One final blog on D&D Next and then I’ll take a break for a few blogs.
One of the big questions regarding 5e is how they core books will be structured: how they’re planning on release an acceptable amount of modularity for the game without releasing massive tomes that dwarf Ptolus or make the Pathfinder core book look like a pamphlet on paper conservation.
Here’s what I’d do if I were in charge planning the books:
The Return of Basic & Advanced!
I’d start with Basic Edition. Now, hear me out, put down the pitchforks and hold back on the comments crying “we don’t need two product lines again!!” One of the problems D&D has is that it’s a giant big book that’s inaccessible to new players, or rather three giant books that are fairly dense and complex. And this forthcoming “iteration” has the potential to be even more complex and heavy, with options for different types of the same class and many optional rules.
So we start with the basics: Dungeons & Dragons Basics. One book that functions as a Rules Compendium and Starter Set and Core Rulebook. It has the most iconic classes and races in a very accessible form with rules that are simple and streamlined yet elegant and flexible: 1e meets Essentials with the flexibility of an OGL retro-clone yet the balance of new books. Enough options and variety to build a few different characters of the same class and levelling up is interesting, yet not so many as to be overwhelming. It should be a combination of the PHB and DMG with a few monsters slipped in for low levels. An all-in-one book that can be everything you need to play for years and everything needed to run for months (until you need a few more monsters monsters). The beauty is that it can be aimed at both new players and experienced players who want a lite, simple experience.
Next comes Advanced D&D, specifically Dungeons & Dragons Advanced: Players Handbook and Dungeons & Dragons Advanced: Dungeon Master’s Guide. The core rules are not reprinted here, they’re all in the Basic book; D&D Advanced is everything else. The PHB has multiple different ways of using advancing the Core classes, different skill systems, alternate races, and much, much more. This should not all be optional and different, as there should be more options for expanding on the Basic content for those sticking to the baseline. Likewise, the DMG is packed with alternate rules, advice, suggestions, and explanations. The basics of running the game are all in Basic, so they can focus on the advanced DMing, mature topics and advice on making new rules or options. Topics like world building, alternate types of campaigns, problem solving, and the like.
The Monster Manual can be generic, working for both equally (with some modification from the DMG), although they could easily release a MM: Advanced with more options or variants.
From this baseline they can expand outward.
The catch with expansions is they never sell as well as the “Core” books. They have to stand alone, but should still feed sales of the Core book. You don’t want them to be extraneous or filled with lesser or superfluous content but you can’t easily hold back options for expansions.
3e was extremely front-loaded making it hard for secondary books to do anything but release side-options, Prestige Classes, or new classes. 4e delayed iconic classes, races, and monsters for later books, most notable being the primal classes for PHB2, and the monk which had to wait two years to see release. Essentials tried to focus on low-level play, especially with its monster books (not that there were few monsters in the MM1), assuming gaps in monster levels would be shore up in later released that will likely never happen.
How do we do this in 5e? Especially when there are so many potential options and variant play styles! Simple, we use the playtests.
The first batch of books can focus on the Core races and classes as well as lower levels, say the first 15 levels. Then, after a year or so, they can release the second series of books, either Basic 2 and Advanced 2 or D&D Advanced: Legendary Levels. The name isn’t important. This second set of books details the next 15 levels. However, in the interim, all the rules would still be available (for free) as playtest documents.
This allows a longer time to playtest the higher levels, really working the kinks out of high level play for the first time. And lets people play the content and level range they want, but the initial books don’t have to have everything all at once.
The same applies for some of the side races and classes. Some (artificer) could be detailed on DDI as part of updates for campaign settings while others (bard, warlock, psion, monk, paladin) could be released in later themed books with related secondary races (gnome, tiefling, half-orc, dragonborn, minotaur). However, until those books come out, there’d be the playtest documents allowing people to easily play a gnome bard from release while still allowing the PHB2 or Book of Races and Classes to have new Core content.
A year for later books is probably a little too long. It’s tempting to save that content for the next year’s GenCon release, but WotC should probably focus on releases every 3-6 months for a while until they’ve the essentials are covered, the classes and races and must-have options that have been around for 2+ editions.
