A plea for good PR for D&D

I’m not an edition warrior, and edition wars make me sad. I know they’ll always exist, but I hope for a day when they are barely noticeable.

I came to D&D too late for the last edition war. I played a little bit of 3rd Edition in 2002 or thereabouts, but didn’t really get into the game until early 2010 with 4th Edition. Thus, my information about the 3e to 4e edition war has come after the fact, when 4e was already well-established and people had taken sides. I missed the “people forming their opinions” stage of the war and have only personally seen the “cold war” state of things.

It seems to me that there are certainly facets of 4e that people who dislike the game actually dislike. However, a lot of those have become less prominent with the introduction of the Essentials books (for instance the “sameness” of classes and martial classes with daily powers).

It also seems that people who don’t like 4e dislike the way certain things are presented in the books. For instance, they feel that there’s too much emphasis on tactical combat and not enough on flavor, exploration and wonder. A fair criticism, and also something that’s gotten better in later books, but it’s something that’s not an inherent problem with the game itself, just its presentation. A good 4e DM can have plenty of flavor, exploration and wonder in the game.

Thus, I think a lot of people who hate 4e could potentially have a lot of fun playing the game if they wanted to. But they do not want to – strongly.

So why are there such strong negative feelings toward 4e in some quarters, rather than just apathy? If a game doesn’t appeal to me, I generally ignore it. I don’t complain about it.

I think it’s clear that a big source of the vitriol against 4e was the poor public relations (PR) surrounding the launch of the edition. I didn’t see all of the “4e is the new edition” PR when it actually came out in 2008, but I’ve seen bits of it quoted in edition warry forum posts and such.

It was bad. WotC seems to have really alienated a large part of their player base. This isn’t always a bad thing for a company – sometimes you’ll have customers whom you’re not really interested in serving, and it would be better for the company if those customers went away. But I don’t think that’s the case with the customers WotC lost in the 4e transition. I think they screwed up by alienating that many people, and I think they’d agree that they screwed up.

Thus, my plea: Please, WotC, as you move forward with the D&D game in all of its incarnations, whether that’s 5th Edition or something else, please make PR a priority.

Note that I’m taking the term “public relations” at face value here – relations with the public. I don’t mean marketing-speak or alternate reality games or weird PR stunts or anything like that. I mean, think very carefully and put real resources into building and maintaining good relationships with the gaming public as you work on new projects.

To be clear, I think Mike Mearls has done a very good job of this so far. I think the hiring of Monte Cook, clearly a fan of older editions, is probably a step in the right direction (although WotC will need to delicately handle the message here to folks who LIKE 4e; Monte’s columns have the potential to alienate them). But I could see it blowing up, badly.

Stay positive. Don’t bad-mouth other editions of the game or other games (like Pathfinder). Talk about what’s great about your new projects without dwelling too much on the perceived “problems” you’re solving . Think carefully about how your words will be interpreted before you write them or say them in public.

This is not an easy task, of course. One extreme would be to say as little as possible and to make sure that everything you say is carefully vetted. That’s a mistake, too. Openness of communication with the gaming community is a hugely important way of building goodwill. But you have to make sure the people who are doing that communicating have the right attitude.

Be nice. Be welcoming. Develop a thick skin (because haters gotta hate). Acknowledge what’s good about other editions and other games.

Even if you don’t get waves of people migrating to your game, good PR will keep you from seeing waves of people migrating away. And from reading comments online, it sounds to me like a lot of people who don’t currently play 4e are open to the idea of considering WotC D&D in the future, if it’s done well. Bad PR will make sure that those potential customers never give your product a shot. Be positive, open and welcoming.

You can do it. Good luck!

13 thoughts on “A plea for good PR for D&D

  1. I do not (often) engage in religious wars anything, as they are based on emotion, and not logic. Most of the wars (vi/emacs, ford/chevy, democrat/republican, god/no-god) clearly fall into this category, as do the DnD versions one. It is possible to list a set of criteria, and them objectively compare products/philosophy along those criteria. Of course, the specific criteria will only be valid for the person(s) deriving the list, but, it can allow for objective discussion. For me, I did not like a few things about the 4e. And at least two of them have to do (perhaps indirectly) with this post, on PR.

