A few weeks ago I was visiting my brother and we ended up at a pre-release event for the newest Magic set, Avacyn Restored. After seeing the turnout, atmosphere, and support I started to wonder: why doesn’t D&D have something like this?
Magic and D&D are owned by the same company. Since Magic’s considerably more profitable there have been a few attempts to make D&D more like Magic, but they’ve largely been derided by fans (or at least vocal fans on the internet) and haven’t stuck around for long.
Prior attempts to learn from Magic have centered on the randomized element. Magic’s sold in randomized boosters, right? So what can D&D sell that’s randomized in boosters? Unfortunately for Wizards of the Coast the RPG market hasn’t been overly welcoming to randomized booster packs. Randomized miniatures stuck around for a while, but eventually became cost-ineffective. Randomized cards for D&D (and Gamma World) have been pushed but don’t seem to have stuck with many groups.
I think the issue with both of those is that they jump straight to the method instead of addressing the goal. What makes Magic players show up in droves just to play the new set a few days early several times a year?
To quote one of my favorite shows, the facts are these:
Magic the Gathering puts out roughly four new sets per year: one base set and 3 expansions. Each of these gets a pre-release event where players show up at their local game store and play tournaments with the cards before they officially go on sale. There are prizes, of course, but tournaments with prizes aren’t rare, so that’s not the draw of these specific events. Pre-release events serve to get people excited about new cards and draw the community together at regular events, even moreso then regular tournaments like Friday Night Magic.
At some of these pre-releases there are additional perks. For Avacyn Restored it was a “Helvault,” a promotional package styled after some element of the Magic fiction (don’t ask me what). During the tournament players completed “achievements,” for each player who completed X achievements a seal (sticker) is removed from the Helvault until it opens. Inside are trinkets for everyone in the tournament: promo cards and so on.
D&D has no such cycle. While Wizards has recently cultivated a community play cycle on par with Friday Night Magic (D&D Encounters) there’s not as strong an incentive to pick up new material. As a datapoint, let’s look at D&D releases for 4th Ed1: 1. I’ve made every effort to include every product, based primarily on WotC’s official list and this page. Where possible I’ve grouped products into categories: core for the core rules, adventure for plotted adventures, ephemera for gameplay tools, tiles for tiles, settings for settings, and supplement for anything else. If I’ve missed something, please let me know.
None of these supplements has (that I know of) been pushed with release events. Some have been tied into the D&D Encounters program, but none have had dedicated game days just for that product to push/celebrate it. In total there are 16 adventure products (some of which contain more then one adventure), 7 campaign setting products, 8 core books (including Essentials), and 35 supplements. Looking more subjectively I’d say that 11 supplements are broadly applicable: you can use them in literally any game, even if you’re not using the martial power source and you don’t have dragons and your cosmology is different.
I also suspect that this is far more content then any given table can use. It’s very much a “bundle something for everyone together” approach. You buy the Player’s Handbook II because you want to play a Druid, you just happen to get extra classes that you might play some day. It’s even more dramatic with adventures. I wouldn’t be surprised if WotC has released more adventure content then can be played in the time since release by the average group (once a week for a few hours). This is a stark contrast with Magic where every major set is valuable to everyone.
The sheer body of work also serves as a barrier to late adoption. Coming into Magic with the current core set plus the latest expansion is as easy as at any other point in Magic’s history. Compare that to D&D where a current purchaser has to figure out what books to buy, if any, after the core books2 2. Assuming they can figure out they need to buy the core books first, that is.. Is the Player’s Handbook 3 like an iPhone 4, the latest and greatest (and therefore a better buy then 2)? Or is it like the third Harry Potter book: don’t buy it until you’ve made the most of the previous two?
I have no sales data at all, but it appears that sales of these supplements are not currently enough to support this edition. In fact, based on the time between editions, I would guess that the sales of supplements has steadily been declining. The time it takes for this decline to kick is has gotten shorter with each edition of D&D, based on the shortening times between editions.
New editions aren’t intrinsically bad of course. But they do require considerably design resources and risk alienating existing customers. If the core + supplements model is valid then new editions have to be deployed carefully.
So that’s the situation. Magic has a large audience who keep coming back for more. Part of that is due to randomized gambling nature of buying new cards, but not all of it. The blind buying of boosters is becoming less and less central to Magic, especially with the challenge of non-randomized “Living Card Games.” D&D on the other hand tends to lose players over time and relies on periodic big banner releases to draw them back in.
Is there a way for D&D to have a steady audience who stay interested in the game the way Magic players stay interested in magic?
