If I ran the RPG department at Wizards of the Cost — the company that produces D&D and Magic: The Gathering, purchased a few years ago by Hasbro — I’d start with three changes:
More modules and settings. D&D’s forty years old. When people share experiences of the game, they tend to involve the starter adventures (especially B2 Keep on the Borderlands and the terrible 4e adventure Keep on the Shadowfell), or else later classic modules (Ravenloft, Tomb of Horrors). What did these modules have in common? They were cheap and plentiful and they did what they wanted within a pretty expansive envelope of content and quality.
D&D 5e came out last year. Since then, in addition to the three (excellent) corebooks, a terrible DM screen, and the Starter Set, WotC has farmed out production of three full-colour hardcover ‘supermodules’ comprising two campaigns, both meant to take players from level 3 to level 15 or so.
Presumably this makes good financial sense. It makes no creative sense at all.
Under WotC’s stewardship, D&D has put out fewer, longer modules. One possible reason is that they’re not that good at it: they can’t commit to serious Narrative play, and aren’t imaginatively free enough to make superb location-based adventures. One of the best-loved 3e modules, Red Hand of Doom, is (at best) an unusually refined vanilla D&D adventure. Almost nothing written for 4e generated any sensawunda at all, and only a few snatches of the 5e Monster Manual have done so.
But if WotC wanted to alter the way two generations of kids understand the fantastic, just like TSR did, they’d be taking risks — and the ideal place for risk-taking, if you’re D&D’s publisher, is modules and settings.
If I were boss, I’d announce a line of experimental adventures and a series of compact settings from the most interesting writers in the RPG hobby. Yoon-Suin, Deep Carbon Observatory, Death Frost Doom…the OSR (which is really about DIY creativity, not old-fashioned gaming) has produced some amazing stuff, never mind the ‘indie’ community. WotC reaches the biggest audience in RPGs by a large margin. They have money to spend than any other RPG company. They should be at the cutting edge of RPG design, not the middle of the pack.
Shit, why not sell something like Pelgrane’s Blood on the Snow, full of short settings and campaign frames, and invite actually interesting designers and writers to do the work? Why isn’t Ken Hite writing for WotC?!
If Paizo can take (small) risks, WotC certainly can. They won’t dilute the brand; anyone who thinks so is a coward or an idiot.
Market the vast TSR D&D archive as content for 5e. This is a no-brainer. Right now the dndclassics.com site sells lots of old-school D&D products to guys in their 30s and 40s. They should be selling to teenagers. dndclassics.com should absolutely be part of contemporary D&D culture (since gaming culture is hopelessly indebted to D&D). If only WotC weren’t treating those PDF-only releases as afterthoughts…
The best of the old stuff would radicalize 5e. (Can you imagine a reissued Encyclopedia Magica with, say, 32 pages of discussion about the role of magic items in a home campaign? Only that can never happen, because we’ve already had the premium reprint of the much less interesting 3.5 Magic Item Compendium…) I’d rather that they make new stuff, obviously, but failing that, they should be advertising the old modules as new 5e content and putting out expansive guides to repurposing existing material for your home campaign.
Failing to capitalize on dndclassics.com, not as a nostalgic flea market but as a supply of new 5e material, is world-class incompetence on WotC/Hasbro’s part.
Take chances on interesting, ‘unsafe’ art. 5e looks clean and professional and utterly boring — visually indistinguishable from all the other vanilla fantasy crap out there. Hire a risk-taking artistic director and fill the WotC art stable with artists who matter. Is John Blanche available? Tony DiTerlizzi? Bill Willingham? Frank Quitely? Why hasn’t WotC asked? They have the money, they have the pull. Jesus, why haven’t they asked Zak Smith to illustrate a module? (He says they can’t afford his paintings — OK, commission ink drawings instead.)
WotC should be putting out exciting, beautiful products, and worrying a hell of a lot less about whether the work is ‘safe.’ I’ve paid serious money for secondhand Warhammer books solely because of the fantastic art. I’m not alone in this.
D&D’s value isn’t in its rules, it’s in its power to intrigue, excite, inspire, and haunt its players. WotC has sacrificed that power. It’s shortsighted.