D&D: The “What, again?!” Edition

Oh yeah...please have tons of awesome art like this in 5th edition.The next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming. Yes, again.

On January 9, 2012, Wizards of the Coast officially made the announcement that work on the next “iteration” (they’re avoiding the word “edition”) of the world’s oldest role-playing game. This announcement comes less than four years into the life cycle of 4th edition. To me, that signals that 4th edition has been a failure by WotC standards. In turn, that means that Dungeons & Dragons itself is probably in some real danger for the first time since TSR went bankrupt in the 1990s. So whatever this new edition will look like, WotC had better get it right.

By most standards within the RPG industry, the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons was a resounding success. It sold like hotcakes upon release and even today remains the second most popular RPG on the market. The problem, of course, lies with the fact that it is in second place behind Pathfinder, and not at the top of the mountain anymore. That’s mostly a problem because while Pathfinder is produced by a relatively small company with modest expectations, WotC is owned by Hasbro, which expects much more out of its games. The quick release of a new edition signals that the current one, while probably making a lot of money, isn’t making enough of a profit for the suits upstairs. If the designers of D&D want to keep their jobs, they need to figure out a way to drastically increase sales in a tabletop role-playing market that has been shrinking since the mid-2000s.

I really hope that the new edition succeeds. If it doesn’t, I don’t think there will be a 6th edition. The Dungeons & Dragons name has a lot of value in it, but if the game can’t meet Hasbro’s goals, then I can easily see the company shelving it for a while, possibly trotting it out for toys, media toe-ins, or board games but leaving the actual role-playing industry without this venerable property. Even though I haven’t played D&D for a few years, I would be saddened to see an RPG industry devoid of that game. So I really hope the new edition succeeds. Sadly, I think that hope is in vain.

It’s not the people at WotC that leave me doubtful. These guys are some of the RPG industry’s best. The design team includes Mike Mearls, who did a lot of good for 4th edition (I maintain that 4th edition is a good game, even if it’s not my kind of game), and Monte Cook, one of the main architects behind 3rd edition. Mechanically, the game will probably be as solid as they come. But the D&D game has always been about more than mechanics, and that’s something that I think WotC forgot years ago.

Very little is known of this new version of D&D, so maybe I’ll change my tune as details leak out. After all, I was initially excited about 4th edition, but then soured on it as I read previews. But the biggest red flag that I see is WotC’s stated goal with the new edition:

The goal of this project is to develop a universal rules system that takes from the best of every edition and get at the soul of what D&D is.

In other words, WotC is trying to unite all the many editions of D&D into one rules set, thus claiming back the player base they lost when the moved to 4th edition while not alienating the game’s current fans. Sorry, but that’s just impossible.

Every time D&D has undergone a new edition, the game has changed, picking up some new fans and leaving some old ones behind. The big problem with 4th edition was that WotC got arrogant. They figured that the brand name was strong enough to attract customers no matter what. There was a very strong vibe of, “It’s D&D. You’re going to play it,” when the preview material came out. And, to be fair, 3rd edition had set a sort of precedent for that – it changed a ton of rules but sold better than any other game since the 1970s. But even in 3rd edition, there were certain “sacred cows” that were retained – elements that didn’t get changed for fear of alienating audiences. Paladins were still the goodiest of goodie goods. Succubi were soul-draining demons. Wizards only had a limited number of spells per day before they became practically useless. Somewhere along the line, 4th edition hit the tipping point of what can be changed while still being considered D&D. For many people, it was too revolutionary. Even then, a lot of people probably would have switched over had it not been for Pathfinder. But Pathfinder picked up all those discarded D&D tropes and became the torch-bearer for old D&D. So while 4th edition got its fans, a lot of folks who would have eventually adopted the new D&D game wound up going to Pathfinder.

So now WotC wants to unite all the editions. How do you do that without creating a total mess? Are wizards going back to the fire and forget casting method, or are they unlimited magical batteries? Do we use the Negative Energy Plane or the Shadowfell? Does a fireball from a 10th-level caster do 10d6 damage or not? You can’t have it both ways – somebody is going to be pissed about the change. Sure, you can create optional add-ins that support multiple ways of doing things, but people put a lot of value in the “core” part of the game. If it’s not in the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, or Monster Manual, a lot of people are going to skip over it. There is a sharp dropoff when it comes to alternate material.

