It appears … (Hasbro edition)

Just some passing thoughts, to see if my crystal ball today saw anything like reality in a year from now or so…

Hasbro appears (assume all of these assertions include an “appears to me”)… to be shifting Dungeons and Dragons from a mainly table-top game with a lot of online play options to a mainly a single walled-garden online game with maybe a few table-top play options.

Those “mainlys” are doing a lot of work, and cover–on one hand–everything from simple webcam calls substituting for real life tables to very on-line mapping, rules calculating, virtual minis, and–on the other–one proprietary subscription model where all the rules live with the ability to buy some introductory rules books that keep encouraging you to go on-line, but do allow you to play a stripped-down game outside the walled garden.

Along the way, they are also, it appears, taking strong steps to separate Dungeons and Dragons from one of the core elements of table-top role-playing games: do it yourself. Since before the dawn of ttrpg, do it yourself was a primary driver of table-top play. If the game you were playing didn’t do what you wanted, you were encouraged to change the rules, reskin, hack it, or go ahead and write a whole new game. After doing that, you were also encouraged to share this with other people. There were whole fan-made publications geared toward this kind of thing. Dungeons and Dragons grew out of that, and the earliest writings about the game by its developers highlighted this.

Then money got involved, and that’s cool. Making money from a thing you love doing is a great thing. Can be, anyway, your mileage may vary, but it is a thing that’s okay. Do a thing you love, make money. That’s nice.

But a way to do that is to lean on copyright, and insist that people can only buy compatible things from you or others who you have had jump through some licensing hoops. That’s also, generally, okay. That way can also lead to suing the bejesus out of people without licenses, and possibly harming your brand (and, eventually, your bottom line), because you look like litigious jerks. But another model does exist, and that’s–broadly–being cool with people making compatible things, as long as they do not outright steal your work. There are a lot of places to stop along that route, of course, and suing the bejesus remains an option at almost all of them.

At one point the owners of Dungeons and Dragons went the copyright/sue the bejesus route. This, along with many other things, lead to that owner tanking, and another owner came along and went, broadly, the be cool/here’s a way to use our thing route, to the degree that there are now many people who make money (and even full-on livings) producing things compatible with Dungeons and Dragons.

And then shareholders got involved, Dungeons and Dragons got new owners, and they recently took a hard look at how Dungeons and Dragons makes money for them today and tomorrow. They decided that in 2023, the course to take to get more money out of Dungeons and Dragons was not more of the same that’s been rattling around for the past 20 years. They think, instead, it’s a good idea to shift the Dungeons and Dragons brand away from a product, which–once a player has bought a Players’ Handbook (or, for a fraction of players) the Dungeon Masters’ Guide and a few other hardcover books each–does not really produce additional revenue for them today. They’re the money people. Maybe they’re right. It’s plausible to me, since–remember–all these assertions have an invisible “appears to me” appended. I don’t think it’s cool, but, you know, it’s not my decision.

What is the brand going to be? It appears a subscription inside a tightly controlled online space where players, all of them, can be encouraged to buy things regularly.

Dungeon Masters? Maps, access to adventures and campaigns. And so on.

Character players? Cosmetic avatar options for a simple start, but also additional playable classes, expanded spell lists, specialty gear. And so on.

Everyone? Monthly subscription fees for a start, but those ninty-nine cent upgrades will add up. And so on.

It might be almost impossible to take the online experience back to a table! Maybe you can screen shot your character’s stats, maybe not, but you can always write them down on paper. But maybe not! Maybe you never see behind what the game shows you on the vid-screen! Maybe the rules are totally hidden to you, and–at most–all you have is a list of possessions you can write down, with the description of what they’re like, but not how they actually affect the rules.

Is that a +1 sword? Are you sure? Maybe it is a “good hitting sword” that does improve your to-hit odds, but you never know how the math works! Do you need to know how the math works? Well…. that’s a different game, maybe, than Dungeons and Dragons in 2024 or later will be. And if your on-line character can’t translate to the table in any meaningful way, will you even play at the table? Maybe you will, but rather than a stack of books, you and your pals might just bring your laptops/tablets/phones to someone’s house. You won’t look things up any more, nor forget how certain things interact and have to look them up. The walled-garden just does it for you. You might already play like this on a regular basis.

So, it appears to me that Hasbro is trying to keep its current fans in the neighborhood of happy, while keeping their eyes set on the current third and fourth graders who will be their customers in the next three to five years. They need the current players, some percent of them, to be okay with the Dungeons and Dragons brand while they shift what the game is so when the future players want their subscriptions and micro-transactions, they can turn to their parents… many of them current players… to pay for them for a few years.

What about the OGL and third-party publishers? Honestly, I don’t know. It seems like Hasbro could just have left that alone, silently. They could do all the things they want to do with their future customers, and not mess around with the OGL environment. They committed to “backwards compatible,” but who really knows what that really means? Is Tasha’s compatible with the PHB? Really? They could let third parties do their thing, but not extend the OGL/SRD forward in the new edition. People would have been crabby, but it wouldn’t have hurt Hasbro. Probably. If left alone, I think over time the market for OGL/SRD product would dwindle as people moved to the new game and new interface anyway. But what do I know? But my feeling is that if Hasbro basically ignored third parties making stuff for 5e and earlier properties, they would have avoided a lot of grief. But a bad week or two on Twitter isn’t much in a year of a multi-billion dollar revenue stream, even if The Guardian or Rolling Stone do follow-up on Linda Codega’s on-going reporting.

Anyway, Hasbro’s gonna has bros, ya? If you love Dungeons and Dragons, I hope things shake out well for you. If you’re freaked out about it, along any of the dimensions that are freak-out-able, there are about a million additional games to check out. (Why not start with one of mine?)

Edit: I had been thinking about this for a few days, but only had a minute to type them on on Tuesday 1/17. It looks like almost exactly what I was thinking about broke as news in the discourse on 1/16. I promise I wasn’t cribbing from reality! I didn’t know!

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