There’s one thing Wizards of the Coast understands very well regarding “the best four days of gaming” – it’s one hell of an opportunity to press the home turf advantage. Oh sure, WotC’s offices are way over on the other side of the country from Indianapolis, and they no longer technically own GenCon as a convention the way TSR used to back in the day. But they sure know how to make an impression on a D&D fan, and this year they had a solid blitz going strong to make points for D&D Next.
One could argue, of course, that the WotC “home turf advantage” extends only as far as any convention attendee allowed it. As an active 4E fan, I could have gone off and played in all the 4E events and tournaments, sat in on demos of other game systems, and just completely ignored the Next Playtest, the various seminars, and the Keynote speech. But that would have been a fairly closed-minded position to take, not to mention that I would not have had the opportunity to win my seat at Chris Perkins D&D Next Celebrity game!
Now it’s post-convention, and I’m finding myself thinking about what it was that I liked hearing about D&D Next and weighing it against what I didn’t like hearing – and I honestly have to say, the likes somewhat outweigh the dislikes. So here’s some thoughts about Next edition, and about the future of D&D itself, that make me think I’d like to continue participating in the ongoing playtest:
Stuff I heard and liked about D&D Next…
Lean Core Rules
One of the things I had trouble getting my mind around for a long time is the idea that the Core rules are just the most bare bones of the system. In the Making the Core seminar, Jeremy Crawford started right off stating that the Core rules must be “sound” and “easy to remember”, so that when rule modules are added in their complexity does not change them. Rodney Thompson later added that the modules “translate” through the Core, which gave me a real nice handle for finally envisioning that they were getting at. I’m now sort of envisioning the Next Core rules as an operating system, the base code of the game. Modules then are rather like programs which add additional functionality and options to the game, but don’t necessarily over-write the base operating system.
And Mike Mearls pointed out that the Core rules have to be set up in such a way that they can work for any future content releases, in that they need to form a base rule set for a game that can encompass characters from any D&D setting, such as a “White Robe Wizard of Krynn”. That put things in perspective for me, even as it hinted that one of the things we’ll be likely to see is setting specific modules which will form special add-on rules for places like Krynn – and perhaps Greyhawk, Eberron, Athas, and even more.
Of course, the big question is whether the Core be module-ated into something that 3.5 and 4E fans will enjoy. Jeremy hinted that those complex pieces will be in modules, but not in the Core – so at this point all we can do it wait and see on that issue.
Extended Duration Rules Set
One of the things I heard from Mike Mearls this weekend in both the Keynote and at the Making the Core, and actually he might have said it in the Monsters, Magic Items, and DM Mischief as well, is the idea that WotC did not want to be in the “business of writing rules” forever. And when I spoke to the Wizard’s Brand Manager, Laura Tommervik, on Sunday, she confirmed that statement adding that there was a design goal for the next edition of D&D to have a “definitive rules set” and that ideally it would last far longer than rules sets have done over the past dozen years.
To me, this suggests a very positive step in getting the D&D out of a publishing cycle which seemed more intent on rule book after rule book, as we have seen since 3rd Edition came out. As much as I love 4E, I cannot deny that I have far more rule books on my shelf than content ones – and the majority of those rule books surround just making characters! If Next moves away from that cycle, and concentrates on content after rules – which again, Mike Mearls suggested in the Keynote and the Core seminar – then that can only be a good thing for Dungeons & Dragons as a game system.
Modules could be really cool
Some hints about the rules sets that modules would encompass were dropped here and there in all three major D&D Next seminars this past weekend, and frankly, I am intrigued. Cosmology settings like the Great Wheel, Planescape, the Far Realms, Elemental Chaos, Astral Sea, Feywild, Shadowfell will be module-ized, allowing DMs to choose the kind of extra-planar realms exist beyond the mundane. Rules for firearms, realistic wounds, and hit locations were all talked about at one point or another, suggesting that D&D Next combat could become quite detailed, and downright grim and gritty.
