So WotC wants to make D&D Next an edition that busts through divisions in the D&D fanbase and unites us all in a common, excellent play experience. Because of my background in community organizing, my ears tingle whenever I hear about efforts to unite people, build communities and improve relationships. I’ll state my main point as simply as I possibly can: if WotC is truly serious about making the upcoming edition a “game for everyone”, then it needs to go above and beyond and do as much as it possibly can to build up the D&D community. Simply saying that they want more community involvement won’t necessarily get them there. The public playtests are a good step, but not enough. I believe that the goals and methods of community organizing can help WotC turn a real corner in its relationship with the fanbase.
In a nutshell, a community organizer is an outreach worker that helps build up and energize communities so that they take some kind of collective social action. Our own esteemed President Obama was a community organizer. Traditional, civil rights-style community organizers targeted disenfranchised groups like unemployed farm workers, newly arrived immigrants, etc. Organizers empowered these groups to gather together, talk about their problems, develop political platforms, and eventually stage protests and do whatever they needed to do in order to change society.
However, a community organizer doesn’t have to restrict his or her work to politics. Their methods are useful wherever there are disconnects and fractures between community members, or between a community and some kind of powerful entity in their lives. In this case, the community is all of us D&D gamers, the powerful entity is Wizards of the Coast, and the ‘collective social action’ is buying, enjoying, and being fully engaged with WotC and their product. As evidenced by the fact that they are releasing a new edition, WotC is not entirely happy with the current state of their relationship with D&D consumers. And as a poll over at EnWorld shows, over 40% of the fanbase has either a neutral or negative attitude about this new edition. The fact that 60% of respondents like the idea of a new edition is a good thing, but WotC doesn’t only want to appeal to 60% of D&D players; they are (rightfully) trying to appeal to all of them. The ideas and methods of community organizers can help move that needle towards the goal of a happy, engaged, and self-motivated fanbase that truly feels that D&D is their game.
So without further ado, this is what I would do if I were community manager of WotC:
I. The overall goal: Build relationships. This is absolute, non-negotiable, critical core of community organizing. It is what separates community organizing from corporate marketing. The D&D fanbase needs to trust that WotC doesn’t just want to sell us a bunch of stuff, but that it actually cares about our gaming experience and wants to deliver the best product possible. WotC is a business and must achieve certain financial goals to keep going. However, building relationships and selling merchandise are not mutually exclusive. For example, I am happy to spend money at Steve’s Bagels, my local bagel shop, not only because they make incredible bagels, but they also give me free coffee and let me read the newspaper for free while I wait in line. As an added bonus, Steve (who is indeed a real person) sometimes makes time to chat with me about life, the universe, and everything. I feel like Steve’s is my bagel shop. I’d like to feel the same way about the company that makes my favorite hobby game.
Another truism of community organizing is that good relationships breed motivation. When people feel like they are doing something in their best interest, which in this case is buying and playing the best game possible, they will do a lot of work themselves to insure that it is indeed the game they want to play, and that it spreads to as many people as possible. In essence, the goal is for the D&D community to sell WotC’s product to itself and to others. The active, engaged community is so energized that it becomes a de facto ambassador of the game, both to its own members and to outsiders. In the ideal world, community organizers don’t exist; communities are vibrant enough to get together and make things happen on their own. That’s a difficult goal, almost impossible to sustain. But having this goal in mind would shape how WotC approaches its customers, and how its customers approach one another.
II. The method:
a) One-on-ones: In reality, there is no such thing as a “D&D fanbase” apart from the individuals that make it up. A person or company can write articles, make speeches, and talk to “the masses” about building relationships until they are blue in the face, but truly deep and lasting relationships are built from a very personal foundation. If I were community manager at WotC, I would identify a cross-section of leaders and active members of the community and make at least 30-45 minutes with each and every one of them to see what they truly want out of their D&D. That could be in person, by phone, by skype… the point is to make time to insure that people’s voices are not just heard in a general way, but directly heard. The best case scenario is that the interviewee has wonderful insights into the game that can enrich the design process. But even if that person offers nothing new, they will remember and appreciate the conversation. Multiply that by however many hundreds, and all of a sudden, you have a group of people that feel a real connection to what’s going on, and they hopefully share their experience with others.
The key to effective one-on-ones is knowing that they are not tools to datamine for feedback on design concepts, like playtest feedback is. WotC’s current paradigm with that playtests is that gathering feedback to improve the game is a primary goal, and hopefully consumer trust gets built up along the way. I’m not knocking that. It’s a great thing. However, they should be paired with one-0n-ones and other similar conversations, where the main point is to build relationships.
As far as who should be interviewed, the recent December playtest of D&D Next involved some bloggers, media members, and industry insiders. That is obviously a great place to start. A dedicated community organizer, though, would try to go beyond the professionals and get a good cross section of the different D&D players at the grass roots level. That means having one-on-ones with local FLGS owners, frequent forum posters on the official site and elsewhere, organizers of D&D groups on sites like facebook and meetup, and finally, just regular old DMs and players. Getting to a number of interviews that is comprehensive yet manageable is very difficult. So is actually executing a good interview. Believe me, I know that all of that is a TON of work. However, there are no shortcuts to building good relationships.
(Connected with building dynamic relationships, I feel that either the D&D Next design team or people associated with it need to be more visible than the occasional newspaper article or post on the official site. Why aren’t they more involved in the official forum dedicated to D&D next, or in other informal channels? There might be very good reasons why that I do not know, so I’ll just float the idea out there and leave it at that.)
b) Tasking: At the end of a one-on-one conversation, a community organizer doesn’t just say goodbye. Instead, they try to get a commitment from the person to attend a meeting, or call a few friends, or do something else that insures their continued engagement. If you want to get people to do big things, get them to do little things first. WotC has done a pretty good job with promoting itself through public events like the living campaigns, D&D Encounters, and various conventions. Continuing to get people involved in those is a great thing. The playtests are also a perfect way to engage people. There are many other ways to engage people in this vein that, of course, depend on available resources.
Further, D&D players like to tinker “under the hood,” as Rich Baker put it in one of his last Rule of Three articles. The place for that level of engagement is traditionally within the pages of Dungeon and Dragon. Perhaps WotC can encourage more supplements and online resources that offer similar content that might engage creative, productive writers. Finally, there is the whole issue of engaging people’s creativity on a very deep level through the OGL. I’d rather not touch the individual pros and cons of the OGL, but the fundamental issue of OGLs in this context is that people will feel more connected to something that they’ve worked on, or that respects the work they do. If that doesn’t come through a pure OGL like the one that existed in 2000, then D&D Next should incorporate some other outlet to engage D&D players’ under-the-hood creativity a little more than they were able to in 4e.
Phew, that was long! Hopefully you all made it to the end, and it helped that I put a lot of my main points in bold and italics. There are admittedly next-level ways to engage the community, especially the whole piece about one-on-ones. If WotC puts out a great product, people will come and the community will build itself naturally. However, I believe that a vibrant community is a meaningful end in itself. It doesn’t make sense to try to get the community to a certain level of happiness with the game and with the community, and then stop there. Good relationships are their own reward, and will sustain the brand through missteps and tough times as well as good times. All direct efforts with the specific goal of community building bear fruit in their own ways. At least, so says this community organizer!