If You Come at the King - Dethroning D&D

If You Come at the King - Dethroning D&D

Feb 21, 2023    

Be patient with me, I’m coming in hot.

Kobold Press’s Black Flag project released an underwhelming playtest, looking more like a hack of 5e than an inspired game. It’s hard to see how it would ever claim market share. MCDM is leaning into “cinematic” and “tactical”, and will likely come with rules to support that move towards New School mechanics. Will momentum for 5e alternatives keep up in time for them to come to market? Personally, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of #dungeon23 and the OSR games, likely playing Dungeon Crawl Classics as my first non WOTC fantasy game in … well forever. What is the fate of these 5e clones and are they setting themselves up to succeed?

While nothing stops an individual gaming group from diving into an alternate game fully, without an audience and fanbase coming with you … just doing a D&D 5e-hack may not be a business model

Understanding existing games
Aside from an orthogonal dimension for 'amount of crunch' most games I've looked into since the OGL fiasco can be plotted on this graph relative to D&D. Some definitions and categorizations here may trigger you. Just get over it.

The challenge any D&D clone has is that the marketshare sits in the center of a trifecta of paths between Old School, New School, and Indie/Narrative. D&D is the king and sits at the center. A long-tail of options exists but as a result each niche game comes with a smaller and smaller player base.

Relative to D&D, how are these new announced games different? Did WOTC take all the wind out of their sails by backing down? The center held! If a market gap doesn’t form are they doomed to be “compatible games you buy only out of empathy” and read for houserule ideas?

If WOTC doesn’t eject the core of its players the same way as it did in the transiton to 4e, which seems increasingly unlikely, this #OpenDND movement may turn into nothing more than an good quarter for Paizo and other high production value publishers.

Here’s may take. If you are going to make a real go of dethroning D&D here’s how I’d go:

  • Community engagement : Do you know what corporations are bad at? - engaging their fans. Marketing departments don’t have the authenticity of your company’s creatives and you need those making the product. Look at D&D Adventurer’s League. Invest in community engagement that WOTC can’t counter.
  • Make a game for everyone : Make a game with as few barriers to entry as possible. Starter adventures and boxed sets are a must. Optional rules that stray in each of the gaming diagram directions above to allow a wider range of audience tastes to feel at home.
  • Be known for something : don’t just be a better 5e. You have to stand for something and believe in something different than the 800-lb gorrilla in the room. Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” WOTC just made 5e common criteria, so not being evil isn’t going to be compelling to new fans. What do you stand for, what is your game all about?
  • Beat WOTC to a digital experience : The VTT vendors are your friends. Turn your game into a win-win for them and they’ll innovate with you faster than WOTC ever can on their own. D&D Beyond has major components that like the Encounter Builder that have not improved since launch. OneDND’s Unreal VTT won’t change that story. You can beat them with an all-in strategy. Do you make PDFs or do you make games?
  • Own your product : You can always make it more free and community owned later, you need to own the right to monetize without giving your margins to a 3rd party in the future as the industry changes. Don’t make your business model so dependent on any distributor, middle-man, or benevolent dictatorship that you won’t profit from your own blood, sweat, tears and good fortune.

Good luck.