Ken Hart (ken_of_ghastria) wrote,
Ken Hart
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D&D Next and the Great Gaming Syzygy

Ten days ago, mainstream media broke the surprising news that Wizards of the Coast was planning a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. What was surprising was not Mike Mearls’ announcement itself. In truth, ever since mega-game designer Monte Cook (a key architect of D&D’s 3rd edition) rejoined WotC a few months ago, rumors about a “D&D 5E” had been thicker than a black pudding. The surprise was in the timing; D&D’s 4th edition debuted in 2008, and the first attempt at tweaking those rules – D&D Essentials – popped up in the second half of 2010. So why announce a new edition now? The answer is the Great Gaming Syzygy.

Explanation later. First, background: Whether you like D&D 4E or not (I do), its launch undeniably opened a big rift in the gaming community. Unlike the release of 3rd edition, which came with a conversion guide, constantly referred to D&D’s history, kept the core classes and races relatively the same, and came with an Open Game License (OGL) that allowed third-party publishers to create “official” D&D adventures and sourcebooks, the arrival of 4E did … well, essentially none of that. For presumably sound business reasons, WotC used 4E’s launch to shut the door on past editions, on the setting’s history, and – for the most part – on third-party publishers.

Whatever the reason for the decision, WotC’s actions struck many gamers as arrogant. But if you’re WotC, you now had a monopoly as the only D&D game in town. Sweet, right? Not quite. Paizo, which had been the biggest of the third-party publishers under D&D v3.0 and v3.5, continued making D&D adventures by using the still-functioning OGL to modify the v3.5 rules and create the Pathfinder system. Also, whereas D&D 4E was created within the walls of WotC HQ, Paizo conducted open playtests of its game system – a brilliant marketing move that helped foster a sense of community among players who felt abandoned by WotC. With a solid audience and gorgeous production values, Paizo’s Pathfinder cut deeply into D&D’s chunk of the RPG industry. On top of that, old-school D&D grognards used the opportunity to go even further back into D&D history, finding new, variant versions of 1st and 2nd editions from other third-party publishers (e.g., Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, and Castles & Crusades).

And unfortunately the differences between the various versions were polarizing, with “Edition Wars” sparking Internet outrage and verbal cruelty that was as depressing and nasty as any political argument about abortion or torture. For a vocal population of gamers, it wasn’t enough to love “your” version of the game; all other versions had to be denigrated at every opportunity. (The Dungeon Bastard summed up the Edition Wars perfectly.)

Thus, the problem: a fractured consumer base and probably diminished profits for WotC. (I say “probably” because while I don’t have sales statistics to compare, it’s a reasonable assumption based on the sooner-than-expected announcement of the new edition.) The solution represents one of those rare occasions where business goals and audience desires actually sync up! “D&D Next” promises new products (boosting business) aimed at new, current, and former D&D players (uniting the audience), and – taking a page from Paizo’s playbook – it’ll reflect the input of gamers worldwide through open playtesting. And so the announcement of D&D Next represents the Great Gaming Syzygy: the confluence of business goals, audience desires, and creative input.

Hey, that sounds cool! Now riddle me this, Batman: Will it work?

Ah. Tricky. Well, so far, everything that I’ve read (here, here, here, and here, for instance) has me damn excited. Last week, WotC said the goal was to “create a rule set that enables players of all types and styles to play a D&D game together by taking the best of each edition and getting at the soul of what D&D is." Those lucky reporters who got a sneak peek said that features of early editions were back in the mix and that gameplay was smooth and fun. The solicitation of input is already underway, with blog posts from developers on the Wizards Community forum. In the meantime, support of 4E is still going strong, and will reportedly continue even after D&D Next comes out (presumably Gen Con 2013 or later). Ultimately, while a 1st edition character won’t be able to adventure alongside a 4th edition one, the concepts of those heroes and what makes them cool and fun to play will be easily translatable to D&D Next so that they can join swords (or wands) in battle. At least that’s the plan.

The modular approach – where players can choose particular sets of rules for their D&D game – sounds like the right way to go. In fact, 4E had already started down this path with backgrounds and themes. (Don’t like them? Don’t use them. Simple.) But certain aspects would seem to defy easy, modular solutions. Also, if you’re asking thousands of people for input, you’re going to get thousands of opinions. A suggestion that’s ambrosia to one group may be battery acid to another. Here’s what I would like to see. (Your mileage will certainly vary.)

  • As stated on Twitter last week, I would love to see “say, combat speed of 2E, non-combat interaction of 3E, & attack flavor/flair of 4E.” Specifically…
  • I dig the powers in 4E. They allow everybody to contribute something significant in every round of combat. So yes, I’d prefer that over a return to the Vancian system of spellcasting (“memorize – cast – gone”). Also, I’ve probably lost a cumulative year’s worth of time waiting for the party’s high-level caster to select his spells for the day.
  • That said, I’m not opposed to Vancian casting if there’s a way to keep low-level casters useful in a fight. Something like the Reserve feats in v3.5’s Complete Mage, perhaps, just stronger?
  • Ultimately, though, everyone participates. I’m not wedded to 4E’s roles for character classes, yet having, say, characters other than the cleric who can provide healing would be nice.
  • The tactical aspect of 4E is a blast and allows for great brainstorming on party synergies. However, yeah, 4E combat is too slow. Ideally, the new rules should have a way to easily remove grids and minis from the combat equation when not conducive to fast play.
  • Place a greater emphasis on roleplaying (and this goal has already been highlighted in WotC’s messages). I’ve never understood the complaint by some that 4E discourages roleplaying. Good roleplayers don’t need a game system to tell them what to do. Yet I agree that when it comes to suggesting ways to handle non-combat situations, the absence of v3.5’s excellent examples was noticeable.
  • On a related note, keep the coolness and complexity of 4E’s skill challenges. Just don’t call them “skill challenges.”
  • Retain the ease of encounter creation in 4E. Multiply this number by this number = BAM, encounter target threshold. Likewise, the monster stat blocks in 4E are terrific.
  • Provide campaign worlds, or at least tools for DMs to create their own. To be honest, this is already being addressed to a degree. Although 4E began with a “world-neutral” approach, that has changed. Over the past year, the worlds of Greyhawk, al-Qadim, and Ravenloft have been slowly returning to the pages of Dungeon and Dragon (see my History Check article on Kas and Vecna, for instance), and that trend will continue throughout this year.


Creating a system that will please both 4E fans and prodigal players will be the big task of the D&D developers over the next year, and I wish them luck.

If you’re interested in the future of D&D, please join the special D&D Next group on the Wizards Community. And contribute your thoughts! The Great Gaming Syzygy is a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event!
Tags: 4e, rpg
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