This is an interesting year for roleplaying games. There’s always something going on that may or may not be interesting, but this more so than some.
By far the biggest player in our market is Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a new edition of D&D out now. As usual, there’s been controversy and argument among rolegamers about it, with reactions before release ranging from unquestioning adoration to equally unquestioning hatred. It sounds like most of the folks actually playing it are enjoying it, and Wizards of the Coast is promising a really unprecedented level of online support. This is supposed to include a virtual game table for tabletop-like play with geographically scattered players. I hope to have more to say about all this as the years goes on.
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One of the very interesting developments of 2000 was Wizards’ debut of the Open Gaming License, allowing other companies to use a lot of D&D text as is without a lot of the usual hassles from licensing and with a requirement that at least some of their own creations made using the OGL be made available in turn. The history of OGL usage is complex and in some ways controversial too (the most contentious point being just how accessible and in what ways publishers ought to present their open content), but the punchline is that it worked very well but not quite like anyone expected. Wizards management was looking to lighten the load of preparing relatively poor-selling support material, and indeed third-party publishers did do a lot of that. But they also went on to do a lot more, including changes small and great to the basic rules to support everything from Thieves’ World to Babylon 5. Some modifications of the rules went way far away from the D&D 3rd edition norm, and several of these are now well-established in their own right.
This time out, things are different. For D&D 4th edition there’s the Game System License, which is vastly more restrictive. So much so, in fact, that some publishers are choosing to leave it alone and trust to the general protections of copyright law with regard to the limits of what can be protected. Nobody (at least nobody in a position to speak from a position of actual knowledge about decisions within the corporate hierarchy of Wizards and their owners at Hasbro) knows whether Wizards will try reviving the litigious habits of TSR, the previous owners, when it comes to threatening people making unofficial supplements that advertise themselves as compatible and that refer to specific game mechanics. TSR’s suit against Mayfair Games was going badly enough that TSR settled, inventing on the spot a set of licensing terms rather than risk a ruling spelling out in so many words that such suits are out of bounds. Right now it’s anybody’s guess whether we’ll see litigation, and if so how it’ll go, and if not what changes or concessions there might be on anybody’s part in response to developments. Watch this space, and others like it, for news.
(Careful readers will have noticed that I’ve twice linked to pages maintained by John H. Kim. The rolegaming blogosphere is very widely dispersed, with lots of LiveJournal action, but John’s rolegaming-oriented journal comes as close as anything I can think of to the sort of magisterial scope exercised by Duncan “Atrios” Black and Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds for their parts of the political blogosphere. He doesn’t make a lot of posts, but every one is worth reading, with links to people it would never occur to me to follow.)
In happier news, we’re closing in on my two favorite annual awards in rolegaming, and the biggest annual rolegaming con. I won’t be at GenCon this year, but lots of gamers wi1ll, and there’ll be lots of new releases, and I will be passing along burbles and commentary.
As for awards…well, the closest thing we have to a rolegaming industry group, the Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design, does give the Origins Awards each year, but I’m in a lot of good company in not being very impressed with them. The organization and the awards process are both the subject of a whole lot of not-necessarily-competent politicking, the outcome of which is usually just a mess. Fortunately, there are now two excellent alternatives. The Indie RPG Awards focus on creator-owned work, while the ENnie Awards (created by the community at EN World cast their net across pretty much the whole rolegaming field. What I look for in awards is pretty simple: I want them to point me at good work i might otherwise miss. Both the Indies and the ENnies do that for me, every year. Both are a strong testament to how well the wisdom of crowds can work with a good setup and some good oversight, catching a sweep of great things no single observer would ever be likely to spot on their own. For me it’ll be shopping time again, thanks to them.