Wish as I might, I was not able to attend PAX East 2012 – a combination of bad timing over a holiday weekend and budgeting for Origins and GenCon simply would not allow me to travel to Boston this year. And given the buzz over D&D Next, and the promise of NDA-sealed playtest sessions and panels about the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I was feeling mightily chagrined I did not make the trip.
But thankfully, Penny Arcade’s east coast convention venue was both well attended and well covered by blogsites and pundits this year, and I was excited to get the chance to watch a video of “The Future of D&D” Panel on the Wizards of the Coast site last night. If you have not seen it yet, Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford sit down for an hour to discuss the upcoming new edition, and field quite a few questions during a Q&A, all regarding D&D Next.
I wish I could say that I liked everything I heard during the hour long discussion of D&D Next, but it was really a mixed bag for me. There was some stuff I liked when I heard it, some stuff I disagreed with, and some stuff that left me thoughtful and still pondering just how it will affect the future version of Dungeons & Dragons.
So I thought I might discuss a few of my own responses to what I heard the video podcast of “The Future of D&D” panel from PAX East 2012. It was definitely an interesting hour, and gave me some insights into what the D&D Next Designers are thinking about in this new edition.
The stuff I liked…
On the top of my list of things about D&D Next that I like is that it appears WotC is going to try and create a core rules and game system that is going to be around for a while. In answer to a question regarding the longevity of game editions, Mike Mearls responded by saying “…hardstops for editions does not make anyone happy.” And he went on to say that he felt the “modularity will reduce the pressure on that” – meaning the edition hardstops we’ve experienced over the year. We’ve certainly been hearing a lot about the “modularity” of D&D Next in order to add complexity, but it was very heartening to hear how that same feature will mean that Next will be around for a long time, with new modules building on the base game system, without the need to change the base game system
It was also great to hear that digital tools and DDI will continue to play a part in how the community continues to play Dungeons & Dragons moving into the future. Mike commented that DDI was a “big hit”, and I would certainly agree that from a DM perspective, having those tools available have made my prep time for D&D easier and more productive. But it also sounds like paper-and-pencil options would still be available in Next.
And I was also really pleased to hear that step-by-step instructions on adventure and encounter design would be making a comeback in Next. Mike and Jeremy pointed out that previous editions to 3rd and 4th had better rules and instructions for that, and DM basic training had been “lost in the past 10 years” or so. I’m not ashamed to admit that even though I am a veteran DM of every edition of D&D, there was sort of a learning curve to becoming an accomplished 4E DM – and there were plenty of blogsites out there with DM advice popping up for 4E. DMs are the one resource the game needs most, and its excellent to hear that increased support for Dungeon Masters will be a core part of D&D Next.
Finally, it appears that the D&D Next developers are taking the “Fighter Linear, Wizard Quadratic” power issue quite seriously in the new edition. The issue of power and complexity, and balancing the two has always been a thorny issue in previous editions befre 4E. Mike and Jeremy both commented on the fact that simply having a simple-to-play character will not mean the character is not powerful. Nor will a complex-to-play character automatically be the most powerful character in a party. Jeremy referred to the Next design team as “rebroadening what it meant to be powerful in the game” and that there would be a “balancing of combat effectiveness” but with consideration to making sure that characters were powerful outside of combat as well.
From my perspective, these are all good design considerations moving forward into the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and I certainly hope the team keeps them in focus.
What I didn’t agree with…
One of the first points Mike Mearls made when opening the dialogue about D&D Next was looking at the growth of digital role-playing games over the many years since 1974. There are plenty of digital fantasy RPGs on the market now, and I agree with Mike that it definitely has had, and is still having, an impact on how we as a community play D&D. In fact, the panel suggested that there needs be a segregation between the digital and the analog, particularly when it was pointed out that “Roleplaying games started out as a tabletop thing and now people come into them through the digital realm, D&D as a tabletop game needs to be truer to its tabletop roots than ever before.” But frankly, I find myself drawing quite the opposite conclusion. Digital game designers offer a wide range of new ideas on how to deal with game mechanics which are common to both analog and digital products. Systems for handling character generation, skills, magic, and combat must all be solved whether you’re writing a paper-and-pencil game or one that will be played on a laptop or a console. I have to wonder why not take the best elements from both digital and analog sources in order to create a game system? Doesn’t seem logical that cherry-picking the best game elements of all game types, and working them together, is likely to produce a superior product?
