AN OPEN LETTER TO WIZARDS OF THE COAST AND THE D&D COMMUNITY
Wizards of the Coast has announced that they will start work on the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons (technically the 5th edition of Advanced D&D) this year. It seems the gaming community at large has harshly rebuked any acceptance of their ill-conceived 4th edition, and WotC has given up on the system after a mere three-and-a-half years. Now that they presumably have learned the errors of trying to engineer a game nobody asked for, they are looking for suggestions from D&D players to find out what they want.
This new edition has presents D&D gamers a new opportunity beyond simply helping to create a new edition of the game. I would like to see this new edition not simply as a reboot for a game system, but a resurrection of D&D gamer unity.
Third edition alienated many 1st and 2nd edition player; many players of the earlier editions saw this new edition as something not cut from the same block. This made two camps of D&D players: those that played 3rd edition versus those that did not. Then along came fourth edition. Now the 3rd edition players got a taste of the bitter pill that the 1st and 2nd players had swallow. They were force fed the new 4th edition game, a system so utter alien that it was not even recognizable as the D&D. A vast amount of them refused to switch over to the new system and kept playing the older edition. Now we have three camps of D&D games, each alienated from one another.
My hope is that WotC will make a game that brings back the traditional aspects of D&D with updates that enhance the game, but keeping in mind the spirit of the original game. If this new edition is a worthy addition to the D&D legacy, maybe players old and new will unite under the same banner. WotC has asked for suggestions on building this new system. I have written down eight that I think will help make a game that all generations of D&D players will like and play. At least, this is how I would start if I were design the game.
1. Do Not Pander to Children: This might seem to be a counter intuitive idea since teenagers often spend the most time playing the game. And if you can get them young you will have lifelong fans, is I’m sure how WotC thinks. However, if you make a product that speaks to adults and children alike, you got a better product. Kids will be drawn to the product if it good, as will adults. Products marketed to kids will not draw adults and are usually of inferior quality. A good example is the Star Wars IV-VI movies (the original trilogy); these did not pander to children. However, once it was discovered that a large portion of the fans were children that will pester their parents to buy toys, you ended up with the significantly inferior I-III movies. Kids might like them, but they have not staying power, and turn off the adult fanbase. Furthermore, teenagers are usually habitually broke so they will spend less money on gaming materials. Adults usually have jobs and will buy more gaming products since they have more expendable cash.
2. Respect Your Fanbase: A product gets popular because people like an intrinsic quality about it that draws them in, so they buy the products. Changing the quality that makes D&D special will leave the fans feeling alienated. This happened to 2nd edition players when 3rd came out and to 3rd edition players when 4th came out. They looked at the rules and could hardly recognize it as the same game. Many players took a look at these new editions and, feeling no affinity to it, refused to adopt the newer system. It simply was too far remove from what they knew and liked. You might say these fans felt it was a corporate slap in the face to change their game so radically. (I say “their game” because in the end, the game belongs to the players.)
Changes to the game should make for better play, and seemingly arbitrary changes that do to help the game should be avoided. A good example of this is the changing of the layout of the Outer Planes in 4th edition. Most of the planes were swept away for no real reasonable excuse; “daemons” become “demons” because, supposedly, everyone called them “demons” anyway (one of the weakest excuses I’ve ever heard). Fourth edition also got rid of character saving throws as they existed in all previous editions. Why get rid of so an integral aspect of the game that’s been around since its inception? Thoughtlessly tossing it out the game is an insult those that came before. In short: don’t try to make New Coke when your fanbase doesn’t want it.
One final point. I personally felt that in the last ten years, WotC has viewed D&D players not as fans but as a wallet to fill the corporate coffers with their releasing of many unnecessary supplemental books of dubious quality. Readers of Dragon Magazine might remember Roger E. Moore mentioning a number of times in his editorials that TSR was conscious of the fact that people had a finite amount of money to spend on new gaming products. Simply pumping out poor quality material in an attempt to bilk people out of their hard-earned dollars is poor business strategy.
3. Respect Your Tradition: It is fairly arrogant for a game designer to say, “This game system has worked great for 35 years. Let’s dump it and sell its fans a new game that has the same name, but looks nothing like the original.” That is what 4th edition seemed to say. So much for respecting what people liked best about the game. Fourth edition may have been built on a clever, sound game system that would have worked great for some other game, but is alien to the Dungeons & Dragons tradition. I suggest the designers go back to original sources, to the genetic pools of imagination that gave that gave rise to the D&D. Use the original “basic” D&D and 1st edition as the starting point. Go on from there and make something new, but keep it looking like a game D&D of all miens can respect and be willing to play. I see no reason to give into present day fads every few years and alter the game to match them. The game as originally constructed is solid enough to whether nearly 40 years on continuous play, it think it will continue to be a viable system in the future.
