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D&D Next: A Cautious Nervous Inching Forward

July 16, 2013

For a variety of reasons I don’t fully understand, I’ve started thinking about Dungeons and Dragons again. I don’t mean in the intellectual wankery way I have before, where I question what cultural histories it draws from or how and why we play tabletop roleplaying games. I mean I’ve been thinking about the actual product.

My first real experience with Satan’s Game (as it can be jokingly referred to unless your Jack Chick) was probably Black Isle’s famous game Baldur’s Gate. When I first played this astounding computer game that came on Five CD-ROMs (cause we didn’t call them discs or just CDs yet), I truly did not understand it. The game was driven by the infamous Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules, meaning that it contained things like THACO and proficiencies. At whatever young age I played this game at these unintuitive rules made the game particularly difficult for me to grasp. Combine that with Vancian magic and you’ll understand that my early attempts at playing a Wizard or Druid met with horrendous pain and near-constant death.

Recently when I revisited the game I did have an understanding of what was going on. Of course, the torturous nature of low-level Dungeons and Dragons still made traveling around the map to be a fool’s errand more often than not. Stir in mediocre equipment and low hit point totals with the fact that the game gives you little direction and you’ll find that if you’re not diligent you’ll let whole side quests that are chock full of level appropriate encounters and experience pass you by.

Needless to say, I’m still not enamored to 2nd edition AD&D.

I finally played real table top Dungeons and Dragons right around the time that Wizards of the Coast had released 3.5. My group was still using the exceedingly similar Third Edition, but my attempts to get 3e books were stunted by the fact that Wizards of the Coast operates edition updates like a Soviet regime.

There was no 3rd Edition, there was always 3.5.

My experiences with D&D 3.5 are still some of my most cherished memories from high school. The system wasn’t precisely intuitive, and as products from both third party publishers and Wizards themselves began to flood the market I had serious questions regarding whether anyone still playtested things anymore, but it ultimately worked. The skill system felt like it emulated what I wanted characters to do a lot of the time. Combat was generally quick and easy, and a few reference tables from my official Dungeons and Dragons DM Screen (which I still have) covered most of the questions that came up. Barring the occasional whacky prestige class or spell, we rarely had problems. The few problems we did have we either house ruled or had nothing to do with the rules and more to do with players or me or the setting. In other words, we didn’t have a lot of problems with the rules.

Sure, there were definitely times when I felt like the d20 system constrained me creatively but there was generally some Third Party product to help with that. In retrospect, I don’t know how we didn’t have more problems with Dungeons and Dragons. I’d say it probably had to do with the fact that we weren’t looking to really push the system to its limits, we wanted to have fun and for our fun it worked. In later years, we strayed away because familiarity bred contempt. We knew the ins and outs of the mechanics, and we were tired of playing the D&D-version of a High Fantasy setting.

I switched over to the Hero System, and have only ever had one real Nostalgia-fueled look back that was generally enjoyable. That campaign, and my insistence on making it as ‘out-of-the-box’ or ‘cookie-cutter’ as possible, did eventually lead me to question the cultural history present in D&D but it was still fun.

Around the time that I switched over to the Hero System, Wizards of the Coast made their big push to create and release Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. A change that I was adamantly opposed to because I don’t like things that are different.

In reality, my contempt for it began to grow because of a video they released where they had a group of ‘average D&D players,’ struggling to play 3.5. It was like the infomercial version of Dungeons and Dragons, where every roll provoke a rules consultation and none of the players could even remember where the combat chapter was in the player’s handbook. This was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the DM had the same DM Screen in front of him that I had used to quickly resolve rules questions for years.

I remember reading the design blogs and getting this strange impression that I and everyone I had ever met or spoken to online who played D&D were apparently Super-Humans. There was that much discussion on the truncated rules and how complicated and annoying Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition had been. Of course, in retrospect, none of this was really true. It was just how they were framing the conversation to prepare us for the stream lined nature of D&D 4e.

The part where I really became enraged at the product was when I realized that they were going to continue the business strategy that had started creeping in around the end of 3.5’s life. Namely, releasing more books that you would need to run D&D properly. To have the full complement of character classes, monsters, races, and so on, you’d have to buy all the books (each of them at 30 bucks a pop). This combined with their attempts to foist new cosmology and new races onto me just didn’t sit right. I didn’t want my games to have Tieflings as a core race, and I didn’t understand where I would fit Dragonborn in.

The one benefit I jokingly derived from 4th Edition was a running gag I had that I didn’t like the Aasimar and wanted to get rid of them. By removing the demonic nature from Tieflings they effectively killed off the Aasimar, who were their good aligned counterpart. Therefore, in the context of the gag, I was triumphant.

