Wednesday, February 15, 2023

My Punk-Ass Gen-X Take on the Whole WotC Debacle

 I am in the middle of moving house at the moment, which has forced me to neglect my blog, much to my frustration. Especially as so much has been going on in the hobby as of late. Especially with Wizards of the Coast doing their level best to alienate the Dungeons & Dragons fan base at every turn. I really only have one thought on WotC left with sharing. I might even sing it:

There's no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end
When we all disintegrate, it will all happen again, yeah
If you came to conquer, you'll be king for a day
But you too will deteriorate and quickly fade away
And believe these words you hear when you think your path is clear
We have no control
We have no control
We have no control
We do not understand, you have no control
You are not in command
-Bad Religion, No Control 
(©️1989 Polypteric Records)

Or perhaps, "See you WotC, enjoy your decline!"

I am, by all accounts the quintessential Gen-X slacker, I have had almost no employment with big corporations and didn't enjoy the environment. I have spent most of my life working for myself. I am suspicious of Sentiment, but enjoy Beauty. I am cynical towards ads, news, and mass media, yet I tend to communicate and think in pop culture quotations. I prefer to DIY where I can. And nothing is cool until I can personalize the Hell put of it. I have no interest in plastic,  cookie cutter corporate bullshit or brand names. D&D as a stopped being interesting to me when it was clear that it had gone from a vibrant small community hobby to another Brand Name™️ a few books into 3rd Edition. 

I walked away long ago. I don't care about the logo on the book. I briefly got sucked in with 5th when it looked like they were trying to connect with the lost fan base. I saw the error of my ways after buying one sourcebook.

I don't buy books for the sake of collecting.  I don't care to have mounds of sourcebooks. I brew my own worlds.  And until I had to balance kids and a small business, I didn't use adventure modules. What books I do buy, I buy to hack or to review. And I buy very few. Most of my 5e collection were gifts.

You can't sell D&D to me.

Not that it matters; WotC doesn’t want to sell to me, anyway. I'm not their target demographic.  I am a middle-aged cishet white dude who doesn't take life too seriously. I don't use D&D for  Therapy. For me, it's a mix of escape, stress buster, and a way to connect. I aim to have stupid fun with it. I don't fall in love with my PCs (I like to kill them), I am more interested in the world around them.  I stopped listening to Critical Role back in Campaign 2.

Which means that for a lot of matters pertaining to WotC, I have no skin in this game.  My boycotting their books means nothing. I don't want them... except  maybe to make fun of how comically bad they are. I wasn't going to see the movie.

I jumped ship to the OSR. I am not going back.

D&D™️, venerable corporate brand, and I are done. I found its grungy, garage-made DIY version of the hobby with a thousand hackable clones. And a pile of indie game engines that can be used to make whatever I want however I want. Why on Earth would I hold loyalty to a Brand Name™️? What have they got to give me that I can't get by playing Swords and Wizardry? Or making my own role-playing game out of Cairn?

If You Came to Conquer, You'll Be King for a Day...

Corporations exist and have the power they do only because people tolerate their behavior. And they tolerate their behavior because they think what they're being given is convenience.

A great many in this hobby - especially newcomers - think it is too hard to make their own game, brew their own world, plan their own adventures, or sift through the tons of awesome third-party content mostly created by guys like me hanging out in the kitchen with a stack of books on the table and coming up with cool shit to share just because we want to.

Hell, that was the whole spirit of the table top of war game in culture that D&D rose out of. It was how D&D was cobbled together. And how it grew into the hobby it is today. By definition tabletop role-playing games turn every game master into an indie game developer. Even if they're using pre-written content.

All Wizards has to offer you is the illusion that they somehow are putting out a higher quality product because they have the legal right to put the D&D™️ logo on there books. They have that aura of official that for some reason a lot of people find comforting. Mostly for the same reason that they default to fast food: at least they think that they know exactly what they're going to get.

Cardboard-flavored ur-meat.

