Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons 5e--Fixing What Isn't Broken?

A couple weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast officially announced they are working on a new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rules set. An article on gave a few more details, as the writer had a chance to check out an early draft of the new rules.

From what I can gather so far, the new version of D&D is being designed to be very customizable. There's an a la carte aspect to it that will allow Dungeon Masters to use the parts of the rules that best fit the campaign they want to run. On its face, that seems like a pretty cool idea.

My problem is, I can't help but think they're just trying to put a nice spin on the fact that the last edition of the rules was not as successful as they expected it to be, and sales are flagging, so they are rebooting the system again. That's sad to me, because I really like the fourth edition of D&D--or at least I did, when it was first launched. When it first came out in 2008, the 4th edition of D&D was arguably the most accessible edition yet. From my experience, it was the most friendly for new players, and it encouraged cooperative strategy in a way previous editions hadn't since the original "red box" Basic D&D rules.

I was at the D&D Experience the year that 4th editon launched (along with Max Saltonstall and Alana Abbott). Not only did we interview a bunch of the designers about the new rules, but we got plenty of hands-on time with them as well. There was a genuine enthusiasm about how 4th edition was really going to open the game up to new audiences, primarily beacuse of two factors. One was the accessiblilty I mentioned previously. The rules were streamlines, roles were clearer, and it was really easy to jump right in and get a feel for the game. The second reason for the enthusaism around 4th edition was the aggressive digital strategy that Wizards of the Coast had. The new rules were going to launch alongside a rubust set of online tools for character creation and ongoing game play. The centerpiece of that strategy was the "online gaming table"--a virtual table that would allow players from all over the world to get together and game around a virtual tabletop. This online gaming table would incorporate the rules, have tools for DMs to track gameplay, and allow combat to play out via virtual miniatures. They were going to recreate the tabletop gaming experiene online, so that new players and gaming groups who no longer lived near each other could come together and play.

Sadly, the ambitious online strategy never came to fruition. Wizards was eventually able to get some of the online tools up and running, but the online gaming table never materialized. Further, they began a subscription system that required people to pay for a lot of those tools, which further fractured the game's audience. In my opinion, it was this failure that led to 4th edition not living up to expectations, and not bringing in a lot of new gamers. Once that happened, the hardcore D&D fans were the only ones left, and they weren't completely happy with the new rules. In the eyes of the hardcore, the game had been watered down to make it more accessible. So, Wizards of the Coast started tweaking the rules, adding new supplements, and trying to please the core audience that was left supporting the game.

Now, it seems that the folks at Wizards of the Coast are looking for a fresh start with a new edition. From the looks of it, this strategy is looking to bring back lapsed players as opposed to bringing in new players--it's aiming to be a "best of" edition, pulling from all of the other editions that have come out over the years. This sounds exciting for those who have played D&D in the past, but felt 4e was a little watered down. However, a more complex and customizable version of the rules isn't necessarily going to be accessible to new players in the way 4th edition was. It feels like Wizards decided that strategy didn't work, so they're going back to the hardcore as opposed to trying to expand the audience.

I'll be following the development of the new rules, and I'm sure I'll pick them up as soon as they come out. But I feel like Wizards is kind of missing the boat with this strategy. The problem wasn't the rules, it was the failure of their digital strategy. They should be rebooting that, not the game.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

My Move to Digital Comics--Part 1

As I mentioned recently on the Secret Identity Podcast, I have decided that in 2012 I will be weaning myself off of print comics and moving almost entirely to digital. By the end of the year, I will only be collecting Spider-Man books in single-issue, print form.

So why make the move? For starters, there’s the space issue. I am running out of room to store my collection. As it is, I have a bunch of longboxes in the basement, and a few shortboxes in my man cave, it’s not really working.

The there’s the cost of print comics. Even with a subscriber discount, I’m paying roughly $2.40 to $3.20 per book, depending on the cover price. Through DCBS, the discounts are better, but I only get them once a month, and I’ve actually been spending more money, buying more books because of the discounts. With DC books in particular, I can now get 1-month old issues for $1.99 digitally (Marvel also drops prices eventually, but I don’t think they’re following DC’s lead on the one-month thing yet). All of the digital apps also offer frequent $.99 sales on back issues, where you can get whole runs at a time for a buck apiece. For some of the smaller publishers, I prefer Drive Thru Comics, as I get a watermarked PDF that I can read on any device, and the prices are even better than most of the other digital marketplaces (I’d love to see an app from Drive Thru, though).

