Wake the dragon. I’m Batman.

I wanted to get this post written before the new D&D freebie document went live last week. I would have seemed more prescient. But having skimmed the 5e rules, my opinions are at least validated.

The surprising thing is how unsurprising the whole thing is. Not just because they spoiled it all in their playtest period, but because it’s primarily 3e with tweaks. There’s about a thousand reviews of the new product, most of which are better than I would bother offering, so go read some of those if you want it.

Here is what no one else is saying yet: D&D has become Batman.

By Batman, I mean the comic book title, not the character. Warner Brother, owners of DC comics, has made three wildly successful Batman movies in the last 10 years. They probably make more money on bat symbol t-shirts than they do on comics. They don’t need a puny publishing concern to struggle to sell 100,000 copies of stories inked onto dead trees. That’s why they’re moving them out to Burbank, from their traditional New York home. DC doesn’t justify its own rent any more. So why keep making comics?

Well, it’s cheap R&D. They can trial-run hundreds of Batman stories for the same amount of money they’d spend on one movie. But also, there’s a legacy factor. If you let Batman (and Detective Comics, etc.) go out of print, that’ll become news. It will be seen as a sign that Batman is weakening. Batman was invented in comic book form. I wouldn’t say he’ll never not be in comics, but it needs to be more economically unfeasible than it is now for that to happen.

So you see how D&D is Batman. Tabletop D&D will be the weakest link in the latest incarnation of the D&D. What’s going to be strong? Movies, TV, and electronic games. Mostly the games.

Hasbro spent two decades not knowing what to do with electronic rights to D&D. Your business, whatever you do, would kill grandmothers to get the brand recognition that D&D has. And Hasbro squandered it in the electronic games department because they didn’t know what to do with it. They gave it entirely to Atari for 7 years for a song. (Yes, that Atari. The one that could hardly manage to refresh properties that have recognition to rival D&D’s. Maybe the latest version of Atari will be different, but note my steady, regulated breathing patterns about that.)

However, contracts ended and the current people behind desks at Hasbro DO know what to with electronic rights. And they mean to do some things. (WTD Dire Prediction #3: You will see a slew of D&D-branded fantasy vidja games in the next five years. This stuff has been building up behind a dam. The floodgates are about to open.) Aside from the next D&D-themed Diablo clone or Baldur’s Gate resurrection they’re doubtlessly already working on, this Project: Morningstar thing they’ve been on about is the next attempt to make tabletop D&D an electronic game you play in person. (Although they’ve been trying to do that since 3rd edition. It’s very, very hard, so they keep failing. This time won’t be it either. But it will be significantly closer, and I predict, more successful at living up to promises than any previous stab.)

What else? Battleship, the motion picture, sank like its namesake. But it proved Hasbro could make a movie. And they mean to make more. (See efforts to go after Sweetpea Entertainment to get the rights back.) Hasbro also has its own fledgling TV network, HUB.  They’re prowling for content to fill that thing.

They’ve cut in-house RPG R&D very lean, because the tabletop version of D&D is nowhere near the most important thing any more. However, they have to move toward the base during election season. So in this launch window, they will talk big and loud about print plans. Using a periodical model (like Batman), they can continue to publish monthly material as long as it sells 10,000 copies or whatever they deem their floor these days. But increasingly, D&D print products will serve to support efforts in other media. They’ll call it a “tie-in”, but try reading press releases with that word as “revenue-neutral marketing” and see how that feels. You can start at this Gen Con!

I don’t mean for this to be a downer. This is the eponymous “dragon” I’ve been writing about. Not D&D the RPG, but D&D the brand, the intellectual property, the thing it always could have been if Gygax hadn’t gotten distracted out in California in the ’80s. Games, movies, TV, toys, gambling, clothing, NASCAR sponsorship… licensing deals and spinoffs peeling off like gold coins shifting as a gargantuan dragon emerges from a torpor of decades. Will it be a red dragon? Or gold?

 

And what about those of us who still like the tabletop version most of all?

A competent, focused team is producing D&D these days. Reputable sources inform me that the air in the building is near toxic.  But the game? That’ll work. It’s good.  The people left on it are well practiced at the creative Stockholm Syndrome I was talking about a couple of posts ago. D&D will still be the biggest thing on the block. It’ll take its lead position back from Pathfinder… for at least a year or two.

WTD Dire Prediction #4: Paizo will announce a new edition of Pathfinder in 2015.

Paizo has been curiously quiet amid the D&D hoopla in 2014. Lisa Stevens, however, likes to win. (I lost several games of Magic to her because she pounded me on rules technicalities. She plays even harder when there’s real money on the table.) And Erik Mona is canny. And there’s a bunch of other clever people in that building. At Gen Con this year, what is their big release, their response to the grand culmination to nearly two years of buildup to D&D Next?

A hardback of new PC classes. Whoopty-doo. Not even a monster book.

Why do you suppose that is?

Meanwhile (again, I would look more Kreskin-esque if I had written this earlier), they just announced at PaizoCon this past weekend that in 2015 they’re releasing Pathfinder Unchained, a book that presents new rules options and class updates that care not for backward compatibility.

Because Paizo is done with backward compatibility. Now that Wizards is trying a different tack than telling us to suck it up and like what they give us, Paizo is no longer shelter from the storm. Work on Pathfinder 2nd edition is afoot (although they’ll probably be clever enough to call it something else) and they’re testing waters now. Normally, if they were going to do something like this, they’d offer  a”playtest beta” first. But this thing is announced for spring 2015. It’s pretty much done, and they don’t feel a need to use a “beta” period as marketing. Because the product itself is the alpha/beta period. For PFNext.

Paizo has all the expertise, creativity, connections, and hustle they need to do anything Wizards can do. What they don’t have is the brand recognition (and the deep pockets).  So Pathfinder will continue to care about you and me for the foreseeable future. I doubt PFNext will wander too far from its 3rd edition roots. I suspect they’ll retain enough DNA that they’ll still have to dedicate a page to the OGL license in each book they make.

But you’re going to have to wait until about 2019 to see anything new done with OGL/D&D. Because Pathfinder is busy living up to its name.

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