of the RPG scene started acting like it again.


Sully said...

I have to agree with you here. The board games are fun and all, but it's not the same. The Shadow Books were excellent, though, as is the Nentir Vale Monster Vault. I'll take fewer releases if they are consistently that good. I have some pretty high hopes for Heroes of the Feywild. That being said, I agree with you whole-heartedly that they need to start mining D&D's past some more to bring us more material. I'll keep buying books, and I've never cancelled my DDI subscription.

Although, a 5th Edition at this stage in the game would probably change all that.

David said...

For a while there I was wondering if I was just out of the loop. I guess the truth is that there isn't much of a loop to be in is there?

I'd be willing to pay good money (but not crazy money) for Birthright 4E!

Geek Gazette said...

While I'm a bigger Pathfinder fan, I do like and buy 4e stuff. This is especially true since Essentials came out. Yet I have noticed that 4e seems to have lost some steam. WotC is giving off this vibe that says, to me at least, that something is wrong. Like many others I may be reading too much into it, but this is how it seems to me.
Product releases have slowed, they're changing the published adventure format and Mearls is really stressing old school in his articles. He also seems to be putting out feelers regarding what people want. His current basic/advanced article really sends up a red flag for me. At first I dismissed everyone that said it, but I'm beginning to think a new edition is not too far away.

Blacksteel said...

They'd be crazy to relaunch anything before 2013 IMO - with launches in 2000, 2003, and 2008 people have bought a lot of books over and over again in the recent past. Plus Essentials was perilously close to a relaunch for 4e already. Additionally there's really nothing broken in 4E - even after 3.5 we still had polymorph issues, multiclassed spellcaster problems, and wizards dominating at higher levels. 4E really doesn't have anything comparable. It does feel like something is set on idle for 2011 though.

@Sully - fewer but higher quality releases is a valid approach, I'm just not sure that was a conscious choice for this year or a if it just worked out that way after they cancelled a bunch of stuff.

@David - yeah that out of the loop feeling is legit but there just hasn't been as much activity lately. If you stopped paying attention at the end of 2010 you haven't missed much.