So the net is rife with speculation about fifth edition D&D, again, much as it has been since 4e came out. I’m not especially interested in the speculation but perhaps that’s because I’m just not as wedded to D&D as many are and I often find its sacred cows to be more like heavy weights dragging against my feet.
4e is, of course, a success compared to the rest of the industry, with the notable exception of Pathfinder which, it seems, is doing better at least in some quarters than 4e D&D has done. There’s a whole host of mistakes and fuck-ups we can point out as to why 4e hasn’t been the success that it could have been but there’s no need to point them out really… oh, all right.
- Once you free something up it’s a) hard to put the genie back in the bottle and b) you’ll piss people off by trying. 3e owed a lot to the OGL, trying to constrict and thus pissing off the third party publishers and fan publishers was a disaster.
- The shiny cool looking online tools never manifested, at least not in the style and promise they’d been touted as having. It comes to something when the Neverwinter flash game on facebook is a better and more immersive experience than your online tools.
- 3.0-3.5 freed up the game to be much more customisable and RP friendly, looser class/skill meant you could represent and play a much broader variety of characters. The RP options were – potentially – infinite. 4e, comparatively, was a huge leap backwards.
- It was stupid to try and compete directly with the MMO model (niche protection, subscription model in the way it was handled). The strengths of RPGs were not played to.
I haven’t played every edition of D&D but there’s always something that gets in the way and frustrates me. With Basic it was the simplicity of the rules in that they were inflexible and frustratingly incapable of dealing with things I wanted to do, plus my heroes were damn fragile and there was no engaging world expressed.
With AD&D you could get it to do more things you wanted but only really at the end of its 2e incarnation and only by hacking the rules with all sorts of options and house rules. One game of D&D was often nothing like another. At least AD&D moved away from the wargame roots and had some engaging worlds.
3rd Edition finally felt like a ‘proper’ RPG, but it was still, basically, a fibreglass shell over the same old 2CV engine. Multiclassing was easy, but then classes themselves were an issue. The skill system was great for customising characters, but made ‘Rogue’ the default option for anyone who wanted to be a skilful expert. While the OGL lead to a massive amount of creativity and a gaming renaissance, it did also make it ‘messy’. Still I’d rather have that than not. Making up monsters and NPCs was a chore in 3e too, but at least it was directly relatable to characters.
4e was, for me, a massive leap backwards, back to much more hard and fast classes and niches, very difficult to adapt (due to the nature of powers), bloated with powers exception cases, disunified rules and so on. Some of this has been ‘patched’ (fibreglass body shell again) in the later ‘core’ books but still… it’s a bodge job. The massive over-concentration on minis was also massively off-putting after we’d been somewhat freed from it.
Enough armchair analysis of the past, what about the future?
- MMOs do niche, combat oriented dungeon bashing better.
- Lego Heroica – and others – do intro games better.
- Ground in crunchy build-your-own has been lost to Pathfinder.
- 3PP/fans are still pissed over the GSL and Hasbro heavy handedness and contradicting statements/enforcement.
- Fantasy Flight do mini board games better.
So, what would I do?
I see two possible paths, but I wouldn’t want to pursue both because that would divide the audience. Either you need to go for something easy, graspable and universal and keep it that way, or you need to embrace what makes RPGs unique, special and makes them work so well. Of these, I’d prefer D&D to finally become an actual RPG, but I can see the worth in both.
Whoa there hoss, D&D IS an RPG!
Sure, in the sense homo habilis is a computer programmer from Milton Keynes. While people bitched about 2e, 3e and 4e for much the same reasons ‘It’s not like it was!’ the same few, new zombified, sacred cows are still marching on. Class, level, hit points in particular.
D&D hasn’t ever really been an RPG, it’s been a skirmish game in which roleplaying occasionally takes place. It could do more to encourage and allow for roleplaying and in my opinion, it should.
Option 1 – Simple and Universal
Strip the whole thing rrrrrriiiiight back as simple as you feel you can go. Hit points? Fuck no. LIVES. Classes? No. Cobble together what you want by picking ‘powers’ or a bunch of templates, like, say Fight/Magic/Expert/Scholar in various combinations. Levels? Bugger that, just improvement in individual things. Make it use d6s instead of dice salad. Makes it easier for people to pick up. Go Gamma World style in presentation and push the fucker in toyshops and bookshops. The D&D brand is enough to carry the change through and blow me if it wouldn’t attract a shitload of attention and publicity.
Option 2 – The Proper RPG
Keep the skeleton of the system and the world as is but concentrate on the aspects that make RPGs different (and in my opinion better) than the board game and computer game alternatives. The freedom, the characterisation, the roleplay. Budge the mechanics to be more freeform and RP encouraging, espouse that ethos in the books along with the mechanics, engage people in the story and the world, place it front and centre. Rather than rules – necessarily – teach GMs techniques and approaches, example heavy, explanatory, hand holding. License the same IP OUT of the RPG into board games, computer games etc using the RPG side for IP production and the other aspects as the cash cows, leaving the RPG side free to experiment, take risks etc without being held hostage or having to ALSO be all these other things.
Is any of this what’s likely to happen?
Is it fuck.
The only thing I will absolutely hope for is that licensing remains and frees up from the GSL’s next-to-useless absurdity. Your fans and third parties are creative and they drive your success. Embrace them.