Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing for Pathfinder & 4e: My Final Thoughts

Ok. I’m writing about 3rd party products and D&D again. I’ve done this before, but never articulated it the way I want to.

The reason I’m writing is because of this excellent blog by Rob Donaghue.

He says,

“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.”

This has long been my point:


When a 3rd party product comes out with character stuff (look to the above quote for examples) it doesn’t matter how well-written the material is. The majority of 4e players make use of DDI; thus no matter how sweet a 3rd party publisher’s stuff is, the ability to use it is hindered by the smooth interface of WotC’s digital tools.

Thus, it won’t sell.

Therefore, crafting 3rd party products for 4th edition players is a poor business model (caveat being markers, minis, and game accessories).

Rob goes on to the logical conclusion here:

“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”

Right. Monsters. Great idea (hint/beg: check out my Fey Folio). Copy and paste are work well enough, but some readers have already suggested to me that WotC’s Monster Builder creates the same issues for 3rd party products that the character builder does.

Enter XML files. The WotC Adventure Tool possesses the ability to import XML files (the monsters). So what’s to stop a 3rd party publisher from releasing those XML files with the product?

No seriously, I am asking – maybe nothing. If so that is a great, great incentive to offer potential customers.

Now Rob goes on to talk about just creating monsters doesn’t cut it. They have to be above par, and he outlines some good reasons why. But what I find particularly interesting is the following (still from Rob, different post though):

“Given that adventures are also usually smaller and less expensive, that makes them low-volume, low-margin products. Plus, (and this is more 4e specific) they compete with free material from sources like dungeon magazine. At first glance, that may seem like a reason for an independent person to bother with getting into, but I'd argue that the reality is the opposite for two reasons.

First, while the market for PDFs is not universal, I think people are a lot more open to trying electronic products for things they consider "disposable", like adventures. Second, while a larger company cannot reasonably consider producing a three to five dollar product and still making their nut, a lone enthusiast can do that and make a fair return. The appeal of the 4e [1] market is that even a small slice of it is pretty large on the scale that small game publisher's operate on. Of course, nothing is ever guaranteed, but the point is that as a small publisher looking to publish electronically, the "adventures don't sell" adage is less of a barrier than you might think.”

Again, Rob expounds on this better in his post, but I wanted to bring it up to agree with it.

A great example is the recent release by Emerald Press, “The Key of the Fey.” It is a low-level adventure with some unique angles (play as mercs not heroes) and it possesses everything you need within in it. That last bit is key to 4e supplements: it must contain a lot, because it must be aimed at being of immense use to a DM. Adventures fit this mold, Nevermet Press’s “The Desire” does, and so does the “Fey Folio.” Each of these products offer more than just an adventure or monster manual, they offer ecology, plot hooks, and advice, they are like mini-campaigns.

So in Review

The spots that seem best primed for 4e supplemental material are:

1) At the table products – I didn’t delve into this much, but fairly priced maps, tokens, counters, and minis will always have a place in the world of D&D. Especially in 4e, with its ‘reliance’ on cards, tokens, and various tracking needs.

2) Adventures. Yes, Dungeon has adventures. Re-read Rob’s post on adventures; he makes a damn good point though about pushing the envelope. Hell, even WotC even recently admitted they need help producing ‘better’ adventures. There is space out there for adventures that are formatted more conveniently, that can entertain story spaces Dungeon cannot, and that can fill a void no DDI tool can easily annihilate.

3) Monsters, skill challenges, DM-ready to use stuff. I touched on this the most, but these things are always useful. DM grab-and-go items. Themed monster booklets (by type or tier, for example) with XML files ready to be imported, skill challenges that can be copy and pasted right into a DM’s notebook, terrain powers, fun encounters, etc.


Now take everything I said about 4e and flip it.

Ok, not totally seriously, but there are two big differences.

Pimp my Character

All that character stuff you cannot do in 4e is super, super welcome in Pathfinder.

