Wizards, Business, and Diversity
Wizards of the Coast has just announced the release of a Ravenloft campaign book, much to the excitement of the internet. This came with a lavish release article by Polygon, citing the reimagining and the diversity of writers that expanded the Domains of Dread. And it’s no mild expansion, it claims to have 30 settings and 30 villains. Combined with the recent Unearthed Arcana release, it seems like they’re finally making good on their promises of diversity, right? Well, sort of. On the front of it, it all looks good. But looking back over the history of D&D, and how Wizards have evolved in their curation of worlds, the picture takes on a different meaning.
The Fall of TSR
The shadow of TSR continues to loom large over Wizards. At the time of writing, TSR and Wizards are roughly even in the time they’ve had D&D at 24 years each. Between 1973 and 1997, TSR released over a dozen campaign settings, most of which had serious support in the form of boxed sets, splatbooks, and adventure modules. These settings garnered significant followings and ultimately contributed to the fall of TSR through self-competition. In essence, your average consumer was not purchasing every book they released. They were buying the base books they needed, then the stuff for the setting(s) they liked/played, and nothing else. The balkanized support base meant reduced income, overstock, and when combined with poor business choices, resulted in TSR’s acquisition. And that doesn’t even touch into the over a decade period where TSR was competing against itself with AD&D and BECMI D&D.
Say what you will about Wizards, but they’re fairly savvy about business. In 3e D&D, Wizards recognized a bunch of the practices that TSR had that contributed to their fall. 3e was a phase of damage control where Wizards pared down the old model and reestablished the brand as the dominant RPG on the scene. However, the fanbase immediately began demanding the settings from TSR be updated. All of them. And Wizards knew that this was a game that they couldn’t win.
The first stage of their solution came in 4e. This is where we see the pattern developed that they follow today. 4e was the first really “universal” D&D in the sense that everything that was in the PHBs was in the campaign settings. And they reduced campaign settings to a setting guide, player guide, and supporting adventures. 4e got out books for Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Dark Sun, but the edition ended before it went any further.
The current stage of Wizards’ solution leverages digital resources. By reducing their output, and sticking to a set pattern of activity, Wizards has functionally avoided the pitfalls of TSR, but at a cost. With the partial exception of the Forgotten Realms as the core setting and Ravenloft owing to its unique nature, this is the pattern: release a campaign setting (not an adventure compilation, but a setting), a collection of AL adventures for it, and then opening the setting up on the DM Guild for development. This maximizes the likelihood of people buying every product, and “absolves” Wizards of having to develop settings further, meaning that their consumer base has minimal balkanization.
How This Fails Diversity
The solution Wizards pursued is good in terms of profit margins and developing a more unified consumer base. But it ultimately fails diversity on several levels, undermining efforts in change that bringing on diverse writers and artists is supposed to have.
On one hand, it means that there is a dearth of lore, development, and supporting material for new and diverse materials. Where older, less diverse or even problematic areas continue to benefit from older works. Older areas benefit from, in some cases, decades of establishment in the gestalt around the setting. The other issue is that it places the onus of development, popularization, and support on the creators of said areas. Why? Because Wizards is largely uninvolved post release with their materials after the AL material is released.
So the effect is what we’ve seen over the tenure of 5e D&D. Areas that are already familiar and heavily developed from the past remain the most “popular” because they’re what people know. You can find modules, old splatbooks, novels… it’s all there. These new areas? Nought. Just what’s in the core setting book. Which may only be a paragraph or two. This means that diversification faces a monstrous hurdle in penetrating into the game because, ultimately, while the areas might be interesting sounding, they’re a headache for the DM to use because it increases their workload.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
This release may exemplify the issue. They’ve brought on a phenomenal creative list, and expanded the setting dramatically. But will it actually matter? There’s 30 locations in the book according to Polygon, and 30 villains. Setting books have been capped at 256 pages in the past. I estimate each villain is going to be at least 1.5 pages of text, stats, and art; so that’s 45 pages right there. New player races, subclasses, and so on? Probably about 15 pages. New monsters? Another 20. Fluff and indexes? 5 pages probably. This leaves about 171 pages for 30 realms, at about 5.7 pages per realm. That’s not a lot of space to develop an entirely new realm, much less compete against an established realm that has those pages, plus some old splatbooks, plus name recognition, plus immediate psychological anchors, and maybe some novels and lots of fan recognition and excitement.
