or DungeonPaths & DragonFinders (A False Equivalency)
Well here we go.
Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition.
This has been a topic that has been discussed ad nauseam, eh? Well too bad, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about it, and if you’re reading this, I imagine you do too.
So this edition of RPG Evolution is a little bit different. RPG Evolution has been, up until this point, a quarterly column in which I discuss the sales trends at Games and Stuff, from a point of view that will hopefully be of most use to fellow retailers. Each month I point out interesting information pulled from the list of the Top 20 highest grossing RPG lines in the store over the previous three months, and highlight trends seen from a longer view. My most recent article, discussing the first quarter of 2015, was just posted recently, and can be found by clicking here.
So about these two games.
It’s been a lot of fun watching the numbers on both of them since fifth edition D&D hit with the Player’s Handbook last year. I admit to kinda enjoying watching D&D pound Pathfinder into the dirt with sales figures after all the nay-sayers said it was dead. And just to be clear, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. As I’ve stated before, I’m not really a D&D player, except for 13th Age. I believe it was retailer Gary Ray of Black Diamond Games who years ago said to a room full of people (and I’m paraphrasing) “Don’t take sides in the edition wars. Be an arms dealer.”
At any rate, as fun as it’s been watching D&D rake in the numbers, one has to wonder… what’s next? With a thin release schedule, can D&D really keep this up? As a gamer, I’m actually far more inclined to appreciate RPG lines that are lean and mean, with releases that serve to advance story and not necessarily provide volume upon volume of new rules and mechanical content. But as a retailer?
And that’s the real rub here. On one side, you’ve got a VAST line (Pathfinder) that kicks out about 4-7 new books every month, plus various maps and card accessories. And a good handful of those book releases each year are hefty hardback volumes. (That picture above represents one third of the square footage devoted to Pathfinder in my store.)
And on the other side, you’ve got D&D, with a scant six books in the line, and only one more title (Out of the Abyss) announced so far. Lean and mean may be great for what Wizards is attempting to do with their “story first” approach, but it can’t be great for the bottom line of game stores. Or can it?
Let’s think about Pathfinder again for a second. So, Paizo releases roughly a half dozen books per month. Let’s say every “Alpha” Pathfinder player in your shop buys all that stuff, every month. That’s a solid chunk of change. But how many of those Alphas are enrolled in Paizo’s subscription service, getting Adventure Paths and other books direct through the publisher at a discount? That certainly doesn’t help us here at the Friendly Local Game Store.
But Pathfinder’s got other things going for it. A lot of goodwill for one. Many people have a bad taste in their mouth from D&D 4E and view Paizo as a savior of sorts and will only give up all the crunchy bits of 3.5 when they’re pried from their cold dead hands.
And it’s not uncommon for regular Pathfinder players to come into the shop and simply decide that they want to play, say, a pirate story, so they plunk down a pile of money for every last bit of the Skull & Shackles Adventure Path. D&D5E simply doesn’t have the depth of product to support spontaneous decisions like that. But with that vast depth comes other problems… like bloat. ‘Cause let’s face it, all those books are intimidating.
As D&D5E gains a bit of longevity, I think Pathfinder’s problems are going to get kinda interesting.
Here’s the thing.
The simple idea of whether Pathfinder or D&D will “win” the edition wars or whether customers will decide to play one over the other is a flawed concept. The thought that there’s a finite pool of players out there and that they’re either going to play Pathfinder or D&D? Nonsense. The Pathfinder people, are for the most part are going to continue playing Pathfinder. Sure many of them may dabble in 5E out of curiosity, but they’ll mostly stick to Pathfinder. Similarly, the D&D brand loyalists will stick with their game. So this conversation ultimately becomes about the continuing sales strength of both lines going into the future, each judged mostly against its own success.
But there’s one metric by which D&D will win time and time and time again.
When lapsed players come in the shop… When Dad comes in looking to start playing D&D with his young daughter… When a group of teenage boys comes in wanting to “get into” roleplaying games…
These people, time and time again, want DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. They don’t want to hear that this “Pathfinder” thing is basically D&D, they want DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. It is in this way that D&D sales are going to continue to truck along at a steady pace. In the absence of an active D&D line, Pathfinder was picking up those players, but now there’s next to no reason why it would gain those customers. D&D is where it’s at. But how many of those players will continue to purchase more books from the line? Hard to say. Indeed, even if they bought everything, it’s not that many books in the grand scheme of things, and we all know most of these newbies won’t become hardcore alpha players, try as we might. (Though we really need to be actively recruiting new Gamemasters… but that’s a whole ‘nother article.)
So what does that mean for Pathfinder? OK, we’ve got those Alpha gamer sales (those that aren’t subscribing direct to Paizo) and we’ve got the Pathfinder Society perhaps driving some interest, but one has to wonder how long sales will continue.