The big takeaway from the Avacyn Restored pre-release for me was that it felt like an event. Everyone was there for something that was only going to happen this one time (even if those cards would be on sale soon and stay on sale indefinitely). So what if D&D products were geared towards creating cycles of play and events like Magic does?
In its first full year (2009) 4th Edition had 11 supplements and 7 adventures. It’s impossible to make a big deal out of any of these when there’s so much more content coming. Of these releases 4 of them are follow ups to the core content (classes, DMing, monsters, items). The common impression seems to be that these sell better then other supplements, so let’s say they don’t need any more promotion. Our goal is to take those other 7 supplements and 7 adventures and tie them together into something that:
- Promotes community play
- Drives player retention
- Doesn’t block late adoption
- Sells more copies
What if D&D were seasonal? Instead of a c0nstant stream of new books let’s make three big releases per year. Each one will have a theme behind it to tie it together and build excitement. Since D&D is your game and there’s no meta-plot these will be light meta-events: an orc invasion, the opening of a gate to Hell, the fall of a major city, and so on. A meta-event should be something that can be slotted into a typical D&D setting easily.
Instead of releasing plotted adventures for meta-events there could be encounter books that also include suggested setups that string some encounters together to make an adventure for groups of specific levels. The orc invasion event, for example, could contain low ranking orc slavers, the heart of the orc army, mounted riders, the orc priests, etc. Then there would be a few setups to use those to make an adventure for different levels: defend a village for low level, infiltrate the camp for mid level, do battle with the high priests at high level, or whatever.
The advantage to this presentation is that more people use more of the content. Instead of presenting a plotted adventure where consumers won’t be ready to buy another until they finish exploring this one, present the tools to build an adventure easily that can stretch or shrink to fit the group’s time and how much they want to draw out of the book. My group may play once a month and defend the village in 4 sessions, a group that plays every week might decide to draw it out into a huge attack that lasts 16 sessions.
Of course along with adventure material comes the standard trappings of new content: feats/powers, paragon paths/destinies, items, monsters, maybe even some specific mechanics. All the meta-event material should be as reusable as possible while still sticking closely to the theme. The orc encounters and woodland combat powers are still useful if I’m not doing the event, the event is just a way to group the content into more exciting packages.
To build up the event aspect of it, each meta-event would be kicked off with a game day. The game day would be focused play on the theme of the meta-event, hopefully with some tie to the theme and maybe some cool rewards for play. For the orc invasion event it could be holding the walls of the keep. You sign up for the event, sit down with a pre-gen and play for two hours. The store hosting the event tracks the outcome of each table, once enough orcs are slain the armory opens and everyone who’s participated gets some trinket (custom dice, a mini, whatever).
In addition to the kick-off there could be mini-events tied to the current event at conventions. If the orc invasion is going on during GenCon there could be a GenCon event where the orc army meets the human one. A few weeks later at PAX there could be an orc hunt in the woods as the remnants of the orc army are cleared up. A few weeks later the next event launches.
Ideally new players get introduced to these events early on. Maybe the core books even come with a code to get a digital version of the current event, just to get people into the cycle.
To me this sounds like a win for everyone:
As a player, I get cool targeted events that bring the community together and let me meet other gamers. I get new content every few months (in addition to a periodic PHB II or whatever). If my home game follows the events I get a cool touchstone with other people in other games: I can compare how the event played out for my character vs. theirs.
As a GM, I get adventure content that’s bigger and more adaptable to my game. This adventure content is also designed to move my game along and change the world as it happens. Even if I don’t keep up with the current event I can always buy it for the monsters and such now and use the actual event later.
As a game designer, I get to continually try out new ideas without having to compete as much with my own back catalog. I can also introduce new ideas across all parts of the game (classes, monsters, treasure) at the same time instead of piecemeal. I get to share bigger concepts with GMs. The seasonal nature of releases could even allow for a slow evolution of the rules.
As a game publisher, I get a way to push new content without wearing people out. I get a way to promote more and get more people excited. I create shared experiences within my audience which bring them together.
None of these ideas are all that new. Obviously this has been Magic’s format for quite some time. World of Darkness did some event books. The Marvel RPG is about to put out its first event book. I’ve heard that Warhammer 3E does something similar, though I haven’t played anything beyond the core set. The thing that hasn’t been done is leveraging WotC’s connection with game shops to make an event book truly an event for the play community as well.
The ultimate goal is to make D&D feel as alive as Magic. To get players coming out to see the latest and greatest, instead of staring at the bookshelf full of think books they already have.