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.

6 responses to “DnDNext – My turn to speculate

  1. Excellent article. While I don’t know about the edginess being a requisite, your statement that they should be going after the teenage market is spot on. And it is absolutely required that the license be resolved as soon as possible. They’ve had 4 years to fuck around with the GSL to get it right. I do believe people will rally to the OGL.

    It’s kind of interesting that the D20 License was what they felt people identified with, but the case is now the OGL. Clearly the online and engaged RPG community is different than those not engaged, but I would imagine the online community is what can “move the needle.”

  2. I believe you are wrong (or at least too assuming) in your underlying principle: that they should make a game that appeals to you and I. D&D is a game whose premise has been established: it is a comfortable sequence in which there is a thin tissue connecting encounters where you kill things for three rewards: XP that levels you to kill bigger things, loot that makes you better at killing things and a feeling of accomplishment for killing things. Party members are chosen to maximize that ability. 3/3.5 strayed fairly far from that, but if it’s viewed in the light that 3.x was the aberrant edition, the above holds true.

    You’re right in that it’s not where RPGs are now. But D&D at heart is as different from current RPGs as wargaming or board games are from current RPGs. It is almost a distinct genre.

    Now, they *could* make a game that appeals to you and I. Pathfinder (if dubbed 3.75, the most aberrant of the 3.x direction) extended in that direction somewhat, adding complexity to where you could play depth with characters. But if they pursued that direction they would be making a different game. To make D&D a modern RPG system with the currently popular trappings would be to jump it to an entirely different category of game.

    They could. But there’s an underlying question as to if they should. Looking at the popular MMORPGs out there, there seems to be a happy crowd of people enjoying getting together and killing things to level up. I don’t particularly need D&D at this point in my gaming life (and I did start with it, over three decades ago). But I don’t begrudge those who do want a book of weapons, a book of monsters and a book of spells and the purity of monster killing around a table, rinse, repeat.

    Keep in mind that d20 and D&D are two different things. Everything you say about d20, the OGL->GSL and the way Wizards screwed the blink dog is true. But that’s not really about Dungeons & Dragons, that’s about the larger system and publishing decisions. Similarly, White Wolf may have killed themselves with the CCP merger, but that’s a different topic than their handling of the World of Darkness setting. Wizards’ publishing legacy of screwing third party publishers across an edition upgrade will remain. D&D 5th will be published against that backdrop, and that will affect participation. But it won’t affect whether or not Dungeons & Dragons itself a good game… and that value of “good” might be for players who value games like you and I, or it might be for the monster whompers.

    • I don’t think I’m their audience, and I said that, but I thought it worth commenting. To me the greater problem is mending fences and building bridges back to the stung communities and the 3PP and I think that’s the greater problem for them, rather than the rules. What they need to do has, perhaps, already been done with the Dragon Age boxed sets.

      4e tried to compete with MMOs and it got its butt kicked. These are not things that tabletop RPGs do well (or best) any more. MMOs do it better. It’s the things that games like Skyrim or Dragon Age do (story, plot, sweeping events) that TTRPGs excel at and do better than CRPGs and I stand by my point that that’s where I think they should go – and there are some encouraging noises that way from the few things we hear from the design team.

      • The problem with 3.x was that it got more and more complicated. It was really starting to creek under the weight of it’s own complexity, and Pathfinder didn’t really fix that. (Understatement).

        It provided flexibility through complexity, which created more and more points of failure.

        I actually liked 4e (in principle – I never actually managed to play a game of it) for stripping back the complexity, but still retaining a lot of flexibility. Obviously it didn’t achieve what the target audience was looking for, but on a pure concept design level, removed from business concerns, the framework was, in principle, very good.

        I’d hate for them to go back to the 3.x mechanics philosophy. It would be a massive backwards step. However, the OGL direction is something I’d hope they would aim for… and just biting the bullet and moving properly into the digital age would be a massive boon.

      • As I stated, I think your points on the company are well made (I agree so much with them, I kind of just take it for granted). I’m just distinguishing the game of D&D from the company.

        I think Nathanael above (or below, depending on where this reply gets posted) is of the core D&D players. They don’t want depth, they just want a streamlined combat and advancement system. That is the game they are looking to play.

        Honestly, there’s not much out there for them. Palladium is combat oriented, but is detailed rather than abstract. Most of the rest of the classic systems have loads of social/investigation/etc in them that is just annoying to somebody looking to kick down the next door and fight whatever is in that room. The indie scene is creating games that are mostly one shot haikus. Lovely works of art, but not at all what D&D offered and what those players want.

        Now, if Wizards can get a large enough pool of players from that, I do not know. Hasbro wants another d20 era on the books, I am sure. Within gaming circles, we can guess, but they need to bring new blood in. How they do that is anybody’s guess.

        On my G+ post about 5th, somebody commented that 4e is the basic set. It’s a roleplaying game for beginners, so they can learn the fundamentals of declared actions, rounds, etc. and then move on to more complex games. Even if that’s all they do, the gatekeeper for the intro game will sell a ton of books.

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