WotC has been turning out badly made, poor quality, puerile products for the last 7 years.. the only thing that fools people into thinking there's any quality there at all is that all-important logo, the brand name, and the fa├žade of community play testing they've created through Unearthed Arcana. Anyone who pays any attention knows that the only thing they're going to get consistently from WotC is overpriced mediocrity. And that is to be expected. you see, Wizards is already dead.

But, You Too Will Deteriorate and Quickly Fade Away...

Almost every corporation in existence has a lifespan. A limited one connected to how long the people who created the business as an act of service to the community stay in charge. Once they are outed and a board of directors is appointed who are interested in keeping the stocks fat takes over, then it falls into a parasitical undeath for a decade or two.

Like all undead, the corporation is thirsty... trying its best to find ways to get more and more money out of the people they once tried to serve. Usually with no comprehension of who their customers are and what they really want, and no regard for them as human beings. 

Once they go too far, offer too shoddy a product or offend their their customers too much, they slowly collapse. Assuming that their product even still has a market after a few years.

These undead corporations can detect when the necromancy that's keeping them alive is failing. They attempt to prolong themselves by exerting more control over their Brand Name™️, trying to get rid of competition, trying to create customer loyalty instead of earning it. They start following what they believe are helpful marketing trends.

They even work, sometimes!

Right now, WotC is trying hard to create a system where they can feed via microtransactions, and recruit a generation that's more interested in online video games than table top experiences. They're hoping to create an environment where they can get lots and lots of players at a low price point, and make sure they're all seeing what each other is doing. They want D&D to feel more like an MMORPG, using an environment where there are tons of pickup games, often driven by AI DMs. Then they can find the people who desperately want to be higher status than the rest and let them show off with highly customized characters. They can make more money off of a few players who are willing to show off their higher status by building the perfect Mini or the most elaborate homebrewed adventure than they ever will off of players who just pay for the digital book access, use free subscriptions and use baseline minis.

In online games this is called whaling. The people aren't willing to pay much for a subscription and use generic assets are "minnows". They are important because they allow the handful of big spenders to feel superior. Those big spenders are called "whales." And they can spend a fortune if they think they can make the scene.

And this is exactly what the shiny new executive board of WotC has experience in doing. They were all hired because they worked with companies like Zynga that produce games that take advantage of this quirk of players psychology.

In order to make that happen, though, they need to get players into a comfortable walled environment and socially networked. They need to get more uniformity of play. And they need to get rid of the malcontents who might convince people that they don't need the official D&D (or any) VTT, to play RAW, or try different systems.

You Have No Control, You Are Not In Command

Well, they succeeded in getting rid of us bad elements. DCC, Castles & Crusades, Pathfinder, and many other smaller games are having explosive sales quarters. And WotC is gambling that they can turn the younger, more Brand-oriented Critters into a sea of minnows and whales.

But the fact is that the TTRPG hobby is, and always will be Punk as Fuck. Hacking, recombining, customizing, re-mixing, and freely distributing our creations has always been the driving impulse of the hobby. That's what Chainmail was. Its how the Braunstein and Tonisborg campaigns came about. Rules were made up on the fly, recorded, and shared in zines. The real genius of Gary Gygax was in his ability to take disparate ideas, play-styles, fictional inspirational and rules and weave them into a functional whole. D&D was a Frankenstein's monster of ideas and rules systems that was meant to be built on.

You can't be a DM without constantly generating new content, and the game requires you to eventually just make shit up. Once you get into the greasy engine of the system, and realize there is fun to be had there, trying to play the way you need to to make the D&D VTT and all of its pretty bells and whistles is going to feel harder and harder to do. And a lot less fun. 

Maybe that's why they are thinking of getting rid of DMs, too.

But D&D isn't a video game. And making it into a particularly unfun and weirdly hybridized MMO is  not going to let you compete with- or market like- World of Warcraft of Final Fantasy XIV. And even if it does, I suspect it is only going to feed WotC's dread unlife for a year or two. Assuming they don't sink entirely with the Hasbro ship.

