Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons Dilemma (Tradecraft)

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has been released. Yes, we're all calling it "5th" now, even Wizards of the Coast. We're also universally admitting that 4th edition was kind of crummy. You can talk about what a piece of crap your old car was, but only when your fancy new car is sitting in the driveway. The D&D 5 play test, by most accounts, was a disaster. There was trepidation as the new edition of the past king of role-playing games released. So what do I think of it?

As a gamer, I love it. I've spent the last 30 days writing a D&D 5 campaign. It's called Mysteries of Laxa, about a frontier town established on an ancient site of power that has become a regional, medieval tourist trap for religious pilgrims. But something stirs under prosperous Laxa. An ancient power arises, yet the town elders are focused outwards on their trade, unable and unwilling to address the threats that may potentially destroy it. Can the young adventurers rise to the occasion and save the town? 5th Edition D&D lets me tell my story focused on the setting and the characters, without the gear trolling and murder hoboism endemic to past editions. It's streamlined without being dumbed down and the rules get out of the way of the story I want to tell. So yeah, I like it, and yeah, I'm embracing it pretty hard. It's fantastic. But what do I think about D&D 5 as a store owner?

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition has outsold Pathfinder 2:1 since its release last Summer. That's six products outselling well over 300 products, two to one. It has put D&D in the number four position for our top games, whereas it hadn't ranked for well over a year.

Position Game
1 Magic
2 Fantasy Flight Games
3 Cards Against Humanity
4 Dungeons & Dragons
5 Warmachine / Hordes
6 Warhammer 40K
7 Pathfinder RPG
8 Ultra Pro
9 Mayfair Games
10 Wiz Kids
11 Pokemon
12 Asmodee
13 Steve Jackson Games
14 Z-Man Games
15 Weiss Schwarz
16 Days of Wonder
17 Rio Grande
18 Chessex Dice
19 Vanguard
20 Citadel

Dungeons & Dragons is back baby! I should be really excited. But am I? Do I like to ask myself questions and then answer them? The answer to both is a resounding yes. But I'm also concerned. Mostly about future D&D sales. There's probably a pill for egregious self question asking. You see, this won't last. D&D 5th Edition is great and all, but it's kind of on the same track 4E was several years ago when I predicted (and was laughed at) for talking about how Pathfinder was about to dominate.

The problem with 5th Edition is the emperor has no clothes. There are very limited plans for D&D 5 releases. I call it Dungeons & Dragons: The Stable IP Edition. Here's the thing. There's very little money in RPGs, especially from a company that makes another game that's probably a quarter of all game trade sales. Where Dungeons & Dragons could make money is in digital properties like electronic games and movies.

When I look at D&D 5, I see very good "core" book releases that are currently driving sales and then sparse, setting related releases planned to occasionally trickle out in the future. It's a boring and not terribly profitable release cycle. Paizo released more Pathfinder products this month than you'll see new from D&D in 2015. The gamer in me says that's just fine. We don't need a product treadmill with intentional power creep and books of marginal value. We also don't need endless card packs, map packs, novels, dramatizations, monthly themed adventures, and goblin themed hats for D&D 5. That's the gamer in me. The retailer in me is deeply concerned.

Role playing games, in stores, are in trouble. Or more accurately, they're on the verge of irrelevancy due to their scattered nature, move to an electronic focus including PDFs and Kickstarter, rampant piracy, and a model that encourages only 20% of customers to buy products. Plus, as Mike Mearls of Wizards of the Coast painfully explained, electronic alternatives are easier to get, to play and they're everywhere.

For those retailers who hoe this pen and paper field, like myself, we make role playing work on the back of the dominant version of Dungeons & Dragons. That game, whether it's D&D or Pathfinder, is often 50-75% of our RPG sales. Everything else is community service. Really, for most stores, non D&D RPGs not only don't pay the rent, they don't justify their space economically. If you see them in a store, know they're loved by someone in charge.

When the D&D 5 core books have cooled, much like with 4th Edition, what will we be left to sell? A bunch a nothin'. The 5E release schedule is sparse. It will include "accessories" that traditionally sell poorly compared to core books. There is also no open gaming license for 5E, although companies like Necromancer Games and Goodman Games are slowly producing compatible products. There are currently two.

