Roleplaying industry predictions

June 19th, 2008 — Wordman

If you follow gaming at all, you know that the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has been released. As I suspected, the rules are, essentially, the rules that govern a video game captured in book form. As I did not suspect, the result is actually pretty good. It’s still very crunchy (i.e. rules-heavy), but it is pretty well designed crunch, with a lot of design focus given to keeping what is fun and ditching what is not.

page imagesThe effort is helped quite a bit by some interesting layout choices. In particular, their use of white comes as welcome change from their 3E design and somehow looks modern and slick. After years of role-playing products designed with ink on most of the page, usually with some kind of pale or gray image as the background, the open style used in 4E might change the way a lot of books get designed. I remember noticing the use of white in the gorgeous Ptolus and wondering why more RPG books didn’t use it. Fourth Edition’s color and font choices (mostly a family called Mentor) are also an interesting break from their past and, I think, well selected.

A few days ago, Wizards of the Coast finally unveiled their new Gaming System License (GSL). Not so good. It’s many shortcomings are being debated in forums all over now, but a thread on ENWorld is particularly notable, as it includes several publishers of 3E supplements using the Open Gaming License (OGL). Posts from a user named Orcus are worth reading, in particular, because he is a lawyer as well as a game publisher (Clark Peterson from Necromancer Games). Even though Necromancer’s page currently claims certain products will be ported to 4E, this forum indicates that at least some of the books mentioned (something called the Tome of Horrors, in particular) will not be, now that the details of the license have been unveiled.

One of the main issues is what some are calling the “poison pill” clauses (even though it isn’t really a classical poison pill). Essentially, it makes converting a “product line” (whatever that means) from the OGL to the new GSL a one-way process, and contains language that essentially would put a publisher’s future into the hands of Wizards of the Coast. I’m not a lawyer, but from how I read the GSL (PDF here), it seems to me that publishers would be fools to sign it as it is presently written, particularly if they already have created OGL content. It also pretty much shuts down any fan-based computer tools, like character trackers, reference tools and the like (though there will supposedly be a “fansite” related policy released later).

So, unless the license is changed, you can bet that not many publishers are going to fully embrace it, though many will probably make a few books for it. I’m guessing that most of the following will occur:

  • Well established product lines (that is, those who could claim a measure of brand recognition and loyalty) will continue to publish these lines under the OGL. They will eventually be forced to remove the d20 logo from them, but it will probably not matter.
  • Well established companies, if they publish for 4E at all, will do so with entirely new product lines. They will be able to leverage their name, but not their brands.
  • A few new companies will arise that make only 4E products, but will focus more on adventures than anything else. At least one of these companies will, in fact, be owned by another established company that is still publishing OGL-only material.
  • After realizing that the GSL won’t let it follow its current plans for 4E integration, Pathfinder will remain 3.5, and will become something of a flagship product for those still using the OGL, mutating into the semi-official mechanism by which the 3.5 rule set evolves.
  • Because of this, friction will be created between Wizards and Paizo, Pathfinder‘s publisher. Since Paizo has a very close relationship with Wizards, the result will be that Pathfinder will be sold before the year is over.
  • More than half of newly created companies that enter into the D&D related publishing business will publish under 3E rules using the OGL.
  • The amount of shelf space given to 4E products in gaming stores will not exceed that given to 3E products. Ever. In Borders and other large book stores, however, you won’t be able to find 3E products at all.
  • Numerous fan sites will emerge that convert third party OGL content into 4E. They will be constantly under threat from Wizards of the Coast, who will pay a lot of legal fees to continually fight them as they shift around.
  • Wizards will become more vocal about copyright infringement on p2p networks.

I’d love to see some other open source game take off in the wake of GSL backlash. Unfortunately, if this happens, it is likely to be Pathfinder, rather than a better system, such as FATE (also available under the OGL license) or Wushu Open (released under the Creative Commons). Even more unfortunately, there aren’t that many other viable alternatives. There are certainly a number of free RPGs out there, but few of them are open source.