In Defense of a Light Release Schedule

On message boards I frequent, I keep seeing complaints regarding the content-lite release schedule for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A lot of people really want more: more books, more class & race options, and more monsters. More content in general. However, Wizards of the Coast is producing little in the way of new content, having cancelled the one non-adventure product since the core rulebooks were released (the Adventurer’s Handbook, formerly associated with the Elemental Evil storyline). There also does not currently seem to be a product scheduled for GenCon, which is a bit of a surprise: WotC has always sold something at the convention, even when they weren’t releasing books. For example, in 2013 at the height of the 5e playtest, they released Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle as a convention exclusive product.

But I’m super happy with a lite release schedule with limited new releases. And not just because it’s easier on my wallet and allows me to shop around and buy different games (or, y’know, invest my money). There are some good reasons to limit the number of books and amount of content released. I’m comfortable not working endless new content into my game.

This feeling is not shared by many. One of the common arguments for more plentiful accessories is “you don’t have to buy things if you don’t want to. If you don’t want lots of accessories just don’t use them in your game.” This is not untrue and a fair point, but there are some problems with this argument. There’s more to the issue than just providing content for people who want books.

And this debate seemed blog worthy.

1) Bloat

Let’s start with the obvious: too many books just makes the game unwieldy and harder to play.

More books makes content harder to find: you might not know which book a particular option is inside, and trying to find a particular prestige class or paragon path or archetype can be challenging. To say nothing of feats and spells. Lots of options almost necessitate the use of digital tools (such as a program, website, or ap) for tracking.

More books means the game is harder to play. There’s more time spent explaining unfamiliar rules (such as spells, feats, or class features) and less time actually playing. It makes adjudicating rules harder because there’s suddenly new information to absorb and reconcile with numerous existing mechanics. It’s also easier to make a bad ruling with unintended side effects, due to an interaction with unknown or new content. And it detracts from the flow of the narrative as you’re breaking from the description to read (and reread) mechanics. Bloat also makes the game harder to customize and house rule. It’s harder to make the game your own, because there are more options to consider and more places for awkward interactions between the house rules and content.

Lots of books also put pressure on the publisher to have that content influence future books. If there are multiple monster books, there’s an incentive to use those monsters and new spells in official published adventures. This pressure comes both from fans who bought the product (to validate their purchase) and from writers who might see a cool monster they wish to use. Similarly, there’s some desire for new books to support options added in earlier accessories. If a psion were added to the game there would be the desire for more psion support in future supplements.

This can quickly get unwieldy. Paizo has long said that they consider all their hardcover releases to be assumed purchases and usable sources for adventures, both in Adventure Paths and Pathfinder Society scenarios. Overlooking the fact this has become a potential $600 starting cost, this can mean certain APs might require a half-dozen books to run. The company has had to start putting limits on the number of potential sources. However, since the most iconic content tends to be found in early volumes, this favours the initial books as sources. The Pathfinder AP I’m currently running references 7 different books. I either need to own that content, or have a web capable electronic device I can reference during play, or print off that content ahead of the game. Even if you own that content it can get problematic. At times I’ve had three books open at the same time, while also relying on my iPad to reference spells and feats.

It’s easy to dismiss bloat as a manageable problem. If you don’t buy the books the game doesn’t become bloated. But people are dumb. We like consuming things we know are bad for us. That’s why obesity and heart disease are epidemic, why drugs need to be controlled by the government, and why my wife no longer allows me to eat spicy food after 6 pm. As a species we are ass at self control and restraint.

There are no hard rule for when a game becomes bloated. There’s no agreed upon line or set number of books when a game shifts from elegant to complicated. This just makes it trickier to avoid bloat.

2) Choice

Buying books is a little like visiting a restaurant: you take a look at what’s available and make a decision about what you wish to consume. Take a look at how fast food places present their menus: there are limited pages with a few key selections. And expensive restaurants also tend to have equally small menus. Those with variation will change menus based on the time of day, or rotate additional items over time. You can tell amateur restaurants because their menus are crowded with options, choices, and dish variations. Simplifying and focusing menus tends to be a common guideline in restaurant makeover shows.

