The Seven-Sided Die

Learn from TSR's history, lest ye repeat it?

Posted Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 09:20 PM

Years ago, TSR releases D&D and supported it under the guidance of its creator and a lot of creative designers. They encourage players to create and share. The company and D&D boomed. That was phase 1.

In phase 2, TSR changed leadership, put out a new edition, stopped allowing third-party publishing, laid off a lot of talent, increased quantity of products while decreasing the content quality, and TSR began harassing D&D fans on the Internet. The company died and the D&D IP was bought by Wizards of the Coast.

A new age of D&D begins...

Phase 1: WotC released D&D 3 and supplements with a lot of talented designers. They encourage players to create and share. The company and D&D booms.

Phase 2: WotC has a change of leadership, puts out a new edition, jettisons the OGL, lays off a lot of talent, the company begins harassing D&D fans on the Internet

Will history repeat itself? Since I don’t like what WotC is doing with 4e, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the D&D brand and worlds go to someone else.

Purely as a "what if" exercise, even if you think it's a snowball's chance that Wizards would lose D&D (or be forced to sell it by Hasbro accountants), who do you think would be best positioned to pick up the brand and continue it, if anyone? Paizo? Green Ronin? Another big non-RPG company?

Comments (21)

Erin Palette

Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 09:45 PM

I'd say that Paizo already HAS picked up the brand, in all but name, as the Pathfinder RPG.

At this point I actually think it might be best for D&D itself to fail, and thus serve as an object lesson that the best way to ruin your product is to alternately ignore, alienate, and persecute your customer base.

Erin Palette’s last blog post: The James Bond Kit


Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 09:59 PM

The brand counts for a lot, though. Paizo's customers are gamers in the know, while the D&D brand's customers, regardless of company, are the teeming masses. Teeming masses are nice on a balance sheet.

Wouldn't it be interesting if Hasbro sold the D&D brand out from under WotC to Paizo? Paizo'd be in an interesting bind. Supporting two systems would be tough. Ditching PRPG would enrage their 3.x fans, while cancelling 4e would squander a ready-made customer base. I'm not sure they could pull any option off and remain intact. I have a feeling the weight of the brand would kill most d20 companies, especially with the economy the way it is.

Yeah, seeing WotC hoist by their own petard would be lovely schadenfreude, but I'd be concerned that someone with deeper pockets and no interesting in publishing or licensing a pen & paper game would grab the brand for a MMORPG.

(Coincidentally reading your 4e disaster post. Ah, tasty schadenfreude.)


Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:14 PM

I predict Hasbro would shelve it or license it. Why sell the brand off when they are already making tons of booty from royalities on thrid party productions like video games, movies, toys, etc etc. I read a quote from someone at Hasbro once that the D&D video game licenses had already made them more cash than the entire history of D&D's printed book sales. (don't remember where.. maybe on Wired? i read that alot)

anywho.. i think it is far more likely that Hasbro keep the D&D brand to themselves and just box up the WotC shop. The books might continue to be printed; but I mean... they don't NEED to keep making more books - and I expect that the profitability of each new release declines as the market becomes saturated. ...

Stayed tuned for 5th Edition once the market saturates.

jonathan’s last blog post: RPG Blog Anthology Weekly Update : Wolfgang Baur Contributes!


Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:22 PM

I never realised that Hasbro made so much from the license elsewhere! So, it's already in the hands of a deep-pocketed company that's more interested in branding video games than the paper game.

That makes me a sad panda. That means that if any edition of D&D under Hasbro is a financial failure that D&D will cease to be an in-print roleplaying game.

... Oh well. I've got Savage Worlds and enough 2e books to kill a horse.


Tuesday February 10, 2009 at 11:47 PM

Relax. WotC closed ONE site. A COMMERCIAL site which was using D&D IP.

BTW, I don't think Paizo could afford to buy D&D from Hasbro.

I like 4th edition and know a lot of other people who do. I know that bothers you, I'm sorry.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

I think that in the case of Paizo getting the property, the smart thing to do would be to just rebrand Pathfinder RPG as D&D.

There's a large customer base out there who would go along and play pretty much anything as long as it's branded D&D and receives continual support. I mean, they even went with 4E.

Not all would probably make the transition, but enough would to make it viable, I think.

However, this is all speculation. I'm with Jonathan on this one. If 4E gets canned, Hasbro is likely going to licence it out or sit on it.

NiTessine’s last blog post: Tracon 2009 - Good Gaming, Bad Crowding


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 12:36 AM

@Tom: I'm relaxed, no worries. Ema's site doesn't mean much to me except as far as I can pretend its closing is a datapoint that I can cram into this amusing theory. I jumped ship already, so there's pretty much nil WotC can do to really get my back up or affect my hobby. It's all just fodder for blogging, now.

That said, Ema's site's commercialness or not is irrelevant if you're going to invoke IP law. WotC's got the right even if there's no charge, and all D&D fansites are in violation of that strict legal right to some degree. WotC choosing to pull the plug before getting out a fansite policy ("it's not important", except when it is) just makes an observer like myself think they're incompetent, out of touch with their customers, or both. Their handling of the GSL, DDI, Dragon magazine, etc. lends me to believe the last.

