How WOTC Critical Failed, Destroying D&D

2023 opened with a bang for table top enthusiasts. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) announced a Open Game License (OGL) that “put the squeeze” on third party content. Evidently, the big brains at Hasbro (WOTC’s parent company) saw all the money trading hands in the the third party marketplace, and decided that they wanted a piece of the action.

The new license gave them the right to take existing third party content and sell it as their own. It also provided them with the ability to revoke the license from existing creators. Yet, the true sauce on the crap sandwich was that the license was retroactive. This meant games unaffiliated with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) could be potentially pay a license fee or be shut down.

You can read my article on it when it actually happened.

Community feedback was swift and fierce. It culminated with a massive wave of D&D Beyond subscription cancellations that made the smooth brains in Hasbro recognize the damage and wave the white flag. They offered concessions and an apology.

The issue was concluded. Or was it?

The Second Golden Age

D&D was created in 1974. It achieved it’s first “golden age” in the subsequent decade. I grew up playing D&D, but by the time the nineties arrived, D&D faced growing competition from other games. The game persevered throughout the years from Gary Gygax being kicked out to the much maligned reception of its fourth edition.

Stranger Things brought D&D back into the Zeitgeist like a lightning bolt!

The fifth edition was a turning point. The game was featured on the hit show Stranger Things then popularized with the show Critical Role. D&D really hit its stride in 2020 when the pandemic forced everyone to stay home. D&D was a perfect way for people to spend time together. There was so much demand that virtual tabletop site Roll20 was unusable from Thursday through Sunday.

D&D was the game to play. Unfortunately, the game isn’t that good.

The Problems of D&D

Modern D&D favors narrative storytelling. This is the case because the rules are quite simple for non-combat encounters.

Need to bribe a guard? Roll a persuasion check. Looking to understand a murder scene? Roll an investigation check. Confused by a wizard’s cryptic mutters? Make an arcana check.

D&D Combat can be exciting … when you aren’t waiting twenty minutes for your turn.

The moment the game shifts to combat, everything turns to sludge. The once nimble game is suddenly bogged down in very specific often times confusing rules. These rules are combined with resources manage like spell slots or “rage”.

Some things are very situational and meticulous. For example, look at the rules for sneak attack. A rogue can sneak attack when hidden. This provides extra damage. If they aren’t hidden, an ally needs to be within five feet of the target. Unless the player is using a Swashbuckler subclass. In that case, you get sneak attack if there no other creatures near target. Of course, this isn’t necessary if the player has advantage. But it doesn’t apply if the player has disadvantage. And this discussion happens for every rogue each and every round.

With so much going on, players must think ahead of time. It’s not unusual for a simple combat encounter to last thirty of forty minutes. Large encounters can last the entire night. Yet, for the majority of these encounters, players are just staring at the table (or screen) while other players fumble with their character sheets.

This is the problem with D&D. It’s not a great game. It bounces between enjoyable roleplaying to tedious bookkeeping in the matter of seconds. For most new players, this was fine. It was their first TTRPG. Thankfully, WOTC decided to change that.

The Breaking of the Fellowship

“A rising tide raises all boats,” so goes the saying. D&D opened the floodgates of roleplaying to a new generation. A vast swath of content creators were able to make a career out of giving advice, running livestreams, and producing supplemental material. The resulting crowd funding campaigns raised millions of dollars.

WOTC’s reaction to its vibrant third party market was the typical reaction of a public company. They wanted a “piece” of the action. They also wanted control over who could make third party D&D content. Hence, the new “open gaming license” that demanded both royalties and “acceptable” conduct.

The end result was bad. In one fell swoop, WOTC managed to alienate their customers and their creators. In response to the damning feedback, they offered counter-proposal that were just as bad as the original. It took three weeks for WOTC to relent, but it was enough. The widespread resentment solidified.

WOTC’s new books Keys of the Golden Vault and Glory of the Giants were thudded in the marketplace. The Deck of Many Things failed to ship due to quality issues. The upcoming virtual table top received a very tepid reception while the D&D One “playtest” seemed to enrage the community with it’s “change for the sake change” design. WOTC closed the year with a release date for the next edition, but there was no enthusiasm.

WOTC did have some wins. Honor Among Thieves was released to good reviews. Baldur’s Gate 3 was a critical smash hit that featured great storytelling mixed with tactical combat.

Yet that wasn’t nearly enough. At least, not for Hasbro. On December 11th, Hasbro announced 1,100 job cuts over a span of six months. Bad news for sure. But it’s only going to get worse.

Rise of the Contenders

The tabletop space moves slow. Games take time to develop. TTRPGS require testing and iteration. The process is long and expensive. Even adopting rules from other games requires a massive amount of work.

WOTC changed everything. People work fast when their livelihoods are at stake.

Paizo created an entirely new license in six months known as the ORC or Open RPG Creative License. They finalized their license in June and spent the rest of the year stripping the OGL related content out of their products. In November, they released an updated version of Pathfinder with this new license.

Kobold Press threw its hat in the ring with a 5E compatible game called “Tales of the Valiant”. This game essentially clones D&D Fifth Edition while adding their own world and character classes. Being a large publisher of 5E related material, they have an extensive catalog to lean on.

MCDM Productions shook the TTRPG space with the announcement of the MCDM RPG. Founded by long time game developer Matt Coville, MCDM Productions aims to create a new fantasy roleplaying game in the vein of D&D but without the kludge. Combat is actually meant to be fun! They hoped to raise 800,000 to fund development with their crowd funder. As of this writing, with twenty four days left, they have raised over 2.8 million dollars. Needless to say, people are excited.

All of this is bad, but the true coupe de grace is Critical Role itself. Remember, Critical Role was one of the driving forces behind D&D’s revitalization. In April, Critical Role announced the development of their own RPG systems: Daggerheart and Candela Obscura. The latter is available now.

What Critical Role giveth, Critical Role taketh away

The end goal is clear. They will replace D&D from their show and use their own game. Essentially, they are taking their massive audience and leaving D&D behind.

The age of the Wizard is over.

By Brian Moakley

Brian Douglas Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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