This is because too many choices makes people freeze and become indecisive. Rather than a standout choice people have two or three desired choices and potentially regret the choice not made. This isn’t just pop psych I’m pulling from the ol’ bag of holding, but studied behaviour. Columbia University did some experiments on this using jam jars.

The findings can be summarize with this key point: consumers were more likely to buy when offered fewer choices of  jams and reported greater satisfaction.

This applies to books on the shelf as much as jam jars. Too many books make it harder to buy just one or two and make the game harder for new people to start playing. It’s a barrier to entry. It generates the “wall of books” phenomenon where people look at the options available and feel intimidated, not knowing where to start or what to buy next. More research is required before purchasing, which removes impulse purchases. There is an unspoken pressure to have to buy all the books, which is increasingly expensive the longer a game is around.

This discussion does not apply to a fixed point in time but the lifespan of an entire edition. Glut is bad, whether after a year or after five years or ten. The end result is identical: too much content. A middle ground approach doesn’t end glut, it just delays it. And that’s the point, delaying the end. And we want the game system to last.

3) Diminishing Returns

A fast release schedule hastens the end of the game system, as there’s a finite number of books that can be produced. Core rulebooks will always sell best and accessory will sell fewer copies. The more accessories released, the fewer copies successive accessories will sell. If the core books will sell X copies, the first major accessory will sell Y copies (where Y<X), the second major accessory will sell Z copies (Z<Y), etc. (Generally speaking. There will be some variance based on the content of a particular accessory.) New players and those converting from another game/edition can offset this decline, but those profits come as much from existing products as new ones. And there’s not an endless supply of new players or perpetual growth. Tabletop RPGS are a greying hobby at the moment.

There’s a few reasons for these decreased sales. Not everyone has the disposable income to regularly buy new product. And not everyone wants new content for the game. And as more content is made for the game there is often a drop in quality; not because the creators stop trying (but this does happen) but because it becomes harder and harder to produce content better than what came before. It’s harder to “top yourself”. Most games hit a highwater mark in average quality and slowly decline.

The faster you release books the faster your sales will descent below the minimum expected profits. Where the company places the minimum sales varies. The minimum product expected by Wizards of the Coast is likely much higher for than Paizo, who in turn expects greater sale numbers than Kobold Press. (Plus, Paizo would likely be content to make the same profits year after year while WotC – as part of a publically traded company answerable to shareholders – likely expects growth.)

When sales pass a minimum threshold then a new edition starts to look attractive. But new editions divide the audience and splinter the fanbase. You’ll never have a 100% conversion rate from the previous edition and have to bank on lapsed and/or new players making up the difference.

Fewer books can delay this sales attrition, spreading out the decline of sales over years rather than months. Because revenue has to come from elsewhere, if fewer books are released, other sources of income need to be found for continued revenue, and the profits from new books will be a bonus added on top of that expected revenue. This gives the impression of quarterly growth. And because new books releases would be more rare, they become more special and thus desirable, because…

4) Less is More

It’s very possible to make less money with more sales. Books have a production cost (writing, editing, art, maps, layout, printing, shipping, etc), which means each product begins in a financial hole. The first few thousand sales don’t generate profit, as they just pay off the costs. If you’re only selling a small number of copies beyond your cut-even point you’re not making much money.

This negatively interacts with competition, both with other games but also between brands and product lines. If you release two or three books, those books might compete for sales. People might only buy one of the three books released, choosing the one that appeals to them. Because more books are released you can reach more people in different audience and sell more total books. However, if you release fewer books that have more general appeal then you’re no longer competing with yourself, and more people are funnelled to that one book boosting its sales and thus generating more money.

Similar products often compete with each other. Basic and Advanced D&D competed for sales, as did the campaign setting books. Because someone was a Greyhawk fan they wouldn’t buy a Forgotten Realms adventure – even if they could easily convert it – because there would be a GH adventure with no conversion needed coming shortly. Adventures also compete with each other. Right now there are no small modules for D&D, so people wanting that content have to buy the hardcover super-adventures and pull out sections to use for smaller modules. If WotC released both the hardcover adventures and smaller modules, total sales for the storyline books would drop and so would profits, even if they were selling more total product.

