Several recent online articles and conversations have once again got people buzzing about the various editions of D&D, where they went right, where they went wrong (more, in most conversations, the latter than the former), and where they need to go from here.
The problem, ultimately, is that–at least as I see it–tabletop RPGs as a game are in diametric conflict with tabletop RPGs as a business.
Here’s what I mean. No single game is going to satisfy everyone; that’s simply a given. Some player prefer a vast array of strict, specific rules, with every possible corner case or power having its own distinct mechanics. Some players prefer an almost completely freeform game, where the rules are absolutely minimalist and the lion’s share of the power resides in the DM/GM/Storyteller/Referee/whatever. Most players fall somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes.
So, essentially, if you want to appeal to the widest number of players, you have three basic options.
1) Create a game that’s so flexible and so chock full of optional rules and systems that it is, in essence, multiple games under the same umbrella title. The problem there is that your product identity becomes diluted, and you’re printing books that you know are only going to be purchased by a specific minority niche of your audience.
2) Take it a step further and literally publish multiple games (such as the old divide between Basic D&D and Advanced D&D). Except that, once again, you’re splitting resources between two markets that only marginally overlap. Not cost-effective.
3) You create a game with the broadest and most flexible rules possible. It has hard systems in place, and specific rules, but they’re very general in nature. Rather than provide rules for 30 different sorts of acrobatic stunts, you provide a single basic type of roll for such things, designed so that it’s easily extrapolated to more specific uses.
I’m personally a fan of the last option. I want a game–a Dungeons & Dragons–in which the rules are clear, easy to build on, easy to extrapolate, but very broad and flexible in scope. I won’t claim to know what a "majority" of fans want, but I do know that I’m not alone in that desire. And while it won’t please everyone, I believe it captures a wider swathe of the spectrum than either of the two extremes (rules-light and rules-heavy).
But here’s where we run into problems. RPGs live and die on subsidiary sales. If you’re the company producing them, you don’t want people to just buy the core book (or the core three books, in the case of most editions of D&D), and be able to extrapolate everything else they’ll ever need. You want people buying supplements.
You can publish adventures, but those only appeal to a small portion of the market–people who are not only running games, as opposed to playing in them, but who don’t prefer creating their own adventures. Campaign settings run into the same problem.
So what sorts of supplements can you publish that’ll appeal to the most people? Books with new mechanical options. New powers. New classes. New races. New sub-systems.
And that’s fine, to a point. But…
A) If the core rules are too easily extrapolated beyond their initial scope, people don’t need to buy new mechanics. They can make them up easily, or even on the fly.
B) The more rules you put out, the more you restrict existing rules. If, for instance, you put out a sub-system focused on acrobatic stunts in combat, then the implication becomes that such stunts cannot be performed–or at least not well–without that sub-system. Suddenly, the more general systems from the core rules cannot accomplish what, until the sub-system was released, people were using them to accomplish. (Or at least, that’ll be the perception.)
Bottom line, flexibility and openness is best for game play; but specificity and granularity are better for a publisher.
The solution? I have no idea. If I did, I’d be selling it to WotC and/or Paizo in exchange for stock and a wad of cash. But I think that, until and unless we can solve that basic conflict at the core of it all, we’re going to continue to see edition wars, splintered audiences, and confusion moving forward.