Chargen and the Political Economy of D&D

With the in-progress release of D&D Next, I decided to repost this short piece on the implications for players' experiences of how "mainstream" role-playing game publishing works.

Photo by Ville Miettinen.

Photo by Ville Miettinen.

We had a character generation session for the new campaign yesterday. I introduced the world in broad strokes and gave the players some parameters for their characters (PHB1 standard stat array; PHB1 races plus gnomes and half-orcs; if you’re picking a weird class, you need to have access in-session to all the rules for them), and then let them start brainstorming who they’re going to be and if/how they know one another before the adventure starts.

This is almost always a lengthy, tedious process. There’s a lot of different things to balance: fidelity to the campaign world, players’ individual ideas of what they want to play, and party balance (we have three strikers, two leaders, and one defender…), to name only a few. And then each player has a lot of choices they have to make, including feats, skills, and equipment.

One of the players in our group has a D&D Insider account, and we’re using it to “register” the official versions of everyone’s character. This is in many ways a great tool. It keeps track of prerequisites, what stacks, and so on. It can also export the characters into a file that I can import into DM Minion on my iPad for when I’m running the campaign.

It also gives players access to all the published options when making their characters. This is a gift and a curse. It offers a lot of customizability, but it has so many choices that it makes character creation a real drag.

Whether you agreed with the goal or not, 4E D&D promised a massive simplification of the rule system in order to make the game friendlier to new players. As originally published in the core rule books, I think this was basically a success. But, over time, the system has broken itself.

This happens every time. It’s just like comic-book reboots that start the whole narrative universe over fresh only to eventually retell every story from the original continuity (perhaps just with more violence and raping – er, “psychological realism”). Why?

One of the important traditions in media, communication, and cultural studies (the discipline in which I have a PhD) is the political economy of communication. Aligned with various varieties of critical and Marxist scholarship, my colleagues in this tradition generally say that if you want to understand why something in the media is the way it is, follow the money, look at the ownership structures and the business models that produce the situation that we have.

Put another way, what do game publishers sell? What is the commodity form of the game produced by Wizards of the Coast?

Mostly, Wizards sells books: rule books, campaign settings, and so on. And the obvious problem they face is that books are pretty durable objects, and once you have them, you can read them as much as you want without paying more. Particularly when you have a small customer base (as, in the grand scheme of things, all geeky media producers do), this gets to be a problem. Wizards makes a lot of money when a new edition comes out and people buy the new books, but then they need to figure out how to get you to buy something else.

Let’s look a little more closely at the gaming commodity—because a book can contain virtually anything, and gaming manuals are a specific kind of book.

While most gamers hope to get a rich, fun play experience out of the purchase, what they buy is a set of rules. And once you have the rules, the main thing Wizards can sell you is exceptions to the rules. All those add-on books with the new classes, feats and powers, all the articles in Dragon, at some level, they all give your players licence to break a constraint in the basic rules.

That’s all well and good, I suppose. It makes players happy to get to do cool new things they weren’t allowed to before. But as each rule that a player knows becomes annotated and qualified by a hundred exceptions in different sources, the game gradually breaks itself, becoming too complicated all over again.

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