“We see it as a midpoint between a Target and a core hobby store,” Schuh explains. “The thing that’s so great about Barnes and Noble is that they do carry a really wide selection. We see that they do really well with the acquisition SKUs, but they also do well with the new campaign settings and things like spell cards. So clearly, they’re serving both a new audience and a pre-enfranchised audience.”
Live play and its impact on official materials
Part of the tabletop RPG rebirth is due to publishers dismantling the ivory tower. While Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, Pathfinder publisher Paizo, and others are still the final arbiter of rules and systems, the path to what appears in print winds through the town square.
“I think the reason why the transition from fourth to fifth was so seamless was because of the two year plus playtest that was run leading up to it,” Tito explained. “That included more than 175,000 respondents over the course of it. More importantly, from this side, it was more data driven. We had surveys that would go out. Instead of just having anecdotal evidence of what people wrote down, but actually being able to quantify.”
Ultimately that resulted in a game system that left ample room for the many different shapes that Dungeons & Dragons takes at the table. Tacticians and storytellers alike had their say, and Wizards of the Coast had the fuel to power a new engine that accommodates both (and everything in between).
“I think it also came from a philosophy here at Dungeons & Dragons that we may be the publisher and the arbiter of the rules, but we realize that it is not our game,” Tito said. “It’s the players’ game. We are stewards of those players and want to make sure that every choice that we’re making is in service of those who are out there and using it as a framework to tell their stories.”
The humbleness that Tito described also gives way to an environment that is both friendly and welcoming to actual play groups. In turn, Wizards of the Coast reaped rewards from these relationships. Not only are actual play shows driving interest in specific games and the medium as a whole, but they are also having material impact on the publishing side of the business.
Critical Role and Penny Arcade’s Acquisitions, Inc. have been the inspiration for official Dungeons & Dragons game modules. It’s a challenging process that requires significant investment from both parties involved in one of these partnerships.
“After eight or so years of live games and podcasts, it really seemed like trying to bake all of that into a supplement was the right path—we thought fans would enjoy it, but also because it would give us an opportunity to really look at what we’d done,” said Penny Arcade cofounder Jerry Holkins. “We told them that’s the direction we were thinking of, a sourcebook, and when they got back to us it was with the suggestion that it be an official product.”
Holkins told us he understood there would be challenges along the way. However, he had confidence that despite being an official Dungeons & Dragons product, the Acquisitions, Inc. source book would still capture the essence and character of those campaigns.
“It’s a profound task just scheduling the work of artists and writers to fill hundreds of pages,” Holkins explained. “Ultimately, I think our producer Elyssa Grant — herself a Wizards alum — made all the difference. The content of the book, the layout, the art, all of this was done by the team we built. WotC gave suggestions, but I think if you compare our book to the products in the main line you’ll get a sense of the idiosyncratic character of a group of truly hardcore fans set loose on a once-in-a-lifetime project.”
Work with actual play groups has led to institutional change within Wizards of the Coast, also. Game companies have traditionally been sensitive about how their intellectual property is used, especially in a public setting. Nintendo, for instance, struggled with the advent of live streaming, imposing draconian rules for who was allowed to monetize “Let’s Play videos.” At Wizards of the Coast, it was no small task finding a new balance between legal protection and audience growth.
“When we started promoting the live streams of other people, those questions were asked more strenuously here,” Tito said. “’Do we own this? Are these our characters now, because we’re presenting them?’” I think it came from a version of this company that was a little bit more litigious in the past and went after any kind of infringements on their IP even before Wizards of the Coast owned it. That was baked into the ideas of how Gary Gygax and TSR handled those situations.
“I started arguing when I got here that we’re going to stifle growth if we try to fight that fight with every live play show out there. If the choice is between ‘we can play this D&D game and advertise its awesomeness to an audience’ or have a behemoth like Wizards of the Coast say, ‘no, you can’t do that’ or ‘we own your characters,’ as soon as we started to wade into those discussions, all of that potential upside we would get from people playing the game and talking about it in a public forum would evaporate. We very quickly had to adjust and encourage. It’s our philosophy to encourage all that.”
Publishers and actual play shows have created a virtuous cycle
Great design never happens in a vacuum. Consistent feedback from across a spectrum of users and an array of experience is important to refine a concept into its final product and to continue to shape it long after it ships.
When the editors, writers, designers, and playtesters at World of Darkness came together to build out the fifth edition (referred to as V5) of Vampire: The Masquerade, the team knew that they had a daunting task ahead of them. After 30 years, Vampire’s rules had become bloated and unclear. But Carl had a solution: what if the rules were refined to allow for streaming?
“When we sat down to write the ruleset for V5, we knew that we wanted to make it easier to learn, simpler to teach, faster to play, very focused on narrative and character,” Carl stressed. “… after almost 30 years, the ruleset was getting just a little complicated. I thought about how this would look on streaming. How would it play out to an audience that was watching for entertainment? How could it lend itself to something that could be considered a long-form entertainment? That helped inform the simplicity of the design. It certainly wasn’t the only factor that went into the design decisions, but it definitely played a role.”
Even though V5 was thoroughly playtested before “L.A. By Night” aired for the first time, there was no way to fully gauge how important the addition of the blood dice, which replaced the hunger pool from previous editions, would be for narrative tension. Once Carl began to lead the vampire coterie through their first moments of grappling with the everpresent vampiric beast, it was clear that the dice yielded a brilliant pivot in game mechanics.
“It wasn’t until we introduced ‘L.A. By Night’ that we understood, wow, this system is awesome,” Carl said. “It really resonates. It does exactly what we thought it would do. It introduces a risk management sub-game to the overall game. It’s a little bit like playing poker or roulette with your vampire character. It really heightens the drama.”
With three successful seasons of “L.A. By Night” under its spiked leather belt (and a fourth currently airing), World of Darkness is ready to sink its canines in the next edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse. According to Carl, Hunters Entertainment, the company behind RPGs like Kids On Bikes and Altered Carbon, are building the new system to reflect the importance of streaming and the advent of actual play shows.
“We should be thinking about how the game would apply to streaming as well. It’s a very conscious part of the process,” Carl explained. “When we chose the new Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop RPG [developers], which is going to be Hunters Entertainment, we knew that we wanted a partner who understood that streaming would have to be a part of their design philosophy. We wanted a partner that would be ready to run Werewolf streams, to produce them, to run them, and share them.”
As a result of their streaming-inclusive playtesting plans, Hunters will be livestreaming their playtests for an audience. This has never been done by a TTRPG developer or publisher before Hunters and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It adds a level of transparency that has become commonplace among video games, especially with the advent of early access.