If you do sell Pathfinder well, and you're now encouraging players to move to D&D 5, which I do sometimes, you're not only undermining your Pathfinder sales, you're undermining your entire role playing department. When you've nuked Pathfinder from orbit and you're sitting on a dozen slow selling D&D 5 books two years from now (a dozen!), how are you possibly going to justify selling RPGs in your store?

As a gamer, I think D&D 5 is fantastic. As a retailer, I'm really happy with D&D 5 right now. Going forward I think RPGs in game stores will experience an existential threat with the current D&D release cycle. But there is a way out. It's called Pathfinder 2.0.

Stop groaning. We need it.


  1. Did 5E's release hurt Pathfinder sales? I'd imagine that if 5E's launch book sales dig deep into Pathfinder's sales then you really need people to get back into the Pathfinder habit to make promoting both lines worth it.

  2. Paul Alexander ButlerJanuary 28, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    "If you do sell Pathfinder well, and you're now encouraging players to move to D&D 5, which I do sometimes, you're not only undermining your Pathfinder sales, you're undermining your entire role playing department."

    Interesting. I don't find this to be the case. Many of my Pathfinder players play Pathfinder AND NOTHING ELSE. And those that do dabble, are alpha level browsers, and play all sorts of stuff.
    But flipping it around... the games that don't play D&D/Pathfinder are definitely my alpha RPG players that buy *all sorts of stuff* in the RPG department. In my store, D&D and Pathfinder are almost islands unto themselves. Big strong islands, sure, but I have to remind myself that my "Other RPG" (which is to say, non-Shadowrun/Star Wars/40K/D&D/Pathfinder) sales are often equal to, if not bigger than, my Pathfinder sales. When 5E exploded it was like free money over and above everything my Pathfinder engine was chugging along doing.
    5E is in no way undermining my RPG department. Many (most?) of those 5E sales are from lapsed players that are an injection into the hobby. Will they dry up if the 5E releases are interesting? Maybe. But my Other RPG departments are solid, strong, and growing... with or without a strong D&D.

  3. I intend to simply use a bunch of the Pathfinder materials as campaign setting stuff and substitute 5th ed rules and monsters. Problem solved.

  4. The longterm has really been the question about 5e all along, hasn't it? New editions prompt curiosity but everyone has their go-to at this point and 5e is just too late to the party. Also, given edition fatigue and the poor decisions made by WotC in the past the future doesn't look bright. At least to me (I don't play 5e or PF).

  5. I sort of wonder what Paizo will target for their (presumed) Pathfinder 2.0 release. The move to having a separate "Core Only" PFS campaign tells me that they recognize that the huge piles of crunch they've built up isn't sustainable, but at some point they need to differentiate themselves from WotC's offering. Would a Pathfinder 2.0 be simplified? How simplified? Backwards compatible? How much? Some sort of happy medium between D&D 5e and Pathfinder 1.0? Can they satisfy their current customers with a 5e level of complexity but a Pathfinder pace of new rules light content?

  6. Boring Pathfinder releases have hurt boring Pathfinder sales. I don't think D&D sales were at the expense of Pathfinder. But that is really the most important question that I didn't address. Is D&D 5 growing the pie?

    The answer is probably. Can the pie grow while the overall sales in RPG declines? Most definitely.

  7. Agreed. Mediocre releases hurt more than anything. High-quality products build sales even whey they compete. Poor products waste the gamer's time and tie up the shop's resources.

  8. I bought an established shop, grew it for 5 years, quadrupling sales, and sold it for a profit. In my experience, sales followed cycles based on new releases and local gaming trends. RPGs might be a big seller one quarter, minis next quarter, board games the next. I (mostly) avoided over-investing in trends, fired the products that didn't do their jobs, reserved liquid assets to maintain stock on the hot items, and kept wide enough product diversity to sell to established gamers and to people who never though of themselves as gamers. FNM, JSS, PTQ events in my store kept Magic as the top seller, but I never worried that one product's sales were declining as long as other lines were growing. My goal was to expand and nurture my local gaming community, and they grew my business.

  9. My question is does Paizo need Pathfinder 2.0? They make money on their own back catalog, (since they sell direct, their own PDFs which have no overhead), I am not sure a 2.0 version would do anything for them but alienate the fan base. People who wanted a new edition went to 5e, and its likely with the lack of support we will see folks trickle back to Pathfinder.

    My other question would be are you stocking the Frog God Games and Goodman games 5e products, and are they selling?