I look on it with a mix of amusement, pity, and apathy. As should we all.

And then I will go play real role-playing games with my friends. Because what they have made isn't a good one, and what they are trying to make won't be one at all. Leave them to sulk in their crypt with their precious Brand Name™️ and Logo; play on.

With thanks to Dungeons & Discourse for teaching  me the Whaling term. Having a word for it really helped me articulate my ideas.


  1. It all seems so driven by a really weird interpretation of how people will want to play - I will be fascinated to see the internal strategy documents that explain all this when they come out eventually. Particularly why they think they can burn down their proven market and leap to an as-yet theoretical one.

    1. I think the fact that they have twenty times as many players that have joined in the last three years than they have had in the forty six years previous has gone to their head and confused them.

      They are looking at those numbers, then realizing that they are still averaging only $50 per player and only about $300 per DM is driving them nuts. Especially when you compare it to the spending habits of MtG players. An average of $100 per buyer is not that much better than a second-tier video game. Hell, even if you are one of the collectors who buys every book they still have only managed to get a couple of grand off of them.

      Let's just average each book out to $50. Assuming you skipped Rick & Morty and Stranger things, didn't buy the essentials kit, but bought every setting and module, so at this point 35 for-pay books. That's $1750 in books at this point. If you have collected a few minis and dwarven forge sets, etc., you might add another $500 onto that, but it is not money Wizards sees most of.

      That is nothing compared to the Whales in something like Overwatch or World of Warcraft. Some of the skins, special cosmetics, etc. are insane. Either you play as much as you work your fulltime job, or you are paying for that stuff. I have seen guys boast about $3000-$5000 worth of expenditures on OW in the same time frame that D&D5e has been about. And the real crazies? ...You can spend a lot of money on these games.

      I guess they think that they can get that kind of cash from a few thousand players. Imagine scoring 2,000 players willing to put down $5,000 each on D&D and all of it landing in WotC's pocket. Each one is worth 100 average players. They would be worth as much as ~2% of their current player base.

      Us old guys? We're embarassing. We still have values. We don't do the censorship thing or embrace the new state religion. And we don't pay very much to them. I think I ended up with $300 worth of D&D5e product. Maybe $90 on reprints of old books. And I was never going to give them any more. Might as well get rid of me.

      And the Critters? Most of them weren't in it for the long term. D&D was a fad for more than half of them. They were going to go anyway. And the ones who didn't? Well, Millennials and GenZ develop weird relationships with brands. They will go straight back to D&D, pay more, and encourage the big spenders.

      So to their minds, they don't care if they lose 900 players as long as they can have about 10 whales and 90 loyal minnows to keep them feeling big in return. It is a gamble, but they think it is a safe one.

      They will burn the whole history of the game down if they can have that kind of arrangement.

      And they are absolutely convinced that they can make it happen, because so many pay-to-win gacha games are way less interesting than D&D.

      As for the Mode of play? If you are willing to put in the time, you can do a lot of what they are talking about using a VTT or a tool like Dungeon Alchemist - and some people absolutely do - you can get pretty close to what they are aiming for. And some DMs really will spend incredible prep time to create these massive multimedia experiences, and pay some cash to do it.

      Player's don't actually need it. Many don't really even want it. It doesn't add much to the game... but most think it is "kinda' cool" if some of the DM's prep time actually went into prep, too. And there are a few who won't play without it. If they can make the prep part way faster, they are hoping everyone will come to prefer it.

      And insecure DMs who can use pizzazz as a safety blanket will pay big for it.

      And if you are paying even just $4 a month on a subscription, the average D&D player will spend more on D&D by their second year than most players will in a lifetime.

      So they are not going in completely blind... but they are gambling big. They are being greedy, and wondering why they can't have what Blizzard has. There's a lot of possibilities that can survive losing most of their player base and be profitable, if they can prey on a hungry minority.