Last night, while searching for a name, I came across one of those typical long discourses about this edition versus that edition. This one dated back to 2012, two years before the actual release of 5e. I found myself reading it all the way through . . . not from interest regarding the subject, but from the point of view of a time traveller looking into the past.
It tweaked my funny bone somewhat that the conversation included two people that have been universally banned from this blog - for hijacking. But that's really not important.
If you take the time to read the exchange, you'll note that everyone is so sure. So sure in their facts, so sure in their predictions - and so very, very sure in their assessment of words like 'toxic' or 'business model.' We have - all of us it seems - perfect knowledge of the goings-on behind closed doors in the WOTC or TSR. We also appear to have perfect knowledge of the number of sales compared to the number of happy customers - in that we are assuming that IF someone has purchased something, it clearly means that something was a 'successful' purchase.
Well, never mind all that. I could probably find the exact same conversation going on today.
I am on record as hating the WOTC and considering the RD department thereof - and specifically Mr. Mearls - as a group of corporate bootlicks with gritty, muck-caked tongues. Admittedly, however, this is only my perception, based upon the word choices Mearls and others make when starting sentences, continuing sentences and then ultimately ending sentences. In fact, they may all be very nice people. I wouldn't know. I wouldn't cross the street to meet one of them.
However, this is not a rant about the WOTC. This is not a rant about anything.
I think we do ourselves a disservice as a community when we speak of things like 'sales' or corporate agendas as having anything to do with the game. I find it distressing to read that there are people online who think of AD&D as 'dead' because the WOTC sales for an AD&D re-release were not as robust as perhaps that company hoped. I find the argument fails on all kinds of levels . . . mostly in that it completely belies the behaviour of actual players.
For example - the readers here are well aware that I run a Frankenstein's monster of an AD&D campaign, with additional eyeballs and unrecognisable limbs sticking out in absurd places. Most of the readers here, no doubt, do not run AD&D, they do not play AD&D and for the most part they have little or no respect for AD&D.
And yet, I think I can say with reasonable fairness that most of the regular readers here would be willing to play in MY AD&D campaign.
Not because I'm special, or even because my world is special, but because - and I feel strongly about this - the majority of people simply prefer to play in a good campaign, whatever the rules.
The worst part of D&D, or any role-playing game, is not the system. That has simply become the stand-in explanation because the factual truth is difficult - perhaps impossible - to manage. It comes down to this: some people are good at DMing; and some people are not.
Most of you would play in my world because you feel, after my running for 35 years, I'd be competent enough to offer you a good, steady, consistent game with minimal nonsense and crap. This continues to be a rare thing. It will always be rare - because it takes time to make the mistakes and learn how to deal with the flow of information that will make running the game well a possibility. Moreover, it isn't just that the person has to have years of experience - it is that those have to be good years, with good players, the kind that do not cocksuck the DM's ego, in turn eliminating any need for improvement, ever.
For most of you, if you could find a DM like this, you would not give a rat's crap in a bugbear's porridge what edition was being played. You'd adapt. You'd make it work.
The absurd weakness in counting sales as evidence of success is that it eliminates the possibility that an experienced, able DM no longer needs to buy anything in order to continue their steady week-by-week campaign. Role-playing doesn't work like the video-game market. People who purchase video games get bored of them. They complete the adventure - maybe twice or three times - or they master all the skills the video game can offer and become hungry for something new. The market can measure its success by sales because it knows that a significant percentage of the market is, every day, using up some foregoing product's potential.
Role-playing isn't like this. There are only certain types of people who buy new role-playing games:
I. There are those who think the game is all about the system, who cannot seem to make any system work and so they are eternally on the hunt for the magic system that will finally create the magic world they think magically results from rolling dice on the right magical tables. These people have never been able to reconcile that the successful game does not exist in the structure, but in the function - and having never had a clear idea of what function is or what function they'd like to implement, they opt for what they can understand: a different structure.
II. There are those who have never played any game before. They're buying 4e or 5e because this is what is in the stores, this is what all their 13-year-old friends are playing and this is what the local in-store posters says they should buy. They're very reasonably reaching out for the first thing they see. Unfortunately for the game company, there's no rhyme nor reason from which the demand emerges; most people who play role-playing come to the game from word-of-mouth. Advertising is spotty and confusing at best, never gets into the mainstream and thus the newcomers can never be truly 'grown' with certainty. Thus, year to year, the number of noobs buying a particular edition can never be used as a measurement - from a marketing standpoint - against other years.
III. There are those who are simply fascinated with game design. They have no particular interest in becoming good at any of the games they buy, they simply love digging through this or that particular game to see how the designers 'did it.' Thus these people buy game after game in order to satisfy a hobby that has very little to do with actual running or sessions. It is an academic exercise for them. Most often, when these people do run, they are so unhappy with how they themselves have chosen to handle a particular aspect of the game that they are forever changing things - or tearing down the campaign altogether so they can begin again. They don't really care to game - but they love to design.
IV. Finally, there are the collectors. They're buying everything and anything just because. Many of them don't even crack the spines or remove the plastic. In fact, not removing the plastic is the sign of a true believer.
All four types drive sales. All four are measured and counted upon by the 'business model' because for a company, sales are more important than use. Who cares what the use of the game is, so long as the gamer keeps buying?
There are tens of thousands of players, however, that are not buying. Who may never buy anything again, ever. Why would they ever need to? The books don't wear out easily. When they do, another copy can be picked up at any decent used book store or on ebay - sources the company cannot track. Everyone, including the companies, know this. It isn't important to them; it does matter to us.
Our investment can't be measured in sales. It is measured in hours. For those people who say 'D&D is dead,' I counter that I spoke to hundreds of people just a little more than two months ago who enthused wildly about D&D and its continued importance in their lives.
I doubt that altogether those people purchased more than fifty products this year.