Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Third Party, Fourth Edition

Back when One Bad Egg shut its doors, it was a decision based on the nature of the third party marketplace for 4e products. The products we were most interested in, ones with fiddly bits to plug into the game like the magnificent Hard Boiled Armies[1]. It only had a small amount of mechanical crunch, but what it had needed to be able to plug back into character creation, and that's where the rub came up. Our sense was that between DDI and the character builder, there was not much room for third party material that would get reflected on the character sheet.

The thinking was simple. Character builder is well designed to handle all the complexities of 4e chargen, including making sure that all bonuses get reflected automatically when appropriate. This is great, but since it doesn't support third party material[2], and everything is so tightly integrated, if you see one cool third party thing you like, you need to discard the character builder entirely to get it. That's a sucky tradeoff. Character builder keeps things manageable as the body of 4e lore gets bigger, and it's really good at that. So good that We couldn't imagine anyone discarding it.

So, we saw the writing on the wall and shut down. It was sad, but that's the biz. In retrospect, I still feel like it was the right call, as the trend seems to have held up, and some of the problems expected have also materialized from it.[3] But I still think about it sometime.

See, there are a lot of things the current structure makes impractical for third party publishing; classes, races, paragon paths, epic destinies, feats, powers and magic items[4] most notably. These are all the elements which, if someone wants to use, they can't use the Character Builder. But that does leave a few things on the table. To break it down a little, let's use the one specific example: Monsters.

Monsters are the first thing that spring to mind. Monsters are mechanically self contained, and the fact that WOTC hasn't built an integrated encounter builder (yet) means there's no real overhead difference between using a WOTC monster and a third party monster, excepting the ease-of-use issue of copying and pasting out of the compendium.[5] Monsters are a great playground to kick around interesting mechanical elements - they're just _fun_ to build - but a pure monster product is only going to go so far. Because it's so easy to reskin and tweak monsters in existing products, the entire usage pattern of monster books has changed. In previous editions, only a fraction of a monster book could ever practically be used, but now you can potentially use EVERY monster in the book (limited by level range), even if it doesn't suit your campaign because you can reskin it. This means that monster books of the past (here are MORE MONSTERS! We'll just throw them at the wall and as long as a few of them stick, you'll feel you got your money's worth!) are no longer a useful model. The bar is a little higher, and the competition is fiercer - your monster idea is entering an environment of plenty, not one of scarcity - so it needs to rock.

There are a few ways to make this happen, and they reveal something you can expect to see again. Monsters will be a good sell if they include all the tools for making them useful to the DM. This might include things like background and ecology, but only if they translate into play - there are really good, play driving examples of monster ecology out there but there are many more hopelessly academic sounding wanks. Don't go this route just because you feel you have to. Similarly, it might include ways to tie the monster into the campiagn. As with ecologies, this is a little more hit or miss. Consider a brilliant product like Nevermet Press's The Desire - it's almost 60 pages dedicated to a specific recurring villain. It's *really* well done, well enough done that it will probably be a clear hit or a clear miss. If you can use it in your game, it's awesome, but if you can't, that's a lot of good material gone to waste (from the DM's perspective).

Of greatest use is anything that helps the DM actually build an encounter with the monster. That is, after all, where the rubber hits the road - The whole reason a DM wants to use your monster is because he has some cool idea for an encounter that it inspired. He might get that out of looking at the powers and thinking "ooh, I want to see that in a fight" but if you can make that easier for him? And if you can give him more than one way this critter could complicate a fight? Made of win.

And that's the truth of it. Beyond monsters you can have all manner of interesting products, from adventures to cards for tracking things to custom action points, but they're all just going to be novelties unless they *solve a problem*. 4e has a lot of smoothly integrated moving parts, but a few exposed rough surfaces, and if you want to sell a third party product[6], it needs to be part of the latter, not the former. This is rough because there's so much cool stuff in the smoothly moving parts, but it's reality. You need to look at what you bring to the table, what you *use* at the table that the game does not already provide. That's where you're going to find the products that people will want and use themselves, even if they don't really know they want it yet. And the good news is, if you're playing and running 4e regularly, you're already producing everything you need.

There's a bit of a stigma on the idea of publishing material from your own table. The idea is that you're just upjumping your own campaign, and that might have held some weight in the past when the game was very different, but nowadays? It's utter crap. If you do something at your table that is fun and useful for you, then the odds are very good it'd be fun and useful for someone else too. Whether it's a fun monster, a well-built skill challenge, an interesting encounter or just some best practice for tracking statuses or the like, other people could benefit from it. Sure, you can't productize everything, but why would you want to? Pick the few things that really made you think "This really worked" and see about putting them out there.

And don't be discouraged if there are no products like that already. That's a false barrier. A lot of this new 4e stuff doesn't work in old models (and oh, man, it gets painful when someone tries to force it to work) and we need to find the new models to express it. Shit, after all this time we still can't find consistently good ways to talk about skill challenges intelligently. This isn't because people haven't had good ideas, it's because no one has stepped forward with a "Skill Challenges, Dammit" product to start the conversation. Yes, it might not be well received. Any product you release might flop. But if you go into it with your eyes open and your passion engaged, you'll be amazed what might come of it.