    The first one is that 4e was fairly universally judged a reaction to WoW, with – as you state – “For instance, they feel that there’s too much emphasis on tactical combat and not enough on flavor, exploration and wonder. A fair criticism, and also something that’s gotten better in later books”. Perhaps it did get better with later work, but, I doubt it was a reflection of WoC comming to this conclusion, as much as a response to the overwhelming adoption of the Pathfinder version of the 3.5e ruleset. The PR issue here is that – as far as I know – WoC never admitted this mistake, nor that Pathfinder may have been an influence in any correcting action they took.

    But the bigger issue here, from a PR stand-point, is that 4e took away the Open Game license. Many companies that are facing financial trouble opt to open-source their product, and in some cases, doing so saves the product from death. The PR issue is that once WoC did that, and the community did step up, and save iDnD, WoC then decided to close-source to try and make money again. This has happened several times in the software world. This is a huge slap in the face to the community that did step up and save the product, and it clearly shows that greed is more important than community. I’m not sure how any amount of PR is going to save WoC from that aspect, at least until there are enough users who no longer remember this debacle. And by the way, there is nothing wrong with making money; if companies do not, they do not stay in business. But there are several companies that clearly show that money can be made in the open source world, including Paizo & Canonical.

    Most religious wars are about people preferring one brand over another. I’m not sure PR is going to help that, at least from an objective position. Perhaps re-engaging the community would have been a better suggestion. There is a big difference between public relations (lower-case pr) and community engagement. Any form of PR has as it’s goal winning people over to a particular point of view. We do not need that from WoC, unless we are WoC shareholders. What we do need, as a gaming community, is community engagement and participation.

    • Timothy – Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you, and I want to make it clear that when I use the term “PR” in my post, I mean public relations in a very broad sense. This includes community involvement and things like the OGL decision (which a company that’s taking public relations seriously should realize will have a major impact on the community).

      This is exactly what I’m asking WotC to do – think carefully about how their words and actions will be received by the community of gamers. Put real time and resources into making sure they do this right. Don’t let it be an afterthought.

  2. Michael,
    I have some thoughts on what you have addressed. However, there is one thing stopping me from dropping a large comment on your post. I read over your post yesterday and again today, trying to decipher why you are making this plea.

    I see that you came into the world of rpgs at a later time then myself and did my best to place myself in your shoes to better my understanding of your interest in not wanting WotC to screw up again, but I thought just asking you directly was a better idea.

    Why do you want them to have better PR? How will this effect you, if they do not follow your advice? As Timothy mentioned, unless you are a shareholder, I am at a loss as to what inspired this post.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    • I care for a few reasons.

      First, I’m a player who currently enjoys 4e, and I might possibly be a player who would enjoy 5e or whatever comes next from WotC, enjoying whatever support they launch for it, etc. I don’t want to feel marginalized and alienated if WotC has terrible PR with their future steps, as a lot of 3.5e fans felt when WotC brought out 4e. That was a crummy feeling for those folks, and I hope to avoid it.

      Second, I like the idea of some strong companies in the RPG industry, so I’d like WotC to succeed. I’d also like Paizo to succeed, for what it’s worth. I think it would be a shame for a company with good RPG products to shoot themselves in the foot with bad PR, thus hurting the future potential for more good products from that company with good financial support behind them.

      Most importantly, though, I care because I’m a member of the online RPG community, and I pray for a day when edition wars are not too bad. I believe that if WotC moves forward with terrible PR, the edition wars will be gruesome. I hate that.

      I like the feeling I get when I’m part of a community that seems to get along with itself for the most part. There are more opportunities to make friends, play games together, share ideas, collaborate on projects, etc. If bad PR from WotC leads to more edition wars, I think it will hurt the online RPG community and diminish opportunities for all of that good stuff.

      If the online RPG community were to become toxic, I guess I’d eventually leave, and that would be a shame. I enjoy being part of this community, and I’d be sad if I ended up leaving it because it became toxic due to renewed edition wars that could be avoided with some smart PR on the part of WotC.

      Yes, I’m saying, “Can’t we all just get along?”

      • Thanks for clarifying your motivation.

        There are close to four years worth of products for 4E, minus the internet and your imagination. It is hard for me to understand what more you could need from WotC.

