Storyteller tell me a Story: Major RPG Business models of the 90s and 00s

Where we left my history of the trends in RPGs last time we were in the 1980s and looking at toolbox games such as GURPS that were (in theory) able to handle anything.  In theory.  In practice the running joke is that it doesn’t matter which setting you’re playing GURPS in, it feels like GURPS.

The 1990s were a completely different decade as far as roleplaying games go, and dominated almost entirely by two companies.  TSR, makers of D&D, and the new kids on the block, White Wolf Publishing, makers of Vampire the Masquerade and other related games.  By the end of the 1990s, TSR lay dead from a self-inflicted wound, and White Wolf were taken over a handful of years later despite at one point (with very favourable circumstances) outselling TSR.  In both cases these grievous wounds were, in my opinion, a consequence of their publishing model – and Wizards of the Coast, who bought the bankrupt TSR (and I’ll deal with D&D 3e in this post), would echo  White Wolf’s self-inflicted wound with D&D 4e.

There were good games, improvements on what came before or innovations being published in the 1990s; Over the Edge, Everway, Feng Shui (what better name for an action movie RPG than the art of furniture arrangement?), and FUDGE (we’ll come back to a game based on it next time) to name the first few that spring to mind.  There were also dozens of Fantasy Heartbreakers; D&D derivatives that made one or two major innovations but were basically houseruled D&D.

But really the story of 90s and early 00s roleplaying is dominated by D&D (both TSR and Wizards of the Coast), White Wolf, and their business models and how they all ultimately lead to major self-inflicted wounds on the parent company.

  • TSR and AD&D 2e

  • White Wolf, Vampire: the Masquerade, and the rest of the World of Darkness

  • Wizards of the Coast and D&D 3e

TSR and AD&D 2e

Starting with the first on the scene, TSR and AD&D 2e.  In the mid 1980s, TSR had published the Dragonlance Saga – a linked series of linear campaigns that you played through one after the other, using heavy handed tactics to keep you to the plot.  And they sold a vast number of novels based on them.  People got fed up of dungeon crawling and wanted to tell other stories, and in 1989 the 2e Players Handbook was produced – which changed very few of the rules (it removed the assassins, half-orcs, and demons in part due to the D&D and satanism scare of the 80s).  On the other hand despite very few rules changes from D&D as written by Gary Gygax the tone of the books changed drastically.  D&D was no longer a game about scruffy adventurers looking for loot but one in which the default story was more like “Farmboy falls in love with and tries to rescue princess, finds out she’s his sister.”  Oh wait, forget that last part.

And TSR produced world after world to rescue and save, and adventure after adventure to do it in.  The rules themselves were ill-suited to this – when your farmboy can easily die to a stray goblins arrow (and the goblins shoot better than Imperial Stormtroopers) the story derails easily.  Dragonlance explicitly told DMs to fudge – and most DMs did if they wanted the stories to work.  But TSR produced worlds to adventure in, monsters with detailed ecologies for all those worlds, and adventure after adventure to play to the point where throughout the lifespan of D&D 2e they were producing an average of five books per month.

Inevitably people will only buy so much.  But the wound that might not have been that serious was made crippling by what TSR didn’t do.  No research, seemingly at all.  TSR were literally not checking what their customers wanted or whether a given book cost more to sell than the cover price.  What might have been minor problems with the business model combined with a change in book distribution gave them enough rope to hang themselves.

White Wolf and the World of Darkness

White Wolf looked round at the existing games of the 80s and found that almost none of them did what they wanted to play.  Which were story driven RPGs veering towards the personal horror and sacrifice in a rich, dark world.  So they came up with the World of Darkness and the Storyteller system.  Nothing like good advertising.  The most famous game in the line was, of course, Vampire: The Masquerade.

Mechanically, Storyteller was a mess.  It was very evocative, with concepts like spending willpower for extra effect, and a score to measure a vampire’s humanity as they slowly succumbed to the beast.  But the system was hideous, unbalanced, and contained enough perverse results that the writers actively accused people who wanted to use the system rather than just make things up of “Rollplaying, not Roleplaying”; a toxic meme designed to cover poor game design.  The games also had a number of aspects that promoted bad GMing, from calling the GM the Storyteller (implying it was the GM’s story and the players brought their characters along for the ride) to overwhelming NPCs suggested, to a plotline in the supplements

But for all the flaws of the Storyteller system it had an interesting setting and was tied to something approaching the real world and real issues in a way most contemporary RPGs weren’t.  It also had a lot of ambition in terms of design and appealed to a large and at the time almost untapped market, and throughout the 90s they produced more and more books expanding the World of Darkness, deepening it, trying to keep the evil guys looking more evil than the so-called good guys (Technocracy vs the Mages may have been the worst, but I have a lot of sympathy for the way Pentex treated Werewolves however bad the rest of Pentex were) and adding more mechanics you weren’t supposed to push.