4. Start With the Basics: The basic D&D player character classes and races should follow the classic line-up. That is human, elf, half-elf, halfling, dwarf, & gnome and fighter, cleric, magic-user, and thief. This should be the basic format. Every other race and class should optional and not in the core Player’s Handbook. Getting rid of a beloved race gnome and replace it with the tiefling as basic starting races seems to be another ill-conceived move to update the game. Races like tiefling are simply too alien to be a basic race. Once the basics are in place, all new additions would best be optional in supplemental materials to follow.
It might even be a good idea to revive the dual game system. Regular D&D for those that don’t like to tamper with the tried and true and like to keep it simple; an “advanced” version for gamers that like lots of new classes, races, combat rules, and the like. Similarly, if some players wish to have a simpler, faster playing game that more resembles a trading card or MMO game, make an off-shoot version of D&D to cater to them, but do not make the primary game in that style.
5. Find a Good Balance: The D&D game is made up of balance between role-players and war gamers. D&D is not a fully tactical game such as Warhammer, or a mostly role-playing game like Call of Cthulhu. When played best, D&D strikes a balance between the two. Second edition overemphasized roleplaying at the expense of tactical combat. With third edition the pendulum swung the other direction. With 4th edition it kept moving toward tactical combat. A new edition needs a balance between the two sides. Furthermore, there has been a trend in the last ten years to reduce all supplemental material to five basic categories: new spells, monsters, magic items, classes, and powers. This reduction has made D&D a tactical game where players have become obsessed with min/max’ing their characters to their best advantage. For these players, problems are solved with crude overpowering of enemies with their personal powers instead of mental problem-solving and/or role playing. For me, this type of game wears thin quickly.
6. Deemphasize PC Powers: Starting with 3rd edition it seemed that all semblance of character power balance was removed. Third edition and fourth has over-emphasized personal character power. There are simply too many options for classes, spells, powers, etc. A simpler, smaller, and more-useful pool of these would work better. The overemphasizing of powers means many newer player treat D&D like a MMO; in a sense, if you just it the buttons fast enough you will destroy your opponent. Like mentioned earlier, the role playing should be a greater aspect of the game.
7. While I have many suggestions on exact details would make a good 5th edition, it does not seem appropriate to delve into such minutia. I think it best to give a compare and contrast of the strong points and weak points each previous edition of D&D. From there you can extrapolate the most desirable types of rules needed.
Positive: First edition was where most of the classic module adventures were born. These adventures were flexible to fit into any campaign since many were “plotless”. The makers of 1st edition respected D&D tradition and had a good eye for game balance.
Negative: The makers of 1st edition kept too tight of reigns on its development, so growth of the game moved very slowly. They vehemently discouraged tinkering with the rules.
Positive: Second edition fixed a lot of outdated rules from 1st ed. Role playing was emphasized over dungeon delving. Game worlds were expanded. Information about character classes, races, and monsters was increased greatly.
Negative: Too much role playing. Too many adventures built around game worlds (Dark Sun, Ravenloft, etc.). Few generic, “plotless” adventures. Combat and tactics were almost completely ignored until near the end of its cycle.
Positive: Streamlined the game by getting rid of some clumsy rules. Emphasized tailoring characters with unique powers.
Negative: Too much tactical combat emphasis. Too much power to characters. Little added for roleplaying. Too many options.
Negative: Needless dumping of traditional game aspects. Continued over emphasis of tactics. Adventures that are simply tactical skirmishes instead of a playable story. Over-simplified (e.g. two sentences to describe a monster in the MM). Turning the game into Magic-style card/MMO game.
8. Have a Vision for the Game: Making a game based on public poling only leads to a diluted, weak game. The public will always choose the most mediocre version of the game because they do not know how to design a game. For example, movies that use focus groups to determine what the public wants to see are never as strong a movie made a few people with a clear vision. And are the people that show up to give suggestions really indicative of who is playing D&D? I seemed to know a good many people that play the game, but will never to WotC website to voice their opinion. Find out who is really playing the game, not just the people with strong conviction on a forum board.
What is everyone else's thoughts on what I touched on?