This is the big reason why the “don’t buy it” or “buy fewer books” argument is problematic. If WotC releases two accessories a year but a large segment of the fanbase is only interested in paying for one splatbook then WotC is essentially competing with themselves. WotC wants everyone to buy their books, and for accessories to be as desirable as possible. And a big reason why people might only buy the occasional accessory is because frequent splatbooks lead to the value of books decreasing.

5) Decreasing Value

Each successful splatbook purchases is (on average) less useful than ones purchased previously.

There’s two audiences for accessories: Dungeon Masters or players. But in the past couple editions, most splatbooks tend to be focused on players and focused on Player Character options (feats, class features, magic items, spells, etc). There are a couple reasons for this.

The first reason is because there are three to six players for every DM and thus a larger audience for PC splatbooks. The second reason is because DM accessories are simply trickier to produce. A DM splatbook would be the equivalent of Unearthed Arcana or Pathfinder Unchained: a book of optional subsystems and rule variants. But this is only useful at the start of campaigns, as few games will radically change house rules in mid-story and you’re likely to use a finite number of house rules each game. Once DMs find a combination of house rules that fits their individual playstyle, they’re also less likely to change.

PC options see more use because of the above, but there are limits. You can’t really play two PCs at the same time. And even a prolific gamer with multiple home games who is exceedingly death prone won’t make so many characters that they require more than a single splatbook every, oh, eighteen months. They cannot consume the content as fast as it can be released. Much of the new material is really only useful for new characters and has a very limited impact on existing campaigns. Currently, most 5th Edition players are still playing in their first campaign and are below level 10, let alone on the third or fourth campaign where new options for the entire party might be required.

In the PHB alone there’s almost a hundred different characters you can make, even if you count all elven wizards as “one combo”. And if you add in subraces and subclassess there are almost 600 different combinations. A group with 5 players who enjoy high mortality campaigns, where every player makes at least 4 characters over the course of the campaign, can run 30 campaigns without a true repeat. Plus backgrounds, which just adds more variety.

Buying new books is really a form of gambling. You’re betting a character will die and the book will be used before the next book is released and the next “new shiny” catches your eye.

As mentioned in point #1, there’s a pressure for later books to make use of additions that appeared in earlier accessories. So if a new class appears in Book C there’s a desire for new options for that class in book D and E. This has the effect of making late-edition books crowded. There’s so many more classes that not every option can be effectively and comprehensively covered. If a class is omitted, players of that class will find fewer uses for the book.

The five-players-to-ever-DM argument is also somewhat flawed. Not everyone playing the game will buy the books. There tends to be one or two dedicated players at the table who might buy the books and support the more casual players. Most often one of these dedicated player will be the gamemaster, because they’re the one interested enough to learn the rules and put the effort into planning adventures. Back in the day, WotC surveyed the spending habits of D&D players and found Dungeon Masters spent a significant more per month than players: DMs were willing to spend $21/ month while non-DMs only wanted to spend $7. DMs were buying books for their players.

Thus, successive splatbook releases don’t tend to have more than a theoretical impact on a game. Smaller percentages of each release are used because there’s so much unused content already available. And DMs are only likely to add so much content to the campaign.

Regular splatbooks are of primary use to two types of gamer: the reader and the builder. Many accessories are not consumed for use at the game table but for the enjoyment of reading and owning the material. Which is fine, but reading gaming books for fun or inspiration doesn’t require the material to be for the current edition or even the same system being played. Any gaming book will do. The side activity of generating characters and theorycrafting builds is also a fine pastime, albeit a niche one that shouldn’t be the basis for an entire product line or design of an edition. Both those audiences can be served through other products or even other games.

If the contents of the book are not primarily of use at the game table, that makes the splatbook…

6) Content for the Sake of Content

Setting a release schedule tends to result in mandated content. Saying “two splatbooks a year” means that content is expected and the fans will get upset if this changes. (We gamers are kinda entitled in that regard.) It very quickly results in books being released not because they are needed or add something to the game but because there’s a hole in the schedule. The more books released the more content being made that the game does not need or the fans don’t really want. It’s very literally choosing quantity over quality.