        I submit that your are very optimistic about the rpg community coming together, but aside from the youtube comments of the internets I do not believe there is any real edition war that divides good ideas and the shared interest of role-playing. Your wish to avoid the toxicity of what is to come is the impossible request in asking the internets to not complain.

        Yes, there are people who prefer one edition over another, but you do not have to look outside a specific edition in order to see varying play-styles that make each gaming group different from one another. The reverse is true as well, you do not have to play the same edition to converse and share with those who do not play your rpg of choice.

        D&D or not, a system can influence a specific play-style, but you can find “heavy role-players” in 4E and tactical combat oriented people in “Old School” D&D. To me, it’s not so much an edition war, but a preference on how you choose to play the game versus how I choose to play the game or how they choose to play the game and so on.

        Our inherent common interest as an rpg community is role-playing games. There is no default animosity towards each other, we just prefer different styles and happen to use different systems.

        Hmm, maybe now I’m being too optimistic on that last point.

        In regards to you not wanting to be alienated, I think the very idea of yet another edition divides WotC’s player base already (without needing to announce anything!). I am strictly speaking of their current customers. WotC’s announcement will not eliminate people who play role-playing games, nor do I believe you actually think this, but your plea is very telling. It’s a focus on players, where they are focused on customers.

        Although 3E was just not for me, when Peter Adkison was at the helm of WotC it allowed Ryan Dancey to change the face of rpgs with the OGL. Not that one needed TSR or WotC to approvingly nod at us before we sat down at table to game prior to that, but it did revitalize the rpg industry and allowed us to no longer need companies like WotC. It may have made the giant weaker, but it made rpg companies as a whole stronger and gave some a chance where they had none prior.

        It freed us from the restraints of, to be quite frank, giving a shit about how successful WotC is or how much they are screwing it up yet again. Their success does not dictate our success at the gaming table.

        They may own the name “Dungeons and Dragons”, but they can not tell us how we choose to play it.

        I do not personally wish ill will towards the people that work at WotC, but from what I’ve seen, their failures have ironically made the rpg industry stronger.

        Somewhat related, in your other post you mentioned a list of podcasts. There is an episode of “That’s How We Roll” where they interview Peter Adkison. I believe you would find it very interesting as it covers the switch from 2E to 3E, the brand of Dungeons and Dragons and other topics I believe you would like.

        http://thatshowweroll.libsyn.com/that-s-how-we-roll-season-03-episode-02-making-d-d-history-with-peter-adkison

        • Well, I have personally seen signs of edition wars on internet forums – people who strongly dislike one another (personally, not just disliking their opinions) because of supporting different editions of the same game (or a closely related game). I’m surprised to hear you say that there’s no real edition war beyond YouTube. I think if WotC had handled public relations better when they launched 4e, this strong dislike for fellow gamers would have been reduced.

          I understand that lots of gamers don’t care how WotC does and probably lots of gamers don’t care how Paizo does or other companies. I do care. If they make lousy products, they should fail. But if they make good products but communicate poorly about them, that’s a shame and I think it’s avoidable with some forethought. That’s what I’m proposing here.

          I’m not proposing a great coming together of gamers who previously played D&D and who now play other games. If they’ve moved on, I’m fine with that. I just don’t want WotC to further fan the flames of the ever-present edition wars with bad PR.

          And I listed That’s How We Roll in my podcast post, largely because of that interview with Peter Adkison. I agree that it was a terrific interview and very enlightening.

          • Ha! Sorry for the confusion. “Youtube comments of the internets,” was a euphemism for all comments, discussions and so forth put forth by unreasonable people or trolls. I did not mean to be taken literally by inferring that I had only seen it on YouTube comments. Your example of forums disputes is also what I was encompassing in that statement.

            Your statement about edition wars and follow up comment about “Can’t we all just get along?” lead me to believe you were speaking of the rpg community that play rpgs. Now I realize you just meant people who play 4E and letting the “others” do what they will. That makes sense, in that your plea is to WotC, and what they do does not effect anyone aside from those who currently play 4e.

            Just so that my thoughts are clear, my previous words were not addressing just the “WotC community.”

