Long-Term Test: 4e D&D, Part Three
I’m looking at Fourth Edition D&D through the lens of a years’ worth of gaming experience with a critical eye on what it needed to do and what it’s done. This is a long-term test review spread over several posts covering both the theoretical and practical sides of 4e D&D. Welcome to Part Three.
I ended the last post in this series with these words:
Wizards’ of the Coast abandoning the Open Game License was a good thing for the industry, and I’ll tell you why.
That’s something which hit me pretty early following WoTC’s announcement of their dropping the license, but thought it wise to keep quiet for fear of raging hordes of pitchfork wielding OGL supporters at my door. Now enough hindsight has passed under the bridge that I think it’s safe. If hindisght passed under bridges, that is. Way to mix metaphors, Grey.
Note that while I say it’s a good thing for the industry, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily good for Wizards of the Coast themselves. Dropping the OGL for 4e D&D was a downright risky move as it shut down third party support overnight and it’s taken a long, painfully slow process to claw any of that back. Without the support of the third parties WoTC had to plough a lonely and narrow field indeed.
What the OGL brought to the 3/3.5e scene was diversity. Other, smaller, publishers could experiment and broaden the scope of D&D in ways that WoTC couldn’t and that brought far more gamers to the D&D scene – a net win for the Coastal Wizards. The occassional poor quality product with an OGL badge was surely a fair price to pay. People generally do a good job of voting with their wallets and companies that consistently failed to deliver the goods floundered and died. The cream rose to the top and gave us such companies as Green Ronin, Malhavoc Press and many more.
Take that away, and Wizards had to pick up the slack themselves. This has meant a shedload of new products in a short space of time and no slowdown of the pace for the foreseeable future. Under the OGL banner, Third Edition D&D was a highly visible market presence with loads of products from many companies coming out every month. With 4e D&D and the GSL the only time you’ll see a new release is from Wizards themselves or one of a small (but slowly growing) list of third parties. That can’t be good for WoTC’s bottom line. As far as we can tell though, D&D Insider’s much deserved popularity should have more than made up for any losses. More on D&D Insider, another time.
It was also a staggeringly unpopular move with the vocal hobby fans – myself included. The Open Game License was one of the best things ever to happen to the RPG industry and WoTC dropping it from their core line felt like they’d commited suicide and delivered a deathblow to the industry itself, all at the same time. Area-effect seppuku, if you will.
We were wrong, I’m happy to say.
While the Open Game License was a Good Thing, it also made the game industry lazy – and by “industry” I mean designers and we gamers alike. Back when Third Edition was top of the D&D tree if a company wanted to create a pirate campaign setting and sourcebook (for example) they would release it in D&D compliant OGL friendly terms. This made their lives easier – no need to restate and reinterpret the rules or (Heaven forbid) actually provide rpg rules themselves. It also maximised their sales potential as we gamers are a notoriously lazy good-for-nothing lot and would likely only buy the thing if it came in D&D friendly form.
In short: if it wasn’t d20/OGL, it wouldn’t sell well.
4e’s shift from OGL to the GSL made us get up off our sorry asses and look at the alternatives. I can guarantee that the sales and popularity of Savage Worlds would be fractional compared to what it is today had 4e D&D been under the Open Game License. Now I don’t think I know of a single gamer who hasn’t got a copy on their bookshelves or who hasn’t played it at least once, let alone made it their main game (and if you’re The One without a copy, you’re missing out. Seriously.). Dropping the OGL made us collectively think “Wizards are screwed. What else is there?”. Even if you didn’t think that personally enough people did to spark a renewed interest in other systems, retro-clones and the like, and word of mouth did the rest.
It also meant that the game designers were open to try other things. They had to, in the main, in order to survive. Would Pathfinder even exist if 4e D&D was OGL, or would Paizo instead have released some kind of supplement to bring Fourth Edition closer to Third Edition roots? I dunno. Quite possibly. How about Fantasy Craft? Or Warriors & Warlocks for Mutants & Masterminds?
These are all world-class systems and supplements that paradoxically owe their existence both to the OGL and the loss of the OGL at the same time. They are Schrödinger’s Rulebooks.
So what Wizards of the Coast’s decision to drop the OGL from Fourth Edition has done is, strangely enough, improved the quality of gaming. It’s meant more choice for we gamers and more freedom for the publishers who are no longer having to carefully watch Wizard of the Coast’s every move.
Next time: Powers. What they are, and what they aren’t.