Pricings & Predicaments

Last week I heard a number of Pathfinder players talking about D&D Next’s organized play announcement, complaining that it lifts faction-based play from Pathfinder Society. The thing being, Society lifted the idea of organized play from the RPGA, established by TSR and inherited by Wizards of the Coast, who then toyed with faction/regional organization in their Living Greyhawk/Living Realms 3.x campaigns. There’s really no room to bitch there; D&D isn’t ripping off Pathfinder, it’s the same organized play idea they’ve run for decades.

No, the thing to bitch about should be that the cost to get into D&D Next is $150.00 USD. (A fact, I’ll grant, that has been hinted at since Amazon and B&N priced their product listings back in March.)

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I’m not complaining about the rising cost of books here, since it’s an established fact that inflation exists, and the $20 you spent on your AD&D books has a purchasing power closer to $50 in 2014 dollars (e.g., real money). The fact that the books are jumping up in price shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the industry is rife with $50 hardcover rulebooks, and while it is a notable increase from the $90 buy-in to get a set of 3.5 D&D books, it’s not economically unexpected.

The thing is, though, the other game books in the industry that cost $50? Those are entire frickin’ games, in one book: Affording $150 isn’t a problem, it’s justifying the higher expenditure compared to every other game system out there.

If I go and spend $60 on Shadowrun 5th, I’ve just bought a complete game; I don’t need to buy another book, though I probably will, because supplemental material rocks. Same for the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, or Eclipse Phase, or the Dresden Files RPG; $50 gets you the core rules that compile everything you need to play. Any other purchases are billed as game enhancements and not requirements. Spend $54 and you can get The One Ring’s slipcase edition, complete with dice and maps, or Mindjammer, which gives me more material than I’ll probably use in a lifetime. Compared to Next, any of those cases leave you with nearly $100 left over you can spend on sourcebooks, adventures, dice, a night on the town, dinner and a movie, student loan payments, you name it.

And Next’s closest competition, Pathfinder, has cut the buy-in down to two books: a $50 core book and a $40 Bestiary, which saves you $60 over Next to spend on accessories and supplements.

To be fair, you don’t need to buy all three books to run a game—it’s more of a perception/psychological thing to me, where most games have one Core Rulebook while D&D needs to mark three books as such. And asking $50 from the player isn’t out of the ordinary for the market today; it’s asking the GM to drop $150 on core material that’s the problem. No other game on the market today is marketing three $50 hardbacks as a basic  purchase just so the GM can run the system, they market one $50 hardback that has all the core rules in one place for everyone.

D&D is still clinging to its original model of a three-book buy-in for its core rules: one for players, one for GMs, and another one for GMs full of monsters. I’m still not entirely sure why they can’t slim this down to two: one for players and GMs that takes all the magic item rules and some GM advice to get you going, and another one just for GMs that has more advanced insight into GMing, a sample adventure (and dissection of why it’s built the way it is), and a roster of adversaries and iconic monsters.

I think the deeper problem is that Next hasn’t been all that inspiring, boiling down to “the feel of 2nd ed AD&D with the rules style of 3.5 D&D with a sprinkling of new material,” rather than the unite-the-editions greatness (or the radical new approach) that the brand needs. The release may contain some surprises, but interest in the game floundered during its playtest in comparison to the Pathfinder playtest. I’m still waiting to see if the cool mechanics from the playtest survived, or if they were dropped from the ongoing playtest packets to indicate they didn’t make the cut. (Aside from Dis/Advantage, anything really revolutionary was slowly removed or made commonplace during the beta playtest.) Expectations are that the $150 isn’t giving the most bang for the buck.

D&D has always been the RPG entry drug, the name brand that adults know of and gift to their precocious kids. Since the ’70s the industry has had most of its players start with D&D, who after a while decide whether to buy that Immortals supplement to go with their Red Box, or if they’d rather go off and play pink mohawks or angsty vampires. I’m not seeing $150 facilitating that entry drug status, when the companies dancing near loss-leader status with affordable product are Evil Hat’s $25 Fate Core hardcover and Pinnacle’s $10 Savage Worlds Explorer Editions.

And while it’s a slightly separate issue, I’m not seeing a lot in Next to get invested in other than “It’s D&D!” And today, don’t we have more than enough flavors of D&D to choose from already: Pathfinder, 13th Age, True20, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Swords & Wizardry, Dungeon World, Monsters & Magic, Fate Freeport, not to mention those older versions of A/D&D that didn’t spontaneously combust simply because of edition change…

We’ll see later this year when Next get released. With luck, the Dungeon Master’s Guide may be more like the Paizo Gamemastery Guide, full of additional rules and “getting started” help that isn’t necessary for every GM. Maybe the three books will come packaged with bonuses, like each Player’s Handbook having a set of dice, and each Monster Manual having a handful of miniatures—that would be a logistical nightmare to package and warehouse, but could be pretty rad. And in our digital future, they really ought to come with free digital downloads (.pdf or .epub or something) which would help smooth over pricing woes.

Regardless, Next’s price tag is not doing it any favors.


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