Theme or Style Books
Next could come the books focused on certain play styles and types of campaign, with advice and focused options. Now, when I first mentioned this, someone balked at the idea of returning to campaign settings with their own rulesets and subsystems. But I don’t see this as a bad thing, or how D&D ever stopped doing that. Forgotten Realms has the Spell Plague, Eberron has dragonmarks and dragonshards, and Dark Sun has defiling and wild talents. There are always new mechanics in setting books.
This approach works two-fold. There could the “theme” books based around a concept or type of campaign. Things like espionage, war, courtly intrigue, modern, steam-punk, or horror. The book would have advice, alternate campaign modules to drop into the Core rules, and new character options that synergize with that style of play. A book on war could feature a couple different ways of handling battles, such as a couple different mass combat rules (simple and complex) or more PC-centric rules (such as the Victory Point system from 3e’s Heroes of Battle). Good examples of character options would be abilities that could increase the morale of troops or grant followers or aid in the defence of buildings (or sacking of buildings).
Campaign settings could be paired with theme books or stand alone. For example, a Dragonlance book might work quite nicely with the aforementioned war book. A Greyhawk campaign book might pair-up nicely with a Dungeon-themed book on dungeon crawls, traps, and subterranean locales.
Alternatively, Campaigns might stand alone as their own theme books. A Ravenloft campaign book could feature rules on fear and madness as well as advice on horror in addition to the requisite campaign information. DMs thinking about running a horror-based campaign would then be able to buy the Ravenloft book for those rules.
There should be a limited on the amount of new rules in a campaign book. A good rule of thumb would be if half a campaign setting book would have to be devoted to optional rules to do the theme justice, then the topic is likely too broad. Adding magic-punk into an Eberron book would work just fine but squishing mass combat into a Dragonlance book would leave little room for the setting. You buy a campaign setting for the world; the setting is what’s important. The majority of every campaign setting should be on world information or related topics. If the DM has to fill in gaps in the world they’re not getting much out of the book, which is supposed to do the lion’s share of world building.
The OGL and Beyond
I’ll finish with a quick thought on how to revise the OGL without potentially creating another Pathfinder situation. Breaking the books into Basic and Advanced makes this rather simple. The licence could permit publishers to make new Advanced content (new sub-classes, new builds, new sub-races, etc) but not reprint or replace the Basic rules.
This prevents alternative Player’s Handbooks or books that replace the core rules, but still allows books to create alternate classes or rule sets all the while furthering sales of the Core book(s). No matter what else is published, it all feeds sales of the Basic book, driving up sales for WotC.
I’d like to see the SRD expanded to cover most races, classes, and monsters. Reprinting content should be denied (excluding some monsters for adventures) but referencing should be permitted, as should making new content. It eases the burden on Wizards if other publishers can fill in the immediate gaps in class/ option support. However, they should also limit 3rd Party Support to published material and not playtest content, so we don’t get any products designed for unfinished content.
There’s also the issue with 3PP and the online tools. Products are harder to add to your game if you rely on the Character Builder, and this might only get worse when more content is generated for DMs. WotC should take a page from the Apple App store. They can release a “Developer’s Kit” or formatting for their content and request 3PP to fill it in then submit it for approval. Content that meets the standards of WotC can be added to the online tools, possibly unlocked with a secondary purchase. Instead of content just being in the Builder, a nominal fee could be charged to “unlock” content, with WotC collecting their share. For example, you pay $2 to unlock The Big Book o’ Feats for the Builder with WotC and the publisher each collecting a buck. Easy money, supporting both 3PP and WotC.
WotC should also take advantage of 3PP. For example, WotC could have easily told 3PP that they were not planning to heavily support seekers and runepriests, added them to the SRD, and told other publishers to go nuts. Fans of those classes would have appreciated, as would 3PP who didn’t have to worry about releasing content that would be invalidated by the next big release.
If WotC does release “theme” books based around certain mechanics or styles of play, they could let 3PP know what they’re going to revisit and what they’re finished with. Or, alternatively, they could make it know what products they’re not interested in doing. Paizo does this well, having made it clear they’re less interested in publishing an “Epic Handbook” or Psionics and leaving this for the 3PP. WotC could announce they were uninterested in, say, aquatic adventures and campaigns and that any 3PP who wanted to do an underwater book or pirate-themed product was welcome to. Of course, this is no guarantee things will not change, as WotC should reserves the right to change its mind.