Friday, January 13, 2012

The LEGO Analogy

Most of you are probably familiar with LEGO bricks. They often come in the form of kits, with instructions on how to build specific models. But one of the advantages of LEGO bricks is that you can build whatever you want with them. And people do.

Firetruck I created for my daughter when she was three.
With the announcement of D&D Next, WotC has stated that they’re hoping to build a modular ruleset, with an eye towards including legacy rules and play styles under a singular D&D umbrella. The current state of D&D is that this is what most of us are doing anyway. Like LEGO enthusiasts exploring options beyond the instructions that came with the kit, we’re creating our own games using our favorite rules and rule systems. Recognizing this state of the hobby, and creating a resource to aid gamers interested in that exploration seems like a logical step to me. And a good business strategy.

“The final word, then, is the game. Read how and why the system is as it is, follow the parameters, and then cut portions as needed to maintain excitement.”
— Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, 1979

Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and their friends and colleagues tinkered with tabletop war games to create D&D. The fact that the hobby remains a vibrant and viable diversion with a dedicated community of players is tribute to that spirit of experimentation.

“This game is unlike chess in that the rules are not cut and dried. In many places they are guidelines and suggested methods only.”
— Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, 1978
Santa Yoda created for a promotion at Gizmodo

As we play with the bits and pieces of D&D, each group finds the elements that work for them, and those that don’t. But unifying it all are some basic RPG concepts, the “bricks” that make up the game. Like LEGO, you can buy or find these “bricks” individually online, or at your FLGS. Or, you can purchase the kits. Either way, the pieces are yours to play with, and to combine and recombine in any way that you find fun.

I suspect that WotC looked at the state of 4e D&D pre-Essentials and found that some players were overwhelmed by the number of choices and complexity of combinations. I also suspect that part of the intent of 4e was that GMs and players would impose limits on what options were available in their particular campaigns. I think Essentials was a roadmap towards the idea of selective use of the rules. Lesson learned at WotC: Creating a clear system of options for selective game-building is perhaps more important than creating a singular, integrated supergame.

This lesson, combined with the state of the hobby (in the form of active and vocal sub-communities devoted to historic variations of the game) has resulted in a change of course. Rather than continuing to pile options on to 4e, WotC will, with input from the community, endeavor to assemble a kit of rules from which players can build their games.

The Cost of Changing Course
I own a lot of gaming books. Admittedly, the vast bulk of them are D&D-related. If I count only the hardback volumes, I have 40 books. It’s a modest collection, but I suspect it is about average for GMs in the hobby. Assuming the books averaged between US$25 and $35 (accounting for the fact that some were purchased over 20 years ago, or more) we’re talking an investment of around US$1,100. I own plenty of splatbooks, modules, and other gaming paraphernalia (not including miniatures.) It’s pretty safe to assume I’ve spent at least $1,100 on that stuff. I’ve been involved in the hobby of RPGs since 1979 or so. It works out to about 32 years. So, cost per day of being in the hobby? About 19¢.

I know that most of you haven’t been in the hobby that long. Or you don’t have that many books. But even if your cost per day is five times mine, you’re talking a dollar a day. I think that’s pretty reasonable considering the entertainment value.

There are plenty of cynical complaints online about the profit motivations behind WotC’s announcement of D&D Next, coming a mere four years after the release of 4e. I know that many gamers have limited financial resources available to indulge in the hobby. There are so many ways to share the costs of the hobby that I feel justified in saying that I don’t find the complaints a legitimate indictment of WotC. Yes, they’ve mishandled customer relations and marketing, sometimes quite badly. But they also continue to publish useable, and in some cases, inspired material.

I’m happy to welcome D&D Next. Ready to explore the various mechanics that WotC has selected as representative of the game over the years. And, I’m interested in providing feedback to them as they finalize the components of the toolkit.

I still have my LEGOs. Many of them are older than my D&D books. It’s still fun to drag out the box every once in a while and just build something. My daughter enjoyed them when she was growing up, and added to the collection. Sometimes we tinker with them together. I’d love to hear your thoughts on rules toolkits, LEGOs, the state of the hobby, or all of the above!


  1. I've been following this on the reddit rpg sub

    I think most gamers, including Pathfinder players would agree this is not a zero sum game. A successful D&D is good for tabletop gaming as a whole.

    It sounds like they are taking a good approach in making it accessible to new players (which is something 4th ed. gamers have touted as a plus over 3.5/PF) and yet allowing people to ramp up the complexity. It's obviously hard to be all things to everyone, so I think a good approach is to make it more of a modular toolkit so people can customize it to their needs.

  2. I think the one positive about 4e stumbling so badly is that people did look for other games to play. Some were CRPGs, but a lot were not. I often feel that the iconic status of D&D pushes equally good, if not better products, out of the market. Perhaps this stumbling will, as Patrick said, be good for tabletop gaming in the long run. WotC should know that they need to compete like everyone else and, hopefully, if they earn market share back, it's because they actually have a good product to stand behind. There is a lot of talent out there and it is not concentrated in Wizards of the Coast.