DnDNext – My turn to speculate

I thought I’d give it a little while to shake down when it came to the 5e news, it’s not like it was a surprise to anyone but the feeding frenzy seems to have calmed down quite a bit. My perspective, coming into this, is as a role-player of nearly three decades now, is mainly that of a businessman rather than a player. A businessman and a member of our loose community I will tend to look at what’s good for us third-party publishers and for the RPG community as a whole.

Unlike a great majority of gamers, I never got my start with D&D and it holds no special place in my heart. I didn’t even play D&D (basic red box) until about five years into my role-playing ‘career’. I hold no special love for it’s sacred cows, conceits or historical place and I think this gives me a relatively uncommon and relatively detached perspective compared to a lot of other commentators.

My problem with D&D has always been the same. I find it difficult, even near impossible, to make the kinds of characters I want to play be reflected in the character sheet. The things I want to do are not supported by the rules, the scaffold of those rules gets in the way more than it facilitates what I want to do. I like to play combat capable rogues, scoundrels rather than thieves, acrobatic, socially capable and capricious fighters.

Early editions pigeonholed you almost utterly by class, 3E was the most open but as a GM it was a sonofabitch for an improvisational GM like me. 4E returned to the pigeonholing and, now that it’s been admitted that it was based on MMO ideas, I think we see why.

In every case, as player or GM, I’ve had to jump through hoops and mangle the rules – sometimes severely – to get them to do what I wanted. D&D probably isn’t the right tool for me then, and I recognise that, but if it wants to win me over as a consumer then D&D needs to change in some fundamental ways.

  • I need to be able to create a character in 10-15 minutes.
  • I need to be able to improvise as a GM without needing hours of set-up. Other games I can come up with an idea and launch into the game throwing monsters etc into it on the fly. 4e helped with prep time and was easier to improvise with but it was still prep heavy.
  • I need to be able to customise my character to represent his background, his RP. I need a meaningful skill system. Classes need to be a looser guide or multiclassing needs to be as easy as it was in 3e.
  • Classes, levels, hitpoints. These are sacred cows that might need hybridising or making less important, they’re all a barrier to me playing any RPG.
  • The system needs to be light enough, adaptable enough, for me to be able to do the unexpected. To swing from a chandelier, to try and disarm an enemy, to use someone as a human shield without needing a special feat or skill necessarily.
  • I need to feel part of the world and community around me, rules structures should link me to the world I am playing in.

My needs are unlikely to be met, I’m not your typical D&D customer and I’m well catered for by other RPGs like RQ/Legend, Legends of Anglerre, The One Ring. When it comes to the commercial side, however, I perhaps am someone they might want to pay attention to. I worked – quite a bit – on 3e/d20 projects, including for Wizards themselves and for other third party publishers as well as producing material myself.

4e and the GSL was a huge kick in the balls for third party publishers and horribly mismanaged. Promised one thing, something else emerged, horribly restrictive and while some concessions were made people pushing for preserving the OGL ethos ended up let go. Third party publishers I’ve talked to are very much ‘once bitten twice shy’ and given the vague licensing talk that has gone on refers to the GSL rather than the OGL I don’t know what the take up will be.

In my humble opinion Wizards needs to seriously repair some bridges with the third party publishing community and given D&D is a creative hobby, many of these measures would also repair goodwill with the broader community.

  • The OGL should be the model for licensing, not the GSL.
  • The old material needs to be back out on PDF, whether via the existing sites or via Wizards themselves. Withdrawing it was insane and misguided and pissed a lot of people off. Creators and players alike.
  • Keep the GSL/OGL reference material up to date this time.
  • Provided you are going to allow third party and fan material, ensure that the system is modular and expandable with options, more like 3e (rumours make this sound like it could be the way things go).
  • Concentrate on what makes RPGs better than MMOs. If you must take CRPG inspiration look to things like Dragon Age and Elder Scrolls. More mature, more adult games that get kudos for their story, something at which tabletop RPGs can kick computer game arse.

More generally I think that a basic/advanced split is an historical idea that’s still a good idea. Hasbro may be all about the family-friendly but D&D originally got its death grip on the public consciousness via the university scene. I think we may have more success bringing in new players by going after the teen/student/young adult market, rather than aiming for kid-friendly.

D&D needs an edge, it needs to be ‘dangerous’ again. It needs a little controversy, a little sting, something to grab people’s interest and attention. Try to please everyone and you’ll fail, do something interesting, engaging, controversial – in presentation or content – and you’ll seem relevant again.

The online tools need to be actually done this time. Fair enough, nobody could predict what would happen with the virtual tabletop but honestly, in a more professional environment that shouldn’t have put an end to it. Something ambitious and engaging like that is something that could genuinely expand the game. A virtual tabletop like so many that already exist isn’t going to cut it save as a holding pattern.

Why keep it just D&D either? Why put all the tools behind a paywall? Why not free access with a premium service paywall? Why limit a virtual tabletop to just D&D? D&D has the cultural impact and breadth to brush aside all the other virtual tabletop tools if they do it well. Use the sheer inertia of that community to bring gaming as a whole to your site, your tools, your tabletop.

I think the hinted at light, modular touch that’s been hinted at is a good start but this ‘play testing’ just feels like a PR exercise. At this point the system is largely settled and the influence that any play testers are going to have is likely to be minimal. The only area in which I really feel that any influence can possibly be exerted is in the licensing, the presentation and in policies and that could, still, make all the difference.

Wizards have a fuck of a lot to do to get back people’s confidence. So many missteps, so many things done to piss people off. Mishandled digital policies, mishandled licensing policies an now, a new edition far too early so that it seems exploitative (this used to happen with Games Workshop).

I don’t envy the design crew.