More speculation and thoughts here in the countdown to any real information beyond revelation of design goals and idealistic plans. This is likely going to be the topic de jour for all the de jours of the immediate future. Especially since WotC is asking for feedback: the signal to noise ratio is going to be cray-zee!
This is not my first blog on the subjects. You can read some earlier and much more speculative ones ones here, here, and here. And then there my expansive treaties on the subject post-announcement here.
This time I’d like to just rattle off a list of abstract things that I’d like to see in a new iteration of the game.
1) Enable Alternate Play Styles
The buzzhype of the new edition iteration is focusing on how the entire game will be modular – rather than just classes. Modular complexity, modular rules, and modular options. This is a fun idea but it needs to go a step further than just giving DMs a choice of adding or removing skill systems, or Opportunity Attacks, or action types. There needs to be baked-in alternate styles of play.
If I want to play a 4e-esque cinematic action game it should be possible, as should a gritty fantasy game, or even a low-magic gothic horror game.
If everything goes according to schedule, I’ll finish running the classic Dragonlance Chronicles adventures in May. My next campaign is going to be a Ravenloft game, my absolute all-time fave world. I was hoping to really make the players fear for their characters, fragile heroes and dangerous monsters. I was planning on using Pathfinder and starting with NPC stat arrays and classes (warriors, experts, and nobles), so they’d have to earn their status as PCs. As this was/is possible right out the book in 3e/PF it should also be possible for 5e.
2) Promote House Rules
The strength of RPGs over traditional games is the ability to make the game your own. Most traditional games are unmodified and played straight, with a few notable exceptions (nobody plays Monopoly by all the rules). The big exception was role-playing games like D&D, where originally playing by all the rules was rare. It’s not enough to just tell DMs that they can change the rules; there should be actual advice and support. There should be explanations for rules, and justifications offered for controversial rules. And there should be cautions provided where needed.
For example, common house rules are lasting wounds, fumbles, and parrying. Rookie DMs might not realize that dropping the static +10 to defences and rolling for evasion is possible, or might not realize that add such a parry mechanic doubles the rolls in every round of combat.
3) Reward Role-Playing
It's not enough to just let it happen, role-playing should be encouraged. D&D is a role-playing game, so there should be some focus and advice and attention paid to role-playing. Just saying “nothing is stopping you from role-playing” or “I don’t need mechanics to role-play” is an evasion. It’s a cop out. You can say the exact same thing about other games, such as Clue: you can happily role-play through a game of Clue (and I totally recommend trying it) but that doesn’t make it a role-playing game.
The game should feature role-playing in the examples of play, offer advice, allow mechanics to reflect the story, and reward people for role-playing with related mechanics and bonuses. And, like any other modular element, if you don’t like it you won’t be required to use it!
4) Don't Be Hatin'
This is aimed more at the marketing team. Simply put, do not criticize or slam 4e. No shots, teasing, or unfavourable comparisons. Ever. Even if they’re true.
When they were selling 4e, there was no competition for D&D same itself: read 3e. So they targeted earlier editions with unflattering comments and comparisons, pointing out flaws and how they were fixing said problems. They didn’t focus as much on what 4e was good and doing except when hyping how it fixed mechanics and balance. For 3e fans, this stung. It was like your step-mom insulting your mother: there’s no way it’s going to go over well even if what is being said is true. Emotions ran high, people got defensive, and nerg rage was spawned.
Sell the edition for what it does: tell us why we should want to play the game and how cool it is. Show us how cool it is. And a comparison is needed, pick something an old edition does well and show how the new edition does it just as well or better (“3e had some amazingly flexible multiclassing, and we wanted to keep that but make it even better so we ____”.)
5) Suspend My Disbelief
I enjoy role-playing games the most when I’m unaware of the man behind the curtain, when I can focus on the character and the story and forget I’m playing a game. As such, I’m not a big fan of “game logic”: where something is exists or is limited for “balance reasons”, and especially when it lacks any in-world justification for how it works, despite crazy illogical. I don’t need a justification for why knights in chess meander about the board like drunken cavaliers, but hold role-playing games to a different standard.
