So, if you’re like me and even somewhat active on social media, you’ve seen the announcements about the DNDNext. They haven’t come out and said that it’s 5th edition,specifically calling it “the next iteration of D&D” 1, but 5th ed is the logical, unspoken conclusion.
The announcement came as somewhat of a shock to the community – and not because WotC is working on a new edition. We’ve all expected the new release with the lifecycle of Dungeons and Dragons becoming shorter and shorter. OD&D was released in 1974, AD&D was released around 1977, AD&D 2E in 1989, Rules Cyclopedia 91, 3E in 2000, 3.5 in 2003, 4th edition in 2008 and Essentials in 2010. Or…
So, looking at it this way, you can see the A/B release schedule that D&D has been on since the beginning. A major “A” release is released with a minor, clarifying “B” releasing following after 2-3 years afterwards. Interestingly, the time between major or “A” releases is decreasing. This could be do to shorter release schedules in the digital age, which would imply that “B” releases are a function of community refinement, not publication schedules.
Sussing that out is research for another article.
No, the surprise was the awkward “open playtest” plan they’ve announced.
For that reason, we want your participation. The goals we have set for ourselves are by no means trivial or easy. By involving you in this process, we can build a set of D&D rules that incorporate the wants and desires of D&D gamers around the world. We want to create a flexible game, rich with options for players and DMs to embrace or reject as they see fit, a game that brings D&D fans together rather than serves as one more category to splinter us apart. 1
At first blush, this is exactly the type of sentiment I like to see in the gaming community: inclusion. But, as I thought about it, the more this approach really seems to fall apart, for two major reasons.
1.) Creative investment works both ways
Investment is a powerful tool. Arguably, Wizards of the Coast has the strongest product on the market because it has the largest user base invested in their product. In fact, if you look at the edition wars, the central tenant to each argument hotly debated on an internet forum is investment (which, for our purposes is practically equivalent to nostalgia).
Investment is a double-edged sword.
One of the biggest complaints when WotC released 4th Edition was that it “wasn’t D&D” or “changed the game into a minis game”. Long time gamers felt a sense of ‘betrayal’, since the changes to the game implied one of two things: either they’d been playing the game wrong all this time or the company that published the game didn’t care about their preferred game style.
Soliciting invested feedback in the development of DND Next fractures the community.
The Misconception: You celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.
The Truth: You are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others. 3
By soliciting feedback in this manner, WotC has artificially created groups that are divided over issues. Given the “detail-oriented” nature of the geek community and how personally a lot of its members take rejection, how can this improve the development process of the game?
So, as gamers who have been exposed to this, we’re left with one of three possible outcomes on any community-input-driven scenario:
1.) We’ll get our way and be happy about it.
2.) We won’t get our way and we won’t be happy about it.
3.) It won’t be up for discussion and we’ll feel left out of a process we were supposed to be involved with.
Two of the three outcomes are negative experiences for the user, though option three requires some exploration. Is it reasonable to expect to be involved with all facets of the design of the product? Absolutely not. And setting the expectations of that with the release announcement would be a nice step in cutting away some of the problems that would arise with that situation.
2.) Committees don’t make decisions
Let’s take an example of a proposed change for D&D Next (which I’m going to start calling 5e, because the D&D Next name is really stupid). Let’s take one I saw from a discussion between @Boymonster and @SarahDarkMagic about races, racial bonuses and character creation a few days ago. The specifics of the issue concern racial bonuses being static and if those could change in the next edition to change the way that character creation creates the “best path” of choices down the line.
Okay, that’s pretty reasonable. D&D isn’t famed for having cool character decisions like that or flavor at that level nor is that something it really tries to tackle. But surely this change is minor enough that the benefit, cool character fluff attached to the character at creation and immediate investment in the character, offsets the potential issues that would arise. Right?
Well, maybe. If you remove tied stat bonuses to races then essentially all of the races are the same. Well crap, we can’t have that for two reasons: differences in races has been a staple of D&D since the beginning and you’ve just removed player choices by making the options indistinguishable from each other.
I realize that the fluff will make them different, but that is an oft-ignored portion of 4th edition. If you want to challenge me on that, perform a simple test. Take a 4E character you’ve been playing for a while. List me the names of all of their at-will powers. Can you get them all? How much of the flavor text can you give me? The more you can fill in without looking at your sheet, the more your characters fluff matters to you.
Okay, so we have racially indistinguishable characters now. How do we differentiate them a little bit to make everything not so samey? Race specific powers! Surely there’s the solution. Yes, elves get Elven Accuracy, which lets them reroll a failed roll. Yes.
But… well, we make the stat bonuses open across the board. So, does specific racial powers make sense anymore? I mean, Elven Accuracy is fine in the context of a bonus to dexterity – elves are SUPER accurate! But, if I’m taking the constitution bonus, what sense does rerolling a failed attack make? Well, it really doesn’t.
Okay, so, before we get too deep down the rabbit hole of that example, let’s stop right there since the point isn’t to make an argument either way (though, it really seems like I did). How do we decide if this is a change to put in the game? Vote? That’s horrible. There’s a reason that not everyone is a game designer and that reason is that some people are terrible at it. Also, since the community can never seem to disagree on just what exactly Dungeons and Dragons is anyway.
So… how does that work, exactly?
I understand what WotC is trying to do with the announcements. Paul brought up fantastic points in TPC 176 about the marketing aspect of the presentation: it creates the feeling that every gamer, no matter how small their gaming style niche is being fought for in the new edition. That if the game isn’t what you want out of it, that you should become more active and fight for what you want.
In reality, there’s no way that this will really bring us all back into the fold. In the best case scenario, WotC already has the game developed and will solicit feedback on minor points only, so that the community impact on the game is minimal at most. In the worst case scenario, they open up too much of the core mechanic of the game, lose the momentum they gained with the 4e release and the new crop of gamers and create an indecipherable mess of a game that’s unplayable until the “B” release fixes a lot of the problems.
So, now that the initial marketing breeze is over, here’s what you can look for:
1.) Edition Wars – yep, these aren’t going away
2.) Arguments about aspects of D&D you don’t care about
3.) Arguments about changing the core game of Dungeons and Dragons – “Can we make this a character driven story?”, “I need political intrigue in my game”
4.) Every subset of D&D player – OSRPGs, Power Gamers, Story Gamers and Minis Players all arguing about mechanics they will largely have no impact on
5.) People making stupid jokes about what is going in the next version of D&D
So, glad to be looking forward to that.
And give me my God damned Virtual Table already. Seriously.