Start the conversation.

1- I can safely call it magnificent because I never laid a finger on that one.
2- It does have a little space for freeform feats, but no mechanical support.

3- This is probably fodder for its own post at some point, but it comes down to this. 4e has reached a point of complexity where it is a software-assisted game. That's cool, to a point, because they've provided chargen software and an online database, and those are good things. It's also bad because it means another level of barrier to entry. The way you tip that balance is to leverage the software end of it into more of an asset - integrate the tools, make the more useful and more available. Unfortunately, that requires that WOTC either commit more resources in house or open up the toolset, and they seem disinclined to do either. It's a very businessey decision - development is not cheap and the return is questionable, so spending that money is out. Opening up the software might get the tools, but it also opens up the software and the data, potentially exposing the rules to piracy, business loss and other lawyerly scenarios. So they sit tight, and I think it's a great shame. 4E really is a fantastic game, but it could be doing more.

4 - This one is a real shame, but they plug into the character builder the same as everything else.

5 - Which is a point of reminder: If your pdf product doesn't allow copy & paste, it's a lot less useful to a GM building an encounter.

6 - If you don't want to sell it, if you're just writing it because you love it, then screw all this noise. Do what you dig.


  1. What drives me up the wall, actually, about how software-dependent 4E is, is that they don't even fully support their own rule-set.

    Want to put a template, from the DMGs, onto a monster? The Monster Builder doesn't do that. Sure, you can put it together by hand, but it's a pain when it should be a one-click process.

    Want to, as described in the PHB, have a Wand of some spell other than those already listed as examples? Sorry, the CB doesn't know how to do that.

    Third-party or house-ruled components are another casualty, but the fact that the software doesn't even cover all of the game is nuts.

  2. I've been wondering for a while if my lack of interest in third party products for 4e (generally) was just me, or if it was a mistake by the publishers, and I think this confirms that it was a mistake by the publishers (that also played into my own tastes).

    I wasn't a big fan of the 3.x splatbooks in the first place, but the glut of new races and classes and paragon paths — the equivalent of those 3.x products — came in a flood early. I think your analysis confirms for me that it was based on a flawed assumption that the 3.x third party business plan would carry over to 4e.

    I think there is a big opportunity for publishers that offer adventures and modules (I no longer consider them synonymous, but I'll save that for my own blog) that offer things WotC's products don't, and there are several paths, some mutually exclusive, available here. Strongly plotted adventures with fleshed out roleplaying opportunities, traditional adventures that offer less railroad and more room for exploration, and elements that can easily be plugged into sandbox settings (but aren't just WotC-style delves) all come readily to mind.

    And, yeah, the first killer skill challenge product, even a Monster Manual of skill challenges, could rack up real sales, especially if it was available in print via PoD.

  3. I totally agree about Skill Challenges being the one area best suited to a 3rd party product. I run RPGA scenarios at my LGS and the only positive response to one was when I tweaked your Siege at Fallcrest example to represent defending an armed camp. (Big ups to you for posting that awesome challenge, btw.)

    I would happily pay money for a product which took sample situations from fiction and wrote them up as detailed (like your Siege) examples of skill challenges. Often the hardest part of writing skill challenges is figuring out things for the different skills to do. Something which helped out with that would greatly appreciated (by me at least).

  4. So here's me doing my damnedest to be succinct. I'm trying to be short because if I type too much I'll type a novel :)

    4e needs third party products that extend what's there already. Like Rob said, if you need to abandon the CB to use your material, you've most likely lost unless it's incredibly cool.

    Mechanics that fit nicely on top of what is there is great though.

    Also -Skill challenge book? Hmmm....

  5. I, too, agree that third-party class books, feat books, power books, etc. don't interest me very much for 4e. I do think that third-party race books can be an interesting design space to explore, and I have used one in my current campaign, but only for NPCs/villains.

    A "Monster Manual of skill challenges"? Awesome idea, if well-executed. You caught that, Quinn? You were listening? You're on it?

    WRT to "software dependency," though … 4e is not "software-dependent." The Character Builder and Monster Builder (which, by the way, is still considered beta) are extremely convenient, but not necessary. It's fairly important to have access to a web browser and a PDF reader to keep up with errata, but sometimes we even deliberately ignore the errata at our table. If you have a DMG, a PH, an MM, and some willing accomplices, you can play D&D 4e as a purely analog experience. No software required. 4e got along just fine for the first year without the Character Builder. (I realize the CB may be more important if you're involved in organized play experiences that require CB-legal characters, but here I'm just talking about straight-up playing D&D at home with your friends.)

  6. Oops! In the previous comment, I forgot to mention my other opinion about this: a good niche/market for third-party publishers is systemless supplements like maps/tiles, counters/standees, props, and story resources.

  7. The software is good enough that it dominates anything with a player focus, yet not quite good enough in that it isn't flexible enough to do everything we want.

