I remember reading an article about “traction” regarding the Shadar-Kai race when it was introduced in the Third Edition Fiend Folio. It was an interesting article that introduced me to a concept I was previously unfamiliar with – a pretty terrible concept, but an important one nonetheless. Traction is tangentially related to “mindshare.”
Mindshare is a marketing concept that describes how aware consumers are of your product. Traction is how much an idea “sticks” with people. The article in question compared the traction of the Shadar-Kai to that of the drow race of elves.
From what I recall, the article discussed a few of the interesting mechanical effects related to the drow race, as well as its history and society, and compared them to the relatively unheard of Shadar-Kai. If I remember correctly, the article described the Shadar-Kai as an “experiment in traction” which had failed for the outlined reasons.
Shadar-Kai returned in Fourth Edition with revised rules and was met with slightly more success, near as I can tell. For starters, they aren’t a footnote in a monster book now that they have a home they share with a number of other fantasy races (the Shadowfell), and quite a few appearances in both modules and tie-in products.
Fifth Edition D&D Next is a constant sadness in the back of my mind that reminds me of more missed opportunities all the time. With my focus on class identity recently, I remembered one of my other projects that involves consolidating and streamlining creature types and origins (you might remember it from the beginning of October).
This vaguely ties into the problem with the Shadar-Kai and traction.
Many creatures in my opinion, never have a chance at “traction” the way the dark elves did. I think part of this problem stems from the “attention disorder” D&D developers have with regard to the ever-increasing numbers and types of creatures, that those already standing are seldom developed any further.
Fourth Edition greatly simplified creature types through the use of “origins” and “types.” These were overlapping mechanics that could be mixed and matched to establish two important things: where the monster came from, and what it kind of looked like. Despite their incredible utility, they received little rules support.
Why have them and not use them? For some reason rules items like “charm person” and “handle animal” were removed with the changing of the editions… Charm Person was a spell that targeted humanoid mortals, and Handle Animal was a skill used to communicate with creatures of bestial intelligence.
There was also the tragedy that the Power Sources — Martial, Arcane, Divine, Primal, Psionic, Shadow (that we saw developed) – were also largely unsupported from a rules perspective. They received a great deal of “protection,” in that powers and effects determined to belong to one had minimal crossover, but otherwise little identity.
What most players probably saw was that the Warlock, Wizard, Bard, Swordmage, and Artificer had very little in common except that they were all ridiculously underpowered at various points, and received numerous iterations (which didn’t fix the problems).
My hypothesis is the D&D developers didn’t really give anything a chance to work. So focused on pumping out new material were they, that many races, classes, and other rules material dropped out of the nest and into the Theoretical Builds forum (where most of them languish in obscurity, unused except by munchkins and fanboys).