A bigger factor than both of those mentioned above however, is that I just don’t feel like a lot of comics are worthy of keeping anymore. I already have enough print comics to last the rest of my life if I went back and started reading them all today. And with the number of comics I’m buying right now, I haven’t been going back to read a lot of those books. Moving to digital, I can keep up with the books I want to follow, without adding more books to the ever-growing pile. I have plenty of back issues in print to dive into whenever I want, and when I read a truly amazing run in digital format, I’ll probably pick up the trade in print to put on my bookshelf. As I mentioned above, the one exception to my digital move is Spider-Man, particularly Amazing Spider-Man. Dan Slott is on a legendary run right now, and Spidey is my favorite character of all time. Not to mention, my Spidey books are the ones I want to pass down to my kids someday.

So, the move is on. My DCBS order for this month was ⅓ of its usual size, and I’ve already dumped several titles that just weren’t impressing me. On the flipside, I’ve checked out a bunch of digital titles that I hadn’t bought in print, like Batgirl, Hawk and Dove, Locke & Key and The Infinite, all at lower prices than I would have paid in print.

Over the course of the next year, I’ll be posting about how the move to digital is going, new books I’ve discovered, books I’ve dropped, etc.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review--Jim Henson's Tale of Sand

I have not been able to stop thinking about Jim Henson’s Tale of Sand since I read it over two weeks ago. It’s a book that not only stays with you, but compels you to go back to it multiple times, and each trip back offers something new. That’s pretty rare in comics nowadays, and it’s one reason why I picked Tale of Sand as my favorite original graphic novel of 2011.

For those unfamiliar, Tale of Sand is based on a screenplay written by the late Jim Henson (Sesame Street, The Muppet Show) and his writing partner Jerry Juhl in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The screenplay never made to film, but The Jim Henson Company, Archaia Entertainment and artist Ramon Perez have brought the story to life as an original graphic novel. After reading it, I actually think this was the best medium for the story to be told in.

Tale of Sand is less a linear story than a series of vignettes or scenes, featuring a main character named Mac. As the book opens, Mac finds himself in an unnamed town in the Southwest as a huge celebration is going on. As the celebration swirls around him, he slowly realizes that all of the peopple there are celebrating him, and they’re urging him forward to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff greets him warmly and then begins to explain that it’s a big day, and Mac needs to get going. He gives Mac a backpack full of assorted items, and then shows him a location on a map that he needs to get to. He then escorts a confused Mac out of town, telling he he has a ten-minute head start, and not to trust the map that he just have him. With that, Mac sets off on a surreal journey, not sure of what awaits him, oe even where he is supposed to be going. Along the way, he is pursued by mysterious men, visits impossible places and continually tries to make sense out of the adventure he’s on.

Tale of Sand is a visual story in every sense of the word. There’s not a lot of dialogue, and the people and places Mac happens across could only be done justice by an artist on the page. For instance, at one point a limousine approaches Mac as he is wandering the desert. Mac opens the door--and a lion jumps out at him. Just as the lion corners mac and is about to have him for lunch, it’s gunned down by a big game hunter that drives up in a convertible with two tribesmen. They tie the carcass to the front of the car and then speed away, leaving Mac alone in the desert again. The way Perez communicated this encouter is something that even the best special effects masters wouldn’t be able to some close to on screen.

While I didn’t find there to be a linear narrative in the story, there are a lot of themes, and I suspect everyone who reads it will come away with something different. I read Tale of Sand as a metaphor for the journey through life. You never really know what your true destination is. and the journey is the important thing. As you try to make sense of the world around you and find your way, you are driven by both your biggest successes and your worst mistakes. Many of the encounters that Mac has in the book made me think of different points in my life, and I enjoyed it even more because it was left open to interpretation.

If there is a film out there that Tale of Sand reminds me of, it’s Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. As with that story, Tale of Sand is an experience you need to have--I can’t do it justice by trying to explain it to you. Even if this type of storytelling isn’t your cup of tea, you should read this book for the masterful art of Ramon Perez--it’s absolutely stunning.

You can check out a preview of Tale of Sand over on Archaia's website here.