"Hey man. I really dig your blog. I send links to it around the office often enough that I should probably be paying you a consulting fee or something."
So, WOTC, I know some of you read this blog--so here is what I would like for Christmas...
Let me first say I am not going to be a jerk about this:
I am not going to ask you to start liking things you don't like.
I am not going to urge you to take directions you clearly have decided not to take.
I am not going to claim that the way I want things to be will definitely make more money.
I am not going to say Look at what you did here, it's crap, do better, hire better people--I presume you are hiring the best people you can, in the opinion of your editors, art directors, other relevant stakeholders and pie-piece claimers.
In short, I am only going to ask for things if I don't know why you haven't already done them.
So, here we go:
1. Publish two big hardcover coffee-table books with all the old TSR adventures in them.
Say...everything from the beginning until '85 in volume one, everything from there until the end of TSR in volume two.
Now, wait wait wait wait wait, hold on:
I am not asking you to do this in such a way that it will confuse your audience or in a way that will in any way challenge the notion that the current version of the game is the most modern and optimal of all possible versions of D&D.
Here is what you do:
-Do it like Marvel and DC Comics do with their oldest material: put it in a crazy retro trade-dress that emphasizes it as a collection of nostalgic pop-cultural ephemera. The kind of thing wives buy for their husbands in book stores. Put the word "Vintage" or "Classic" or even "Retro" in big letters on the cover. Make it look unserious but DeLuxe. 80s nostalgia is gigantic right now--they made a Smurfs movie for fuck's sake. There has never been a better time.
-You don't need to comb through the archives--print the original material as-is from scans of old modules in a little box (scotch-taped pages and all) in the middle, then, in the margins, in fancier modern-WOTC layout, have commentary and glosses on the modules from your current design team: anecdotes "Oh, I remember this room...", historical retrospectives, discussions of how this early material lead to the (you can imply) more sophisticated material you now produce.
Since this is the kind of thing your designers like to sit around and do all day anyway, you probably won't have to pay them that much to do it. Just send a memo around: Got a favorite retro module? A favorite room? Write us 300 words on it.
Since several of these modules have already been revised for later editions, you can even use this to sell the newer versions, and instead of commissioning essays, just reprint stuff the designers of these modules already said online in interviews about the old material.
You could also fill space with snatches of old reviews from the fan press or--if you want to get fancy--reminiscences from like China Mieville and Patton Oswalt and Vin Diesel. I know that sounds expensive but seriously if you just go to a Patton reading and say "Hey you ever run 'Keep on the Borderlands'? He'll talk for 20 minutes and you can just tape record it--I've seen it. And if you can't get them you can get the Order of The Stick or the KOTDT or the Robot Chicken people. I hear they work cheap.
In addition to making these old books more useful to DMs (of all schools) and making reading the modules feel less like scavenger hunts for ideas that still have resonance--cheaply--the commentary might also convince oldsters who don't play any more and who got the books mainly as cute retro-artifacts that the folks now working at WOTC are pretty clever fellows in their own right and might just be producing games they--the nostalgic old-timers--might want to play with their kids.
Aside from the luxurious hardcover exterior and a few color-plates in the middle for cover art, you can print the whole thing in black and white--how cheap is that? How are you not going to make money on this considering you will be able to sell this easy-to-throw together book to:
-Every single person who is into Old School gaming. That's 2-3 thousand right there. If you can sell what amounts to a hardcover artbook for adults (at hardcover artbook prices) to just that many people you'll do better than break even
-The aforementioned nostalgia not-currently-gaming demographic
-A good slice of your more dedicated and hobby-invested new-edition gamers
Its release will be an opportunity for the geek media to rehash the same 3 page think pieces they wrote when Gygax died--only this time you'll have something to sell them.
Plus, these books will act, functionally, as supplements to all the retroclones and postclones--everyone who plays Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC or LOTFP:WF will want one. You'll be making more money off their games than they are.
I suppose it goes without saying you can put a warm and amused intro at the front talking about how far we've come since these primitive days and how tortured and hilarious the mechanics are. If you get real neat you could provide 4e conversion notes on each module for your more ambitious GMs.
