Once More into the Breach
The revised version of the Game System License, which allows third party companies to publish support material for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, came out this week. I dutifully looked it, noted a couple of improvements, but quickly realized it wasn't enough to get me to change my mind about using the license. An e-mail discussion with my Green Ronin cohorts confirmed that they felt the same way. I didn't really feel like talking about it public though, so I was going to let it lie, but then queries started rolling in. Lots of folks wanted to know what GR's plans were regarding 4E with the license change. I realized then I was going to have to say something, so here we are.
The reason I was reluctant to get back into this discussion goes back a couple of months. I was trying to remember something I did last year and went back to look over the entries in my blog for 2008. Paging through my entries I realized how much time I spent thinking, writing, and analyzing D&D4E, the OGL, and the GSL. And the upshot of all that was that we did one product, the Green Ronin Character Record Folio. It's an awesome accessory but ultimately the time I spent on all this was not well spent.
Now you will see people on message boards say that GR never seriously considered supporting 4E because I hate WotC, blah, blah, blah. While our ultimate decision is to go our own way, that was in no way predetermined. We had discussions about what 4E could mean to our various lines as far back as 2005. After it was announced, we brainstormed a bunch of ideas. I started doing some research and taking notes for a potential new campaign setting. We look at what sort of adventure support we might provide. We considered a 4E Freeport Companion to join the four we had already done. I even commissioned a conversion of an unpublished 3.5 adventure so we'd have something to release if the license looked good.
Had the rollout and the terms of the license been better, perhaps things would have ended up differently. The fact that it took 10 months from the announcement of 4E to the actual release of the GSL was in itself a problem for a company of Green Ronin's size (never mind the fact that the announced plans changed several times throughout that period). GR sells into the book trade, and that means that ideally we want to solicit new books 9 months in advance of release. Well, I certainly wasn't going to solicit books for a game I hadn't even seen using a license who terms I didn't know. Nor was I going to start designing blind in the hopes that it'd all work out.
It became clear during this period that there was a faction with WotC that wanted to close the door to third party publishing all together. There were also advocates, most notably Scott and Linae, but it seemed they were in a constant battle to make anything happen at all. The resultant license, the GSL, looked like an attempted compromise between the factions within WotC that probably pleased no one. It certainly pleased few of the established third party publishers. So within two months of the release of the original GSL, a revision was announce to address some of these concerns. It took over six months for that to happen, and while the revision has some improvements the core of it is very similar indeed to the original.
Now while this was all going on, Green Ronin was by no means standing still. We had existing lines like M&M and True20 to support, a new game line in A Song of Ice and Fire to launch, and new deals to negotiate. The company had begun diversifying away from d20 material many years earlier so it was really just a case of continuing that momentum. While d20 was good to us and we published some great books in that era, we ultimately got to a place where we controlled all of our own lines and were beholden to no one.
So when the GSL revision came out, I had to ask myself if I wanted GR to get pulled into WotC's orbit, even a little bit. The answer had to be no. I don't ever want to have to wonder again what a new edition of D&D means to my business. I don't want to worry about whether 5E or 6E is going to be open to third party publishers. I don't want to live with the spectre of the wrong person becoming an exec at WotC and wrecking my business with the stroke of a pen. It's just not worth it, particularly for the level of sales we'd be likely to see doing 4E support. (The best anyone has been able to say about sales of third party 4E stuff is that it's better than late era 3.5 sales, which is like saying that Friday the 13th Part 13 sold more tickets than Friday the 13th Part 12.)
And even leaving aside all the business talk and analysis for a moment, it might still be tempting to publish something for a game that we were excited about. I spent the second half of last year both running and playing 4E. I would play it again, but I have no burning desire to design for it. Nor do my GR cohorts. It has been my experience in the game industry that you don't do great work on a game that you aren't passionate about. You may recall during the d20 boom, a bunch of established companies jumped into the pool once they realized there was money to be made. They didn't really know or care about the rules and that was clear in the resultant products. Fans quickly sussed this out too. Well, I don't want to be one of those guys who is designing through gritted teeth because that's what he thinks "the kids" like these days.
I know there are some GR fans who were hoping we'd end up doing some 4E support. I'm sorry to disappoint you but I know that I'm making the right decision here. We can be much more successful working on games that excite us and that we control. Creatively and financially, it just makes more sense for us to chart our own course.