The wheels fell off the World of Darkness wagon in 2004 when the system finally grew too overloaded and the metaplot grew too big, and White Wolf decided they needed to go back to basics, create a New World of Darkness using their now streamlined Storytelling System.  This was a deep, self-inflicted wound – although it was a superior system and a much more playable world, White Wolf had been telling people for years that the rules didn’t matter and it was all about the story.  And they’d now decided the rules did matter, and had significantly changed the story (and generally made it less gonzo).  So even if it was an improvement (in some cases if not all), it didn’t go over well.

Wizards of the Coast and D&D 3e

The third major entrant in this group was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition (D&D 3e).  After TSR went bankrupt, Wizards of the Coast (makers of the incredibly successful Magic: the Gathering) bought them out – and produced D&D 3e.  Wizards went in, unlike TSR, asking what people actually wanted and producing their own system.  They discovered that people liked D&D – but found the rules clunky, antiquated, and something they had to tweak because in places they didn’t make sense – and in many many others the purpose behind the rule hadn’t been explained properly.

So they decided to create a toolbox game that if you played (or playtested) it as if it was 2e would work like 2e.  And then add on a lot of stuff that looked awesome while removing the more confusing parts of D&D and the parts people found annoying, like backlash from spells – or the way the game changed at level 10.  What they ended up with was a game that removed almost all the restrictions on spellcasters, and in which spells made up around a third of the pages of the Players’ Handbook.   It was an effective toolbox game – as long as you didn’t push it or play particularly smart.  As a toolbox game it was nothing to write home about, and was enough like the 1980s game Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that Ryan Dancey, former VP of Wizards of the Coast in charge of roleplaying games produced a notorious review of WFRP’s second edition in which he claimed a collection of the features brought forward from WFRP 1e were due to borrowing from D&D 3e.

There was also an interesting marketing strategy; the Open Gaming License which allowed anyone to easily and legally use most parts of the D&D rules to publish supplements.  It gained a lot of positive PR due to the association with Open Source Software, and it allowed WotC to produce the core rules while letting third parties publish the much less lucrative worldbooks which few who didn’t DM would buy.  It also encouraged other parties to produce their games as d20 (i.e. D&D 3e compatible) games – so you had such venerable games brought under this engine as Call of Cthulu d20 and Traveller 20.

This worked in some ways spectacularly well; it did an amazing job of publicity, good will, and shredding the competition.  However not to put too fine a point on matters this period is known as the d20 glut for a very good reason.  And that reason is emphatically not that the average person who thinks they can publish a good game or supplement actually can.  A mere two and a half years after the initial release of D&D 3e, WotC released D&D 3.5 – a slightly incompatible set of rules for D&D that had been planned right from the start.  Some of it was tweaks, some cleanups, and it made WotC quite a lot of money.  And did nasty things to parts of the 3.5 glut due to the incompatibilities.  Wizards also produced a new campaign setting after a setting search in this period – the spectacular Eberron.

But D&D 3.5 continued on until 2008 (with diminishing returns as all game lines do), when WotC managed to shoot themselves in the foot in exactly the same way and more spectacularly than White Wolf had managed with the World of Darkness.  They came up with a new game from the ground up – D&D 4e.  This was partly under pressure from management from above; Hasbro (who own WotC) to maintain a core property demand an annual revenue of $50 million and towards the end of its lifespan, 3.5 wasn’t even coming close to that.

Now like White Wolf, WotC had been saying the system could do anything and it was D&D that mattered; 4e was a new game from the ground up (there’s a new blog post to be written about the history of D&D 4e and several about the gameplay).  And the Open Gaming License ensured that the gun had been replaced by a cannon; because the rules were open source (and because they upset their magazine distributor), Paizo were able to continue producing a tweaked version of D&D under the name Pathfinder and the tagline 3.5 survives Thrives.

If these games sound like fun, and I apologise for going more into the environment than the games, 20th Anniversary editions of the White Wolf games are coming out.  WotC have just reprinted the 2e core rulebooks and almost all the rules for D&D 3.5 are available for free online, as are Pathfinder’s.  And the Pathfinder Beginner Box may well be the best introductory version of D&D ever.


4 thoughts on “Storyteller tell me a Story: Major RPG Business models of the 90s and 00s

  1. I had no idea most people found Planescape too jargon-filled and confusing. I loved the setting – it was the only non-cliched D&D stuff I’ve seen…

    • Being not terribly cliched was, in fact, part of the problem; when a world is cliched you can draw on the cliches easily and put the characters into the foreground with no problem at all. When the world isn’t cliched then it’s fighting with the PCs for attention – and that’s adding an extra element to what is about a four way tug of war already. The world is essentially a backdrop and should seldom be front and centre.

      This is especially true in cases where the players can’t be bothered to learn the world – and untrue in games where the world is designed at the table (I’ll come on to those either in the next post or the one after).

  2. Over the Edge had a 20th anniversary edition come out last year. Despite some flaws it is a hugely innovative system, with some very interesting GMing advice (especially an essay by Robin Laws).

    The setting is almost over-the-top in it’s hipster ambitions, but it also shows a game trying to touch on reality and real themes without the intermediating romantic fantasy tropes of Dragonlance et al, or even World of Darkness’s vampires and the like.

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