@NiTessine: I suspect you're right, and it would be highly amusing to see the 4e champions suddenly praising the "new" edition. But yeah, I think Jonathan has it.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 01:26 AM

Well, I honestly don't much about the situation cause I never used Ema's site... that said.

At this point they've closed down one site. A Commercial site. Them invoking IP may not be relevant to the commercialness of the site, but it probably IS relevant to the site they chose to shut down.

I realize that for many folk, especially those in the blog community, WOTC has squandered a lot of their good will capital but... eh. So far it's not the end of the world. It might be the first salvo in a global domination attempt against the web community or it may just be them shutting down a single commercial site stealing their IP. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

I say this as a runner of Pathfinder and a player of 4e

justaguy’s last blog post: null

Erin Palette

Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 02:15 AM

@Tom: I'm really not bothered by the fact that people enjoy 4e. I have nothing against the game itself -- it's a tight little miniatures game -- other than that it's branded as D&D when I feel that it doesn't deserve to be.

No, what gets my panties in bunch is the way that Hasbro has mismanaged it, starting from the very beginning when they said there would be zero backwards compatibility.

@d7: Interesting, sure, but why would Paizo buy it in the first place? The only reasons I can think of are 1) to quash a competitor, and 2) to rebrand Pathfinder under a more recognizable name.

In both instances, I can think of other game companies/publishers who could make a substantially better offer than Paizo. White Wolf springs immediately to mind, as does Chaosium...

Erin Palette’s last blog post: The James Bond Kit


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 02:37 AM

@Erin: I think there's a lot of potential for hilarious mingling in White Wolf buying the D&D brand. I mean, they're the two biggest names, and hence the two most mock(ed|able) games. At the very least, Ravenloft fans would finally get some love.

@justaguy: I know next to nothing about this particular PR fiasco, either. Rather than wait for WotC to demonstrate their intents (since we apparently can't just ask them what their policy is), I'm using my Past-O-Vision to look at what they've done... in the past! And, I must say, I am displeased by what I see. Good thing I will have been not a customer back then.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 03:18 AM

Gee, someone who doesn't like 4e digging for signs of an impending doom for the entire brand? How completely original...

There was a round of layoffs after 3e was released and the quality of the increasing number of supplements after 3.5 came out (3.5, remember that? an entire reboot to fix the very poor quality of the playtesting of 3e, couldn't help but notice that wasn't in your wonderfully skewed "phases") was quite poor, with a few glowing exceptions (one being the supplement that tested the water for some of the theories behind 4e - Tomb of Battle).

WotC didn't go out and crush fans, they sent a cease and desist letter to a web based business (Ema had a pay subscription service) that was completely and blatantly violating the terms of the GSL (conflicting edition support, copying text wholesale from the books, etc).

All this blowhard, knee-jerk nonsense from people about "going after the fans" is ridiculous and tiresome. They haven't gone after Asmor, who's utilities pretty directly compete with offerings of DDI. But there is a key difference - his stuff remains FREE, making it a clear fan site and not a third party company jacking WotCs IP.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 03:26 AM

@Thasmodious: If I had added in a time-travelling viking walrus might that have made it more obvious that this is Not Serious?

Erin Palette

Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 03:42 AM

Only if said time-traveling viking is also a Navy SEAL.

Because a SEAL walrus is inherently hilarious.

Erin Palette’s last blog post: The James Bond Kit


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 03:49 AM

There would be additional hilarity if the walrus was in a wet suit. Bonus points for it being unzipped to the navel to expose a magnificent set of pecs.

One novel would be titled "Bristles of Desire".


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 04:18 AM

I realize the post is not serious, but the whole piling on of "WotC is going after the fans" stuff is. And its nonsense.

Also -

"WotC’s got the right even if there’s no charge, and all D&D fansites are in violation of that strict legal right to some degree."

Not really. The internet may be a bit gray still, but Fair Use covers fan usage of IP quite well. People can gather to discuss things they enjoy whether its sports teams, actors, TV shows, or games. They can start fan clubs or fan sites and no one is going to bother them until they cross the line and start trying to profit from their use of protected IP, which is where Fair Use generally ends.

Lastly, there is nothing that a time-traveling viking walrus would not improve.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 04:40 AM

Fair use definitely covers the ability to discuss the game, and many think that it's also enough to keep gamers in the clear if they create their own derivative content* and publish it, but it's never been tested in court. The reason there's so much piling on is because WotC's is making people nervous by resorting to a cease-and-desist while continuing to fail (for whatever reason) to articulate what is OK and what isn't with a fansite policy document. Even saying it's not a fansite because it's commercial doesn't mean much until WotC releases their policy with its definition of fansite.

Agreed, the fact that the site had pay features probably had a lot to do with the takedown request. It still contradicts the last assurance that only PDF traders had anything to fear, which will make some people distrustful. They're failing to reassure people about where the line is, and in that context people are going to wonder which side of that line their favourite site (which might also have pay features and contain WotC IP, like ENWorld) falls.