It’s easy to fill gaps early on. When 5th Edition was released there was a serious gap in the sorcerer, as there was one traditional non-funky subclass and a more screwy subclass. There needed to be more sorcerer options. But it only takes a single subclass to fill that gap, not an entire book. Over time the holes in the game become less pressing and omnipresent and more niche. Instead of “we need a sorcerer build that does… anything” the calls for content become “we need a sorcerer build that deals cold damage and uses Wisdom as a secondary stat” or “we need a sorcerer that fits a Norseland/Viking vibe”.

Monster books are a great example of this. For the past couple editions we’ve had annual monster books. Monsters are easy to fit into a campaign, not having as much impact as a class or even a spell, so any imbalance is less dramatic. And new monsters means new and unfamiliar challenges for jaded players who might feel the know how to counter everything.

During 3.5 Edition D&D, WotC opted to release one new monster book each year. At first because there was a wealth of legacy monsters in the game that didn’t make the cut into the first Monster Manual and need updating. But the later monster books became more and more… padded. There was a set page count and set number of monsters and so there were more and more monsters that weren’t particularly good but filled out the pages. Later books tried other tactics, such as including much more lore and encounters, and in 4e WotC held back iconic monsters to seed through later Monster Manuals to make those books more attractive.

Paizo has done better but is still running into this problem. Their first two Bestiaries were crammed with classic monsters and they looked through geek culture for more monsters to add, like fey creatures and Lovecraftian beasts. The Bestiary 3 went international, adapting creatures from other cultures and the Bestiary 4 had a lot of higher power level monsters along with best critters from Adventure Paths. And they rounded out their annual monster book with the NPC Codex and the Monster Codex with statblocks of classed creature. However, each Bestiary still had an increasing amount of padding: useless monsters unlikely to see play but required to fill out the page count mandated before the book was even started. There are many monsters that will never see play, and there were some true stinkers in B4. And even the good monsters in successive books have a diminished chance of use because there’s so much competition with more iconic monsters.

However, there is a fifth Bestiary coming in the fall. The book is ostensibly filled with monsters that work with the Occult Adventures hardcover, but there’s also an Occult Bestiary in the works that also serves that purpose. This makes the book representational of this problem. A Bestiary 5 likely has little content that most people need for their game, and it’s barely filling a narrative or mechanical gap. This fifth monster book is being released more than a little because the fans just plain expect a fall book. A fall monster book. The Pathfinder fanbase doesn’ really need a seventh monster book (doubly so with all the excellent 3rd Party monster prodcuts) but they need to release something. Because it’s expected.

One advantage a later monster product has over the initial attempts (at least for 3e and 4e) is that the monsters tend to be better designed and work with the strengths of the system while avoiding its weaknesses. But this is a form of…

7) Power Creep

It’s been said that in a balanced game there’s no power creep, there’s just option creep. The thought is that power creep is intentional; the common wisdom states that to sell new accessories the content has to just be better, otherwise people will stick with the existing content. The counter to power creep is providing more options that let you do different things with your character, which provided a lateral power increase.

However, perfect balance is impossible. A true zero sum game is only theoretical, and it’s possible to win more than statistically probably through psychology or factors outside the design. In a game like D&D, with so many options and variables, attaining even nigh perfect balance is not not possible; when presented by two options, one will always be more powerful, if only situationally or in chorus with a second option.  As such, option creep is power creep. In a splatbook that presents new options some will be more powerful than the baseline (and lead to power creep) and some will be less powerful (and thus less desirable and effectively filler). Plus, the more options available also means the more combinations that are available which can synergize well together, becoming more powerful than either option alone.

The trick to limiting power creep is keeping the power increase as small as possible, which slows power creep. But the more content there is, the trickier balancing becomes. When making an entire splatbook of content it becomes impossible to adequately playtest the entire book, as just producing enough content in the short times is a challenge. There are only so many playtesters at the disposal of WotC more content means less time to thorougly test any given rules element. While WotC can always hire more writers (in-house or freelance) to increase the number of books they can produce, they can only expand their base of playtesters so much.

