Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Path to Pathfinder

Between talking about Heroscape and Darwin’s World, I’ve already explained my personal history with D&D, and I started to explain about the various editions of D&D.  I covered 1e (that’s first edition), and 2e, and then I said 3e (the d20 edition) was perhaps the most popular, for several reasons (but then I only mentioned one).  I also noted that I don’t technically play D&D any more: I play Pathfinder.  I think perhaps it’s time to clear up what all that actually means.  Go and review the other two blog posts if you missed them the first time around.

Back?  Okay, so there are two open questions from all that.  First, what’s the other big reason that D&D 3e was so popular?  And, secondly, if I love D&D so much, why do I play Pathfinder now?  Well, as it turns out, the answers to those two questions are related.

While I talked about the edition history of D&D, I didn’t talk about the corporate history, and that turns out to be important too.  D&D was started by Gygax and Arneson, and they formed a little company called Tactical Studies Rules.  (Technically, Arneson wasn’t one of the partners, and there were a couple of other guys involved, but we don’t need to be that detailed.)  Tactical Studies Rules became TSR Hobbies, which became TSR, Inc.  Gygax, often considered the father of D&D and, by extension, the grandfather of all RPGs, was eventually forced out of the company he helped found, and TSR became more about business than about gaming.

One of the most annoying habits that grew out of this changeover was the litigiousness.  Early in the company’s history, they were sued by the Tolkien estate, and, as a result, there are no longer hobbits, ents, or balrogs in D&D; instead we have halflings, treants, and balors.  But it’s almost as if this experience scarred them somehow, because not so long after that, TSR started suing other people.  First any gaming company that published anything that used D&D gaming terms (like “hit points” or “armor class”), and then later on they actually started sending cease and desist letters to individuals operating D&D fan sites on the new-fangled world-wide web.  Here’s a tip for any of you budding entrepreneurs out there: threatening to sue your customers is not a good business model.

Soon TSR was all set to go bankrupt and D&D would be lost forever.  And then, along comes ... Wizards of the Coast.

So, remember in my discussion about what led up to Heroscape I mentioned CCG (collectible card games)? and, in particular, the grandaddy of all CCGs, Magic: the Gathering?  Well, that was Wizards, or “WotC” as they’re (sometimes affectionately) known.  WotC had its own fall from gaming grace to corporate sludgehood, but that is chronicled elsewhere and doesn’t directly impact the story.  The important bit is that someone over at WotC figured out that trying to shut down the people who were spreading the good word about your product wasn’t that bright of an idea.  The fans, whose word of mouth you counted on to attract new customers, and teach their children your game instead of someone else’s, that much was obvious.  But what about those other companies? the ones who wanted to produce products that used your game’s rules?  They were downright taking food off your table, weren’t they?

Well, only if you actually wanted to print those products yourself.  And, it turned out, you didn’t.  The sorts of D&D “add-on” books that these smaller gaming companies were putting out were niche products: the type of thing with a maximum audience of a few thousand.  There’s no way a big company can make a decent profit on that.  And, anyway: the more products that are out there utilizing your game’s rules (as opposed to someone else’s game’s rules), the more people want to play your game, because your game has the most support.  So it turns out that you actually want to encourage people to develop add-on products, not try to sue them.

And someone over at WotC (typically Ryan Dancey gets the credit) had a brainstorm.  The world of software was exploding with creativity because of the whole open source movement.  What if we could apply that to PnP RPGs?  Thus, open gaming was born, and D&D 3e was issued under the OGL.

It’s true that D&D 3e was markedly simpler to learn and to play than 1e or 2e (still not simple, mind you, but simpler).  It’s true that certain rules, such as multi-classing (the ability to be, say, both a fighter and a wizard, as opposed to having to choose one or the other and be stuck with that choice for your character’s entire career), were much less restrictive and appealing to a broader swath of gamers.  It’s true that the art was better, and the books were higher quality.  It’s true that many of the warts were removed, and the game was overall fairer to all concerned: being a wizard wasn’t quite so much like double-entry accounting, and being a fighter was more interesting than just saying “I attack!” over and over again.  But in my opinion (and the opinion of many other folks who follow such things), the real reason for the success of D&D 3e was the Open Game License.

All of a sudden, little RPG publishing outfits were publishing D&D add-on products instead of trying to come up with their own games.  The stuff that WotC couldn’t make money on, but that you had to have for a full-bodied RPG ecology (e.g. adventures) were coming out in droves.  And everything pointed back to the “core rulebooks” ... every single one of those products by someone other than Wizards had a big blurb on it saying “this product requires use of the D&D 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual.”  That’s $60 a set back to Hasbro every time someone new wants to get the latest adventure or newest campaign from Mongoose or Alderac or Green Ronin.

Yes, that’s right: Hasbro.  Because WotC got sold just like TSR got sold, and Peter Adkinson left just like Gary Gygax did.  Slightly different reasons, and certainly Adkinson made out better in the end than Gygax ever had, but the pattern is clear: it starts out being all about the games, and it ends up being all about the money.  And, eventually, that kills it.

