Jan 122012

In case you missed it, Wizards of the Coast is working on a 5th – that’s right, Fifth – edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  You can read the announcement articles from the NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/10/arts/video-games/dungeons-dragons-remake-uses-players-input.html?pagewanted=all and Forbes http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2012/01/09/wizards-announce-new-dungeons-and-dragons-an-inside-look-at-the-game/, as well as the press-release from lead designer Mike Mearls http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20120109.

We here at Through Gamer Goggles, however, would like to share our initial reactions and thoughts to this news, and gather your input as well.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing? for D&D? for WotC? for the RPG industry in general?  Would you buy the 5th edition?

No matter your answer to those questions, I believe that the BIGGEST QUESTION is this: Will a new edition unite the players, or will it divide them even further?

I didn’t grow up playing RPG’s.  (You can read all about that here [link].)  So I have no personal investment in any of the “Edition Wars.”  I did play a couple of computer games based on the 2nd Edition rules.  I played a little 3.5, and I’m currently playing in two 4e games, and DM’ing another.  I like 3.5.  I like 4e.  If I had the chance, I’d probably like the older versions as well.  So, by and large, I don’t “get” all the hate between those who love a particular edition/version of the game.  (Perhaps this will cost me some nerd-cred, but I have to be honest.)

Therefore, I have quite a bit of ambivalence regarding the news of a 5th edition of the game that many of us love.  On one hand, I’m quite excited about it.  My inner geek is saying, “Something new and shiny from THE industry leader?  Woo-hoo!”  But on the other hand, part of me is saying, “So soon?  I’m just getting used to 4e.”  Besides, there’s already enough “haters” and factionalism amongst the fanbase, and a new edition is likely to cause more.  This could be a very bad move for WotC, and that could be good or bad for the industry as a whole.

But I’m going to leave those prognostications for another day.  Speculation is a spurious exercise, often resulting in futility.  Instead, let us deal with the reality of today and share our hopes for a brighter tomorrow.

The Inevitable

Because honestly, a fifth edition of D&D was inevitable.  First, from a business model, it’s how WotC (and thusly Hasbro) makes money.  They need to sell more books.  Movies, comics, and other media have seen great financial success by “rebooting” a franchise.  D&D has done it in the past.  They will continue to do it in the future.  Secondly, a fifth edition was inevitable because of the polarized and underwhelming sales of 4e.  Fourth Edition seems to have fractured an already divided community.  A lot of players went to Paizo, with their Pathfinder system.  (And good for them – competition only creates better products for us consumers.)  Mike Mearls is absolutely forthcoming about WotC’s intent that the Fifth Edition bring those players (i.e. the 3.5 fans) under one umbrella with 4e fans, as well as those who still haven’t let go of AD&D, or even the first print of Gygax’ original D&D game.  “One system to rule them all; and around the table bind them.”  This is a lofty, perhaps unachievable goal – because you simply cannot make everybody happy – but kudos to Mearls and WotC for trying.

To that end, I have signed up to help play-test and provide input through the official D&D site (and you can, too!).  But before I start sharing my thoughts there, I wanted to give y’all a sneak-peek here first.

What D&D Should Keep from Fourth Edition

Yep, you read that right.  As I have said elsewhere, I have a lot more experience playing and running 4e than any other edition of D&D.  And I believe that there are a lot of good things that should be kept.

First, the “Roles.”  These are very helpful in defining what a character can do, especially for new players.  Yes, they are too combat-oriented in 4e, and can be rather limiting.  But any team needs different members doing different things (and doing them well) to succeed – be that in sports, business, or fantasy role-playing.  Make them more of a guideline; let classes blur the lines between two or three; create even more; but don’t utterly abolish the “Roles.”

Second, I LOVE the amount and variety of “Powers” available to player characters.  Maybe there are too many options.  And the “exception-based” system is full of headaches.  It can be a bit too much like Magic: The Gathering.  But it’s a lot more fun than saying “I hit the monster with my axe,” fifty-seven times a gaming session.  That’s why I NEVER played Fighters or Barbarians in 3.5 – they were too boring.  At least Rogues had skills; but Wizards, Clerics, and Bards (yes, especially Bards) were the ones with enough variety and power to keep my interest.

Third, they definitely need to keep the on-line tools.  The Character Builder, Monster Builder, etc. are incredibly useful.  I am soooooooo glad I downloaded the old 4e Character Builder before they dropped it for the Essentials version which requires a DDI subscription to access.  I shall beg WotC to give players a free version of the Character Builder (even if it is limited in some way).  I’d love it if all those tools were free to use, but if the new edition’s rule-set is going to be a la carte, then maybe DDI access should be as well.

Fourth, they should keep the D&D Encounters program.  It seems to be a pretty good success.  The only problem with sustaining it is the lack of story.  So I would like to see some sort of expansion of that program.  Maybe this is best left in the hands of the individual store owners and managers.

Ryan’s Personal Wish List

In addition to the above list of things they should keep from 4e, I also have a few things on my personal wish list.

First, I’d like to see a slight re-vamp of the actions in combat.  Coming from Rifts, and the Palladium system, I find the Minor/Move/Standard actions very limiting.  Give each character 3-4 actions and let them use them however they want.  Some classes may get additional actions per round, some actions (like high-level spells or fighting maneuvers) may cost multiple actions.  This would increase both freedom and the tactical decisions for the players.

Second, increase the on-line game-play options.  Create the best darn Virtual Table Top experience ever: a multi-user map, video chat, dice-roller and combat program; make it a combination of the best MapTools, Skype, and play-by-post experiences for those players who can’t get in the same physical location at the same time.  I’d like to see WotC support all their products with a digital database as well.  It will take creativity and courage to do something that works for both the brick-and-mortar game shops and the virtual-community, but I believe that such is possible, and not mutually exclusive.

Finally, bring back – and even expand – the Open Gaming License.  I know it was controversial in its time, and may not be well supported amongst the current executives at WotC, but if it wasn’t for the OGL there would be no Paizo and Pathfinder, and if there was no Pathfinder there would be no 3rd Edition players for D&D to try and win back – they all would have just disappeared.  Returning and expanding the OGL would PROVE that WotC is serious about granting creative control to DM’s and players, beyond just using us to “fix the game they broke.”  (Seriously, if I’m going to help you create this game, then I’d better get some credit as a co-author/creator, and some royalty checks to boot!)

That’s my “Wish List” of things I want to see.  We’d also love to hear your Wish Lists too.

Parting Thoughts

The one thing that I am glad to see in all of the articles and press-releases, is the emphasis on getting back to the core, the heart, of what the D&D experience is.  Ford Motor Company got this perfectly right when they redesigned the Mustang several years ago (and Chevy and Dodge have followed suit with their retro-modern muscle cars).  WotC seems to be trying to do the same thing – to create something that everyone will instantly recognize as “D&D”, yet with all the modern bells-and-whistles.  To that, I say, “Good for you Wizards of the Coast.”  Heck, I’ll even donate some of my time and genius to the effort.  Besides, if it fails, we can all just go play Pathfinder.

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