Examples include pixies being unable to fly higher than five feet or rogues with a crossbow – which takes a minor action to reload – being able to hit four dudes with a single shot because the power says they can (or doesn’t say they can’t). Or even how people just move faster going northeast to southwest than they can north to south.
Now, I also don’t want hard realism. Reality sucks. The game doesn’t have to be MythBusters real-world physics approved. I’m happy with narrative logic, or action movie physics being the yard stick. And I accept there will always be proud nails that forcibly drag you out of the story and remind you that you’re playing a game, or are just not worth the effort needed to justify (like the grid example above). But it’s nice if even a token effort is made to hide the moving parts behind a curtain in the Great Oz’s throne room.
6) A Different Product
We have the forthcoming miniature combat game releasing this year as well as the multiple D&D board games, three types in fact, all doing entirely different things. The RPG game should also be doing things very different, offering a variant play experience.
Fans of tactical combat in a fantasy world can be catered to by the mini game, which can focus on giving them an excellent experience. Fans of gameplay inspired heavily by board games can be spoiled by the various Delve games.
The benefit of differentiation is it grows the brand. If you can only get a board game experience from the board games, you have to buy them. If you want a story-focused game and a board game experience, you just need to buy different products and alternate. It moves more products, and encourages alternate sales. And it provides the best experience for fans of each medium rather than producing a mixed product that does service to no one.
Although, the magazines, being Brand specific and not product specific, should have a little attention paid to everything. Such as alternate scenarios for the board games, or alternate rules, or small additions unworthy of a full expansion (or being playtested for inclusion in an expansion).
7) Respect New Players
While I liked the Essentials books, I found them problematic. There was a nice range of complexity, but many could quickly grow boring. A new player is only a “new player” for a few levels. You simply do not need a class that keeps the training wheels on for levels 1-30, because at level 25 the player should be able to handle some complexity. Heck, at level 5 they should be more than capable of complexity. The advantage to simple classes running the full level-range is only apparent when bringing in a player to an existing game, but, again, this is temporary at best.
Instead of full newbie classes, there should be simple builds with static options (i.e. straight numerical bonuses), which, over time, can be removed or swapped out to add complexity. This might be done well by limiting newbie classes to a small level band but building them in such a way that you can just increase the numbers to make the class appropriate at any level, then reimagining the class when the rules are a little more comfortable.
I use the term “newbies” but this is a little misleading. At this day and age, everyone knows what a freakin' elf is, what a wizard does, and the basics of fantasy. Harry Potter, Eragon, Artemis Fowl, the Hobbit, and the like have made fantasy accessible. And Warcraft has made even very non-traditional fantasy elements like druids, gnomes, gnolls, and paladins common knowledge. You simply do not need to explain terms like “hitpoints” or “levels” or “classes” to the same extent. I got my D&D start in 2e at age thirteen and I already knew much of that stuff from Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, and the Dragonlance novels.
Really, nowadays, how many kids have never played an RPG video game or been read fairy tales? I’m sure there are lots, but they’re neither the target audience nor likely to have heard of D&D.
8) A Middle-Ground OGL/GSL
This is the contentious point. The OGL was astonishingly open, likely far too open. But, the GSL was far too restrictive in a number of places. If WotC really wants to produce a universal system that brings together everyone, there should be something closer to the OGL.
Permitting reflavouring and rule modification would be the big change. Game companies should not be able to publish full alternate PHBs, and there should be even more restrictions on rules for character creation and advancement, but character guides and world books should be possible. It shouldn’t be possible to produce a “Pathfinder” line under the 5e-OGL, but something like Amethyst shouldn’t have to rename things like “elves” and “dwarves”.
Likewise, multiple books should be supported. This was the flaw in both game licences, which were quickly ignored after the first year. If it were possible for Third Party Publishers to produce powers for the seeker or runepriest, how much pressure would that have taken off WotC? How many extra copies of the PHB3 would have been sold?
