Monday, February 9, 2015

Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Vague Criticisms, and Losing the Path

I have been really impressed by Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.  While I think they are doing the right thing with the rules, and by having a slower release schedule than the previous two editions, I do think they are a bit lost when it comes to utilizing their campaign settings, and I am concerned about the strategy of taking a famous adventure or series of adventures, making it a mega-adventure, and shoving it into the Realms to be the theme of their organized play for six months at a time.




So I don't think they are perfect by a long shot.

But this article . . . this article.

Why one of D&D's biggest video game devs thinks that tabletop game has lost its way

According to Feargus Urquhart, D&D has lost it's way, and Pathfinder is carrying the banner of D&D the proper way even if it isn't D&D in name.  Never mind that his company just signed a deal with Paizo to develop Pathfinder games.



I'd argue that while D&D may not have found the right path at the moment, they are a Hell of a lot closer to finding their way now than they were a few years ago.  While I had my problems with "story elements" that changed in D&D, I think the biggest problem with 4th Edition wasn't the core system.  I played in a 4th Edition game, and had fun.  The biggest problem was that about every two months a new rulebook would come along that would present clearly better options than what you were previously using, so if anyone at the table was using the new stuff and you weren't, you looked pretty silly.

"Martial Power just came out, so your paladin can go sit in the corner while I take care of all of the defendering."

"Well, now Divine Power just came out, so I can out defender you!"

Thankfully, there isn't a d20 level based kitchen sink fantasy game that still has this problem.  Er . . . then again . . .

Obviously, Pathfinder sells.  No question about that.  But I would argue that sales don't tell the entire story.

Even with tons of people complaining about 4th edition, it too was selling.  The problem is that it didn't seem to sell as well as parent company Hasbro wanted it to sell, and it didn't sustain it's sales for as long as they would have hoped for a new edition.  As soon as the line showed signs of weakening, D&D, as a brand, did some odd things.



D&D products dried up pretty quickly.  WOTC's organized play support for D&D dropped dramatically, then returned in the form of running really short adventures on a specific night of the week.  They announced a new edition in development way ahead of it's release, scuttling a lot of their sales of 4th edition products.

Right or wrong, it was much different than the transition between 3.5 and 4th, where WOTC sold splatbooks right up until the announcement, and only had a few months before product was on the shelves.  They even had representatives giving less then forthright answers about new editions just a few months before the announcement to keep the splatbook money flowing.



Pathfinder did a very good job of taking a good chunk of market share.  They put out attractive products, good adventures, and a compelling setting.  They were already well on their way to entrenching themselves in permanent 2nd place and threatening 1st when WOTC pretty much called a cease fire while they were working on their next edition.

Pathfinder Society, Paizo's organized play, grew as WOTC's organized play shrunk.  Initially, Pathfinder Society was pretty laid back compared to WOTC's organized play rules, which were nearly as complicated and stringent as the 3.5 or 4th edition rules.

Of course once Pathfinder became the organized play juggernaut, GM ranking, prize levels, special certificates allowing some rules to be used by some players and not others because of where they played a game, constantly shifting errata and rulings, and retired scenarios became commonplace, making it seem not all that unlike WOTC's 3rd edition era of organized play.



In fact, Pathfinder has continued to model 3.5's marketing strategy pretty consistently.  They swapped out Prestige Class Glut for Archetype Glut, but they still publish little books with lots of feats, spells, and traits (which are essentially little feats) and they publish big books with all of that plus new classes as well.

The odds that your core rulebook fighter is going to get owned by some variation of a new martial class is pretty high, and the odds that that new option is going to get out performed by a new option six months down the road don't seem that bad either.

Paizo did many things right when they created the Pathfinder line:


  • They created good, solid, compelling adventures
  • They created a solid setting which allowed for classic D&D tropes as well as a wider range of pulp and sword and sorcery elements than many D&D settings allowed
  • They created an organized play system that was more laid back and easy to get into for newcomers
  • They reprinted and revised the core rules with some tweaks so thet they 'owned" their version of the rules, and everybody was on the same page to start.
Paizo also did some things that helped insure they got sales:
  • They cast themselves as the up and coming small company that wasn't trying to outsell D&D, just put food on the table and put out adventures that they loved.
  • Stated that putting out adventures was always the primary focus, and rules were a distant second.
  • Leveraged the people that already had subscriptions to Dungeon and Dragon Magazines as their new base.
  • Offered free PDFs and deep discounts if you subscribed to multiple lines of product.
You could argue the second list was "right" for them when it comes to business.  While I bear no ill will towards anyone that works at Paizo, and I still think they do a fine job of writing setting material and adventures, when they had already been in 1st place in RPG sales and were still trotting out the "we just need to put food on our tables" line, it starts to ring very hollow.  I'm not saying anybody at Paizo is living an opulent lifestyle, but it's clear they aren't the tiny underdog that is fighting to survive compared to other RPG companies.



