Friday, 12 September 2008

Where's the Innovation? Or, Forget the Realms

A while ago I made a post lamenting the lack of innovation in the so-called old-school revival. Basically, I felt it weird and faintly obsessive of people to only use old-school products to create endless pastiches of musty adventure modules from the early 80s. I thought that the whole revival movement would live or die by the creation of genuinely new stuff, and to that end even started up my own campaign setting for labyrinth lord, "OzCthulu", to prove it could be done. (Work on this was temporarily postponed when I lost absolutely everything in a laptop hard drive catastrophe.)

I was thinking about this the other day when participating in this thread over at therpgsite. It was started by somebody complaining about the 4e iteration of the Forgotten Realms setting. (You can read an excellent negative review by Nitessine, of Worlds in a Handful of Dice fame, here. Suffice to say, they've made a whole raft of changes mainly for change's own sake - or in other words to justify selling a whole new range of books to gullible fans.) Now, I should say straight away that I'm no fan of the Forgotten Realms. I always felt that it was bog-standard high fantasy of the most bog-standard kind, and if I was going to buy into a campaign setting it would be one I'd never think up for myself - for example Dark Sun or Planescape. But I know that a lot of people love it, and fair play to them. It seems unfair to slaughter all of their sacred cows. (The argument here always comes back: nobody's putting a gun to their head and saying they have to accept the changes. But they will if they want to play any newly published FR adventures.) More to the point, though, I just don't understand why WotC are even bothering with a new FR edition at all. Here's what I wrote in the thread:
Just so long as they keep away from the one D&D setting I actually like.

Seriously though - talk about creative bankruptcy. I was never into FR, but I recognise the tradition means a lot to a lot of people. So why fuck it over when you could be, I dunno, creating a new setting?

I mean, does anyone else find it odd that TSR managed to come up with Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Dragonlance, Birthright, Planescape, Dark Sun, Al Qadim, Greyhawk, Spelljammer, etc. etc... and all WOTC have ever created is Eberron (and that was developed by somebody else through a competition)? Get a grip, Mearls et al!
In other words, what on earth are they doing fiddling about with Forgotten Realms and annoying its fans, when they could be flexing their creative muscles and coming up with new and interesting settings for the new edition they're so proud of? Even though it was a financial basket case by all accounts, TSR was a veritable hive of innovation in its heyday: settings like Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Planescape are amongst the most interesting ever created in the fantasy genre, full stop - way superior to the vast majority of what even most best-selling fantasy fiction authors come up with. (Don't agree? Pick up a novel by David Eddings or Terry Goodkind or heck, even George R. R. Martin - who I love, by the way - next time you're in a bookshop.) The people who worked on those settings were titans of world creation. So what's WotC's excuse for not following suit?

The mean part of me wants to say: they just want to milk Forgotten Realms and Eberron for all they're worth. But I don't credit Mike Mearls and the other designers with that level of cynicism. I may not like 4e a great deal, but Mike Mearls has never struck me as anything other than a thoroughly nice individual. And he's obviously a very thoughtful, creative and intelligent person. Is the problem that he and the other designers are directing too much of their creativity into the mechanics of the game, and not enough into what the games are actually about? Another possibility is the financial one - it's often argued that a superfluity of campaign settings somehow watered down the market for TSR and contributed to their demise. I've never bought into that: what's the difference between one FR book which a million people buy, and ten Dark Sun books, each of which are bought by 100,000 people? Cost of production? In any case, I'm not arguing for twenty brilliant innovative new settings. Even one would do.)

Anyway, in light of these thoughts, I feel much more charitably inclined to the old school revivalist movement, which at least makes no bones about rehashing old material. If people are going for creative bankruptcy, at least let's be honest about it.


  1. I won't comment on Realms except to say that I'm not a fan and that Greenwood and WotC, much like Lucas, can pretty well do whatever he wants with the setting, it's theirs to start with.

    Having talked to Mike some and having listened to many interviews I got from him that the 4e design team didn't want to step on the toes of DMs by imposing Fluff on them.

    I got the feeling that 4e got butchered during editing so the most obvious Indie-inspired mechanics were obfuscated to prevent a worse outcry than the one we're going through.

    But when you dig through it like I have and having played it with one author, I now understand thatthe cleverly written rules are just a framework to apply whatever you feel on them.

    Pick any 2e setting book and you can have a 4e compatible homebrewed adventure in one hour once you get the core mechanics of Monster creation and Skill Challenges. (Which, as written is quite a challenege I'll concede)

    My 2 cents.

  2. chattdm: Oh yeah, I know you can lift stuff from 4e to the old 2e settings if you want. I'd just like to see WotC do something brand new and really exciting, rather than just re-hash FR. Seems a bit uninspired to me, which is odd as the designers were obviously willing to get really creative with the 4e core rules. (I don't like them so much, but I respect the desire to do something different.)

    It's interesting what you say about 4e getting butchered during editing. That explains the weird "between two stools" feel it seems to have. I actually wouldn't have minded, for example, if they'd got rid of alignment altogether, rather than keep this weird halfway alignment system thing they have going.