And Jeremy Crawford made a point to state that everything WotC publishes is NOT going to be part of the canon of the game, and definitely not part of the Core rules. However, it could be made part of a game if that’s what the DM wanted in his or her campaign. To me, this suggests that WotC is backing off from telling DMs in the community what they have to use in their games, which is definitely a change from the past two editions. And frankly, I have to conclude that the rules modules will make world-building much easier, allowing DMs a greater freedom to design their own campaign settings, if they choose to do it.
Magic Items not Required
Anyone who has read my blogs has known that magic items have been a frustrating part of my 4E DMing experience. And I know for a fact that I am not alone in this. Since 3rd Edition, and becoming even more prevalent in 4E, magic items were being used to plug holes in places where game math broke down. While in 4E this can be resolved with Inherent Bonus Rules, or by some gamers using Feats, there is a sense of magic item entitlement by players in D&D.
The R&D Team seems to be working hard to avoid this problem in the Next edition. Jeremy put forth in the Monsters, Magic Items, and DM Mischief that magic item powers would be “vivid” and have “easy to grok” effects, and that even a +1 sword would be “awesome” for many levels. Wondrous items would lose daily and short duration effects, and become truly wondrous again.
I can’t deny that I’ve missed that wide-eyed wonder feeling about magic items, which I had felt about them in the early editions of D&D – and I would definitely welcome magic items getting “ooohs and ahhhs” at the table again when the heroes find one in a treasure pile – if the Design Team can really pull it off.
The New Look
As I mentioned in my highlights blog yesterday, the concept art for Next was pure and delicious candy for the eyes. Creative Director John Schindehette has an enthusiasm for his work that is truly infectious, and it’s clear he is completely devoted to bringing a fresh new look to the future edition of D&D that is an order of magnitude more advanced than we fans have ever seen in previous editions.
Stunning artwork aside, the idea of creating a “world bible” for each setting as it’s developed is an amazing concept, and it will be spectacular to see how race design, clothing design, and other visuals change from each D&D world setting. Sure, one would imagine Dark Sun being unique from all other places in the multiverse, but I get the sense that we’re going to see differences even between Euro-centric fantasy settings like the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Dragonlance in the coming years – assuming of course that those settings are released as was hinted at over and over throughout the seminars.
Stuff I heard and didn’t like about D&D Next…
It’s pretty obvious that the class balance – or at least the balance of options – that I have come to enjoy as a fan of 4E is not a high priority in D&D Next. In the Making the Core seminar, Jeremy Crawford mentioned that the team was devoted to making “the most exciting form” of that class archetype, so that fans of a particular class would be always be happy playing it. He gave an example of how Clerics have been designed in recent editions to make them appealing to “non-cleric” players. It would seem that a more concerted effort is being made to offer Cleric builds that include the warpriest as well as a “compassionate healer”, because fans of the Cleric like both options. On the surface, this seems like a darned good goal to try to reach, but this also means that the class might only be appealing to a smaller segment of the D&D gaming community – a problem if a gamer is asked to play the healer for a group and doesn’t like the options open to him.
And then there is also the concept of “Design of Resentment” which seems to be a buzz-phrase around the R&D office. This is a concept where classes are being designed in a way to avoid causing resentment by other players over the relative strengths and weaknesses of their character’s class compared to others. Jeremy and others on the panel made it clear that this was not a design paradigm they want affecting their work when making classes.
Sadly, player-character resentment is a problem I’ve seen crop up again and again many times over the 30+ years I’ve been playing D&D. Wizards level up to be nigh onto omnipotent, while the rest of the party merely feels merely adequate. And the current set of playtest rules point to a Wizard class that will have tons of options in almost every combat and even out of combat, while the rest of the heroes have only a few. D&D 4E solved character option balance with AEDU, but Next is going to toss that out the window. I have some real concerns that classes without decent options both in and out of combat, players will end up feeling resentment – even if it is not a factor the R&D team wants to design around.
DM’s Agency / DM’s Burden
I heard a lot about giving the DM’s “agency” again during the seminars this past weekend, and I have some concerns about where that will leave new or inexperienced DMs in Next. For instance, the skill system of D&D Next does not have any rules built into them, allowing the DM to decide how a skill will apply in a given situation. The same goes with other effects not covered in the rules, when players try to have their character do something zany in the course of adventuring, putting control of the action on the shoulders of the DM.
