Ok, so this is kind of old news given that Dragon Magazine went out of print back in late 2007. But I recently decided to pay for a month of D&D Insider and looking over the online Dragon magazines got me thinking about the status of pen and paper magazines as a whole. Honestly when it was announced a couple years ago that the magazines would end print, I was quite sad. I’ve always been a fan of Dragon, though I’ve never had a subscription to it. I always though that the magazine was a little on the pricey side, and when it was in its prime, I really didn’t have the money to afford it.
Now, I think the idea of such a magazine being online only isn’t entirely a bad one. After all, it is a really narrow niche magazine and those types of magazines are having the hardest time surviving in the print world. Not only that, the fan base that the magazine was targeting was already one that largely was already online anyway. The problem really was with Dragon is that the magazine is just a shell of its former self.
Dragon’s Changing Uses
I did several comparisons of the magazine, I took an issue from 1998, one from 2004, and then two digital versions. The first digital dragon in 2007 and the most recent complete one from 2009. This array did a pretty good job at showing me the state of the magazine and watch its complete downfall. In ’98, I think the magazine very well may have been in its prime. The articles they had were relevant, there was a lot to talk about with several campaigns and even a few systems (Alternity was out at that point in time), and the cartoons within it were relevant and entertianing.
I then looked at the 2004 issue. This issue was very different. It was no longer being done by wotc/tsr, but by Paizo. Probably a smart move overall for WotC as I’m sure they were already feeling the viewership decline and this made it so that the cost of the magazine was much lower to them. However, with this brought downsides to the format. A lot of the regular columns were pulled from the magazine entirely, and the ones that remained were buried in the back of the magazine. To me, the columns were often the best part because even if I didn’t like the theme of the features of a particular month, the columns often were still worthy of reading. So this type of neglect did not fare well in my mind.
The Digital Revolution
Now, the digital versions I expected to have some growing pains but I don’t particularly like what the magazine has turned into. When it first came out, the magazine seemed like it was shifting to mostly the columns with a couple features every month. I actually didn’t mind this shift, as like I said, I always liked the columns more anyway. Plus, this format I think works fairly well for the web as a column is essentially a blog post whereas a feature takes for more effort to get pieced together. And in this format, you are looking to try to reduce cost and this is a great way.
However, the more recent Dragon magazines have seemed to abandon the idea of what Dragon was all about in the first place. I mean, dragon was always mostly just a glorified advertisement for TSR products, but you would get useful information still all on its own from the magazine such as new play mechanics, new creatures and spells that weren’t in the supplements that they were trying to promote but could be somehow related to them. Now Dragon is nothing but a bunch of excerpts of upcoming products, I mean they are more advanced excerpts (usually earlier and more in depth), but that’s all they are. Issue #374 (last month) is a good example of what I talk about. They created two builds using Acrane Power, an early peek at Hybrid Classes and a race from PH3, additional familiars for Arcane Power (this is closer to original Dragon), Ecology of a race from PH2, and 3 original features (that may or may not actually be part of PH2/3 or AP if I actually read them but I haven’t had the time yet). The columns too seem to have this issue, there are 3 real articles and an RPGA report for Living FR. The 3 columns included a preview of Divine Power, working with Arcane Power, and then one real column. So basically the new Dragon seems more about promoting products in D&D than it is about promoting D&D and helping players become better players. It just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
The main problem with the new Dragon format is that the readability of the magazine is limited at best, useless at worst. I can go back ten or even twenty years and still find use in the articles from Dragon because they gave fiction and info that was more relevant on how to run a game or play a game rather than strictly the rules within it. The current version goes and does neither and just gives sneak peaks. How useful do you think it is going to be in 10 years that I get a sneak peak for a 10 year old product? Of course that 4e is a useless product doesn’t help but they can’t avoid that problem.
With that, I return to my thoughts on the status of the industry. There is little else out there. There is Kobold Quarterly, which doesn’t look too bad. Signs & Portents which isn’t very good and does a similar purpose for Mongoose Publishing. There is a new magazine dedicated to 4e D&D called Level Up. And from what all I’ve heard, the best out there seems to be the magazine that Knights of the Dinner Table started putting out once Dragon cut them out of that magazine years ago. If you ask me though, this industry is wide open for someone to come in and take the reins.
In my eyes, you have one of two options. You either concentrate on D&D or you concentrate on the industry. This seems as an odd thing to consider, however you can’t ignore how popular D&D actually is in the grand scope of pen and paper gaming. If I were to start my own magazine or zine. I would likely start a hybrid that was based on 3.5 OGL D&D. It would have new rules, play formats, settings, adventures, and reviews on the OGL, but then go off and have a few articles in every issue that talks about non-3.5 products. This would be done mostly on a website for free, however every month we would also have a paper/pdf version issued at a low price that people could pay for. This pay for issue would have additional articles that wouldn’t be posted on the website, and would have all the info at the beginning of the month where the free stuff would be sporadically updated throughout the month.
I actually think that this is a format that would work very well. However, it is not a format I could do by myself which is the main reason that I likely won’t be doing this any day soon. However, I have many column features thought out that would work really well and some good ideas so it is worth looking into a little. If anyone wants to volunteer to help, I do have some interesting ideas on how we could implement payment to potential contributers as well so drop a line. I really think this is an idea that is ripe for the right now, I just need to figure out the who to get it done with.