So there's that. I think that's the most reasonable think I'd like for Christmas. If you can't do that I'd like to hear about why--since I know somebody at WOTC will read this sooner or later.
2. Find a way to have your game easily work with other RPGs again.
I'm not one of those people who is going to claim Pathfinder's doing so well against Type IV D&D because Type IV is so much worse than previous editions. (Even if Pathfinder was somehow "objectively" better, we all know being good isn't necessarily good for business.) It's doing better because Type IV is so different from previous editions--and from every other game on the market.
I think Pathfinder's doing well because people already knew how to play Type III D&D and liked it and the new edition is almost completely incompatible with it so they gotta start over from zero.
Who would do that? Who would start over from scratch just to play a game in the same genre? Only two kinds of people will do that: hardcore players so jaded and with so much gaming-time on their hands that they will play a new system just to try it and totally new players who are just like "Hey, might as well buy what's in the store". You lost everybody who was just cruising along playing D&D and liking it.
Plus: To turn a 3.5 adventure into a Type IV one you pretty much have to rewrite every encounter from the ground up. Which takes almost as much time as writing the adventure in the first place.
Sure, any game not being currently supported with new stuff will wane in popularity, but if 3.5 was still being supported pretty much continuously from the second it was discontinued in the form of Pathfinder, why wouldn't people who love 3.5 just keep right on? Only one reason: the name is stupid. Who wants to Find Paths? Nobody I wanna play with. But other than that? No reason.
Say what you want about Type 2 D&D, it had a legitimate claim to simply being a tightening of the screws on AD&D--it was worth checking out if you played the old game. Type III rationalized a lot of mechanics that were already understandable to a TSR player. Type IV is just this whole other animal--not bad in itself--but it's trouble if the crux of your marketing strategy is "Why this particular fantasy RPG? It's the one called D&D".
Turning adventures written for any TSR version of the game into any other TSR version of the game was--as they say in computer programming--trivial. Even going from GURPS or Rolemaster to TSR D&D wasn't so hard because there weren't that many stats in D&D back then. Type 3 stats were like the TSR games only more of them. But going from Type IV to anything else requires more computational effort than going between any other pair of systems I can readily think of. I have literally never heard of anyone using a Type IV adventure for any system other than Type IV.
Now maybe your idea was to "wall off" Type IV so you wouldn't leak players off to other systems. But, honestly, I don't think that's working out, financially. Do you?
People who like using their brains well enough to understand and run D&D will eventually use them to try other games--the skills and enthusiasms needed to DM overlap with the skills and enthusiasms needed to hack a game system and investigate new game systems. DMs pretty much all do it. Why not use this fact to your advantage rather than have it work against you?
For TSR, this promiscuity wasn't a problem--folks trying other games didn't mean they weren't still buying TSR stuff. You could sell the Fiend Folio to someone playing MERP or Warhammer.
Now speaking here as both someone who has played and enjoyed Type IV and as someone who has a sort of vague democratic idea that all mutations must be preserved I'm not asking you to abandon that version of the game. I am asking you to do things with it that inject it back into the ecosystem of ideas that is the RPG hobby. Simple conversion algorithms on every product and notes on how to run things in older systems in every book would be nice, but most importantly of all, write the adventure stuff concretely rather than in abstracted language. This ensures that people might still buy your stuff even if they don't buy your system.
3. Switch to a more pluralistic and writer-centric model
I know you remember when Dark Knight and Watchmen changed everything in comics and the audience started getting older and I know you know that's happened in games too. One way comics dealt with that was by moving toward a more author-centric publishing scheme. Writers (and, on good days, artists) were given whole worlds to play with, alternate-universe versions of characters were published as Elseworlds, creator-owned imprints were created etc. etc.
One very pleasant effect of this was that different comics are now very different from each other without damaging the integrity of the overall IP. Grant Morrison X-Men doesn't read like Jason Aaron X Men but nobody questions that it's X-Men.