When push comes to shove, I rather think we’ll see D&D sales level off, but continue at a steady clip throughout the year, although certainly not at 2014 sales levels, unless they modify their release strategy. Pathfinder, on the other hand, I’m not sure can maintain its previous sales levels having effectively lost the best way to gain new players (that being the decided lack of an actual D&D branded product to compete with.)
At Games and Stuff, Pathfinder is… slipping. Make no mistake, it’s still very strong, handily claiming the #2 sales spot, but it’s not the unassailable behemoth that it once was. At the GAMA Trade Show in March, I spoke to two trusted retailer friends (who I like to think of as the veritable Aramis and Athos to my Porthos, but I digress) and when they asked me about my Pathfinder sales, I responded with “they’re… *pause*… ok” which only seemed to reinforce their thinking that sales were on a downward trend. While I don’t exactly think the sky is falling, I do think things are shifting. While new softcover Player Companion books continue to do well, new release hardcover sales and Adventure Paths are a fraction of what they were. That being said, the recently released Pathfinder Unchained seems to be bucking that trend, and in April, Pathfinder beat D&D to be the #1 RPG in my store for the first time since 5E’s release. That may be a fluke, given the success of Unchained, but we’ll see. In contrast to that number, in February, Shadowrun came within a single hardback sale of stealing the #2 spot from Pathfinder! A year ago, that would have sounded like a fairy tale. So yeah, saying things are in flux is an understatement.
PATHFINDER: Well, things are on the downtrend. I think after a period of bleeding sales, things are starting to level off, and eventually Pathfinder will mostly sit pretty at #2, occasionally tipping over into #1 when the release schedule favors it. Although once in a while some upstart like Shadowrun might threaten it, and Pathfinder might even slip to #3 on any given month. And who can say what Titansgrave will do to our RPG sales?
The bloat of the Pathfinder line is a nasty hurdle to clear, although Paizo itself is attempting to address this concern with things like the Pathfinder Society Core campaign, and I know I’ve had some success using the Pathfinder Strategy Guide for its intended purpose, easing Beginner Box players into the full breadth of product offerings. But it’s still a massive, saturated line, and getting new players into the game is difficult. The simplicity of D&D’s classic PHB/DMG/MM trio should not to be taken for granted… barring excellent customer service, new Pathfinder players simply don’t know how to proceed after their core rulebook purchase. But we shall see.
And maybe, just maybe The Pathfinder RPG might pick up a player or two from the Adventure Card Game series. But that’s a big maybe.
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: The heat has cooled. I think we’ll see a steady drip of sales as D&D steals away those incoming curious/new/lapsed players from Pathfinder, but the white hot numbers of 2014 are a thing of the past. I won’t be surprising anyone to say that the Princes of the Apocalypse book didn’t sell half as well as the Tyranny of Dragons stuff. (And does anyone else think they shot themselves in the foot by not calling the actual book Elemental Evil? But I digress.)
Twice yearly storyline adventure books with a handful of player options are great and all, but we need more. And I’m definitively NOT saying that we need anything remotely like Pathfinder or 4E in terms of multiple Player’s Handbooks and Monster Manuals, but some sort of Advanced Players Option book might be nice, something I can sell to every player and not just DMs. And for the love of Strahd can we get some campaign setting books? One book a year, for a single setting. These, my friends, these would sell, and not serve to dilute the line. Hell, even a big fat Waterdeep campaign setting book would sell like proverbial steaming maple griddle cakes. But c’mon, Realms, Dark Sun, Ravenloft? Dragonlance?
Seriously? It’d be like printing money.
Anyway, so third party products from the likes of Goodman Games and Gale Force 9 help the bottom line and pick up some of the slack, but I want just a touch more than two official adventures a year, got that WotC? (Though if I told you how many of those GF9 spell decks I’ve sold your head would explode. My store hosted Flames of War Nationals last year, so we’ve got an excellent relationship with Battlefront/GF9. If you saw my numbers on those decks you’d probably all hate me.)
That’s where we are and how I see it. Things are still shifting, both lines are cooling off compared to last year, but combined, they far exceed sales of when we didn’t have an official D&D at all. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how things pan out over the next 18 months or so.
Me? I’ll be adventuring on Athas, the world of Dark Sun, using 13th AGE rules.
-Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff. And yes, there is some sick part of him that enjoys crunching all these numbers as part of his job. He’s excited for Out of the Abyss, solely because he can’t wait to watch Demogorgon destroy that fancy dark elf once and for all.
-RPG Evolution is Paul’s mostly quarterly column for the Games and Stuff website, discussing the business of selling role-playing games.