Power creep is just bad. It creates an arms race between DMs and and players, where the DM has to work harder to keep up with the increasingly potent PCs. And power creep increases the disparity between optimized and non-optimised PCs, creating challenges that one PC cannot fail at while another PC cannot succeed. And there’s pressure to make the published adventures pick a side: settling on a power level either makes them too easy or too hard. Either way might decrease sales as the adventures are less useful as written. The disparity in effectiveness between characters can make some players upset, as they feel less useful and have less fun, which causes tension at the table.

8) Group Stability

Players will sometimes buy books their DM doesn’t have and/or want. This isn’t really a surprise. These players will often see or hear about something they really want in a book and encourage the DM allow it into their game. Sometimes the DM will say “yes” and sometimes the DM will say “no”.

This puts pressure on both the gamemaster and the gaming group. The DM is already the hardest working person at the table, being required to prepare for every session when players just have to show up. More content just means even more work, as they have to keep up with new releases, check player’s builds, and learn new rules. It’s effectively DM homework. Meanwhile, the player has invested money on the product and wants to use it (sunk cost fallacy and all). But the DM might have valid reasons for saying “no”, such as balance concerns, awkwardness working the concept into the campaign world, or the trouble of incorporating a new character (or altering an existing one). I’ve known players with character ADHD who would change their PC every session if they could, never feeling entirely satisfied with what they were playing or wishing to test out new builds in practice.

The more books that are released the greater the odds of content causing problems. Especially from a worldbuilding perspective, as the DM needs to accommodate more races appearing or types of class or monsters, working in new and unusual content alongside the standard races and tropes, aka “the classics”.

9) Greatest Hits

Certain options are just expected. The basics are covered fairly well cover by 5th Edition but there are some big tropes that just aren’t in the game yet. These are options like (but not limited to) the psion, druids with an animal companion, or a bard that focused on enchanting enemies. Books with content such as that would be nice, but these products need to be available all the time because that content is just expected. The books need to be evergreen and continually in print and cannot just appear and go out-of-print. They need to be as easy to find as the Core Rulebooks, so newplayers and latecomers can have access to the expected options.

A heavier release schedule will always place the focus on new material. With more new content, WotC becomes less focused on selling the old product (which has been paid for) and instead looks to sell the new books (which are still in the red). And you can’t reprint everything, as that’s cost prohibitive, since many books will not sell enough copies to warrant a second print run (as mentioned in the point #3). In the past D&D has been unconcerned about reprinting splatbooks and its release schedule was more akin to Magic the Gathering where there were transitory releases that quickly vanished off store shelves as the books sold. This made it harder for newcomers to get access to the iconic options, as those would be in out-of-print books. And because there was a focus on new content, this meant that some books were harder to find after their initial release, unless you had a FLGS that could reorder books.

10) Stocking Shelves

A heavy release schedule isn’t just expensive for gamers but game stores. Stores effectively buy the books first and then sell them to recoup expenses. Product is effectively an investment.  A heavy library of game books means more money just sitting on the shelves. And it’s more of an investment to start a gaming store.

Book stores – especially big box stores – are unlikely to have an infinite budget for gaming books and likely carry the core books and a couple of the more recent releases. Stores that do stock everything might opt to only have a single copy of any given accessory. This means if the one copy sells there’s a window where they do not have the product and might lose a sale if someone comes looking for it. Even dedicated gaming stores have a limited shelf space for product, and game books are competing for this finite shelf space and percentage investable funds. Too many new releases means older product might not be stocked, perhaps even core rulebooks. (I cannot say how many times the local Chapters only has the latest couple accessories but no PHB.) Fewer books means that stores will have an easier time keeping the full product line in stock and having multiple copies of key books.

Lots of potential stock is a good motivator for game stores to pick a side in the edition wars, so they do not need to divide their shelf space or having competing products. Fosting growth of a single game system encourages sales but supporting multiple game systems in the store is a lot of work.