Even after playing it without my dice bursting into flames, I couldn’t really see much reason to get behind 4th edition. Their claims that the classes were balanced was something that I felt was blatantly untrue after reading over the books. I found that some classes were clearly just better than others that filled the same roles. Even the attempts to keep things fun for everyone by giving everyone a set of powers didn’t quite work because you’d blow your load of encounter and daily powers and then be stuck screwing around with your At-Wills. This turned out to be true when I played, and the people I know who were part of larger campaigns often had that complaint.

This isn’t to say I didn’t know people who liked 4th Edition. I met a couple of people who did, and even my like-minded friends once had a very positive experience at a convention with a company that wasn’t affiliated with Wizards of the Coast. They actually said that adventure changed their perspective on the game. In many ways, even I’ve softened to it because I have to admit that there are good game design decisions in 4th edition. Plus, ultimately, I could see this being a great edition for people that are busy and want a more straight forward stream lined RPG experience. At the end of the day, it still delivers fun.

Of course, the same business strategy that made me cringe when 4th Edition came out made me cringe again in December of 2011 when Wizards of the Coast announced D&D Next! The True Future of Gaming!

My initial response was simply that I couldn’t give a fuck anymore. After stressing out over the changes in 4th Edition that didn’t affect me in anyway, I decided I couldn’t put myself through that again. Therefore, I was just going to try and ignore it.

So I have, for about 18 months.

In that time, they’ve apparently been doing a lot of public playtesting and writing design blogs and all sorts of little things that… don’t really explain much.

As I said at the start of this, I’ve been thinking about the product and so I have gone back to the source to get an idea of what the hell’s going on with this game that’s been such a part of my life. Note that at this point in my life I’ve been gaming for a decade or more, and D&D is the thing that got me started. It’s like your first kiss, or the thing that you knew was going to delay your first kiss cause you’re a giant nerd.

From what I gathered, Wizards of the Coast doesn’t know what direction they want to take things. Once again, there’s this big attempt to make it seem like the last edition was some sort of screw up and no one knows how it happened. They’re backpedaling away from it and all that I can gather from that is that they don’t realize why people didn’t like 4th Edition. People weren’t angry about Healing Surges. There was good stuff in 4e, there just was also a lot of dumb things we were saddled with. Particularly more in the setting and story departments than anything else.

The goal as far as I can tell is to dredge up as much Dungeons and Dragons history as they can, not seeming to realize how many people just jumped ship to Pathfinder when 4th Edition was the Bold Steps Forward Into A New Century (like 3rd Edition Before It). Yet even that doesn’t seem to work because they also want to develop, and innovate, and restructure things. The other week I was reading about the ecology of Ettercaps and I was suddenly trying to think if I had ever even used Ettercaps in any of the Dungeons and Dragons games I had been in. It sounded interesting, but it seemed overly detailed for a creature that I wouldn’t have remembered if not for its artwork in the 3rd Edition Monster Manual.

I read a similar article today, about Myconids. Myconids are apparently mushroom people, that I largely never used in my games. Once more, it sounded interesting but it was also strange because at the bottom of the article is a poll. I now have to wonder if anything I just read is true or finalized. Will things change if there’s a large negative trend in response to the article?

In an attempt to get a perspective not from a copywriter, I stumbled upon this interesting piece over at Daily Encounters that discussed both the good and bad points of D&D Next. I think it’s worth the read if you don’t want to download the rules yourself and become a public playtester.

There is something really important that I gathered from the article though, and that is the fact that we’re over two years into D&D Next. Eighteen months of public playtesting and tons of internal testing before that. Yet, I still get the impression from the design blogs that they’re not really sure we’re they’re going. They still seem to be trying to iterate what their design philosophy for this edition is. There’s talk of more than just combat, which is a good thing, and being able to accommodate multiple kinds of adventures, which is also good. However, there’s still a lot of questions about what you, as the consumer, want. They seem to be so afraid of backlash or failure that they’re incapable of committing to anything. Worse is that what they do seem ready to commit to are stuff from D&D’s history that may actually just be historical baggage.

Both Third and Fourth did one thing right. They stepped forward, condemned their predecessors, and made a bold statement. You could love them or hate them because they had clear design philosophies behind them.

D&D Next, which is the type of name I would imagine someone would have come up with had they revamped the terrible Dungeons and Dragons cartoon in the mid-90s, still seems to be faffing about over a year and a half into public playtesting. Ultimately, I can’t really have an opinion on it because it refuses to take a stand.

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One Comment
  1. Ilbye permalink

    You’re operating from a false idea that WotC is calling the shots. They aren’t and haven’t been since the beginning of 3.X. that’s why the 4E debacle happened. “Next” is not going to be even as big as 3.X.

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