Everyone else is talking about D&D Next, even the New York Times, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. I’ve been playing since 2nd edition, and remember starting as a grognard among grognards, complaining that we didn’t need a new edition despite having never played it. It’s been a long road to recovery, but I think I’m well on my way, so I’ll try to keep the complaining to a minimum. All in all, I’m pretty excited not just that there’s going to be a new edition, but how Wizards of the Coast is going about it.
For those who don’t know, a little while ago Wizards of the Coast announced that 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons is in the works, and that they want fan support on it by having playtesters and interacting closely with the community. It seems like a pretty sharp idea, because it seems reasonable to think that the rpg market has lost some ground to MMO’s and other games over the past decade. By working with fans, not only might they get a better product, but they can create a community of gamers who will buy that product. I’m also excited to see that they’ve brought Monte Cook back on board, partly because I really like Ptolus, and partly because he had the brass to write this post, which talks about the biggest error they made designing third edition. Ivory Tower game design was the previous way of D&D, and it doesn’t have a place anymore. No system is going to be without some suboptimal options, but it’d be nice to see one with options that don’t suck deliberately (and preferable to see one where all the options are at least meaningful in some context).
Things I’d Like to See
- Less tiny bonuses: As much as I love doing lots and lots of arithmetic, it tends to bog down gameplay if you’re stacking +1’s all the time. 4th edition made those +1’s pretty important, but the prospect of having ten conditional bonuses on most actions can be a real challenge for new players.
- Social mechanics: 2nd had reaction rolls, which I never quite figured out. 3rd edition had diplomacy, which was essentially broken. According to the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, social encounters ought to be resolved as skill challenges, and I’m still not sure if the math on skill challenges works out. It’d be nice to see some kind of working mechanic to back up social play. They exist. Spirit of the Century has social combat, where one takes wounds by embarrassing oneself and getting flustered. Burning Wheel has the Duel of Wits and a wealth of social mechanics. WotC, you can hire the best game designers in the world, please give us some cool social mechanics.
- Multiple levels of play: My groups play 3.5 because we’re focused on verisimilitude and modular classes, and 3.5 gives us that. 4th has action-focused mini combat, and D&D Essentials is practically a board game. D&D has long been claiming to accommodate all of these things, and been falling short. They seem to be focusing on it now, and I hope it works. I’m skeptical, but I’m also not a full time designer.
- Playtesting: I love that they’re making an effort to include fans in the playtest to incorporate their vision into the final product, but truth be told, I’m not in love with that idea. Having a lot of playtest data is one thing, but how you use it is what really matters. If we look at the 4e barbarian fiasco, where playtesters pointed out that the powers were unbalanced and they went into the finished product as-is, we can see that there isn’t necessarily a track record for using the data. In Paizo’s Pathfinder Beta, the chief question asked to playtesters was “Did you have fun?” That’s important, but it seems like it’s less important than working out the kinks in the system. Playtesters for video games are looking for bugs and redlining the system in order to produce a better game for customers, and while whether they have fun is relevant, it’s less relevant than whether the game works.
- Reaching Too Far: The focus on accommodating all styles of D&D. I know, I just talked about multiple levels of gameplay, and that seems doable (though difficult) for different games at different tables, but there’s been talk of mixing them in the same group, and while I’d love to see a game where that works well, I’m not sure what that looks like. On the face of things it seems like they’d be using different rulesets in a way, which…It’s a worry.
- Mike Mearls: Mike, it’s not fair to pin all of the broken things in 4th edition on you, but you were in charge of it, so I hold you a bit responsible. The mountains of errata, the errata for the errata…I’m not saying 3rd is any less broken, and I want to give you a chance on this. But then you say things like this.
“We might print the rules for the current version of the game, or produce accessories you use at your table, but the game is what you, the community of D&D fans and players, make it. D&D is the moments in the game, the interplay within a gaming group, the memories formed that last forever. It’s intensely personal. It’s your experience as a group, the stories that you and your friends share to this day. No specific rule, no random opinion, no game concept from an R&D designer, no change to the game’s mechanics can alter that.”
Mike, I don’t know how to say this, but you’re full of it. If it’s true that D&D is the moments at the table, what are we buying all these books for? Why are we playtesting? If you and your team decide to change the mechanics so that D&D runs with two five person parties, has a ball instead of dice and a court instead of a table, and experience is earned by throwing the ball through a ring at the other end of the court…That’s not D&D. It’s basketball. If you think that nothing you do in R&D can change D&D, then what do your R&D people do all day? I want them working to craft a better game that I can buy, play, and enjoy with my friends. Maybe that game’s D&D, and maybe it isn’t.
All in all, I think I’m cautiously optimistic about 5th Edition D&D, but one of the nicest things about it is that if it turns out not to be the game for us, we still have a whole mess of previous editions to play with. The game, such as it is, will go on. What are you looking to see in a new edition?