If the edition or game ends, the game store is stuck with product that is less desirable, and might have to be sold at a sharp discount. That’s lost money. Which sounds pretty doom-and-gloom but has happened to stores four times in the last fifteen years, so it’s a valid concern.

A Middle Ground?

Past editions have been release heavy, with new books or other gaming products coming almost every month. But it’s also possible to release no accessories, and many other RPGs just release a core rulebook. Not every RPG relies on regular sales of splatbooks. Originally, Gary Gygax planned to end support for D&D and move onto other games and genres, because that’s what was done with games; it’s not like Monopoly or Hungry, Hungry Hippos have expansions. There’s no Clue expansion sets with more suspects and weapons that adds a new wing to the mansion. There can be variants (like Game of Thrones Clue or Star Wars Monopoly) but these are just repackagings of the same games that serve as replacements rather than supplemental products.

But the concept of no books just seems to be unfathomable. It’s too different from how most roleplaying games operate. Hence the desire for a “middle ground” between no releases and monthly releases. But I’m not sure that’s really a solution. Or even really a middle ground. It’s still doing the same thing, albeit at a different rate; it’s a middle ground in terms of rate of release but not a middle ground in terms of position or intent. To go with the most controversial analogy possible, the middle ground between repealing the death penalty and continuing executions is not decreasing the rate prisoners are killed. Slowing releases from every month to three or four times a year doesn’t fix things, it just delays the onset of the problem. It’s not a cure, just a treatment that keeps the disease in remission.

A true middle ground might be less about just slowing the rate of releases but changing the tone and presentation of new releases. Making accessories less like video game DLC patches to the game – that just slaps-on more of the same content – and more like expansion packs that actually change the game in dramatic ways.

Viewing D&D like a Euro-style board game helps. Such as Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, or Pandemic. These games have an infrequent release schedule with a couple key expansions every year or two. But after a while those typically end. I love those games and there are some fun expansions, but playing with more than a couple expansions at once is just too much. It’s preferable to just find the one or two that alter the game in the way you want and add those, possibly varying things every few play throughs. Each of the Catan expansions is big and dramatic, adding a whole different dimension to the game without just being another type of resource or type of project to build. They also are not released on a set schedule. The first two came out within years of the base game, the third a decade later, and the fourth followed half-a-decade later.

It’s much faster to exhaust the content of a board game than D&D, as those can be fully consumed in an evening or two. So, arguably, D&D’s big expansions could be released at an even slower rate.

Psionics is the best example. It’s a big addition to the game with a lot of content: classes, subclasses, possible races and subraces, as well as monsters. It has content for players and Dungeon Masters and is a big change to the game which should be playtested in advance. And the product would be of the highest quality if released when it was ready, not just when the next scheduled book is mandated.

It’s a good model for what a release should be. It’s not just a forgettable content patch with more of the same but a big product that cannot be handled through small web articles. It’s something that changes the entire game, and impacts the entire campaign. Epic play might be another, either levels 21+ or something akin to Pathfinder’s Mythic rules.

The Needs of the Many

The big question is “why is this so important?” Or “who cares if the edition ends quickly?”

Short editions are not well received. The fans get upset if it seems like they are being exploited for cash. No one likes having to buy all new books after barely getting use out of the last set (especially if there are waves of accessories). New editions fragment the player base and lead to edition wars, which cause disharmony in the community, arguing, and hatred. That’s never good.

New editions are also expensive. They take two or three years of work while generating little profit until the very end.

After three short editions in a row – and after a famously divisive and under-performing edition – D&D likely doesn’t have much “cred” among the WotC offices and Hasbro higher ups. Brands that don’t make adequate money get cut, and if D&D dramatically increases its costs (to produce far more books) AND sales drop quickly pushing for a new edition, then WotC is far more likely to just shelf the RPG. They can keep the brand, licencing it for video games, board games, and the like, but they can just cease production of the Tabletop RPG. Just like they did for other games that burned out their fanbase (HeroScape or Dreamblade).

Asking for lots of accessories, more books and source books, is rather selfish behavior. It’s putting one’s own wants and desires above the long term health of the game and survival of the brand. It’s selfish and short term.