Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dungeons and Dragons and Branding

So as I mentioned yesterday I've been following the D&D 4e leaks with slavish nerdevotion. There's a book coming out next month called Wizards Presents: Races and Classes, a 96 page teaser that 'reveals' some information about the (gasp) Classes and Races for 4e. Well it seems that the Hungarians get all the cool toys before we do, because the Races and Classes book is already out in Hungary and thus, the info has been seeping out to the rest of the world.

The biggest of the big news from the R&C book is the identity of the "mystery race" which has stirred no small amount of controversy as nerds all over the internet. The new race are the Dragonborn, who are apparently egg-laying lizard-people (despite laying eggs it seems the lady Dragonborn still have boobs judging from the halters they are wearing in the book art) and ostensibly replace the now-absent Half-Orcs as the Strength boosting race, although the class that they are most suited towards according to the book is the Warlord (which is a post for another time).

This got me thinking about the D&D brand. I'm not one to normally think in such crassly commercial terms (which is largely true) but let's be honest here, commercialism not withstanding, branding is important, it's what separates products and even something as nerdtastic as D&D is ultimately a product. As near as I can tell, so far as fantasy RPGs (and maybe even RPGs in general) go, D&D is the baseline that all others are measured against. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say it's the default but in a way it is, other fantasy RPGs seem to be differentiated chiefly by the ways in which they are different than D&D, different classes, different (usually furry) races, different something. D&D is classic Tolkien-esque fantasy; dwarves have beards, axes, beer and like caves. Elves are poncy fucks with ears and magic.

So how does D&D compete when it ultimately defines its own competition? I think this is one of the reasons we're seeing the Dragonborn race; it's different. It doesn't fit in with the established D&D tropes (ok well it kinda does but they usually reserve something like that for a splatbook a few years into the game) it's distinctly different and, thank the gods, it's not another fucking kind of elf. I'm not wowed by the Dragonblooded myself but I'm not in fanboy rage over them either. Like everything with 4e I'm largely reserving judgement until I see the crunch and fluff side by side. It's not a safe choice, and I applaud that even if it fails, they could have gone with hobgoblins or half-giants or (gods forbid) Drow. Will it work? Maybe, the development team for 4e is truly an excellent group of designers who are really trying to learn from the victories and failures of 3rd Ed and 3.5, and I think they just might pull it off.


Stephen Buchanan said...

D&D as a brand is one of the great nerd success stories, with a long history and a loyal following.

All of this in spite of numerous attempts to sabatoge that brand with miserable line extensions (remember "Dungeons and Dragons" the movie?).

I fear that with their 3rd edition in what? 10 years? they're going to dilute their brand with line extensions in the one area that they can't afford to lose: publishing.

D&D's core audience, the loyal (and most lucrative) following will forgive all the spin-off movies, TV properties, figurines, etc, as long as they're getting value out of the books. A fact that I think TSR understood, which is why they only released 2 editions in 25 years... which, in turn, might explain why WotC now owns all of their IP.

*shrug* I know that's only vaguely related, but you brought up branding and for a marketing student that's like free bacon (who's going to turn down free bacon?).

Brendan said...

(remember "Dungeons and Dragons" the movie?).

Yeah, sadly although the second one is actually vaguely decent.

3e came out in 2000 and 3.5 was in 2003. 3.5 wasn't substantially different from 3e really, just a more polished version in a lot of ways, so really it's been seven years since any big overhaul to the system. In gaming terms, that seems about right to me, especially given the way the nerd world has changed in that time.

I don't think that the new edition is going to dilute the brand as long as it's good. That's what it's going to live or die on, the quality of the product. I know I rolled my eyes when I learned about 3.5, I figured it was a money-grab on the part of some big corporation of assholes. I got the books as part of a deal just because and sonofabitch, they were well worth it. As long as 4e continues that trend I think it will be fine.