The purpose of the OGL/GSL is to drive sales of the core books, because focusing sales is always preferable to spreading them out. Expanding the licences and SRDs to other books should drives sales of those books as well.
9) All the Expected Content
I hated (HATED) having to wait a year to play be able to play a gnome bard.
Part of this was the flaw of powers, which are space intensive. They’re concise and simple in play, but man do they devour the page count of a book. Likewise, when each build needs fifty or so powers (or a minimum of 25 or four pages) it’s hard to offer many alternatives. 5e needs to be tighter and release more content at the start. If people have to wait to play their favourite they’ll wait to invest in the game. It’s important to remember every class and race is someone’s favourite. Now, there are always options that do not get updated, but all of the classics should be covered as well as the best of the new.
From early on in the playest we should be able to play all of the big classes (fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, barbarian, cleric, and wizard) and hopefully a few others (swordmage, psion, artificer, warlock, sorcerer, monk, and bard) shortly after. And all the big races (human, elf, half-elf, gnome, tiefling, dwarf, dragonborn, half-orc) should be supported quickly with the other big names following (deva, shifter, genasai, warforged, doppelganger, minotaur, shadar-kai). It’d be nice to see the shardminds again, only this time integrated into the setting earlier and not released as a surprise, so they felt a part of the lore.
10) Finish What You Start
One idea I’ve heard for cramming so much modular content, so many races, and so many classes into a single book is to stagger the Tiers. So there’s be a “Heroic Tier” PHB and a “Paragon PHB” and an “Epic PHB”.
It’s a neat idea, especially since it allows them to focus the content on a consistent, comprehensive experience. They don’t need to provide coverage for monsters for the Epic tier in every books, just when they move to focusing on that tier. And it works to have a “Core” book for multiple quarters, spaced out over different months; WotC gets the sales spike from a major book repeatedly.
However, WotC has not proven themselves capable of “sticking to the plan” and changing their pre-planned publication schedule after every major staffing change. The plan for 3e and the d20 system radically changed after a couple years, resulting in 3.5, and the concept of “a new PHB every year” died when someone created Essentials. They tired of the straight planar tour books before they reached the Shadowfell and Feywild, so we still lack comprehensive information on those planes. We never got dedicated support for levels 21-30 in 4e, so holding off on publishing that content for 5e would likely be a mistake. Eighteen months in, after a couple rounds of layoffs and management changes and there’ll be a change to the publication schedule dropping or delaying the Epic PHB.
Other ideas for handling the needed content are focusing the core rules in a Rules Compendium with the PHB and DMG only having related rules. I’m fond of the idea of “playstyle” expansions, with the basics in the Core books enabling gameplay emulating other editions and styles, but expansions provided to build on the core foundation or provide other styles of play. For example, while there might be some advice and “rule modules” provided for a gritty style of play, there might be a “Low-Magic Heroes” book aimed at that style providing a wealth of options and alternate rules. Or, alternatively, the game could be divided into “Basic” and “Advanced” again, with the core rules provided in the very simple “Basic” books with the “Advanced” books providing expanded options and complexity added overtop the “Basic” books.
11) A Real Name
This is a personal pet peeve. You cannot just call it “Dungeons & Dragons” without an edition, because there already was a book/edition called that. Editions are used to differentiate between changes to a book: dictionaries and encyclopaedias have editions so you can easily tell what the newest edition is. I’m a librarian as well as a nerd, so it needs to have a unique identifier. We can’t catalogue it otherwise! There’ll be a duplicate entry!! And you can’t just use the date as the determiner, because in publishing a different date just means it’s a reprinting of an older edition not necessarily a new edition.
I understand why they’re hesitant: the edition was is terrible and there’s so much division. But not giving the new edition a name with “edition” as the subtitle won’t help. The divisions in the community will remain, as will the argumentative natures of people and their need to defend their “choice” in edition.
Give it a real name, or we’ll make one up. If you don’t want it called “5th Edition” then call it something else or we’ll call it “5th Edition” by default. And “D&D : [2013 Edition]” looks lame.
12) Be Awesome
Seriously. It needs to be awesome.
What more needs to be said?