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.