Not that it matters to Paizo, because they are doing okay, but here is why they lost my business:

  • When they constantly acknowledged that more classes were a problem with 3.5 splatbooks, yet continued to put new classes in new splatbooks.
  • When representatives of the company had sated on their message boards multiple times that anything used in adventures outside of the core rulebook would be reprinted in an adventure, then they began to refer people to the online SRD  (which is nice, don't get me wrong).  The change wasn't the problem, the lack of admission that it was a change was disturbing.
  • Errata that seemed to only complicate the game, especially in favor of needed feats or spells to accomplish something that seemed to be possible without them previously.
  • Drastic changes to organized play that made it more complicated and catered to people that were already on board rather than new people joining up
  • The prevailing attitude from organized play that previous rulings that weren't currently in favor should have been "known" to have been in error and not acted upon.
  • Multiple poorly edited books that seemed to have been shoved onto the market to hit a release date of Paizocon or Gen Con  (notably Ultimate Magic and the Adventurer's Armory).
  • Products like the Adventurer's Armory, where almost the entirety of it's contents were contained in a hardcover that came out only a few months later, which coupled with it's poor editing made it seem like a "filler" product to hit a release schedule to bring in some cash that quarter
  • Staff responses to questions about editorial quality that were actually hostile, despite the fact that some of the editorial mistakes made rules in those products impossible to implement
The final straw was the realization that part of why substandard material would make it to market was the subscription model.  The subscription model itself makes people unlikely to unsubscribe for a product or two that they may not like, because of the trouble of unsubscribing and resubscribing, and for the possible loss of the deep discount that multiple subscriptions provide.



I'd argue that the subscription model cushions Paizo from bad products.  A certain number of people will buy them automatically, for the reasons detailed above, and Paizo doesn't have the same risk that another RPG company would have for that same product, because the other company would lose money on it.

And while there is nothing wrong with doing this, the deep discounts on subscriptions and the free PDFs, especially without a way for FLGS to participate in either program, discourages FLGS sales of Paizo's products.  Casual players may still pick up the books, but hardcore Pathfinder Society players, like the ones that are likely using the FLGS's floor space, are probably not buying all that much Pathfinder stuff  (although they may still be picking up dice, snacks, etc.)

Look, if you enjoy Pathfinder, I'm not telling you not to do so.  Paizo does a lot of things right.  But those vague "lost the path" comments from Urquhart just really triggered the desire to point out that there are flaws no matter where you look.

4 comments:

  1. I think Urquhart's thesis is that DnD is not Hasbro's big product, so they don't care as much about it as Paizo does Pathfinder. It is a very short article, and I am sure they just picked out the juiciest bits of the interview for that post.

    Paizo has tried to branch out into other areas of publishing, and they have all failed (board games, older sci-fi and fantasy books reprinted, non-DnD magazine lines). So they live and die on Pathfinder, and they know it. I think some players respond to that. And the "we just want to put food on the table" is still (my guess) pretty accurate. There is not a lot of money to make in the RPG market. Before Paizo as the number 2 (or 1) RPG publisher, most would probably say it was White Wolf. But I don't think anyone will tell you publishing WoD is like printing money.

    But I also think players should look at the DnD designers and developers in generally the same light they look at Paizo. While Hasbro may not care much about RPGs beyond financials, the DnD writers do care. And I'd bet dollars to donuts they are not making big bucks, either.

    But saying all that, I think you have hit the nail on the head with Paizo/Pathfinder issues. My subscriptions were down to just two product lines: Player Companions, and the novels. I just cancelled those because of the varying quality and content. I would not buy a small splat book just on familiars, ever, except that I did...it was part of a subscription. I bought a book I will never use. So recently, I decided it just is not worth it anymore. I think the subscription model is a good idea for Paizo, as it gives them a very predictable cash flow, but it does have those downsides for the player.

    As for Society play, I agree it has gotten out of hand with the game. Paizo is honest in that PFS is a marketing tool for the game, and so it has to support all those products. But those products are just too much for one setting for me (I am looking at you, Gunslinger). I've had generally good experience with PFS and have felt welcome every time. I rarely get to play as often as I want, so people come and go and certainly play more than me. And while that has not caused me issues with players, it has caused problems with characters for reasons you point out...they get left behind by people using new stuff as they advance or roll new characters.

    I'd love to see Paizo put the effort into a Pathfinder 2 or revised or whatever (a space adaptation? old west?), but not sure when they think it will be time for that. And the more they print for the current version, the harder it may be to convince their player base to leave it behind for a newer edition.

    Sorry for the long comment. Also, sorry if it is disconnected. It is hard to write with just four lines visible at a time. Reminds me of using vi!

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    1. I didn't mean to imply that the RPG industry is rolling in cash. I agree being a big fish in a small pond still means you don't have a lot of room to swim. I guess the thing that bothers me is that by invoking that sort of imagery, it's still trying to market yourself as the underdog, and that ship has sailed.

      I've seen others point out that a lot of what Urquhart is saying is that Hasbro is a pain to deal with, and others have asserted the same thing. I don't doubt that, and it may be a detriment to WOTC that there is that filter to what they need to do to promote the game. To Hasbro, D&D is a well known brand that they can't seem to take advantage of outside of a niche market. That said, it did feel like the guys that love the game that are working on it on the ground floor seemed to have been lumped into the mix with Hasbro, which I don't think is entirely fair or indicative of the table top game's focus at the moment.

      As as aside, while I have no problems with firearms in a fantasy setting, yeah, a class devoted to firearms in a setting where they are suppose to be relatively rare is a bit much. At most it seems as if having a few feats to adapt a more general "archer" or "sharpshooter" class or archetype would have seemed more logical.

      It's the same kind of rules overkill that bothers me when I see that there are ways to build and repair sci-fi items in the newer supplements instead of just treating them as mysterious objects that do a thing a few times and then quit working. It's kind of the plague of 3rd edition that everything that exists in game has to have some means of tracking it so that the PCs can do it. Hence you have templates for the Chosen of gods in the Forgotten Realms quantifying exactly what that gives a given character, which is kind of silly, but it's got to be quantified.

      Don't apologize for the long response, I love getting feedback and seeing other people's point of view. Thanks for the comments!

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  2. Good Post!

    (Lots more written, and then deleted...)

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  3. What are your thoughts on the newly-codified Pathfinder "core rules" style of organized play? It seems like they want to have it both ways...but maybe they can.

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