From past experience in older editions, I know that burden can be a lot to bear, and can often lead to arguments at the table about what is and is not possible. One could argue that such situations can be handled by asserting DM prerogative, but let’s be honest about the fact that it can lead to hurt feelings among friends and exasperation for the other players. And giving too much agency makes it hard for new DMs to find their stride quickly, which is my personal belief why older editions saw more out-of-control DMs who were either “killer” or “monty-hall”.
Mike Mearls put forth that DM coaching and advice would be more readily available in D&D Next, and that it often would be available online and free. There seemed to be agreement among panelists that supplying DMs with knowledge and tools was a major focus in Next, as well as encouraging more D&D players to step up and take on the DM mantle, as there are far fewer game-masters than players out there in the community. I’m still not convinced that a rules light approach is going to work to foster and nurture DMs, or if it will spawn a new breed of harried and frustrated game-masters tired of hearing “DM may I” from their players.
Bounded AccuracyI have already posted a whole blog about my concerns about Bounded Accuracy and I’m still a bit iffy on whether it’s a good thing or bad thing for D&D to embrace. Having low level monsters remaining a threat into high level play feels counter-intuitive to every fantasy adventure trope, and I have always believed that heroes should feel pretty bad-ass when they finally hit higher levels.
Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford talked about high level encounters during the Making the Core seminar, and it seemed that even though kobolds and orcs might still be threatening to higher level characters, they were not likely to encounter them. Mike said that higher level encounters would stop being built around “horde monsters” like humanoids, and begin including small groups of powerful monsters or “singular types” like hydras and other big threats. Eventually, heroes would square off against dragons and demons, many of whom would be individualized, named, and be considered boss monsters in many respects. Jeremy pointed out that there was a reason dragons were not in current monster lists, as they were still being designed to be truly spectacular encounters.
Of course, Chris Perkins pointed out that gimmicks and strange dramatic effects would still be applicable to encounter design, and mentioned having “bungy jumping kobolds” guarding a dragon as a way to can still provide a threat to high level heroes – an amusing and slightly silly idea, but still one that might be fun to play out. As we have no rules for high level characters in the Playtest, there is not much to do but wait and see if bounded accuracy is a boon or bane to the heroes.
Right now, I think one of my greatest hurdles to enjoying the potential benefits of D&D Next is TRUST.
There has been a lot promised by WotC for the past couple of editions, and not all of it was delivered, or they were implemented to the community in a less than thrilling way. I’m not going to list out a litany of grievances here, but I think that many of us have been disappointed over the past decade now and again by various business practices and publishing practices. And for those of us who love 4E, and have supported the brand by purchasing all the books, the speed at which we’ve seen this edition killed off feels nothing less than capricious and arbitrary – and very much before its time. Yes I know, fans of every edition can make that complaint, but 4E has had the shortest run of any edition ever made in the history of D&D.
So when WotC says to trust them, claiming that this will be an edition with a long life span, and that the designers will be producing tons of content for the next Edition once the rules are all out, and that this will be the edition that unites the D&D gaming community, that trust comes hard. Bottom line is that we as a community won’t know for sure if all their claims about D&D Next will be true, or if this playtest is just one big marketing gimmick to sell rules books – and we won’t know if this is a hoodwink until years from now!
Should we close our eyes and take the leap of faith, and trust Next is going to be all they say it’s going to be?
Why I’m still going to take part in the playtest…
I’m going to remember the events at GenCon 2012 for a long time, as it has been one of the most fun and memorable cons I’ve ever attended. But I’m also going to remember it because it challenged my pre-conceived notions about D&D Next, and gave me some serious reason to contemplate whether I’m right or wrong in my concerns about my favorite hobby. So while I “didn’t drink the cool-aide” and although I still have my reservations about Next, I am still going to take part in the playtest, and work with my players to give the rules a real workout.
I’m still probably going to be a skeptic about D&D Next right up until they finally announce its official name and release it to the gaming community. But maybe skeptics are just as valid a playtester as someone already sold on the upcoming game – and I’d like to do my part by giving D&D Next the “tough love” it needs to hopefully be the edition of D&D we can all enjoy for years to come.
So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!