Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Next D&D

The next edition of D&D is on its way. I'm excited, because it's new D&D, and new D&D has excitement baked in; but I'm also disappointed, because this is the first new edition that will arrive when I'm anything but sick of the existing edition, and worried, because I'm afraid that what I love about 4E won't survive the transition. This might mean for the first time that the newest, shiniest version of D&D is not the version of D&D I actually choose to play.

The transition out of 4E will be a tricky one for Wizards because the community is heavily polarized between players who made the switch to 4E, and players who stayed with 3E or slid over to its spiritual OGL successor, Pathfinder. (The market split is difficult to judge, but Paizo have certainly enjoyed a lot of success with their sumptuous line.) I don't have any stake in Pathfinder but I can certainly see the brand loyalty it inspires and I doubt that Wizards will make much of a dent in it.

To the point: I adore 4E. Of all the game systems to have born the D&D name, it' my favourite, mostly because of its uncompromising design. WotC bravely distilled what they saw as the essence of D&D from its many incarnations, and built a game representing how D&D was actually played. Whether by luck or judgement on their part, the system aligned closely with what D&D meant to me; it fixed many of the flaws which left me exasperated at the end of 3.5E's run (adventure prep time and uninteresting, swingy high-level combats); shed a few sacred cows that I'd never really seen much point in (Vancian casting was one of the main reasons I never played mages), and introduced a swathe of clear thinking which codified a lot of what went on at the table anyway (PC and monster Roles). In return we got balanced, interesting, flavourful classes, a focus on strategic teamwork, and a new take on the D&D universe which bulged with potential.

The journey was not smooth. Out of the gate, Skill DC guidelines were off; Skill Challenges were well-conceived but badly tested and explained; some monster types were poorly imagined and mathematically broken, resulting, if no action was taken by the DM, in the potential for long, boring combats; stealth rules were a mess; the digital initiative, boldly promising character building, visualisation, and virtual table-top play, was nowhere in sight. Most of a great game was there, but it took some quick errata and several months of hard software engineering to bring out the shine.

4E right now is a comprehensive, elegant, gamer's game. It's certainly not without its flaws (for another time), but it's stood up to over a hundred sessions as a DM and half as many again as a player, and I still get excited every time a new session is around the corner. The online tools are in really superb shape as well, having finally been polished back into the quality they were in before being moved to an online model, and beyond (the Monster Builder in particular is just fantastic). 

My problem is I know very specifically which parts of 4E's design make me love the game and I'll be looking closely at 5E to see if the new game is designed the same way. I don't mean literally: I don't require Powers and Roles and all that stuff, but I require the thinking behind them to be expressed somewhere in the game. I have no need for a new edition, but I'm still excited to see what comes out. It may be that Cook et al. achieve a resounding success and create a vast, modular, unifying expression of thirty years of D&D in which everyone can find a game they love... I'd certainly be a happy gamer if that came to pass. But what I'm seeing so far is a stated goal to please all gamers all of the time, something which I just don't think is possible and is without doubt the opposite starting point from 4E.

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