I read something today that, initially, intrigued me; then made me sad; then ultimately made me philosophical.
Wizards of the Coast, the subsidiary of Hasbro that controls the Dungeons and Dragons (henceforth D&D) brand, is to release a new edition developed with substantial input from the game’s fan-base.
On the face of it, this seems an interesting idea. I haven’t played with anything other than the older, “2nd edition AD&D” rules, but I’ve heard things about the later editions. None of the things I’ve heard were particularly positive. On that basis, reverting to the game’s fans and asking them how to fix things would appear a reasonable course of action for a classic game that has lost its way.
As I read on, though, I began to feel more melancholy about the whole idea. The article talked about a perceived decline in sales, a golden age of roleplaying which was now receding into the misty past. It drew comparisons between the financial success of enterprises like World of Warcraft and the comparatively meager numbers put up by D&D’s online equivalent despite the game being free at the point of access. I started to see this effort by Wizards as a publicity stunt, pure and simple, a desperate attempt to drum up interest in yesterday’s product.
Happily, this wasn’t my last stop on the emotional rollercoaster – because it led me to think about why D&D was failing to produce sales and how that related to my own experiences.
When I first started playing D&D, it became the all-consuming hub of my social life. As a member of my high-school’s outsider/geek gang, nothing could have been a more perfect escape from the ‘festival of cack’ that was our contemporaries and their ‘scene’. Every weekend, my friends and I would cluster into the house of some infinitely patient parent, order a stack of over-sized pizzas and tell larger-than-life stories together.
I’d play a character decidedly unlike myself, take part in thrilling escapades, solve baffling puzzles and discover fantastic treasures. Crucially, I’d grow and develop that character over time, becoming richer, more famous, more deadly, or achieve any number of other fantasy milestones. Most importantly of all, I’d be doing all these things in the company of my favourite people.
In theory, of course, the adventures we’d be acting out would be based on scripts sold to us by the developers of D&D. Our Dungeon Master would purchase a generic story, into which we’d then fit our established characters so they could take on the challenges it contained.
But in practice, things played out a little differently. Each week, we were improvising the lives of our characters on the hoof, building up relationships and rivalries with the other characters; the more we got into this groove, the less comfortable we felt responding to the awkward prompts of a pre-destined plot. Over time, our adventures became less like the stories being dreamed up by paid D&D writers and more like a heroic-fantasy-soap-opera. By their very nature, the schemes and alliances between our characters drew more emotional investment from the players than the arrival of a random minstrel in town, proclaiming news of a beast to be slain or a Lord’s favour to be won. We were drawn to the stories in which we were central characters, woven right into the fabric of the plot rather than taking the roles of a party of everymen in events someone else had conceived. We wanted to tell our own stories, so we did.
As we got older, this idea progressed. I would run sporadic games throughout our twenties, in which I wrote custom plotlines around the characters players had created, because they were more satisfying by far than having the players become the allies of some 2-dimensional protagonist. Each episode remained unwritten until the previous one had been completed, so that the plot had a chance to grow from the actions of the players, rather than force me to push them down channels into clumsy set pieces. The more the experience was personalised, the more fun it was; the more fun it was, the more we wanted to play.
It’s this truth that, in my opinion, is at the core of D&D’s failure to sell products. The game is brilliant – but it’s at its best when the players are creating it for themselves, not following someone else’s script. Why would I buy your generic adventure, when the personal one I created with my friends is miles better?
Core rules, dice, pens and paper – these are the things gamers need to get started, the things a company might realistically expect to sell for years to come. But the insight I achieved through my nostalgia was simple: unlike other products, D&D won’t die if it stops selling units and making profits for someone. Players will use their old rulebooks and their own narratives to keep the game alive, create new adventures and introduce it to the next generation.
The best and biggest parts of D&D exist in the imagination of the players… and while that’s not a marketable commodity, it is a priceless one.