This doesn’t mean that these efforts aren’t valuable. But it means they face an inordinate challenge to not just stand on their own, but also to transcend the “adventure tourism spot” issue faced by non-European coded areas to become a core area to base adventures and characters from and in.
UPDATE: I have since reviewed Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and you can read it here!
As I noted in the post about the recent Unearthed Arcana, Wizards is taking steps. The issue remains that diversity, inclusion, and so on aren’t passive activities. Simply contracting diverse creatives and presenting new and diverse locations is only a component of the evolution D&D needs to take to remain relevant and in the position it has become accustomed too. I’ve talked in the past about how non-European coded areas of settings have had less support and development. Now we’re seeing the pattern repeat, but under conditions where Wizards have stepped back dramatically from developing their settings. So the question is whether they’ll take the steps necessary to give these new locations and diversity in their settings the support they need to compete with established ones, or if they’ll download the labour to the fanbase and creators and call it a day.
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You said it yourself… it is not good (profitable) business for Wizards to do more than what they do. What is their incentive to hire more creative staff, revise existing material and/or create all new campaign settings with the detail and depth of the existing ones, and pay for getting all this published if the entire market/fanbase/what-have-you is not going to buy all of it? Wizards is not likely going to increase their output if they think there is no way to make money at it.
Interesting read. Thanks for sharing.
I think you’re overvaluing the need for pages and pages of content to connect with people and sell them on content. Just to start, I’ve recently been rereading the 4e Dark Sun Campaign Setting. Each city state captures a bronze age civilization in just four to ten pages, and if I need more ideas I can just look up information about that bronze age civilization. Similarly, while a story about a southeast asian organ-eating undead monstrosity may not get tons of word count in Ravenloft,the clear real world inspiration allows me to use my outside research skills to bring in more content, without needing specific elaboration in the D&D context.
This of course doesn’t diminish the need for WotC to venture outside the European-inspired Sword Coast for their September releases, and Candlekeep certainly is going to need to do more to prove to me that it will be more inspired than what’s been released for 5e, but in the specific context of this release I feel this sells short what the writers can do in the mathematically limited page count.
I don’t think I am. I think there’s a narrative in the hobby that people “will fill in the blanks, as intended” that’s been proven inaccurate since Gary Gygax was blown away that people were demanding and then buying the first World of Greyhawk. Yes, there’s a subset of consumers who will look things up and fill things in to their own satisfaction, but TBH, I think they’re the minority in the end user group.
I think you’re correct on this end, Wizards should publish more online supplements for the recent setting books they’ve made — It’s like having the first course of a meal prepared by professional, then having to make the next two courses from ingredients given to you and a hodgepodge of other sources. Smaller supplementary setting books would help a lot with these recent books that go to underdeveloped settings such as Ravnica, Theros, and now the 30 Domains of Dread in Ravenloft.
Before I start, let me disclaim that I’ve been mostly out of the loop on official DnD products for nearly the entirety of WotC’s ownership of the property. I’ve got decades of 1e and 2e experience, some 3/3.5e, but never touched 4e and only recently got into 5e. Keep that in mind, because I could be talking right out of my backside.
One thing TSR dipped their toes in the waters of that might help here was using their magazines as a springboard for furthering a setting, beyond the released books. Most such examples that come to mind were small, niche things, but occasionally you’d get entire new regions mentioned in decent detail. Furthermore, TSR would occasionally try and build a whole non-Euro setting through Dragon magazine articles (without much success, but I blame the utterly craptastic depictions of the non-white, non-European regions). From what I’ve seen, Wizards hasn’t really tried anything like that, but having a monthly periodical-style release that gives bits of info on various settings could help with fleshing them out. It wouldn’t need to be a “and here’s this month’s obligatory Forgotten Realms release”. I envision more of a variety thing, where you might go a few months without one of the bigger settings getting touched on. But for those smaller ones, this could help. It’d also free up some design space so they could actually make something brand new.
Just my 5am brain thinking about the subject.