The Real State of Dungeons & Dragons

Art copyright Wizards of the Coast and the artistThere has been some discussion in the D&D Twitter community over the past several days regarding The Escapist’s The State of Dungeons and Dragons:  Present article.

Although the Escapist interviewed Mike Mearls for a followup article,  I don’t think that either article properly addressed the state of D&D as it exists in December 2011.

So, here is my take on the current State of Dungeons & Dragons.

In a nutshell, D&D started off the year in a state of confusion and concern, but has ended the year fairly strong. WotC is looking towards the future and D&D’s torch holders have done much to improve relations with their customers.

Significant Changes to the Publication Schedule: Quality Over Quantity

2011 started off on a sour note when WotC announced that several titles that had previously been revealed had been cancelled, leaving some fairly large gaps in the schedule over the first six months of the year. However, there was a silver lining: the focus for publication was going to be producing fewer but higher quality products. I believe that the success of DDI had something to do with this change in strategy. Many (if not most) people are now consuming their “crunch” electronically rather than purchasing hardcover books.

In the end, I think this change in publication was a success. All of the products that have been released since that announcement have been of high quality, and the fluff to crunch ratio has improved, even in what used to be nearly 100% crunch products.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey has the potential to become the first “classic” 4e adventure. Monster Vault:  Threats to Nentir Vale revealed a style of monster book that almost combines a campaign setting with the monster blocks. The Neverwinter Campaign Setting showed a different way to produce that type of book, focusing on one Tier of adventuring, integrating Themes with the setting and concentrating on a small geographic area. (Though I do hope that they don’t focus on this style to the detriment of other settings- I still want Mystara, Spelljammer and the like). Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium brought back the “magic” to magic items, continuing a trend seen with the Essentials products of dialing back some of the changes in 4e to something more satisfactory to older players.

Branching Out With Board Games

Although Castle Ravenloft had been released by Christmas of 2010, two more releases in the Adventure Game series came out in 2011:  Wrath of Ashardalon and the Legend of Drizzt.  The designers continued to work on the system and both of these games are excellent and fun. Conquest of Nerath, an Axis & Allies-like board game featuring the 4e D&D world came out in the summer. A “euro-style” game, Lords of Waterdeep was announced at Gencon.  All of these games feature new ways to explore the game, and although many might prefer more RPG products, the fact is that non-RPG products have been driving a large part of D&D revenue for a long time.  The quality vs. quantity focus also hit the board game line as Dungeon of Dread, a game previously announced that was not up to the new standards so was canceled.

Increasing Communication with the Customers

It was promised at DDXP last year that WotC would be making more efforts to communicate with their customers and they followed through by introducing three new columns in DDI:  the Rule of Three, Legends & Lore, and the Dungeon Master Experience.  Legends & Lore in particular triggered weekly discussions (to put it mildly) amongst members of the D&D .  WotC also polled the opinions of D&D players on their opinions and preferences regarding different aspects of the game.  Although there were some growing pains regarding poll questions and focus, I think that these three columns have been very successful.

Changing of the Guard

There were major changes in the staff of the roleplaying side of Wizards of the Coast in 2011.  Bill Slavicsek left the company after 20-odd years in June, leaving Mike Mearls to take over.  Monte Cook was hired back into R&D and just finished moving to Seattle.  Finally long time employees Rich Baker and Steve Winter were laid off just recently.  The ramification of these changes are still to be seen although the major impact has been…

Rumors of 5e

Rumors of the development of a new edition of D&D started as the Legends and Lore articles were published, but really started cranking when Mike Mearls took over from Bill Slavicsek and Monte Cook was hired. Although a post on another RPG company’s forum added fuel to the 5e fire, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if WotC announced they were working on it. You don’t hire Monte Cook and move him to Seattle to work on DDI.

The Return of D&D Miniatures

At GenCon, WotC announced that they were brining back D&D Miniatures, this time in “theme packs” of about 12 miniatures each.  This was also announced in conjunction with a new miniature skirmish game, which had a public playtest in the fall.

Changes to D&D Insider

Several changes were made to DDI this year.

  • Pitches for DDI articles would be submitted in two 2-month windows and all pitches would be responded to and with feedback.
  • Several D&D bloggers became new DDI authors including: Tracy Hurley (Sarah Darkmagic), Mike Shea (Sly Flourish), and Critical Hits’ own Dave Chalker and Philippe-Antoine Menard (Chatty DM).
  • The format for adventures changed from the “delve format” to one much more freeform. Not coincidentally, I think that the quality of those adventures has improved.
  • The Character Builder and Monster Builder continued to improve, although admittedly they’ve only now regained most of the function of the offline apps. The Virtual Table continues to be beta tested, and now allows non-DDI players to play in a game run by a DM who is a subscriber.

Control of D&D Video Game Rights Returns to WotC

The announcement that control of video games based off of the D&D brand had returned to Hasbro/WotC was a bit under the radar, but I think this will have a major impact in the future.

Encounters and Lair Assault

Encounters continued to be an apparent success for WotC. Not only did they apply the change in adventure philosophy (i.e. less combat) to the Encounters program but anecdotally it continues to be a major source of new players. WotC also introduced Lair Assault, which focused on the more experienced D&D player.

D&D Isn’t Just Done By Wizards of the Coast

None of this doesn’t even touch the contributions to ‘D&D’ from other companies, including Paizo.  Paizo also produces lots of quality product from the Adventure Paths, to their own campaign setting of Golarion, the new Pathfinder Beginner Box and Pathfinder miniatures. Even then, this doesn’t include contributions from excellent companies and products like Kobold Quarterly/Open Design and Fourthcore.

