Feargus Urquhart and The Polygon Article

The following article has been getting a lot of discussion on Twitter among the tabletop gaming writers I follow and respect.  I realize that is a narrow superlative but stay with me.

http://www.polygon.com/2015/2/9/8005145/why-one-of-d-ds-biggest-video-game-devs-thinks-that-tabletop-game-has

I honestly do not understand why this article is getting the attention it is because I do not understand what point this article is trying to make.  This is not a case of TL:DR, this is a short article.  Too short in fact to make any kind of persuasive argument.  Lets break this down.

The article is a short interview between Polygon and Francis Feargus Urquhart.  Mr. Urquhart is identified as “the man behind so many adaptations of D&D video games.”  None of these games are listed by name.  A visit to his Wikipedia page does list him as a major contributor to well reviewed titles such as Baldur’s Gate 2, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment.  Why not tell me the reader what’s on his resume?  When Forbes wrote an article on D&D in May 2013, Mike Mearls was quoted in there.  Mearls is credited as the senior manager of research and design for Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast.  I might not know exactly how Mike Mearls spends his days, but I have a pretty good idea that this man is qualified to speak about D&D’s internal workings.  My 12 years as a Dungeon Master does not qualify me to speak about D&D’s internal workings.

The thesis of the article is that Obsidian is going to be making games based on Pathfinder and not D&D which is presented as a loss for and weakness in D&D to the benefit of Pathfinder.  The genesis of this is traced back to the release of 4th Edition D&D.  I think we can all safely agree 4E caused disagreements within the RPG community, just like The Avengers, casting Pedro Pascal as the Red Viper, or Crystal Pepsi caused disagreement within the RPG community.

Okay getting too cynical.  When it came to 4E every player had an opinion.  And many people who’ve worked on D&D in some capacity worked on Pathfinder, although you could say the same thing about The 13th Age or Numenera but they don’t have video game deals yet.  The point is that 4E was a big divergence from the previous editions when it came to how the game felt at the table. 4E was the beginning of a schism but 5E is presented in this article as being the nail in the proverbial coffin.  5E caused Mr. Urquhart to throw his hands up and say “I don’t know what to make of this.”  He doesn’t know how to make videogames out of the 5th Edition ruleset so his company is choosing Pathfinder.

Why?  What plans were evaluated and viewed as impossible or impractical?  What parts of the 5th Edition ruleset does Mr. Urquhart believe make 5th Edition impossible to develop a videogame for compared to 4th Edition D&D or 3.75 Edition (Pathfinder)?  The article gives no details about how Mr. Urquhart reached this decision if his reason is based on the 5th Edition Ruleset.  It would be perfectly legitimate to state that Advantage/Disadvantage or Inspiration mechanics are impossible to define if one is coding a videogame.  But that mechanic did not exist in 4th Edition D&D.  When then not develop a game for that rules system?  It would seem to me that the 4th Edition Ruleset lends itself perfect to a tactical RPG in the style of X-Com.  Was a 4th Edition D&D RPG deemed unlikely to profit due to the system being out of print?  Again, completely legitimate opinion.  But not one this article mentions as a factor in Mr. Urquhart’s decision.

The only reason given is incredibly vague to my eyes.  Mr. Urquhart’s reason is that WotC is part of Hasbro which makes a great deal of money off games like Monopoly while Dungeons and Dragons is a comparitvely small part of their portfolio.  I do not understand the cause and effect here.  Obsidian makes games off Pathfinder and not D&D.  The basis of this decision and Mr. Urquhart ‘s credibility is based on his status as a long-time fan of Dungeons and Dragonswho has a problem with the 4th and 5th edition ruleset.  But his decision doesn’t seem to be based on his problem with the 4th or 5th edition ruleset.  Bringing that up is a complete red herring.  The root seems to be money but the article does not mention what kind of profits Obsidian stands to make by choosing Pathfinder over D&D.  It does not bode well for the credibility of the article’s author Brian Crecente or Mr. Urquhart to bring up D&D’s profitability as a negative in Obsidian’s decision not to make games for the 5th Edition ruleset while neglecting Obsidian’s own financial incentives for choosing a competing rules system.  Instead the article cloaks itself in a normative argument about the deficiencies of the 4th and 5th Edition D&D rules compared to Pathfinder with no development of that argument.  This article sets up its argument that Obsidian’s decision is based on a negative critique of the 5th Edition D&D rules but then seems to forget to include that critique in the article.  The key part of setting up a Straw Man is that you have to actually argue against the Straw Man, not switch targets in the last half of your 620 word article.

What is the cause and effect in this argument then?  Mr. Urquhart  seems to think that it is somehow better for a tabletop RPG, somehow making it more inherently noble and a funner game, if the company behind it is not as profitable, compared to Hasbro.  Why?  Mr. Urquhart seems to imply that because D&D is one small part amidst the corporation’s larger offerings, it is somehow doomed when compared to a company that publishes just one RPG or focuses on tabletop RPGs exclusively.  The article offers no evidence as for why this is true other than, because Obsidian is choosing Pathfinder over D&D it must be so.  This is a kind of Jimmy Stewart Wide-Eyed Idealist reasoning that a smaller publisher is more committed to designing RPGs and thus will always do so.  If that’s the case, why not choose to make videogames out of Dungeon World?  Dungeon World is an award winning RPG from a small independent publisher.  Meanwhile, Pathfinder overtook D&D as the world’s best selling RPG, a title D&D held since 1974.  Why would you not quote that statistic in your reasoning of why to choose Pathfinder over D&D?  Maybe because that statistic doesn’t make Pathfinder look like a scrappy underdog if it could overthrow the giant yet slightly lower selling Dungeons and Dragons.  Mayhaps creating a videogame for Pathfinder is also slightly less work since there is already a rich library of 3.5 D&D based games such as Knights of the Old Republic, while no similar games yet exist for 5th edition.

Back in 2012 I went to the Escapist Expo in North Carolina.  James Wyatt from WotC was there running games of D&D Next, the playtest version of D&D 5th Edition.  I attended a panel with James and some other designers including Chris Pramas of Green Ronin on world-building.  Someone asked what their number one piece of advice was for becoming a better DM or GM.  The panel’s immediate and unanimous response was to play more RPGs.  Play more systems play more styles.  The people most likely to buy new 5th Edition books this year probably bought Shadowrun books last year and Pathfinder books two years ago.  Tabletop gaming is not a zero-sum game and that is what this article seems to miss entirely.  The people most committed to gaming who are talking about this article on Twitter today, a while ago they were talking about how they got their new Numenera books.  Before that it was Rise of Tiamat.  And so on and so forth going back as long as people have been gaming.  This article and the idea that D&D is somehow harmed or lesser than Pathfinder because of one developer’s decision to make video games for one system and not another is waste of your time.