The problem, of course, was that Hasbro was a big corporation, and it just didn’t understand this whole “open gaming” thing.  You mean other people—other companies—can use our intellectual property?  And not pay us?  Insanity!  It didn’t seem to make a difference that D&D was more popular than it had been since the late 70’s (really, more popular than it had ever been), that whole new generations of gamers were signing up, that the ironic hipsters who thumbed their noses at “old-fashioned” D&D and sported flashy new games like GURPS and Storyteller and Hero were suddenly wholesale converting to the d20 craze, that the money-losing propositions were being fronted by other companies.  If Hasbro couldn’t have all the money, then, dammit, no one else should be able to either.

This is my opinion of course.  Many people say that Hasbro/WotC’s release of a new edition that wasn’t quite a new edition—dubbed “3.5e” by everyone in what would soon become at least partially a derogatory tone—is what killed it.  Certainly many people saw 3.5e as a blatant cash grab: tweaking the rules just enough to force everyone to drop another $60 for the core rulebooks all over again.  And it certainly did cause some confusion in the ancillary publishers: should they be releasing add-on’s for 3.5e, or still for 3e, or ... ?  It was a bit like what would happen if Apple were to release a new version of the Macintosh without letting the software vendors have an advance copy first.  Of course, Apple would never do such a silly thing.  So there’s no doubt that 3.5e didn’t do D&D any favors.  But it wasn’t what killed the game ... at least not for me.

That would be 4e.

The first moronic thing Hasbro did was to completely reverse course on the OGL.  D&D 4e has a license that it’s released under, but it can’t be considered “open” by any stretch of the imagination.  All of a sudden no one can produce D&D material except Hasbro, and all the reasons to stick with D&D instead of looking at new games are all gone.  That’s why I say Hasbro’s short-sightedness and lack of comprehension on long-term profitability with an open model are the culprits.  You want to know how stupid they were?  They took away the rights of Paizo Publishing to produce Dragon Magazine.  Now, Dragon had been published continuously since 1976; it was originally published by TSR directly, and WotC bought that as well, and Hasbro itself had spun the magazine publishing off of Wizards soon after they bought it, looking to “streamline” and “maintain core competencies” or somesuch bullshit.  And now they were killing one of the greatest ambassadors that D&D ever had, so they could publish online content without “competition.”

But, you know what?  All that would have been fine.  I could have forgiven them all that and much more, if not for one measly problem: 4e sucks.  Now, that is certainly not a unverisally held opinion.  There are those out there that feel that 4e is a much better game than 3e/3.5e.  More common is an attitude that they’re just two entirely different games which happen to share the same name, perhaps unfortunately.  But what I personally believe is even more common is the attitude that I have.  Not that I’m stubbornly holding on to my old edition, refusing to get with the times like some RPG version of the classic Luddite.  I loved 1e, but I loved 2e better.  When the raft of core bolt-ons for 2e came out (Skills & Powers, Spells & Magic, and Combat & Tactics; what some called in retrospect 2.5e), I loved that even more.  When 3e came out, I loved that best, until 3.5e came out and it was so much better than I never even complained about having to spend yet another $60 for what was suspiciously close to the same set of rules I’d just purchased a mere 3 years before.  And, when 4e was announced 4 years later, I was excited all over again.  I had no reason to believe 4e would not be just as awesomer than 3.5e as each previous edition had been over its predecessors.  When 4e was released the following year (2008, that would have been), I eagerly bought a boxed set of all 3 core rulebooks and tore into them, anxious to see what they had to offer.

And I was disappointed.

There are any number of reasons I could give you.  If you’re a gamer, I can say that mainly it comes down a lack of options: genericization of powers essentially eliminate spells, many of the races and classes that I’d come to consider “core” were gone, and most especially the complete excoriation of multi-classing, which meant that it was now harder to build whatever character I dreamed up.  New editions are supposed to make that easier.  If you’re not a gamer, let’s just leave it at: this was not the same game.  3e is not the same game as 2e, to some extent, but there is a fundamental connecting thread running them.  4e, for me at least, cuts that thread and moves into a whole new, weird space.  It has some good ideas, and some subsytems were improved, but overall I just didn’t want to play it after reading the rules.  It left a flat, metallic taste in my mouth, like trying to eat your favorite food when you have a cold.

Now, being a software geek just as much as a gamer geek, I can easily tell you what happens when someone takes a piece of open source software and releases the new version under a proprietary license.  It’s quite simple: somebody forks it.  Which means, they take the last version that was free, and they improve it a bit here and there, and then they release it under a new name competing with the original.  So when Netscape gets bought by AOL, you get Mozilla (and, eventually, Firefox).  And when D&D’s OGL gets co-opted by parent corp Hasbro to produce 4e, you get ... Pathfinder.

Next week I’ll get more in depth into how Pathfinder came into being and why you should care.  Well, if you’re a fan of D&D’s 3rd Edition (either 3e or 3.5e), you should care.  Keep that breath baited!

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