Trying to appeal to old gamers might be a losing battle for WotC anyway. After all, much of their 3rd edition audience got eaten up by Pathfinder. Many pre-3rd edition players have gone to one of the “retroclones” allowed by the Open Gaming License, be it Castles & Crusades (not a true retroclone, but close enough, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, or one of the multitude other games out there. So instead of just appealing to their old audience, WotC has to beat out Pathfinder books and other products in terms of quality. If the core books cost $100 together, that means that a Pathfinder player can either shill out a portrait of Ben Franklin for a totally new game or use that same money to buy 5 different Pathfinder books. And trying to please both 3rd edition fans and 4th edition fans is just as likely to piss off fans of both edition. Basically, WotC has to figure out whether trying to recapture fans who have moved on to other games is worth the risk of alienating the customers they do have.

One of the other concerns I have with D&D moving forward is that since 3rd edition came out, the focus has been on rules, rules, and more rules. And rules are great – they sell well. But part of the reason Pathfinder is selling so well is because it offers more than rules. It offers a lot of ideas, in both setting material and adventures. Pathfinder releases only three hardcover rulebooks a year, and one of those is a monster book. The rest of the books they produce are relatively rules-lite, instead of focusing on tools for the imagination.

The rules aspect of D&D is the part that WotC has done well over the years, while allowing adventures, settings, and creative tools to go largely ignored. Sure, there have been new adventures here and there, but they have never been a focus of the company, and they have generally been mediocre in quality. The best modules that WotC has put together recently tend to be callbacks to classic adventures from older editions, such as the Tomb of Horrors, or Revenge of the Giants. There have been successful new classics, such as Red Hand of Doom, but they have tended to be few and far between. In 3rd edition, this wasn’t a big issue, since the amount of third-party support out there masked WotC’s deficiencies. In 4th edition, the more restrictive gaming license left the game without much outside support, and the lack of anything beyond rules became more apparent.

The biggest thing that D&D needs is not to try to appeal to all of their old fans, but rather to find an identity again. The most successful editions of D&D have had a feel to them that transcended the rules and made people recognize the edition more by its feel. 1st edition had its dungeon-crawling world of Gygaxian weirdness. 2nd edition had a narrative focus, where the story became more important than the rules and, sadly, the players at times as well. 3rd edition touted a “return to the dungeon” feel. 4th edition started off with a solid niche for itself with its “points of light” setting where adventurers were bigger, tougher, and generally better than the common folk. It had dynamic battles and an ancient world with lost history waiting to discover. But apparently this niche doesn’t attract as many players as WotC would like – or maybe WotC is just too quick to abandon it.

It’s worth emphasizing that by all accounts, 4th edition is a really good game. It does what it does very well. It is not the game of choice for myself and a lot of old D&D players, but it is not being shelved due to its quality. It’s being lost in a numbers game as WotC tries to chase sales numbers that will please the folks at Hasbro.

I hope that a lot of the noise being made from WotC right now is just marketing-speak, because I don’t think the next version of D&D will succeed if it really does go with the approach of trying to please everybody. Regardless of edition, D&D is about adventure and about bold people making dangerous choices. Hopefully, the designers of 5th edition, or whatever it calls itself, will be bold in their decisions. Hopefully they will stake out a niche of their own and make the game something new. Speaking as a player who left D&D behind for Pathfinder, they can’t win me back by going backwards. Pathfinder fills that niche for me, and it’s unlikely that WotC will be able to best Paizo’s very high-quality work. The better option is to go forward. Be something new, innovative, and interesting. If D&D manages to offer a new experience rather than retreading the past, it might win me back as a player. 4th edition isn’t my game of choice, but there is a good system in there. Rather than toss that out, I’d prefer to see WotC evolve what they have. D&D won’t likely replace Pathfinder for me, but it can exist alongside Pathfinder as a game I enjoy running.

But the bottom line is: don’t try to please everyone. You won’t get far. Every min-maxer knows that multi-class characters do not have the same staying power as a specialist. Don’t try to be some pansy fighter/mage/thief, D&D. Be a raging babarian, reveling in the carnage you create. Because otherwise, you will die in the dungeon, and Hasbro is not going to shell out 5,000 gold pieces to resurrect your sorry ass.

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