In all, most of the things that happened in the D&D universe in 2011 were positive.  I wasn’t too sure at the beginning of the year, but I’m looking foward to what will be coming out in 2012.


  1. Nice synopsis of the positive stuff that went on in the year. I agree that the quality over quantity has been a nice change.

  2. I also think that this is a good summary of the current state of the game. However, there is one thing I’d like to point out: while I generally agree that the decrease in product quantity has been followed by an improvement of quality, this hasn’t been the case for the whole year. For the first months in particular, we saw rather lackluster DDI content, followed by the controversial release of Heroes of Shadow – the only player-oriented book in many months, which in my opinion had some great stuff (like the gloom hexblade or the blackguard), but also a lot of reprinted material (executioner and revenant) and flawed options like the Binder and the death warpriest.

    That said, the second half of the year has been nothing but awesome, with the introduction of themes in Dragon, the better and longer adventures in Dungeon, and books like Heroes of the Feywild (which you didn’t mention, but is one of my favourites of all 4E).

  3. You have to remember though that there is a significant lead time between development of a product and it’s release, and can easily be upwards of a year. So the first few months of DDI and Heroes of Shadow were actually more products of the ‘quantity’ era.

  4. This is definitely a much better done summary than the articles over on The Escapist in my opinion. Rather than constantly harping on ridiculous statements and leaps in logic (4e is the first time the player-base really fragmented, eh Escapist? Must’ve forgot about that time 2nd edition was released and half of the players disappeared and the company went bankrupt…) it gives a nice, concise overview of the state of the business. Rather than an unfounded statement that RPGs are looking golden (preceeded in The Escapist’s D&D Future article by a quote from a marketing executive of White Wolf claiming that PnP RPGs were probably screwed as a mainstream attraction, resulting in a confusing logical leap) you gave a whole slew of content from the last year and why it matters for the future.

    Bravo, I say!

  5. Thanks Hydra! That means a lot.

  6. Great article. I have enjoyed the greater transparency that WotC has taken. I am really looking forward towards D&D XP to see what 2012 will bring. I suspect that WotC will be a lot more transparent with 5e, I am expecting a semi-official “yes we’re working on it” at D&D XP, with maybe even a public “playtest” as it gets closer to release time.

  7. Just wanted to say a huge thank you for presenting a positive article about the state of D&D. Much needed.

  8. A very good article indeed. The articles on Escapist had some good points but did seem to focus too strongly on the negative aspects and really seemed to be yet another 4e vs 3e bash.

    I think I can agree that there has been a big turn around lately in 4e but then the recent firings leaves me deeply concern.

  9. I really like your idea that the fluff to crunch ration was changed as a result to DDI. While it is also likely that it was a simple worry/reality that they would drown the game in PC options and break the balance, I like what you wrote and it really is a better strategy to keep DDI useful while keeping books useful. If I look at the *Power books, many of these are just so full of crunch that you really never visit the books again.

    I’m always torn between the possible bias of those of us that like 4E and the possible bias of those that don’t when it comes to “state of the industry” articles. The Escapist article is written by someone writing for OD&D. Ryan Dancey calls Pathfinder the lifeboat that will prevent the destruction of tabletop RPGs. Around all of this is the reality that this industry is really difficult/bad, that there is very little access to numbers, and that we all have skin in the game. But, the very conversation is important. The industry will do better if the consumers are educated about the difficulties of the industry. Also, it is critical to break down the myth that company x is “the enemy” or “bad corporation” or even “terrible now”. These companies are full of great passionate people working to make the best game they can. Even Wizards, under Hasbro, works as a small passionate company. And, the history of every RPG company that has been around for a while is one of very big ups and downs. I can’t recommend the Designers & Dragons book enough. It is amazing what TSR went through and how vulnerable and yet fortunate our game has been.

  10. CrowOfPyke says:
  11. I just want to know, when is the D&D: The Book of Vile Darkness movie coming out? Probably around some time this year, right?

  12. It is already out.

  13. Um, no it isn’t. No in the United States at least.

  14. Trust me, I’ll know when it’s out. I just don’t know when it’s coming out.

  15. Chris Perkins mentioned the writing and filming of it in his column sometime last year, but with no news on that front, I would expect it ran into some delays (thus somewhat defeating the point of trying to sync up the book release and the movie release.) We might hear more about it at DDXP at the end of this month.

  16. Okay. Thanks for the info.

  17. LOL… movie! … Didn’t read that closely enough.

  18. Evil is the Eye of the Beholder says:

    its hilarious that the transition from 1e to 2e had any divide looking back on it. its almost moronic. its the same game outside of some minor mechanical changes that offer barely anything in play. sorry. seems more like a stupid purist tantrum more than anything (“but the demons are missing (theyre actually not). im too lazy to just use the stats from MMII.” yawn)

    systems are redundant. i hope Cooke does RPG’s some justice and brings it back to imaginative scaffolding building, improv, riffing off each other / DM, etc – instead of a duality between miniature tactics oriented board game constrained by powers (where’d all the creative spells go? oops), and skill challenges (i rolled a 5. “ok, you cant do that kind of easy thing.”)… actually, i dont really mind – ill just use the old systems.

  19. What? THACO was an abomination! Clearly 1E was better! 😉

  20. Simon Moore says:

    Well, if you look at it this way….when 4 of the 5 gaming/comic stores in your area reduce the RPG section by 80% and stick the rest of the books on a back shelf in the far end of the store, its a wake up call.


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