    As a GM, I'm reluctant to put anything into my game world that I can't trivially put into CB as a house rule. Because if I do, we have to figure out how to squeeze the house rule onto a card in the house rules system, and do the math ourselves. I can do the crunchy math, but I also fall into the category of GMs with little free time to do game prep.

    I wish they had more software development resources, honestly. While their initial push was pretty great, bugs and enhancement requests have become something of a black hole.

    I'd love to see a skill challenge book, as I think that's an interesting area to develop minigames around. In looking at Dungeon magazine for ideas (and/or teaching adventures to run for players unfamiliar with the rules), the skill challenges are usually the weakest link of the adventures.

    The apathy for 3rd party books of classes/feats/paragon paths is not limited to 3rd party products. We're entering year 3 of books, and both the game I run and the game I play in are not considering new books for PC fodder. So no Martial Power 2 and only a few things out of Player's Handbook 3 (none of which are classes). It would help if WOTC came up with a model that made them profitable without cluttering the player's side of the universe with so many options, but I can't say that I have a business model to sell them. :)

  8. Like linnaeus, one thing I would really love to see are more adventures and things like Hammerfast. The ability in 4e to quickly reskin monsters and other things, makes that part of campaign planning very easy but I sometimes still struggle with the process of bringing everything together. But my group also doesn't want to play through a module/adventure. So what I normally do is steal from existing ones as I can or use short ones from Dungeon that I can reflavor easily to fit into my homebrew. I do this so often I created an adventure/module database on my site for searching. The problem is that the third party stuff is not as well organized and harder for me to add.

    Also, I'm not sure how a third-party publisher can make money on this, but there are a lot of people new to DMing out there who need help. I get a few thank yous from people who read about my experiences as a novice DM and people have even started asking me for advice. I would really like to get to the next level of encounter and adventure design, but there aren't a ton of resources out there that really explain how to do that and so many of the people I ask have been doing this for so long they think the answers are obvious.

  9. @ROB -- Glad you enjoyed The Desire! We worked hard on making it as usable as possible, and with as few railroads (read:none) as possible - but like you said; it's either a clear hit or a clear miss for a DM. [shamelessplug] Hopefully you'll enjoy our next eBook - The Hidden Kingdom - which is going to follow the same format. [/shamelessplug]

    It really is a huge bonus to us that you enjoyed it Rob!

  10. I've found that with the software dependent-ness of 4E that I stop being as much in control of my character. I don't own the software and my DM (hi DJ!) updates my toon when I level.

    This means that I end up a bit divorced from certain things...such as gold. I have never kept track of gold on my character, and it just keeps getting worse as I spend on things that are mushy and role-playingly instead of magic items.

    I mean XP really means something, but gold...meh...eventually it might be a useful item, but more than likely it will just forget to be updated next time I level...

  11. "And that's the truth of it. Beyond monsters you can have all manner of interesting products, from adventures to cards for tracking things to custom action points, but they're all just going to be novelties unless they *solve a problem*..."

    Perhaps this is truth from a publisher's mindset. But from a DM's perspective, there are various "novelties" that I am not good at creating (such as those "features of the area" or small magical/special effects you sprinkle into an encounter; a book dedicated to that would be a godsend to me).

    And I constantly see complaints about a dearth of GOOD 4e adventures and constantly see people wanting adventures.

    So perhaps the threat is "flop", or not able to break even, but from an anecdotal perspective I see a lot of demand for a product that is just not out there.

    Many suggestions have been very corner case, very specialized, but I see a very strong need for some people. Similar to the way that Hard Boiled Armies was tackled, I've seen a real hunger from people who want simulationism: an Economy that works, a way for keeps/bases/etc to be handled in a rewards system, a book of "Non-magical equipment lists" of yon ten foot poles, donkeys and cost of ships. Or even random tables. A 12 page PDF offering mundane equipment, costs, and lists of sample shops could have in stock would be fast to create and would wet the appetite of these folks.

  12. Too many good commnets, but I think this has ended up setting up the next post. One or two things.

    * The other rub with a skill challenges books is striking a balance between ones that are interesting, but useful. More gnerally, it might be worth coming up with some language to distinguish types of skill challenges. Some are just transitions, others are involved narritives with different kinds of mechanical impacts.

    @Jonathan The Desire was exactly the kind of envelope=pushing product I was hoping to see start exploding off the shelves as a result of 4e. It deserves every bit of praise.

    @rechan Those are great examples, and I think of them as problems to be solved too! I just used the most common things I've heard as examples, but I think you've laid out an entire vein of viable products.

  13. Late to the party, but couldn't agree with this more.

    I've even blogged about this issue myself a few times.

    Monsters, mini-campaigns, and adventures seem to be the spot for 3rd party products.

    I've penned one 4th edition Monster book (FEY FOLIO - Alluria Publishing) and worked on another (the aformentioned Desire). Both of them held to the model of unique villains coupled with campaign support.

    Nice articulation of what's going on 3pp style, Rob.


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