2012 is shaping up to be a fairly big year for Dungeons & Dragons, so far — both online and on the tabletop.
First off, we have the news that a fifth edition of the game is in development. This surprised no one — the writing was on the wall when Monte Cook was brought back aboard as a “special consultant” — but it’s gotten a lot of very high-profile attention from places like the New York Times and Forbes.
It’s also no secret that the current fourth edition of D&D isn’t doing as well as it might. It is, in fact, being beaten out by Pathfinder in many markets. In my own opinion, as stated many moons ago, it’s a good and cleverly designed game that happens to not resemble D&D very much except as an emulator of one particular style of D&D play. Part of the reason it didn’t catch on is that the designers failed to fully appreciate that they weren’t designing in a vacuum, but in an environment with a very strong sense of history and heritage. Too, there was no widespread clamor for a new edition at that time — many people had issues with various aspects of 3.5, but relatively few people felt it was a fundamentally broken and crappy system. This is in contrast to the late 2e era, when it seemed almost everybody felt that way, even those who were playing it. In changing the game so completely, WotC badly misread the community and fractured the community far worse than it already was.
This “edition war” among the D&D-playing community was always evident, but it became especially fierce when WotC put out a radical new edition that effectively disinherited old players and the 30+ years of materials they had accumulated; one of the greatest crimes of fourth edition is its total lack of backward compatibility. So deep was the chasm that opened up between the proponents of the various editions that there’s now a dedicated Old School Renaissance, dedicated to promoting play and producing product up to the scale of full “retro-clones” in the style of the pre-D&D3 era on back. While guilty of certain excesses along the lines of “This Is The One True Way,” this community has proven to be creatively fecund, releasing outstanding games like Adventures Dark and Deep and Swords & Wizardry and Castles & Crusades, which helped kick off the whole movement but which has been largely disowned by it for sticking too close to 3e.
The clamor for materials in the older style has apparently been noticed — finally — at Wizards of the Coast. PDF versions of older material have long been unavailable, but now they’ve committed to bringing back the original three AD&D 1st edition books in April, albeit in a limited edition. Part of the proceeds from the sale of these books will go to the Gygax Memorial Fund, which is trying to raise enough to erect a statue of Gary in his (and TSR’s) hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Personally, although I have multiple copies of the original books, I lust after these, and I figure it’s for a good cause. I have absolutely no doubt that these will sell out very quickly, and hopefully WotC will take notice and start to make more of the older stuff — tens of millions of words and thousands of products — available in print or electronic format. This would erode prices in the collector’s market, but that’s not WotC’s problem.
Too, Cryptic’s Neverwinter, a second D&D-based Online Multiplayer RPG, is almost certainly going to release in 2012. While MMO-playing folks aren’t taking it very seriously at this point, and neither are tabletop fans since by its own admission it’s not going to lean much on any version of the tabletop game, it has the potential, if popular, to help to raise the profile of D&D again in the video gaming world. It used to be a popular and powerful brand, and then it just seemed to wither away, for which we can probably blame Atari.
More promising still, though, is Turbine’s Dungeons & Dragons Online, which is a high-quality, well-produced game invigorated in 2009 by its industry-shaking shift to free-to-play. DDO is based closely on the 3.5 rules and 2012 promises to be a titanic year for it. There’s a major content update coming in February that will include a free adventure pack, a cosmetic pet system and other stuff, and slated for the summer is the game’s first full-scale expansion, Menace of the Underdark.
Yes, you’re reading that right. While DDO is set in Eberron, the expansion will take players to Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms, and thence to the titular Underdark. Too, Druids are finally going to make their long-awaited appearance in DDO, and the level cap is increasing to 25 — which will be epic levels.
Even if, as I expect, D&D5 doesn’t release this year, it’s looking like D&D will be a very active property in 2012 — and it’s only January. And there’s also Pathfinder Online in the works, which I’ve discussed previously, which will effectively be another D&D MMO as well.