Wizards of the Coast's problem with trust

Wizardly betrayal

trap gaming meta dnd

At the time of writing, Wizards of the Coast has just held a "summit" for D&D "influencers" and publishers. The event was well covered by Enworld and some Youtubers. I understand that it's in the spirit of reconciliation to take WotC at its word, to believe that they're sorry for what they attempted, and that they're eager to make amends and to move past their indiscretion. I don't like to hold a grudge, and I'd like to trust WotC. However, being willing to change isn't the same thing as being trustworthy, and I think there's a lot happening lately that continues to demonstrate that WotC is not to be trusted.

Loss of trust

Wizards of the Coast has used a common business technique to make a drastic change in hopes of maximizing profit: Do it at the expense of customer experience, and then beg for forgiveness. To make amends, WotC is assuring us that the threat to go back on their agreement with their community was a mistake. To demonstrate good will, they've placed the System Reference Document under Creative Commons, a soundly lateral and perfunctory move.

But that doesn't change the fact that they threatened their community.

This is an awkward problem to have, because WotC obviously can't go back in time and undo their legal threat, the lies intended to redirect the community response, and the accusatory and aggressive interactions that followed. It's the problem with loss of trust. The only way to regain it would for the breach of faith to never have happened in the first place, which is impossible. So everyone's supposed to work toward reconciliation and toward rebuilding trust.

Can you rebuild something that's never been there, though?

Culture of aggression

For longtime D&D players, the trust afforded to WotC throughout 5e was given on credit. WotC changed licensing for 4th Edition in an effort to sideline other RPG publishers. They lost community trust then, and they made only the barest effort to regain it for 5e by crowdsourcing playtests, and their community returned. That's not rebuilding trust, though, that's just not working against the community. For many people, it was no surprise that WotC tried the same thing once 5th Edition became overwhelmingly popular.

It's time to face it. There's a latent, cultural problem of anti-consumerism at Wizards of the Coast. And I don't believe it's just down to new executives like Cynthia Williams and Chris Cox, either. It's a deeply ingrained tendency that extends to the way management treats employees (assuming the leaks from WotC employees are to be believed).

It might be hard to see from the outside, and it might be even harder to see if you've never worked for a company with a healthy and open culture. This is a problem that's baked into the identity of the company. It can be fixed, but it takes more than a quick apology and hasty reversal of public policy. The whole company needs to commit to the principles of an Open Organization. They need to build a company where:

  • Employees and management are equal but for job roles
  • Customers have insight into decisions and finances
  • The community is viewed as collaborators instead of customers

Change must be uncomfortable

Building trust is hard. It's twice as hard after you've demonstrated bad faith. Wizards of the Coast has demonstrated that it has a corporate culture and identity that is comfortable with outlandishly aggressive and anti-consumer behaviour.

To prove itself to the gaming community, Wizards of the Coast needs to make serious changes to how it operates, but also it needs to start trusting the community. By the looks of it, WotC has been afraid that its supporters are all conspiring to steal away profit and mindshare. This is demonstrably incorrect. 5th Edition didn't become a billion dollar product line through communal subterfuge. There have always been ways to get around WotC, but the community has instead thrown more money at it than ever before.

There's more to it than that, though. The community has literally helped create 5e, through participation in open playtests and providing feedback on Unearthed Arcana, by publishing content in support of official products, by engaging with Sage Advice, and by championing and promoting 5th Edition. There was a whole ecosystem around 5e that ensured the game had something for everyone.

Fix it

Placing the SRD in the Creative Commons was a lateral move. It protects the SRD no more than the OGL. If WotC wants to challenge Creative Commons, they're free to do so, just as they were ready to challenge the OGL.

What a new WotC should do instead is explicitly support its direct competitors. That may seem outrageous, but building trust is hard. Wizards of the Coast is in deficit.

WotC needs to support the ORC license, and to pay all the legal fees.

WotC needs to publish an adventure for Pathfinder 2, or for 13th Age, or Call of Cthulhu. It doesn't have to be a net new adventure. They could just port a popular existing one.

They need to stop throwing money around to make hollow promises to its beleaguered, and start spending money to prove that they're learning to be a part of the community.

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