There is no doubt that WotC wants to kill off D&D 3.5. Nothing would please them more than to have everyone chuck their old books in the bin and buy every 4e product they can. There is nothing wrong with this and it is exactly the same approach taken by games console makers, car manufacturers and cell phone companies. Everyone wants you to upgrade to the latest model.

Wizards have not been as successful in this as they wanted. Reaction to 4e is mixed and many 3.5 players are simply not interested in upgrading but surely it is just a matter time. Teenagers buying their first game are far more likely to purchase a new copy of 4e then a second-hand version of D&D 3.5. In five years time, 3.5 will only be played by a rump of older players who have a large financial and emotional commitment to the game just like there are a handful of people still playing 2nd edition or original AD&D.

Maybe, maybe not.

There is one good reason that the inevitable victory of 4th edition might not be so inevitable – freedom.

Wizards made one of the boldest commercial decisions ever when they created the D20 system and the Open Game License (OGL). A company with the dominant product in the industry, a brand that is a household name, made it easy for and encouraged other companies to use that brand to make money. This is like Disney saying that it OK for other companies to make and sell cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse. It was either genius or insanity.

Personally I think it is genius. Rather than fighting to protect and grow their existing market share, Wizards decided to grow the market. The OGL and the d20 system reinvigorate a tired brand and a tired industry. Suddenly there were d20 game systems appearing all other the place and a mass of third party products for D&D. WotC gambled that it was better to have 20% of a $100 million market than 30% of a $50 million market.

With the release of 4e, Wizards had a problem. A big corporate like Hasbro wasn’t interested in letting other people use its intellectual property but the cat was out of the bag. They could not simply make 4e proprietary again like the good old days of AD&D and 2nd edition. So Hasbro did what all corporates do in this situation – they used their market dominance. The 4e Game System License (GSL) made little difference the average gamer directly but to the numerous small and self-publishers that had been born thanks to the D&D 3.5 OGL, it was a killer.

The new 4th edition license was a lot more restrictive and most importantly, forced companies to choose between D&D 3.5 and 4e. The idea of throwing out a decade’s worth of product development was off-putting enough for the smaller firms but the new license was subject to change. Unlike the OGL, the GSL could be change or revoked by Wizards at anytime. You won’t find many business school professors who would recommend making the fate of your company dependent on the whim of another company who has no interest in your survival.

Wizards big mistake

If 4e’s license had been as open as 3.5’s then most suppliers would of upgraded as soon as their old stock sold out. Why would a small company produce new products for a shrinking 3.5 market when everyone is buying 4e rule books? But by making companies to choose between D&D 3.5 & 4e, they forced some companies into committing to 3.5 and those people have a real incentive for 3.5 to grow and prosper.

Pathfinder and Dungeon-A-Day are obvious examples of companies committing to D&D 3.5 but there are less obvious example and in many ways more worrying ones for Wizards.

Independently, two websites have appeared targeting exactly the same problem with D&D 3.5 – monster creation. The flexibility of the monster system in 3.5. was brilliant but even creating a mid-level boss was a major task that could take an hour or more. For time pressed or inexperienced GMs this is quite a barrier (and one Wizards addressed in 4e by making monsters a lot simpler).

Dingle’s Games Monster Generator and the more advanced NPC Generator takes a lot of the effort out of creating monsters. The NPC generator even includes magic items and spell selection. As a GM it gives you real power over your monsters and allows you to fine tune them for your party. [ DISCLAIMER: I’ve been gaming with Paul who runs Dingle’s Games for 25 years and I helped him with some aspects of the web site so obviously I’m slightly biased ]. Appearing a few months later, is less advanced in its features and less logical to use but it is very slick in its presentation.

Both of these sites represent a massive investment of time and a vote of confidence in a game system that WotC are trying to kill. More importantly, they take a very different route to Wizards when it comes to online tools. Whilst 4e tries to simplify the system for the players overall, the trend with D&D 3.5 (and its derivatives) is to simplify the life of the GM through online tools and content.

The GM is king.

Gamers tend to start playing in their early teens and stop playing in their early twenties when they discover drink, girls, jobs and mortgages. Any product that isn’t attracting young, new players is doomed. Wizards know this and hence 4e is targeted at the young teens market with World of Warcraft like game play and simpler rules. But Wizards have underestimated the power of the GM.

It is people who are willing to GM who drive the games industry. They are mostly likely to buy the books and they are most likely to recruit new people into the game. And why do GMs do it? Because they enjoy being creative. Roleplaying is all about creativity and the GM is the heart of that creativity. A game system that allows GMs to exercise their creativity will always win over one that doesn’t.

D&D 3.5 gives that freedom to create. The growth of sites like Dingle’s Games are both a consequence of that freedom and verhicle for spreading that fredom. This feedback loop of creative freedom enabling more creatively puts 3.5 in a strong position to attract new players and grow.

This does not mean that D&D 3.5 will surpass 4.0 or even survive long-term but it is not going down without a fight.

Image Credit – Paper Crusher by Mat Murphy – CC-BY-ND-2.0