D&DNext Incoming

This week Wizards of the Coast announced the release schedule for the new edition of D&D, titled simply “Dungeons & Dragons” but referred to by all as D&D5 or D&DNext. My feeds and social media have been choked with the traffic ever since.

Some have squawked about the pricing, at US $50 per core book. The new price is a bit over four times what I paid for a Player’s Handbook in 1982, but it’s for a book with almost three times the page count and in full color. And the dollar ain’t what it used to be. Talk to your congresscritter about that.

Some have whined about the staggered release schedule, invariably in the same breath. In addition to the stated reason of giving the publisher better control over quality (as good a reason as any,) it also lets the consumer buy the new books on release without having to dump $150 all at once. Those of us with families and mortages can appreciate this, but even the youngsters should be able to appreciate spreading their money over three months.

There’s also the $20 starter set, which we’re assured will provide a complete (albeit low-level) experience by itself, without neccessarily forcing people to buy the full rules. D&D has needed such a product for many years, as the success of the Pathfinder Beginner Box suggests, and every effort since the demise of the BECMI line has fallen on its ass.

Some have questioned WotC’s marriage to the traditional three-volume presentation of the rules, citing Pathfinder as an example of how everything can be crammed into one volume. In answer I will point out that Pathfinder’s single rule book a) includes no bestiary and b) is awkward as fuck both at the table and durng GM prep. I much prefer the bulk of the rules to be presented in a player’s book with GM reference material in a separate volume where it can be presented in its proper level of detail. I question whether anyone who thinks folding all this into one 600+ page volume is a good idea has ever actually played this game.

Nota Bene: There are plenty of RPGs that can fit everything into one volume. But any such game, even a version of D&D, is going to be something less mechanically rigorous than any iteration of D&D 3.x. Call of Cthulhu would be one well-respected example.

Some have called the announced product covers boring and unevocative. Me, I like the art but will agree with Fred Hicks’ commentary over on G+ that the trade dress seems flaccid. That kind of thing is Fred’s business, so I’d be inclined to take his word for it even if I didn’t see it myself.

Some have questioned “whether we need a new edition of D&D.” The answer is obviously that “we” don’t. “We” are by definition the existing audience, with a plethora of different incarnations of D&D rules to choose from already. Some of us have been happily playing a favored edition for years or even decades. There’s no reason for someone in such a position to buy into a new edition. There never has been.

But the world needs a new edition of D&D, and always does. It needed a new edition back in 2008, and it got one: it’s WotC’s misfortune (if you like) that it was published by somebody else. We need something that’s going to keep bringing new players into the hobby, something 4E probably didn’t end up being very good at. Although anecdotally it seems to me like it brought a lot of people who’d long sworn off D&D in favor of other RPGs back into the D&D fold, 3.0 also did that without poisoning the atmosphere quite so badly.

Now, one of the initial stated goals of D&D5 (then D&DNext) was to unify the editions by being totally modular. So you couild have a fighter with 4E-style combat powers co-existing in the same game as an AD&D1E-style Magic-User, for example. Absolutely nothing that I have seen or heard about the actual mechanics suggests that the designers succeeded at this, and indeed this particular talking point got walked back long ago. I suspect that any design attempting to make fans of 4E and previous editions equally happy is doomed to fail. But this doesn’t mean that D&D5 will be rotten. The most damning thing I have heard about it lately is simply that it’s uninteresting.

Which actually is pretty damning, when you think about it. But the time is ripe to step into a new edition and put the divisiveness that characterized the 4E era behind us. And WoTC has been taking some smart, positive steps of late. The owners of D&D not even trying to make all fans of D&D their customers is spectacularly dumb, but that’s just what they’d been doing for years. The decision to reprint classic core books and sell PDFs of all editions of D&D via D&DClassics/DriveThruRPG/RPGNow was therefore huge, and signals that WotC is at the very least taking fans of every edition seriously.

I have no particular horse in the D&D5 race. I saw some of the earlier playtest draft material and wasn’t terribly impressed by it, but a big part of that was the unenviable situation WotC had placed themselvs in with regard to any new D&D edition by departing so radically with precedent.

