The Bazaar #39: An Open Letter to Palladium Books, Kevin Siembieda, and Sean Roberson
Updated: Jan 15
(One D&D’s Impact and Palladium Books)
A relatively unsurprising amount of angst has developed from the One D&D release, as well as the messaging from corporate headquarters of Wizards of the Coast (WotC) with regards to their proposed business model. For the majority of Table-Top RPG (TTRPG) gamers, D&D is the Goliath of any friendly local gaming store (FLGS) or convention, likely taking up all or near-all the space devoted to TTRPGs. For a company with a nearly 60% market share, and benefitting from significant acceptance by the mainstream media and general populace due to the influence of Covid and shows like Stranger Things, this is likely no surprise. Heck, I introduced my daughter to Rifts through a discussion initiated by both Stranger Things and Dungeons & Dragons.
But what does this have to do with Palladium Books (PB)? Fair question. This is not a D&D bashing post, though I freely admit to having lost most interest in the specifics of D&D, certainly little desire to inject myself into the One D&D ‘play-testing and feedback’ cycles. Nope, this is a bit of an overview of the market and some key issues currently being grappled with, and how this presents Palladium Books with, what I believe, an opportunity.
Market Share. Determining exact market share of the TTRPG market is a bit of a pain. There are certain places you may glean some information, but it often conflates app-based games for your phone, computer, and gaming console games as ‘RPG’ games - don't kid yourself, they are not.
D&D (and d20 Clones). It's sufficient to acknowledge that official Dungeons & Dragons (whatever flavour or edition) and the various d20 clones make up for the majority, if not a super-majority of the market. WotC benefits from a massive scale differential in capital, as well as the ability to leverage Hasbro's pre-existing market lines of communications and channels to brick-and-mortar retail stores (Toys-R-Us, Barnes & Nobles, Chapter-Indigo, et al). I doubt any of the other TTRPG companies could hope to compete on that scale, but this isn’t the point. I’m not proposing a David and Goliath stand-off.
Palladium Books. Still a privately owned company, the majority of shares undoubtedly belong to Kevin Siembieda, some percentage now to Sean Roberson, a number of percentage points likely shared among a number of others. They are opaque with regards to their financial status, production details, sales figures, and things like internal expenses (e.g. Cost of Goods Sold, salaries, overhead). None of this is my concern. But as a smaller company, with an already established and well-respected flagship IP (Rifts), PB would typically be more nimble to reacting to market opportunities. It’s more a question of resource and capital investment, and a level of risk acceptance.
Edition Wars. Something that afflicts many D&D groups are the acolytes that insist on playing a specific edition of D&D. This exhibits the effect of market cannibalization - loyalty to edition at the expense of investing in the newer versions. This could be due to changes in the rules, investment in new books, or simply what they find more enjoyable. The banter has evolved into a barrage of insults between 'editionists.' Palladium Books has gone decades without truly revising their Core Rules. They've added layers and tweaks here and there, which ironically is also part of the problem. What I am proposing is something that can be layered on top of the existing publications, with true backwards compatibility. Older publications still remain viable, but under a separate, more updated set of rules for actual gameplay, and likely character generation (for several reasons).
Species and Race. Likely nascent from the facepalm release of Spelljammer and Hadozee controversy, WotC delved into this issue in a manner that did little more than stir the hornet's nest at both sides of the spectrum. So now, WotC has asserted changes to handling the former term of Race and their updated approach to Species. What does this have to do with Palladium? Well, you have a number of disenfranchised D&D players caught up in the discussion, WotC is bleeding market share, and sales have dropped massively over two quarters. This is also a cautionary tale.
Spoiler Alert: I would submit that this is much ado about nothing for the **vast** majority of gaming folks. This, and most messaging is typically buried in copious amounts of “white noise,” but this is the point I am trying to make.
The Shock. People have really keyed off on both sides, for very much the wrong reasons. As presented by WotC, elves, dwarves, goblins, orcs and a plethora of other choices are now labelled as ‘species’ instead of ‘race.’ Regardless of the common English parlance conflating the two terms, they have actually meant different things for a long time. WotC's reason for the change seems an appeasement of vocal complaints from the “twitter mob” and the post-Hadozee incident. To an extent, I am perfectly willing to agree with those taking umbrage against these nameless keyboard warriors, who have influenced things like removal of attribute bonuses/penalties or minimum/maximum attributes, or the farcical idea of now playing a demi-human mixed orc-dolphin (or some such thing). But that likely is where they and I then part ways in terms of reaction.
