I’m really not sure what to think of the announcement of a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons being in the pipeline. That’s partly because there’s relatively little information to go on in the first place, so it’s a bit early to do much in the way of prognostication. This blog posts is thus mostly going to be about my reaction and other people’s reactions, and my reactions to other people’s reactions.
After enduring (and at times taking morbid fascination in) the 3e and 4e edition wars (which were more similar than most people seem to want to remember or admit) I had decided a while ago that no matter what the next iteration of D&D turned out to be I wasn’t going to be one of those guys complaining about the new thing so fervently as to leave factual accuracy behind. So far I’m not tempted at all, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the new edition. I do catch myself getting annoyed at the lousy attitude some people have towards 4e, but then I felt about the same way about people’s posts about 3e/d20 even when I wasn’t playing it. People really don’t seem to remember just how hated d20 was from 2000 to 2005 or so.
When it comes down to it I would be pretty happy to keep on playing D&D4e. I’ve been saying for a while that I don’t feel any particular need for more material (I started feeling that way a bit before Essentials hit, though I did just buy Heroes of the Feywild), especially in the way of crunchy bits for characters, though going back to making 4e characters without the Character Builder would be kind of painful. Of course, there’s been choruses of “I told you so” and such from the anti-4E set too. I don’t know that 5E will be a repudiation of 4E’s design–especially without having seen any of what 5E will actually be like–but I’ve tried to avoid falling into the trap of investing my identity in the game I play. My weekend gaming group has stuck with 4E a lot longer than most any other game we’ve tried, but to me it’s ultimately just another RPG. It’s a particularly good fit for that group, but then it’s a pretty bad fit for my other gaming group too. To me there are absolutely things worth keeping (especially the Warlord class), but plenty of room for improvement too. Even sticking totally within 4e I could see a major revamp of rituals and skill challenges helping the game for example.
Mike Mearls has been talking a big game about bringing the disparate generations of D&D players together under one roof, apparently with a more modular game, and they’ve sure as hell got their work cut out for them. For me Dragon World and Slime Quest are both games that capture some of the things I like about D&D, and they’re pretty far apart. And that’s before we compare the old school fantasy Vietnam funnel dungeon approach and the modern epic adventure style. I can see a clear path to making maps and minis optional for example (selections of powers that are and aren’t movement-related) or adding a kingdom-building sub-game, but it’d be harder to include an OD&D power curve where 1st level PCs have HP in the low single digits alongside the more survivable PCs of contemporary D&D. I do find the modular approach interesting, and on paper it seems the most rational approach to pleasing such disparate groups. Certainly there are plenty of things some people want (like the stronghold-building aspect of early D&D) that don’t interest me at all, and stuff I like that other people would prefer to omit. Making all that able to work seamlessly together sounds like a pretty spectacular design challenge though. I like the WotC team as game designers (certainly more than I like their marketing and PR), but I don’t know that my faith in them goes that far.
One persistent question is what kind of license will be available for third-party material. That’s one of those things that people pretty much only talk about for D&D, and no one complains that, say, AEG and White Wolf are continuing to have standard copyrights on their games. Of course, D&D is the big dog and people have more economic incentive to ride its coattails, and I think the d20 STL/OGL in part served to formalize and channel what some publishers were already doing. (Another thing people seem to forget is how litigious TSR–or “T$R” as it often got called on usenet–was during the AD&D2e era.) I don’t think I have the right kind of information to pass judgment on how well the OGL experiment worked for WotC or the game industry in general. To me it feels like most of the good stuff that came of it, especially the stuff that’s had any semblance of staying power, was primarily independent OGL games that would be of no use to anyone playing D&D proper. Mutants & Masterminds is going strong in its 3rd edition, whereas I can’t think of a third-party D&D setting from the d20 era that’s still around. Certainly there are companies like Green Ronin that built their business around quality d20 material, but there was also a great tidal wave of d20 crap, and a huge number of products that were shoehorned into d20 without rhyme or reason. The system is more versatile than some of its detractors would’ve admitted, but it also had its limits, and the people behind Deadlands d20 and BESM d20 and so forth seemed to have rather pointedly forgotten that. To me the best thing about the OGL was that it popularized open content in RPGs, particularly when it came to FATE. Even after its revisions, the GSL was too restrictive for most publishers’ tastes, and what third-party material there was got hamstrung by 4E players’ heavy reliance on digital tools. I’ve thought about doing more extensive writeups for the races I created for Slime Quest, but it would be a considerable amount of work without all that much payoff beyond the satisfaction of tackling some interesting design challenges.
Another thing that the growing 5E kerfuffle is bringing to the fore is just how irrationally dominant D&D really is. At times people argue the relative merits of D&D editions so as to sound like they’re arguing over which kind of screwdriver is best for putting in nails. For pretty much anything where someone might find 4E lacking compared to 3.5, there are a dozen games that do it better than both. I have a hard time sympathizing with people who get angry or hysterical over the current edition of D&D being dragged down to a level that’s still significantly above most other RPGs in terms of available published material and ease of finding players. You would be hard-pressed to find many other RPGs where it’s even possible to own 50+ supplements. I really wonder at people who worry over 4E not getting any more releases, as though they could’ve possibly exhausted the available published material.
As is usually the case when D&D nonsense flares up, this mostly just makes me want to get Slime Quest up and running so I have my own fantasy RPG with good tactical combat to play. It does have me thinking more about what I want out of Slime Quest, since in a lot of ways it’s meant to be what I would want for my own personal D&D. I don’t expect D&D to ever take on any real anime inspiration of course (not that I would particularly trust WotC to do it justice even if they wanted to), but I would like to see something like Skill Challenges only more fully developed. I also want support for non-combat stuff that’s roughly as detailed and interesting as combat, preferably set up so that PCs don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. This is still a very “big picture” thought, especially since I have so many other projects to think about, but I think an important one.
“I want more freedom to make the character I want!” “Then why are you playing a game with classes?” “I want a game that’s like a simulation of reality, with as little abstraction as possible.” “Then why are you playing a game where HP is a giant jumble of fatigue, luck, and injury?” And so on.