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Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition

WotC announced they are working on the fifth edition of their game.  But what does that mean?

There’s been a split among D&D characters, and, as any good player will tell you “You don’t split the party”.

This is the message Wizards of the Coast has put out for us fellow adventurers.  Since 4th edition, there’s been grumbles from the core players.  Then, after a few months, dissent lead to desertion.  Dungeons and Dragons fourth edition, with all it’s good points and bad was plagued over the past three years by a decision made in 2000 to have Third Edition be printed under an Open Gaming Licence.  This allowed any company to make additional products for Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition using Wizards terminology without the threat of legal action looming over them.  It strengthened the game, and the brand.  Dungeons and Dragons was already the leader in Role Playing Games, but the OGL solidified Third Edition, turning it into an RPG Juggernaut.

And when Fourth Edition came out, it was hit head on by that Juggernaut, and is grinding under the gears of it.  As of this writing, Paizo, the makers of the Pathfinder line of 3rd Edition D&D products is making more money from publishing 3rd edition products than Wizards is making off of 4th edition products.  And that’s one company.  If you count Goodman Games, and all the other publishers of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition products, 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons is getting squeezed out of its own game.

That is why the announcement for 5th edition from Wizards sounds like a plea instead of a celebration. The good news is, that Wizards is very serious in it’s desire to get feedback from players.  Instead of looking at surveys and godbooks, then building a game based upon a design group’s philosophy, they are soliciting responses from everyone.  The makers of Dungeons and Dragons want to keep making Dungeons and Dragons, and we should support them when they ask for our help.  The future of our game is at stake, and, to a lesser extent, so isn’t table top roleplaying.  Feel free to drop on over community.wizards.com/dndnext and give the makers of D&D a piece of your mind.  [You know... after you get done reading my article.  :D]

I don’t get it.  What’s wrong with 4th edition that we couldn’t patch it up and wait another 3 years to make 5th edition?

I suppose you’re new to the game, Huh?

It’s cool.  I’m going to admit something that few people who play the game would.  I like 4th edition.  I think it empowers the Dungeon Master, and streamlines the game.  Oh, I’ve got problems with it.  I could write a book about the failings of 4th edition.  No.  Honestly, I could write an entire book about how4th edition failed to live up to people’s expectations for what a Dungeons and Dragons experience should contain.  I could write most of it off the top of my head.  The holes in the game are so large, that you can’t compare it to swiss cheese anymore.  More like Swiss air with bits of cheese.  Here’s a quick run down of some changes that we may see because so many people will complain about them:

Stop it with the miniatures rules system!  A lot of players play with miniatures on a grid, but many players don’t, or, they may draw a map and put pieces on them, but they wouldn’t be bothered to measure everything out.  The fourth edition rules, however, are built assuming that everyone likes to play with miniatures.  I suppose, from a marketing perspective that this makes sense.  If miniatures are standard, then everyone needs to buy them, and Wizards makes miniatures, ergo…

That isn’t how the real world works, however.  If you tell a playgroup that they need to play with miniatures to play D&D, they will tell you that they, indeed, do not.  If you build tactical warfare into the game in a way that it can not be separated, they will stop playing your game.

All these characters look the same!  When 4th came out, the designers pulled a coup.  They made a universal system with characters that had one of four different roles, and therefore played differently, but all worked using the same set of rules.  It played great, and the game no longer had overpowered classes (i.e., The Wizard) and useless classes (i.e., The Bard).  The problem with this?  Players don’t really want balance.

Oh, sure, balance keeps a game stable, and we can’t tilt the scales too much to chaos.  But if the Bard was so bad, how come so many players played Bards?  If the Wizard or Ranger was so powerful, how come the entire party didn’t consist of those characters?  The reason?  Well, one, because players in their individual games don’t care about power level as much as game designers or people who spend too much time on message boards.  But the other reason was that many classes could do something that other classes could not.  The Thief was a skill master, and would get you past many traps.  The Wizard could blast the most powerful spells, but his selection was limited.  The party couldn’t bounce back from a beating without a Cleric, and that ‘useless’ Bard was a Jack-of-all-trades, pretending to be whatever character the players didn’t have at the time.

If you didn’t have the right mix of classes, things could go terribly wrong for you, but that made each class feel special and important.  Adding a pile of Minions to the game so that the Commander of the party feels like they are doing something doesn’t make a person feel important.  You’re forcing the situation to make him feel special.  That just isn’t the same.