As I noted several times while looking at The Slaying Stone, there are a lot of things in there I don't think are Logan Bonner's fault. I think they are probably down to whoever decided "A D&D product is a D&D product and that means the goblins are all like this and the orcs are all like that all the time".
I do not think the world-centric approach (Forgotten Realms v. Eberron v. Greyhawk) really solves this--if you listen to the designers there's still a tremendous amount of stuff that gets left out of these products because they don't fit some overall vision. Plus we all know that if you create different gameworlds that (supposedly) don't overlap you're basically competing with yourself. That problem disappears if we're buying based on how it's Mearls or it's Monte rather than it's Eberron or it's Greyhawk.
Once a player has played for about 2 years they get how game mechanics work and they presumably have got themselves (or are) a DM who can write an adventure--the only thing a published product can offer these people any more is ideas. At some point, the WOTC stamp stopped meaning "This contains the work of the best paid--and therefore possibly best period--professional RPG writers in the world" and started meaning "This contains the most generic version of this writer's ideas you are likely to find--if it is at all interesting to you, seek out the things they wrote for smaller publishers who gave them a freer hand".
Authors should be allowed to offer genuinely different takes on what ever edition you have out all under the WOTC banner--different presentations, formats, rules hacks (carefully explained, of course) and deviations from world canon. Don't worry-nobody is going to forget it's D&D and that you own D&D.
Also, curmudgeons like me won't be able to complain WOTC's this and WOTC's that if you abandon an obsession with house style, continuity, and regularization--each product will have to get looked at on its own merits because there won't be a blanket assumption that it is all from the same factory. Plus people who work over there will probably like it and have fun and do good work because they are having fun writing what they love. You know--freelancer morale and all that.
4. More fun tools for DMs
I know, I know--selling handbooks to players makes more money than selling stuff to us. I could make a financial case for selling genuinely useful, durable GM tools but it might be total bullshit--I don't know.
Alls I know is: I wrote a book full of GM tools and it took a month and I did way better than break even--and I am a known pervert with a funny haircut, not a company that already owns the most valuable piece of intellectual property in the industry with enough money to maybe even print it in color and hire some guys who aren't them to draw pictures in it.*
Okay here's a financial argument: Every GM tool (Majestic Wilderlands, City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Dungeon Alphabet, Vornheim) brings a different specific style of playing into focus. Putting some truly decent GM-option books out would show the range of possible ways Type IV (or whatever version you have out at any given time) can be played. This expands the audience, this expands peoples' notions of how the game can be played and therefore lengthens the shelf-life of the game.
We all know D&D has lasted so long mainly because it can be played in 1000 different ways---why not use this fact to your advantage?
You must have some designers dying to write books like this. Let 'em! Have them take all those ideas they put up on the WOTC forums and in their blogs and in the old podcasts and newsletters and work on them until they turn into some concrete tools which show us what all can be done with your game.
5. Less padding
All this usefulness-to-people-who-aren't-all-Type-IV-all-the-time ceases to be useful if we have to pay three times as much for the privilege of never being able to find anything in the damn book.
Maybe you fixed this in Essentials, I haven't checked. I do know I managed to fit my entire Type IV Warlord on one side of one piece of paper and you didn't, so that suggests someone over there is napping on the job.(And yes, weirdoes who may have found this post via some weird forum: he is not optimized. I know.)
Y'know: what I think I'm saying overall is--at this point I feel like I am more likely to pick up something written for almost any other kind of RPG than I am likely to pick up a Type IV product. Which is weird because I don't play Dread or Car Wars or DC Adventures or Stormbringer--I play D&D. Hell, I even play 4e sometimes.
Theoretically, there should be something in a WOTC product that can gives me ideas. But no: Type IV products are about Type IV and not much else. And I don't think that helps anybody in the long run. And it doesn't have to be that way.
Alright, I'm done.
Note: Vociferous edition-warring in the comments will be considered boring.
*Mr James Edward Raggi IV would like to remind readers: 1) that Vornheim was in black and white because its author wanted it to be available for a reasonably low price, not because LOTFP couldn't afford it, and 2) that the pictures were done by me because I wanted to do them.