Back when One Bad Egg shut its doors, it was a decision based on the nature of the third party marketplace for 4e products. The products we were most interested in, ones with fiddly bits to plug into the game like the magnificent Hard Boiled Armies. It only had a small amount of mechanical crunch, but what it had needed to be able to plug back into character creation, and that’s where the rub came up. Our sense was that between DDI and the character builder, there was not much room for third party material that would get reflected on the character sheet.
The thinking was simple. Character builder is well designed to handle all the complexities of 4e chargen, including making sure that all bonuses get reflected automatically when appropriate. This is great, but since it doesn’t support third party material, and everything is so tightly integrated, if you see one cool third party thing you like, you need to discard the character builder entirely to get it. That’s a sucky tradeoff. Character builder keeps things manageable as the body of 4e lore gets bigger, and it’s really good at that. So good that We couldn’t imagine anyone discarding it.
So, we saw the writing on the wall and shut down. It was sad, but that’s the biz. In retrospect, I still feel like it was the right call, as the trend seems to have held up, and some of the problems expected have also materialized from it. But I still think about it sometime.
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 most notably. These are all the elements which, if someone wants to use, they can’t use the Character Builder. 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. Monsters are a great playground to kick around interesting mechanical elements – they’re just _fun_ to build – but a pure monster product is only going to go so far. Because it’s so easy to reskin and tweak monsters in existing products, the entire usage pattern of monster books has changed. In previous editions, only a fraction of a monster book could ever practically be used, but now you can potentially use EVERY monster in the book (limited by level range), even if it doesn’t suit your campaign because you can reskin it. This means that monster books of the past (here are MORE MONSTERS! We’ll just throw them at the wall and as long as a few of them stick, you’ll feel you got your money’s worth!) are no longer a useful model. The bar is a little higher, and the competition is fiercer – your monster idea is entering an environment of plenty, not one of scarcity – so it needs to rock.
There are a few ways to make this happen, and they reveal something you can expect to see again. Monsters will be a good sell if they include all the tools for making them useful to the DM. This might include things like background and ecology, but only if they translate into play – there are really good, play driving examples of monster ecology out there but there are many more hopelessly academic sounding wanks. Don’t go this route just because you feel you have to. Similarly, it might include ways to tie the monster into the campiagn. As with ecologies, this is a little more hit or miss. Consider a brilliant product like Nevermet Press’s The Desire – it’s almost 60 pages dedicated to a specific recurring villain. It’s *really* well done, well enough done that it will probably be a clear hit or a clear miss. If you can use it in your game, it’s awesome, but if you can’t, that’s a lot of good material gone to waste (from the DM’s perspective).
Of greatest use is anything that helps the DM actually build an encounter with the monster. That is, after all, where the rubber hits the road – The whole reason a DM wants to use your monster is because he has some cool idea for an encounter that it inspired. He might get that out of looking at the powers and thinking “ooh, I want to see that in a fight” but if you can make that easier for him? And if you can give him more than one way this critter could complicate a fight? Made of win.
And that’s the truth of it. Beyond monsters you can have all manner of interesting products, from adventures to cards for tracking things to custom action points, but they’re all just going to be novelties unless they *solve a problem*. 4e has a lot of smoothly integrated moving parts, but a few exposed rough surfaces, and if you want to sell a third party product, it needs to be part of the latter, not the former. This is rough because there’s so much cool stuff in the smoothly moving parts, but it’s reality. You need to look at what you bring to the table, what you *use* at the table that the game does not already provide. That’s where you’re going to find the products that people will want and use themselves, even if they don’t really know they want it yet. And the good news is, if you’re playing and running 4e regularly, you’re already producing everything you need.
There’s a bit of a stigma on the idea of publishing material from your own table. The idea is that you’re just upjumping your own campaign, and that might have held some weight in the past when the game was very different, but nowadays? It’s utter crap. If you do something at your table that is fun and useful for you, then the odds are very good it’d be fun and useful for someone else too. Whether it’s a fun monster, a well-built skill challenge, an interesting encounter or just some best practice for tracking statuses or the like, other people could benefit from it. Sure, you can’t productize everything, but why would you want to? Pick the few things that really made you think “This really worked” and see about putting them out there.
And don’t be discouraged if there are no products like that already. That’s a false barrier. A lot of this new 4e stuff doesn’t work in old models (and oh, man, it gets painful when someone tries to force it to work) and we need to find the new models to express it. Shit, after all this time we still can’t find consistently good ways to talk about skill challenges intelligently. This isn’t because people haven’t had good ideas, it’s because no one has stepped forward with a “Skill Challenges, Dammit” product to start the conversation. Yes, it might not be well received. Any product you release might flop. But if you go into it with your eyes open and your passion engaged, you’ll be amazed what might come of it.
Start the conversation.
1- I can safely call it magnificent because I never laid a finger on that one.
2- It does have a little space for freeform feats, but no mechanical support.
3- This is probably fodder for its own post at some point, but it comes down to this. 4e has reached a point of complexity where it is a software-assisted game. That’s cool, to a point, because they’ve provided chargen software and an online database, and those are good things. It’s also bad because it means another level of barrier to entry. The way you tip that balance is to leverage the software end of it into more of an asset – integrate the tools, make the more useful and more available. Unfortunately, that requires that WOTC either commit more resources in house or open up the toolset, and they seem disinclined to do either. It’s a very businessey decision – development is not cheap and the return is questionable, so spending that money is out. Opening up the software might get the tools, but it also opens up the software and the data, potentially exposing the rules to piracy, business loss and other lawyerly scenarios. So they sit tight, and I think it’s a great shame. 4E really is a fantastic game, but it could be doing more.
4 – This one is a real shame, but they plug into the character builder the same as everything else.
5 – Which is a point of reminder: If your pdf product doesn’t allow copy & paste, it’s a lot less useful to a GM building an encounter.
6 – If you don’t want to sell it, if you’re just writing it because you love it, then screw all this noise. Do what you dig.