The Reaction. A number of Youtube channels have literally lost their minds, some with nigh-laughable intensity. I’m not here to vilify anyone for their opinions, but two cases in point demonstrate the issue: the Asian Represent Podcast (and others of similar position) challenge that WotC's changes are not expansive enough and there need to be even more alternate terms, basically making this a war of synonyms, on top of doubling down with leftist social agenda points and make the game more about political and social agency; representing the counter argument group, the Legion of Myth video devolved into a self-conflicting shock-rant, doing little more than repeat alt-right rhetoric and general ignorance; honestly all that was missing was the Qanon bile. I don't recommend either channel's video on this particular subject; if you must, Questing Beast, Dungeon Masterpiece, or Dungeon Craft provide gainful discussion.
Worldview vs Game Mechanics. What everyone seemingly ignores is how game mechanics for various species are presented from a Human's perspective and worldview. Elves, dwarves and other races represent tropes and ideas/ideals, special abilities and attributes (minimum and maximum values) based on differences from the human baseline. The fact a dwarf used to have a -1 to Charisma did not mean they were ugly or had no ability to sway a crowd, just a touch less than a human. That a Player would complain their character’s attribute bonus (typically only part of the bonus to their roll) was an issue because it capped at **only** +2 vice +3 or +4 is ludicrous enough, but to rail against the societal representation of a dwarf from D&D (a fantasy setting) takes things to a new level. Palladium does not necessarily suffer this issue, with plethora of species available, attributes (and bonuses) based around variations of the 3D6 baseline for humans. I suppose not being the market juggernaut is a blessing in disguise.
Risk for Palladium Books. Palladium likely have their own issues to grapple with. I get the alliteration tie-in of O.C.C. and R.C.C. they went for, yet they still use R.C.C. (Racial Character Class) despite it obviously being another species. It would also be naive to think the Autistic Savant class from BtS, and the Coalition States writ-large (among others) are not possible triggers for their own brand of negative press. I would suggest that as part of the Class restructure I suggest below, these issues be folded into the process (and no, I'm not advocating cultural consultants).
WotC Micro-Transactions and Player Valuation. One of the more explosive issues was the leaked messaging from the WotC shareholder meeting. We’ve all likely watched of heard of the Youtube videos that covered the relevant statements by Cynthia Williams (CEO WotC), paraphrased here for reference:
“DnD has never been more popular, and we have great fans and engagement, but the brand is really under monetized.”
“investment in D&D Beyond would allow the company to unlock the type of recurrent spending you see in digital games.”
Product Line Valuation. The idea of increasing valuation of a product line is standard business practice. The more people you have purchasing books and adventure modules, which is the basis of WotC's current business model, the more money they make. Now that the Covid bump has started to subside, WotC has experienced a marked decrease in sales. One could also blame the cannibalization of their customer base by the announcement of One D&D, as gamers remain hesitant to buy products possibly be made obsolete with One D&D. WotC plans on leveraging the brand into other streams of revenue (e.g. movies, books, merchandising), which is no surprise for a company with a massively popular, now mainstream IP.
Predatory Transactions. The other issue of note, the quite possibly correctly termed “predatory” valuation of their customer base. WotC clearly indicated an understanding that DMs purchase significantly larger amounts of product. Micro-transactions targeted to the Players in the form of virtual products for use by their characters, not dissimilar to online gaming, seeks to tap into this source of revenue. At face value, offering magic weapons and equipment, virtual skins for characters, and other cosmetic enhancements for anywhere from pennies to a few bucks doesn’t necessarily sound that bad; so long as they avoid repeating any predatory loot box fiasco. There are risks, be they social or economic (checks and balances on how much people can find themselves spending, as well as threats to negative game-play experiences (some Players may be in a better position to “pay to win”). More to follow as WotC releases details.
Open Gaming License. So this **blew up** in the last three days; just spend 30 seconds on YouTube search. I mean, indications are that Forbes, Rolling Stone and other mainstream media are releasing articles on this. After over two decades in place, WotC is looking to capitalize on the viable third-party content creator market. By forcing content creators making over a particular threshold to pay royalties of Gross Income (vice Net Income, which is after taxes and expenses), as well as force them to open their financials, WotC are essentially taxing the most likely marketing platforms for the D&D. Essentially a tithe for deigning to make a profit off the OGL, it makes those slim profit margins nigh-impossible to achieve. WotC are trying to convert ‘paper and pen’ gaming over to their own virtual, micro-transaction platform in order to create a siloed, vertical marketing and distribution chain. Any cursory scan of social media would clearly demonstrate a disconnect and negative reception from the gaming community. What these third-party content creators are going to do is anyone’s guess. Being forced to pay a cut in order to ‘stay in the game’ is a bitter pill to swallow. If accepted, these costs get transferred to their consumers, likely something WotC cares the least about. At present, it appears they are going the way of Games Workshop, leveraging market position over platforms and distribution channels against content creators (e.g. Kickstarter).