Super Genius Games knows this. They’ve made enough sweet character supplements (gear, feats) and new classes that if a DM were not happy with the PF magic classes, he could run their classes instead. The beauty of Pathfinder is that it is analog. Thus it is open to the plethora of options that 3.5 was. Technology is not a barrier for a well-written 3rd party product to entice a player. You want to play a Death Mage, you say, simply download the cheap PDF and let’s go. Game’s in an hour!

That will not happen in 4e so readily.

Also, WotC seems to realize its stranglehold on classes and races. Probably why it has pushed so many of them, and so many builds, out at such a steady pace. To feed the demand.

Paizo’s not doing that (upcoming APG notwithstanding). This is fertile ground for 3rd party support. So many class options exist and are creatable for this ruleset (see the recent Strategists and Tactician’s Guide) that it will be a long time before Super Genius, 4 Winds Fantasy, and others exhaust the possibilities of races, classes, and gear.

Keep Your Adventures to Yourself

The other big difference, I’d argue, is that there is no place for 3rd party adventures in Pathfinder. Paizo does this better than anyone else. Gorgeous adventure paths, succinct and fun modules, and an already near-infinite supply of Pathfinder Scenarios, means that GMs have a nearly inexhaustible supply of ready-to-go, top-notch material at their hands.

To try and out-adventure Paizo would be foolish. They’ve got the chops, and legions of fans who really buy into their setting, and who eat up those APs.

One place a wily producer might sneak in is cheap, simple adventures. If there is a knock against Paizo’s adventures, it is that they are often heavy (emotionally, plot-wise, and time-wise) and pricey (though worth every cent). A short, fun adventure designer could exploit a possible need.


This holds true just as much as it does in 4e. Gamer’s love monsters. Good art. Good mechanics. Good story. Get that going and regardless of the system you’ve got a shot.

And with that, I promise this is the last time I’ll discuss 3rd party products and D&D.


  1. I'm a web programmer. If any of these third party publishers were to approach me I could build a DDI character builder like tool, or encounter designer that could replicate the functionality of the Wizards one but show their content instead, perhaps if they all submitted their stuff to one central tool like this they might even sell more books. I'm sure Wizards is aware of that and it's informed their current strategy.

  2. Recursion King, the problem with that is that Wizards' lawyers will destroy you. They've already gone after several online tools that replicate their software's functionality; even free stuff. It's specifically forbidden in their GSL for 4e. (This is why all my software products are system-neutral.)

    I've been selling my character-related products decently well, so there is at least some market. The character builder might be awesome, but I don't use it, and I know plenty of gamers who don't. It really is not that difficult to build a 4e character without it. Still, all the other product ideas are something to think about.

  3. Swordgleam - That is something I should have made more clear: it is not impossible to market player-focused 4e material and not all players use the DDI Character Builder.

    It just seems to me the market for 3pp is bigger on the DM side by a wide margin and that there might be a diminishing return as 4e ages. By that last bit I mean that it is more likely players will discover and use the Character Builder than those who will drop it but still play 4e.

  4. Figuring out the player/DM split is always hard, since while there are a lot more players, DMs buy a lot more stuff. So whom do you target?

  5. The trick seems to be that no one will BUY character material but they are definitely curious to learn more options for their characters. I've noticed recently that every issue of Combat Advantage headlining a new race or other character options downloads more than others with a campaign or DM tone to it. In theory, especially for something that's free, everyone can equally download and read any issue they want but character options attract more readers. But character options barely sell. At some point and time, as it does in all versions of all games, players will start to tire of the same old, same old and desire new options. If they don't find these options in their current system, they branch out to try something new. Our job as independent publishers is to provide that option. Only then does DDI start to become obsolete...

    ...until WotC recognizes this and allows DDI to incorporate outside elements. This is entirely possible and may be something they're talking about now. Everyone has house rules, so even if they never buy independent material, they'll still appreicate the option of adding their own homebased material.

    BTW, thanks for the kudos on Key of the Fey.

  6. @ The Warden - Having just written a Fey piece myself, I couldn't help but check it out. No need to thank, just keep similar coming!

    Your last part is key. If WotC 'opens' DDI to 3rd party support -- 4e can become the game it has the potential to be.