  3. 4e is obsessed above all else with two things -- "balance" and universality. The former is, I think, a mirage that will ultimately lead to creative bankruptcy. The latter is an extension of WotC's long-held misguided belief that they shouldn't "split their own market." Consequently, what we're seeing, with the Realms now and eventually with Eberron, is that WotC doesn't want to cultivate "Realms fans" or "Eberron fans" or whatever. Instead, they want all their customers to be "D&D fans." To achieve that -- and the boost in sales they think comes with it -- they decided to bleed away a lot of the distinctiveness of their settings so that your average D&D player wouldn't look at, say, an Eberron book and say, "Nope, don't play that, so I won't buy it." That's why we're going to get emasculated settings that are more universally "compatible" with the core rulebooks -- "core" now being defined as "every hardcover we publish" -- because WotC sees it as the best way to get every D&D player to buy all these books.

    I could go on at length about why this approach will prove a disaster in the long run, but I have my own blog to do that :)

  4. My take is that they don't want to give existing D&D players another reason to jump off the upgrade train. There are a lot of FR fans out there (I'm not one of them, btw, despite having GMed it for a year because it's the setting my play-by-chat group wanted), and if they'd have to abandon everything they've invested in the setting over the years that would be a huge psychic cost over and above having to get used to a completely new game.
    They probably don't even consciously think of it as a cynical ploy, but rather an opportunity to show how Kewl 4e can make that tired old setting...TO THE MAX!

  5. I've never bought into that: what's the difference one FR book which a million people buy, and ten Dark Sun books, each of which are bought by 100,000 people? Cost of production?

    Every book has certain fixed costs. The writers, artists, designers, typesetters -- none of these costs vary based on the size of the print run, but you have to pay them to get a book. I don't know how major these costs are compared to printing costs, for a publisher of WotC's size, but they clearly don't think they're insignificant.

    That said, I don't know how well this "everyone is a D&D fan!" thing is going to work out. It mostly looks like a way to get the build obsessed collector types (who seem to be the main audience for their non-setting material) to buy the setting books.

    I've played with those people. Left to them, D&D will eat itself alive.

  6. Left to them, D&D will eat itself alive.

    It's already done so at least once; if 4e can somehow avoid the same fate, I'll be amazed.

  7. In all fairness, I tried to get a little of every setting, just so I could try out a different thing every time I got bored.

  8. Yeah, agreeing with Odyssey, the thinking goes like this: they can spend X amount of money to produce a book that only appeals to the players who like a particular setting, or they can spend the same amount of money on a book that will appeal to all D&D players. Obviously, it's more cost-effective to invest in that second book.

    This is the reasoning behind a new PHB and DMG every year. Most players might ignore "The Complete Book of Psionics" or "A Plethora of Polearms",or, more to the point, a cool new campaign setting. But almost everyone will buy the PHB2. From a financial standpoint, it just makes more sense for them to spend their capital on a new "core rules" book than create a fascinating new setting.

    I seriously doubt it's a lack of creative talent at WotC. I imagine the folks there would love to lavish their homebrew worlds with the sorts of production values WotC can marshal. But I doubt the bean-counters are willing to cough up the dough for something that can't promise a higher return.

    - Brian

  9. Odyssey and Trollsmyth: That's sort of what I was alluding to with production costs. I have to say by the way way that I can't see this "new PHB and DMG every year" thing working for long. How many years will it take before that gets really, really old? 4? Maybe by that time there'll be a 5e, and I really will start getting cynical.

    The thing is, comparing setting books with PBHII or III or IV or whatever isn't really fair - the comparison should rather be between Forgotten Realms/Eberron supplements and those for a new campaign setting. Now, admittedly there are costs associated with creating brand spanking new material. But that is surely weighed against the chance to bring new fans to the game. A fantastic, innovative new setting is a big attraction for people turned off by traditional high-fantasy and/or Eberron-esque Dungeonpunk. At the moment it seems that WotC are preaching to the choir with their campaign setting choices, rather than looking for fresh blood.

  10. You forgot Ravenloft. ;)

    I seem to remember hearing something about all the old settings coming back as matched sets of "core" books; as I recall, it starts with Eberron next year, but there was talk of the 2e settings returning, and Dark Sun and Planescape seemed to come up quite often.

  11. If the goal is to open up the game to access by the most number of people (and I don't know whether it is or should be), then it would make sense to reissue the most famous IP that they still have access to which is also bog-standard fantasy. Different and original things are challenging, and challenging things don't sell as well.

    At least, I could see someone's thoughts going that way. As far as I'm concerned, 4e could have had Planescape as the default setting.

  12. Kelvingreen: I really hope they don't do that. Not only would it confirm the creative bankruptcy thing, it would also probably ruin two really cool settings.

    Nick: I'd hate Planescape to be the core setting. I'm actually a fan of no-fluff core rules. That's a principle of the 4e designers I fully support. In fact I think they could have gone even further and not put in the Points of Light stuff. The core rules of a game should be just that - rules. It's where Gygax and Arneson really got it right with the original three brown books.

    I understand that the FR is the easiest setting to sell in the sense that it's probably the lowest common denominator of fantasy settings (after Dragonlance... ugh), and also one of the most famous. But I think Eberron proved that it's possible to sell a non-standard fantasy setting even in the brave new world of WotC D&D. It's all about how it's marketed.

  13. I know I'm a little late commenting on this but I thought that the primary reason for rebooting FR with the Spellplague was the same reason behind the Time of Troubles: to explain away the fact that the way magic worked had completely changed and there were now Dragonborn roaming the land (OK, no Dragonbron in 2e but you know what I mean).
    Of course, if (when?) they start churning out FR specific sourcebooks beyond just the setting and Player's Guide then it will be fair to call it a rehash rather than just an update.