  10. I'm stocking and selling both Goodman Games 5E modules. They're selling alright, definitely better than PF compatible products. I think the Fey Sisters module is especially good.

    The Necromancer Games (Frog God) modules aren't out yet, but we'll be ordering those very deep. I just had a long conversation with Bill Webb yesterday.

    I think there's a market for compatible products for 5E, BUT there's also concern that this system isn't getting support. Creating third party products is a commitment, and when WOTC doesn't seem committed, it's a sign you might want to stay away.

    The issue with Pathfinder is it's arguably heading towards the end of its cycle. That's reflected in lower sales and the perception the game has become too extended with the rules. It's also clear the designers are experimenting with alternative rules to get some ideas of what might stick.

  11. Ehh, I stI'll kinda prefer pathfinder....but I have yet to play any puts a damper onew playing

  12. This is basically the problem I have had for years. There is the king, Dungeons& Dragons, and we all love em, but they have never quite done the trick. New editions come out, tweak the rules a bit, but largely resell the old stuff in fancy new packaging. I will say, that 4E was was out there, but the rest of the releases are still the same. That has been a huge problem.

    That is we play the Fyxt RPGnow. It’s a set of core rules that can used with any lore or other material. Just like what has already been mentioned here. Use the old stories, monsters, or whatever along with a free easy ruleset. Now we play tons of settings. Lots of players GMing and best of all we are not stuck into buying a bunch of recycled books.

    From a gamers perspective we can do whatever we want to and do not have to worry about the next edition or how they changed something we loved. Then from a buyers perspective I can just wait and buy books that truly have cool and interesting stories, npcs, and settings. I don't have to buy them all over again just because they tweaked a few rules.

  13. I have to agree with Paul here. I have seen a ton of lapsed and new players picking up the starter set and then the books. Right now, I am ordering spell decks from Battlefront in quantities of up to 30 every order to supplement the weekly Alliance shipments. While these sales are also to Pathfinder people, I am not really seeing them stop buying it either. The lack of modules has not been an issue since I think it is easy to use other products and just change the stats.

  14. Changing the stats is definitely alpha behavior. I'm just starting to explore that now (or really, my more alpha friends are crunching the numbers). For example, anything under CR4 is a straight cross over from PF to 5E. After that it gets complicated (the math is jiggered).

    We're in a honeymoon period with 5E, and those alphas will eventually decide if the marriage will work out. I recall a similar period with 4E. I swore it was the best thing since sliced bread for the first year, but that bread grew stale quickly. My players hated it, and sales flagged at the store. Pathfinder was the savior for both myself and a lot of customers.

    Once the alphas establish what's best in this case, others will follow. They're major "influencers," heck, *I'm* a major influencer and I'm personally selling the heck out of 5E to those who listen to my opinion.

    Oh, and I wish Alliance US had those spell card decks. They're hard to come by.

  15. Welp. Seeing as Wotc just laid a bunch of D&D people off, I think you may have something here.

  16. I've often heard quite negative things about the RPG crowd (from a business perspective), so I'm interested to hear your store Paul is doing so well from them! Does your store have a stronger focus on RPGs supplements and/or game-nights?

    Aside: I really enjoyed 4e. I liked that every character was empowered, skills were simple to comprehend & non-battle encounters were rewarded. The slow pace of combat was a downer though.

  17. This is business. It's what they'll tell you over a drink. In business, everyone does what's best for themselves. At the moment, we need them more than they need us. They've got mass market channels. They've got direct to consumer channels. We're in a boom time, so they can marginalize us all they want.

    However, the game trade is always cyclical. I think the idea that we're in a permanent golden age of mass marketization of the game trade is delusional. Eventually the boom will end and you know who will be back courting us at trade shows? Those same "this is business" publishers.

    The job market is similar. During the dot com days, programmers would get Miatas for signing bonuses. They were in demand. Flash forward a few years and expect to take a drug test, a panel interview and a pay cut.

    So my point is a) don't forget the douchebaggery now, b) don't take it personal, and c) don't think you owe them anything when it's their turn to need you.

  18. The map was hand done by Ben Monroe.

  19. I know you're right Gary, I just worry that by the time publishers realize the importance of Brick and Mortar, we will be in another Dark Age. I'm speaking primarily about board games here.

  20. Gary,

    I wish you were wrong. But I believe you are right about it. Completely right.

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