Though RPGs do not dominate our sales the way they did a decade ago, when they regularly accounted for between 20 to 25% of revenues, they still average a solid 7 to 10% share of sales in the store, mostly due to Pazio’s Pathfinder RPG, but Dungeon & Dragons 4th Edition still takes the number 2 place solidly and WOTC’s D&D Encounters program, at least for the first several campaigns, stands, to my mind, as the best developed and supported store-based organized play program I have seen.
Consider what stores received: a multi-week campaign designed for first level characters, broken into bite sized segments that a good GM could run in a couple of hours (on a couple of occasions, when our GM failed to show, I stepped in and ran the evening’s play with less than fifteen minutes spent reviewing that evening’s session) and that did not require more than an evening’s commitment from a player. Since each evening’s game was comparatively self-contained, a session would build on what had happened on previous evenings, while at the same time not leave a new player at a tremendous disadvantage compared to regular players.
Starting with Murder in Baldur’s Gate and continuing with Legacy of the Crystal Shard, this format changed. Now , stores no longer received the campaign with each week’s session broken out. Instead, they had to purchase the full scenario and run it as more of a traditional campaign, with each week’s events more closely tied to what had gone before and players unable to join or miss sessions without having a greater impact on both their character and the campaign. The new format also required extensive work by the GM in order to develop 2 hour sessions of gameplay so as to fit store time constraints while at the same time satisfying the players. However, satisfying a request of many players and GMs, WOTC did develop online conversions for the campaigns, allowing DMs to run them using either 3.5, 4th edition or D&D Next.
This changes again with the next D&D Encounter season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, launching with the D&D Game Day the weekend of February 15, 2014. First, the campaign will only support play with the currently in-development D&D Next rules, though stores may apparently convert the adventure to D&D 3.5 or 4th Edition if they so desire. However doing so requires more work on the part of the store and/orDM, while using the D&D Next compatible various means that retailers do not promote D&D products currently available for sale, rather instead building interest in D&D Next.
The other major problem was that, unlike the previous two campaigns, Scourge of the Sword Coast would only release as a PDF and retailers, according to an email I received from WOTC’s Retail Support Team, would have to purchase the PDF at full price. This sounded, to me, like a splendid way to kill off retailer enthusiasm for the program, so I contacted Tolena Thorburn, Global Communications Manager at WOTC for clarification. She informed that while WOTC still has to work out the details, retailers that run Scourge of the Sword Coast will receive, along with the Game Day materials, instructions on how to download the adventure at no charge.
Regarding my other concern, that the next session of Encounters promoted the upcoming (and unavailable) D&D Next rules, rather than the currently available 4th Edition ones, Thorburn replied: With regards to the other changes to Encounters, we want to be clear that the Adventure can be played with any rules set, but when it comes to in-store play experiences, Wizards will always encourage retailers to work with our most current product. We encouraged stores to run the first two Sundering adventures in 4th edition or D&D Next, however the in-store entertainment experience is truly up to the store owners. For 2014, we encouraging stores to focusing on running the adventures using D&D Next, which ties to our announcement yesterday that the new rules system will release in summer 2014.
What stores decide to do with the next season of Encounters should prove telling. While our attendance has held steady, I know of other stores which have reported huge drop-offs in attendance, to the point where they could no long justify continuing with the program, while still others shifted the time-slot to promoting other RPGs such as 13th Age, Pathfinder (like it needs it) or Numenera. What happens with the next Encounter season should prove telling as to how players will respond to Next, a version of which WOTC will provide along with the PDF of Scourge.