Note: There is a lot of legal rumblings over this one, which ultimately, will likely require a court case to accurately define across multiple jurisdictions (e.g. USA, EU, Canada). Not a good look for WotC, but honestly something that impacts my gaming life absolutely none either way.
WHAT I AM SUGGESTING
Update the Core Rules Set. With the addition of Sean to the team and successful return to putting out new content, a modernized Core Rules Set needs to be injected into their business strategy, focusing on collating/simplifying the rules text (less wordy, applying Keywords), and adding some rule mechanics that shore up several gaps. The idea of a single, coherent, updated baseline Core Rules Set that spans across *all* their titles could be just the rebranding PB is hunting for to capture disenfranchised D&D players, while still maintaining the OSR feel and revitalizing current supporters.
Rebrand PB Core Rules Set and Relaunch Rifts. I’ve little doubt the launch of a new Core Rules Set, combined with a “Rifts Renaissance” marketing campaign, could do anything but help propel PB further into the TTRPG market. I’ve made several posts across multiple platforms (Facebook groups, PB message boards, Discord servers) on a possible updated Core Rules. Almost universally, following praise of the Rifts setting, any critiques were based on two things: 1. gonzo play style many players seem to gravitate to; and, 2. the disjointed rules, in particular the nuanced differences between games. The solution to both rests in a complete lock-down and revision on the second point, which then influence even just the appearance of the first. It’s there, and I’ve been compiling a version of it as a proof of concept. I’m not suggesting I have the proverbial Caramilk Secret. What I have uncovered though, is the desire from current players, previous supporters, and those not yet exposed to Palladium Books who yet only rely on glancing summaries or anecdotal information, for this kind of product.
What Would It Look Like. I suggest, all of which could be a single product/catalogue number, perhaps two (separate the Core Rules System and GM Screen):
Core Rules System (game play rules that apply across ALL PB systems and One Pagers)
Updated character generation and Classes (starting with rationalizing Rifts OCCs)
New Character Sheets
New GM Screen and One-Pager Summary Guides (included in Core Rules)
One Pager for Character Generation
One Pager for Skills List
One Pager for Skill Checks
One Pager for Combat Sequence
One Pager for Close Combat
One Pager for Ranged Combat
One Pager for Psionics
One Pager for Magic
One Pager with Keyword Index
Play Testing Revised Core Rules. I mentioned I've compiled a near-complete revision of the Core Rules Set. Despite jurisprudence to support rule systems are not protected for the purposes of copyright law, any play testing of my compilation, however, make enough dives into the trademark pool of copyright law that any formalized play testing would definitively require PB sanctioning. I would be willing to run several serials of play testing for the updated Core Rules Set I'm developing, but would not deign to share this in a play testing dynamic without permission.
In my opinion, the current roll-out of One D&D presents an opportunity for Palladium Books. A few things Palladium Books may wish to consider:
If WotC fails to incorporate their philosophical changes into the game's framework that satisfies both Players or Online personalities (which may be conflicting), they will shed players;
If WotC fails to keep adapt rules and settings to appeal to long-time, supportive gamers, they will shed players;
If WotC presents a virtual play system that is skewed towards micro-transactions and is viewed as useless to the paper-and-pen players, they will shed players;
If the virtual play system presents as something too limiting and unnecessary for the majority of gamers loyal to pen & paper style approach, they will shed players; and,
If the WotC micro-transaction model is viewed as a ‘pay-to-win’ system, or worse predatory in nature, they will shed players. They will also likely face Securities Commission pressures.
One of PB's key assets are their vast and detailed settings, most specifically their flagship title, Rifts. With magic, technology, villains and monsters galore, inter-dimensional travel, oh my! The GM can also leverage their own back yard (town or region they live) into the adventure, providing ample opportunities for heroes to be forged in very engaging and compelling adventures. There definitely is a business case to be made for Palladium Books to capitalize on the disfavour that WotC is pushing as a result of the One D&D roll-out, changes to the OGL, and hesitancy regarding the virtual platform.
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