          • I think I understand where we’re seeing things differently. It sounds like you don’t care too much about people on RPG forums yelling at each other; that does in fact bother me, and I think that bad PR on the part of WotC will likely create more of that than good PR will. Not that good PR from WotC will magically make forum hate disappear, but it will keep down the growth rate of hate.

            And sure, it would be great if fans of all RPGs could be nice to each other online, but I don’t think good PR from WotC is going to make people who currently hate WotC decide to love them. I’m just asking WotC to try their best to keep FUTURE rifts to a minimum. If past rifts could heal, great, but I don’t think anything WotC can do will have much of an impact there. That ship has sailed to a large degree.

  3. I’m in a very similar position. I grew up playing basic, then 2E AD&D, then I took a break until I found a group playing 4e. I can understand wanting Wizards to do well, despite not being a share holder, as anyone who enjoys fantasy RPGs has a stake in D&D. Its a shame the current stewards of the shared history/mythos that is D&D are doing such a poor job of keeping to the spirit of previous editions. Like OnlineDM mentioned, they’ve taken great strides in recent releases. But I hope as 5e evolves, it mends fences, so that people who were alienated might come back.

    • I see things similarly, although I’d be okay even if people who left WotC D&D decided they wanted to stick with non-WotC games. Sure, though, if more people were playing the game I like, I suppose that would be good for me. More people to talk about the game with, more potential players to play with, more potential DMs to run games, more people to write cool adventures and other content, etc.

      But I respect that some people want to play different games now, and I’m okay with that.

  4. I was, and am still, very much a fan of 3.5, although I have absolutely no interest in 4th ed. I have tried it several times with the one off modules that have been published for things like the free RPG day promotions, and some of the promotional stuff for new books, and every time I hated it.
    There seemed to be no concept of resource management, as the game decides for you what powers and so on need to be managed with the at will/per encounter/per day division. In 3.5 and before I have played characters who have literally held back powers that they could have used on early encounters so that they could be used against the big evil at the heart of the scenario, but I have also played characters who have burnt large amounts of power to get the party to that encounter without the rest of the party having to use their abilities, That choice is largely gone, except for the relatively few per day powers.
    I disliked the merging of skills down to a much smaller number, as it seemed to mean fewer specialist roles within each class. It just seemed that rogues in particular can do all the skill based things that any rogue would want to do.
    The concept of the skill challenge completely floored me in one of the pre-writes, especially as if the GM had not dropped us out of combat when he did I could have prevented the enemy from running away, but now in order to catch him we needed to do a series of arbitrary checks designated in the adventure rather than playing out the pursuit and being able to use clever ideas. Partially a bad, inexperienced GM following a rule slavishly, but the rule itself is bad.

    I’m not likely to see the PR for subsequent editions because they took the gaming magazine I used to buy even when I couldn’t play off the shelves. Therefore, I won’t be likely to see any evidence of a new edition being launched. I don’t go to their website because they don’t produce anything I’m interested in anymore, and unlike the magazine I don’t come across their website on a regular basis just for going to my local games store. Effectively, with the closing of the print side of their magazine they’ve lost contact with me as a potential customer, and unless I see a future edition with something to explain why I should buy it (other than the default “Ooooh shiny!” that most companies use) I doubt I will, and I seriously doubt my main gaming group will either. My secondary group play Pathfinder, but somehow it just doesn’t feel the same as 3.5 does.

    • Stephen – Thank you for taking the time to leave a detailed comment. I’d say that you’re a person who wasn’t turned off of 4e due to bad PR but due to it being a game you just don’t like, and that’s completely fine. I don’t expect good PR on the part of WotC to bring players like yourself into the future of WotC D&D.

      I’m hoping that good PR on the part of WotC can keep there from being a further splintering of people who actually like the stuff WotC currently produces. If WotC makes a lousy product that people don’t like, they’re going to lose fans and there’s not much they can do about it. But if they produce products that people WOULD enjoy but shoot themselves in the foot with bad PR, that’s an avoidable mistake. That’s all I’m pleading for them to think about here.

      For someone like you, I don’t think WotC’s PR, good or bad, is going to make much of a difference. I suppose it’s possible that they’ll take the future of the game in a direction that you WOULD like, and they could screw up their chances of getting someone like you to check it out if they have bad PR, so there’s still a chance good PR could help them with folks like yourself. But I’m honestly not as concerned about that in this post.

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