There also seemed to be a bit of negativity from at least one questioner when he asked if D&D Next would get rid of “the grid”. The panel seemed to mirror the sentiment, and Jeremy went so far as to wax nostalgic over playing D&D while camping, or while in “a bean bag chair and rolling dice on shag carpeting.” Sure, those of us who played older editions have those memories of playing D&D just about anywhere – my own was playing in the car on a road trip to Myrtle Beach – but I think nostalgia is a questionable motivator with respect to game design. Sure I played D&D on my roadtrip to Spring Break when I was in college, but do I still demand that same experience now? Nope, not really. What I want is to go high tech, and use my portable devices at the table to DM with, and have my players use them too! I want to have tools and apps so I can show “the grid” on my tablet and run a game on a virtual table top wherever I go, with or without wifi. Sure, I think that the design elements for a gridless game should not be ignored, but neither do I think that bending over backward just to scratch a nostalgic itch of wanting to play D&D in the car, or while free climbing up a mountainside is likely to be limiting the scope of the game. And if you really want to consider D&D’s roots, think about this: D&D started in the Midwest, in a place that was flat and boring, not to mention covered in snow for four months out of the year. D&D sprang forth from a crucible in which bored gamers wanted to find a past time that they could do on long winter nights in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by empty farmland, freezing cows, and snow. (Sorry, but that’s Wisconsin in the wintertime!) Under those circumstances, playing around a grid was no hardship, and it is even less so given better tech and dungeon tiles. So why are we hating on “the grid”?
I was also a bit concerned over what sounds like a lack of a skill system in D&D Next, which appears to stem from the fact that early editions had no skills. In uniting the game editions, Mike and Jeremy admitted that the team was finding skills “problematic”. There was mention that a mechanic of using “ability checks versus skills” and using “saving throws” to accomplish tasks was being looked at, but that really bothers me. In many respects, it sounds a lot like how we solved “skill” issues in AD&D, and later using Proficiencies in 2nd Edition. While D&D may not have had a skill system throughout all of its long history, it did have it for the last half of its lifespan at least. And further, almost all the other RPGs I’ve played besides D&D has had fairly involved skill systems in them. Personally, I think skill systems are almost essential to an RPG, because they help define actions, as well as give players a greater understanding of what their characters can accomplish. It focuses the play, and gives refinement, and I certainly hope we don’t see a recession to the way it was handled in early editions of the game.
And finally, there was something that Jeremy brought up about making Dungeon Masters more empowered in D&D Next that struck me as just a bit off. It was pointed out that in 1st Edition a DM was “the ultimate power” and “encouraged to do anything he wanted”, while in 3rd and 4th edition, there was progress made in “player empowerment”, particularly in 4E where the characters have powers “so strongly defined” that they “shape the narrative” of the game. In essence, there was the feeling that DMs had actually become “disempowered”, and there was going to be some balancing to address that issue. How the issue would be addressed was not exactly defined, and as a DM, that worries me a little bit. I’ve played in older editions, and I personally don’t want to have to sit there and arbitrate every rule or action every time a character takes their turn. I actually enjoy a better definition of actions and powers that lets the players be responsible for arbitration of their characters actions in the story – they know what they can and cannot expect to get away with. While I agree that perhaps 4E might have taken it too far, I don’t want to return to my DMing days of AD&D again!
What makes me ponder…
One of the things discussed by Mike Mearls really resonated with me when considering D&D as a whole is when he talked at the beginning of the hour regarding the “evolution of the game”. I have been pondering that idea myself of late, and had even considered writing a blog about the evolution of D&D as to how it adapts to pressure in a system like Darwinism. Mr. Mearls astutely points out that the game has changed over the years in response to how the gaming community has responded to increasing amounts of fantasy inmovies and television shows. Fantasy and science-fiction is no longer just something we see in cheap B-movies and paperback novels, but has grown into the entertainment industry and is a powerful genre in Hollywood. It’s interesting that he feels Next is a system which will adapt to changing views on fantasy in the future, given that the system will take its cues from older versions of D&D.
The concept of Modularity also is something to think about, and how the designers plan to use it to add to the base system– what Jeremy referred to as the “kernel” – to make it more complex, or define a campaign setting. Mike pointed out that modularity will allow the designers to make up new sets of rules that “take little space” in a sourcebook, and can even be “unbalanced” because those rules are optional, and are not universal to all games. DMs can decide whether or not they want to include modular rules, if any, and much of the modularity will be aimed at a specific “style of play”. Sounds very interesting, and great in theory, but I think I’ll have to see it on paper before I can decide.
And according to the panel, the D&D Next Playtest is not a “marketing spin”. Mike claimed that only “10-20 percent” of the game was done, and that the core rules is not even complete yet – Jeremy claims its only in the 4th iteration of the rules. It is interesting that the game is so early in its conception, and there is still so much to be done in the next year before it can be launched. So there is still time to get feedback to the design team over the many months ahead – per Jeremy, signing up for the playtest is “the most direct way in the coming year to contribute” to the design.
I really enjoyed listening to “The Future of D&D” panel, and I appreciate that WotC made it available for the gamers who could not make it to PAX East 2012. While my reactions to the panel might not agree with your own, dear Reader, I still hope that this blog might spark a discussion. I certainly would love to hear from from other gamers in the D&D Community about their own thoughts about the panel, and about Mike’s and Jeremy’s vision for D&D’s future existence!
So as always, your comments and feedback are most welcome!
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!