Right, on to business.

A couple of days ago, Paizo gave everyone a fright by replacing their front page with an image of goblins burning the town and an announcement that goblins had taken over the offices and were forcing a decision.

Fortunately, it was not a declaration of bankrupcy, or a decision to get out of the business, or even discontinue a game line.

Indeed, it was pretty much the ballsiest move I’ve seen a gaming company make since Wizards of the Coast came out with the d20 System Licence seven years ago.

What Came Before

For a bit of background, Wizards of the Coast is coming out with the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons next summer. It’s actually closer to the ninth or eighth edition, but nobody cares. Now, the current, or third, edition, was released with the d20 System Licence. This means, basically, that any game publisher can make D&D-compatible games, accessories and sourcebooks and sell them, without paying Wizards of the Coast a dime. It makes sense to do so, too, because D&D is the market leader by a margin so huge that it isn’t even funny.

Now, the next edition of D&D is not going to be compatible with the d20 rules. Also, while it will have its own licence, it will be a lot more constraining. Also, any company who wants to get stuff done before the licence becomes public in… 2009, I think, has to pay WotC $5,000 to get the rules in advance. WotC, however, has been tardy in making this actually available. Additionally, by the designers’ own admission, the rules of the new game will be so different from the current edition that conversion will not be recommended, and unlike with the second edition-third edition shift, no conversion guide will be forthcoming, which in turn will mean that the loads of sourcebooks released for D&D and under the d20 Licence will be essentially useless to a 4th edition game. But I digress.

What Paizo has been doing until now is release a quality series of adventures under the d20 licence, called Pathfinder. They’re pretty, have high production values, and at the first one, Burnt Offerings, is one of the finest first-level D&D adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read. Paizo started the series after they lost the licence to produce the Dungeon and Dragon magazines for WotC – a task they also performed admirably. The discontinuation of the magazine was a black mark on WotC, especially since their online replacement for Dragon is nearly void of useful content. WotC has made a great many unpopular decisions with 4E, and they’re bleeding fanbase.

The Pathfinder adventures have apparently been selling well – to the degree that it’s a pain in the ass to try and snatch a copy of a new one over here before they’re sold out. The first Pathfinder story arc, Rise of the Runelords, has just come to a close, and the next one is kicking off. Paizo has scene cred and goodwill up the wazoo.

The Meat of the Matter

Now, Paizo is cashing in on the popularity of their game line, and pretty much establishing themselves as the new top dog of the d20 System industry, and ensuring that the game will keep going even after the third edition rulebooks by WotC have gone out of print and been dumped by retailers. They announced Pathfinder RPG, a roleplaying game that promises to fix the many, small, niggling issues with the current edition of D&D while retaining backwards compatibility.

And to top it off, they’re doing an open playtest. Alpha testing is already underway, and the first alpha release is available for download. A classy move, that.

The major selling points here, for the record, are the backwards compatibility and keeping the rules on store shelves after WotC abandons the game. They’re marketing to an extant player base, the people who are heavily invested in the current edition, and/or don’t like the look of the new one. Meanwhile, keeping the rulebooks on sale means the game system is alive and supported, which makes it possible for new people to pick it up, and perhaps just as importantly, sends the message that the game is still alive, still being supported. Continued support for a game is very important to certain players. It’s mostly just psychological, but getting errata is always nice. It’s even nicer when you don’t need it, though.

The beta test release will hit next August, and will be both a free pdf and a dead tree edition at a game store near you. The final game will be hitting the shelves in August 2009. They’re also starting an organised play campaign, Pathfinder Society, which, as an RPGA veteran, I find most interesting. Of course, they’ve got Erik Mona on board, who was there kicking off that whole Living Greyhawk thing that I’ve been playing for the last four years.

Me, I will be running playtests once I can find the time. Our resident number crunchers and rules lawyer already combed over the first alpha and identified possible sticking points, which we can then test, document and post to Paizo. Also, I’ve been dying to run Burnt Offerings.