Personally, I think D&D4 is very well-designed and worth playing. What I and a lot of people took issue with was that the D&D brand carries with it a set of associations built up over the last 40 years. Some of these associations are thematic, some are mechanical and some of them have grown up in the culture that surrounds the game. D&D4 tried to make a clean mechanical break with the past, fixing some long-festering apparent issues and implementing a number of improvements (which it does,) but in the process it severed thematic and cultural ties to older editions. This left many oldsters like myself feeling left adrift, like the D&D that WotC was publishing wasn’t created for them anymore.

While the edition wars are nothing new (I’ve been seeing this kind of bile since the Usenet days,) the controversy of D&D4 helped the rifts between fans of the different editions become deeper and more venomous. I’ve seen a reasonable case made that this is an inevitable result of an aging hobby, and thus 4E was just the catalyst. Perhaps this is so. Or perhaps WotC just bungled the introduction and post-launch development of D&D4 that badly; there’s a reasonable case to be made there as well.

Even so, the partition of D&D’s audience has not lacked an upside. D&D3.x survives and indeed thrives in a new incarnation as Pathfinder. Fans of older editions can find retro-clones to suit any taste from straight White Box D&D to Rules Cyclopedia to AD&D 2nd Edition, with everything in between. Most of these rule sets are avaialble in some form for free online. The so-called “Old School Renaissance” is alive and kicking vigorously, with top-quality products like Castle of the Mad Archmage, Barrowmaze and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. At the same time, storygamers who felt alienated by the mechanically baroque 3.x found themselves enjoying 4E or its ill-gotten bastard, Dungeon World. And D&D reached new hights of exposure through appearances on mass-media phenomena like Community and Big Bang Theory. Forbes and the Wall Street Journal reported on the death of Gary Gygax, for heaven’s sake, and D&D5’s release announcement got picked up the the New York Times and CNN.

One could make a case, especially considering a booming Pathfinder a part of the umbrella “D&D hobby,” that we’re in, or are about to enter, a new golden age of D&D. It has visibility and social acceptance far in excess of any time in the past. It would be tough to sell that to the OSR crowd, it’s true. But D&D5, especially if the starter set is as strong as reports indicate, could catalyze a new generation of players getting away from the video games and sitting around a table amid piles of spent Mountain Dew cans and bags of Cheetos. Imagine that.

My prospects for actually playing D&D5 aren’t all that great. But I’ll buy the starter set in July, and I’ll surely own the other core books sooner rather than later. I’m upbeat about the whole thing.


4 responses to “D&DNext Incoming

  1. Started playing in the 3.5 era of D&D. One of the core selling points for 4.0 was going to be the offering of a online digital playtop so that you didn’t have to cancel your weekly session because someone was on vacation elsewhere or to play with friends that had moved away. Coupled with the need to buy the latest update on the player creator every month to get the eratta and the “new book” every month that you needed to buy to stay up with the current metagame made many (like myself) greatly disheartened by the entire concept of 4th Edition (The Search for even more consumer dollars). Played pathfinder for a while and it was ok. I’ll poke at the intro adventure in a few months to see how it plays, but I think my D&D days are over as most of the crew has moved away and without a significant digital playtop offering, we’re much happier to stay with one of the older systems that the community has organically developed a digital playtop.

  2. First played in 1978. Played every version since. Only version i looked at and thought “this has nothing whatsoever that I’m interested in” was 4e. It is also the only edition my group completely swore off. We can go back and forth as to the whys and wherefores of that, but the bottom line for WoTC is that they put out a product that took people who had been buying D&D products loyally for decades… and turned them away from D&D, with 4e. The real problem for them now is this: I’ve looked at 5e… and while it doesn’t offend, per se, or at least not as much as 4e did, it also failed utterly to look at all interesting, compelling, diverse. THAT, ultimately, is the success or failure of D&D. 1e, 2e, 3e — these always looked at least as interesting as the ones before them. 4e was an offense; 5e just lacks anything that makes me say “I have to play that game”.

  3. If you want to read a book that defines D&D better than anything else, read the 1E DMG. If you want to PLAY D&D in it’s most definitive and purest form, play Moldvay D&D Basic/Expert (Labyrinth Lord).

    Everything before that is a mess. Everything after that is just marketing.