Every level feels the same!  Again, when 4th edition came out, this was quite the coup.  Players complained that it was too easy to die in the early stages of the game, and the late stages got too complicated to play.  In the Myriad Games Podcast, we cited 7th – 12th level of 3rd edition as being the sweet spot, but your mileage may vary.  Wouldn’t you like a system where 1st level was as involved as 7th level, and 27th level just as complicated?

At the time, it sounded like a good idea, and the first few combats played out well.  Almost exactly one hour combat each time you played!  That’s perfect!  Just when the players are getting tired of combat, it ends and we do something else.  By the tenth time you’ve had your perfect one hour of combat, however, players were jaded.  Is this all there is?

Fourth edition advocates giving your players  everything they want right now.  This is good advice, but if you don’t hold something back, everything is going to feel the same.  Further, when it comes time to pass out treasure and magic items, they’re going to lose a bit of mystery if the players can order them up like they’re pulling them from a giant catalog.  So stop formatting the books as if they are giant catalogs.  Cripes.

Stop making supplements, and start making material!  We talked about this in the Myriad Games Podcast, and when that cast goes live, I’ll link it here.  The basic idea, however, is that the current system does not work within the context of modern economics.  Why should anyone bother to buy a Paladin’s Handbook if they can go to Dungeons and Dragons Insider and sneak the relevant information from them?  Or ask your friend who has Insider if they can look online for a few hours for what they need, and copy it down?  Or even worse, download the information they need in an illegal torrent, then throw away the file?

The model of making money for Dungeons and Dragons by printing more and more supplements doesn’t work anymore.  One of the reasons why it used to work in the 70s and 80s is because D&D was originally printed as an incomplete game, and each book was a bit of a rules addendum.  But Wizards has consolidated the game in a way that you don’t need rules supplements anymore, just extra doo-dads for your characters and a few new monsters.  And when you’ve had enough of that, you stop buying things.  That may be great for our wallets, but it’s terrible for the game.

So here’s the easy solution:  Make a flawed game.  Make an open ended modular game which could go any number of ways.  Some creative types will take that and personalize their own games and not buy any products from you.  Wish them good luck… they weren’t the customers that you were going to make a lot of money off of anyways.  The rest of us will look forward to each new product as an expansion to the core of the game, with a new adventure, new rules, new minis chips and inserts to give to the players.  In theory, since each level takes most play groups one month to complete, you can publish the new rules for each level once per month.  By year’s end, players will be purchasing the 12th level book, you can look forward to two more years of publishing success in the core game, and simultaneously launch the first level of Eberron or Ravenloft.  How cool would that be?

Granted, you would lose a lot of people.  Old school players won’t like this new direction Dungeons and Dragons has taken, and will claim that Wizards has gone mad with power.  Thank those people for their support all these years, and let them play Pathfinder.  If this company is to have a future, we have to assume that the game is going to evolve and there will always be people who don’t like the way the game is changing.  Meanwhile, a modular, open-ended, roleplaying game has the ability to start fresh, and become greater than the original tree that lent its seeds to spring new life.

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  1. Hi John Michael it’s Tony. Great article and it hits on a lot of points I also feel about 4th edition. Coming from an equally big fan of MMOs and tabletop RPG I did like the role system of 4th, but it never had the mystic quality of past editions.
    Heck, one of my favorite game masters of all time (besides yourself, of course) was a blind man. As you can imagine we didn’t use miniatures, I would keep track with a loosely hand drawn sketch of where we were at the time, made him by him as he went along.

    • Hey, good to see you Tony! We certainly have lost a bit of the mystery in our game. As the game matured, it stopped selling to the Dungeon Master and started selling toward the players. It’s smart business when you think of it… there’s more of them. Unfortunately, the backlash of that attitude is that we lose a lot of mystique that Dungeons and Dragons used to represent.

      I have to admit, as Dungeon Master, there are advantages to this. I don’t want to do all the legwork, and I’ve never been the most organized person among my friends. If some of my players desire to carry some of the load, then, by all means, go for it. But players buy products from Wizards with an eye toward what makes their character better, not what makes the communal storytelling experience better. It’s why we don’t deal with cursed items as much anymore. Players don’t want those things! Why would they publish them in books? The fact that they create funny scenes and intriguing subplots is completely lost.

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