In any case, the new leadership of WotC is currently creating the reputation that the company will bear for the next few years, and I don't think they're thinking this through. That, or their reputation with established gamers doesn't matter to them. Either one are cause enough to make some gamers worried.


Wednesday February 11, 2009 at 04:31 PM

I'll play... If Hasbro/WOTC were to sell D&D, I think Fantasy Flight Games would be the buyer. FFG, I realize, is not a company that first comes to mind in the RPG field. But they have demonstrated an appetite for acquisitions (including entire RPG lines), are big enough to pull it off, and don't have the conflicting products of some other companies (Pathfinder and True20).

David’s last blog post: 9th Annual Greenwich Scrabble Challenge to Benefit Literacy

MJ Harnish

Sunday February 15, 2009 at 09:23 AM

The rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia are not a particularly objective way of analyzing the business practices of TSR or WotC. For example, your description of "phase 1" and "phase 2" is very inaccurate.

It would be more useful to examine the real reasons why TSR failed: It had little to do with tightly controlling the D&D license or harassing internet users. It had to do with the fact that it's business model was broken - for years it relied on an ever growing catalog of supplements for more than a dozen games in the hopes of continuing sales, most of which never sold out their original print run. Look at the HUGE # of RPGs, settings, modules, and supplements TSR was producing in what you call "phase 1," many of which were of dubious quality. Gygax was famous for putting out crap (along with some great stuff) as well as licensing the D&D brand to whoever would pony up some money.

Furthermore, under the guidance of the Blumes & Gygax (the original founders of TSR), the company started losing money as far back as 1983 and had to lay off upwards of 3/4 of its staff at one point. Furthermore, Gygax was long gone from TSR by the time WotC bought and SAVED TSR which was about to go bankrupt. Amongst the list of reasons cited for TSR's complete meltdown was a near total inability to listen to what customers wanted and the massive back catalog of products they were trying to keep in print.

All of this was prior to WotC's purchase of TSR.

Now, will history repeat itself? I severely doubt it because WotC operates very differently than TSR - the way they are incrementally "upgrading" 4E via the various PHB2, DMG2, etc. is a much more sustainable (even if I think it sucks) model for ensuring continuing sales. Furthermore, protecting one's IP is critical because if you do not do so you risk losing the legal right to pursue those IP violations at a later date. Hence they are required to go after sites that are egregiously violating their IP. It would be nice if WotC would finally put out the GSL and the other policies they have promised but to be fair, those kinds of policies are a gift to outsiders something most for-profit-companies do not emulate at all. Take a look at how Microsoft has treated the open-source movement for a good example of how bad a company can hamper what most would consider "fair use."


Sunday February 15, 2009 at 07:37 PM

I don't think "rose tinted" or "nostalgic" are really the right terms when I'm saying, in effect, "TSR made a great game and then were stupid doody-heads". Also, I think I have to refer you to my reply to Thasmodius about time-travelling viking navy SEAL walrii.

Okay, we should be on nearby pages now. Yeah, TSR did some stupid stuff with modules. I did rather appreciate that they maintained system compatibility, though, and focused on refining rather than redefining the game. That's pretty much why I don't like 4e, and if I'd stayed with it beyond the first three books I'd probably add their "upgrade" treadmill to the list of WotC decisions I don't like. (Yes, I could not buy them, but there's more to say about that that's an entire post of its own.)

Lastly, nitpicks: you over-generalised when you spoke of IP. That only applies to trademarks, not copyright or patents, which are the vast minority of IP violations. (And further, you can use their trademarks as much as you like just so long as you note that WotC owns them and don't use them in a way that could make the reader think you own them.) So, WotC could sit on their thumbs for sixty years and then successfully enforce their copyright, if they wanted. Protecting their IP isn't critical at all for retaining it.

Second, the GSL (or even the OGL) isn't necessary to publish material that uses WotC's game. Copyright and trademark law already grant others the ability to use WotC's system for their own products, just so long as they follow a few rules. The GSL (and even the OGL) are just there to say that WotC won't frivolously sue (and, due to most 3PP not being able to out-spend Hasbro on lawyers, likely get an out-of-court settlement that isn't supported by IP law).

Mostly, though, this post is just about seeing an amusing pattern. (qv: walrus.) I'd be pleased to see WotC taken down several pegs over their hostility to the community they've created and their radically different management than during the OGL days.

Michael M

Monday February 16, 2009 at 07:42 PM

Sense Motive is a roll many fail.

I personally liked OGL (even though I never used it). But now I'm curious, what have other businesses done in regards to this issue for their OWN products? But I guess other companies don't get the third-party backing that Wizards does.

Callan S.

Saturday February 21, 2009 at 06:33 AM

"At this point I actually think it might be best for D&D itself to fail, and thus serve as an object lesson that the best way to ruin your product is to alternately ignore, alienate, and persecute your customer base."

I think more that if you try to please everyone, eventually you will get to a point where you will have to alienate a bunch of people, if you want to keep even more.

Callan S.’s last blog post: Fiat and a working game