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GenCon 2012 – The D&D Next Seminars: Why I’m going to continue Playtesting

bannerThere’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.  wotc boothAnd 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…

Unbalanced Classes

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 Accuracy

Will Drizzt be happy under Bounded Accuracy?

Will Drizzt be happy under Bounded Accuracy?

I 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.

Trust Issues

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!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


10 Responses to “GenCon 2012 – The D&D Next Seminars: Why I’m going to continue Playtesting

  1. Arbanax says:

    Hey Mike really appreciated your feedback on Gen Con, and I want to heartily concur with your last point.

    I think DnDNext to work and work well and even to restore trust has to have the highest level of scrutiny so that people can see that WOTC earned that trust. So to reiterate your last point – yes the playtest does needs sceptics, opened minded sceptics who can give affirmative balanced feedback as you have indeed just done on Gen Con. Glad you continue to be onboard mate.

  2. Jack says:

    I’m only about halfway through your post, but I came upon this note that stuck in my craw, as it’s kind of a key issue for me:

    “a problem if a gamer is asked to play the healer for a group and doesn’t like the options open to him.”

    The notion that a given group needs to have “the healer” is an insidious one, and it doesn’t have to be the case. I mentioned it in my post about 5th Edition (it’s toward the bottom), but the Angry GM addresses it more fully here — specifically, tactical healing should be an option that can be weighed against other tactical options, such as another tank or more DPS. There should be the same cost-benefit associated with taking a Healer; this way, it’s not NECESSARY to take a Healer. You can choose to bring characters that can endure damage, or characters that can heal damage, or characters that can simply out-race their opponents in the damage game (if you kill them first, you don’t need to worry about taking more damage). In recent editions tactical healing has been assumed and in 4th Edition it was effectively ‘free’ as a tactical choice (you didn’t need to give up an attack to heal), so it became mandatory.

    If healing is balanced against other tactical choices we will never have the situation where someone “has” to play the healer, so we won’t have to worry about anyone being disappointed with limited options.

  3. Jack says:

    Two more thoughts, much less impassioned than my bit on tactical healing.

    First, I think that class resentment is a thing that we can move beyond if we allow ourselves to. I think I agree with WotC here (that feels weird to type) that we need to get away from designing classes in the shadow of class resentment — I kind of feel like that’s one of the first places that 4E failed; because they wanted to avoid resentment, all of the classes seem to me to be really vanilla and uninteresting. It’s all exactly the same, with small variations.

    I think that classes should have their specialties and their weaknesses. I think that Fighters should be THE BEST in combat, and if you want your character to be a combat character then Fighter is what you want. Similarly, I think other classes should shine in other ways, in situations where the Fighter has limited utility. Then players pick the class they want to play based on what they want to be good at; there’s no need for class resentment because the classes don’t need to be directly competing. (The catch is that the players and DM have to be honest about the kind of game their playing — a Diplomacy-heavy character isn’t necessarily going to have a lot of fun in a bloody hack-and-slash dungeoncrawl.)

    Second, I think focusing on DM Agency is a Really Good Thing. There’s this notion that I stumble upon regularly that if it’s in the rules, that’s THE way to do it, and no alternatives are allowed. GMs I’ve talked to have mentioned feeling like the system had their hands tied, and that’s ridiculous. Having suffered at the hands of crappy Killer-GMs before (they’re why I didn’t play D&D for most of my first two decades of RPing) I recognize that that’s a concern — but I think that coaching, mentoring, and freely available advice can go a long way to helping curb that. (Also, just make a rule not to play with jerks.)

    I don’t think that either rules-light or rules-heavy systems have a strict advantage over the other in terms of young/green DMs. Rules-heavy gives you a sturdy framework to hang from, but it also requires (or implies) a lot of system mastery before you can do it well — this is why I’m the DM in my group, because my players are intimidated by the complexity. But as you note, rules-light can leave a new DM hanging without any sound way of gauging what the “right” way to handle a situation is — they are paralyzed by choice. Both of these can be overcome with a bit of coaching, I think, so it sounds like WotC has the right idea there (again, weird to type).

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    Long Term D&D – While this may be the goal of the design team, I think that if it doesn’t meet Hasbro’s revenue goals it will be replaced. Whta’s more, core rules sales peak and then fall off into a long tail. They have to work to make sure they can meet their goals with enough other quality products.

    DM agency – I look at this a different way than many people when I’m gaming. I like having a good rules structure. When I GM, I have lot’s of things to focus on, and I don’t want to waste time on making up rules. And when I have to make stuff up, I want to have lots of similar examples so I can make sure that what I make up is consistent with this reality. Advice is nice, but I’d rather have a module of rules that I can use for this.

  5. @Jack – I don’t see having a healer as insidious, but it is part of the classic D&D adventuring trope which goes right along with the design teams’ paradigm for 5E. Next is being designed around four iconic characters heading into a dungeon, and bounded accuracy along with monster design are almost dictating that tactical healing is part of the game. You can’t increase hit points significantly enough to make a difference unless everyone just takes the Survivor Specialty, nor will extra DPS stop the heroes from being mauled by a horde of orcs. Without a Cleric, the adventure will take the path of the “15-minute workday”, and heroes will be forced to flee the dungeon to rest after a couple of encounters or traps. As it stands with the current rules, a Cleric is an expected team member if the players want to do serious delving – unless thay have a massive stock of healing potions!

    @Philo – You’re right about the Long Term aspects of D&D Next, and it’s why the Trust Issue had to be put down in the “dislike” category. Given how 4E and its fans are being treated right now, it’s hard to be trusting of WotC when we know that Hasbro could force Next down the same path, and make it extinct in under 5 years too. Like I said, and Arbanax seconded, it’s going to come down to being both a skeptical playtester and a D&D fan willing to take a leap of faith. I can be the former pretty easily with no risk, but the latter is going to be much harder. Thankfully, I don’t have to make the leap until 5E is actually released, and if I get cold feet, I can always fall back on my 4E game!

  6. Aegeri says:

    Personally, I find the concept that Wizards can support multiple playstyles by slapping modules onto the core rules to be laughable. Anyone who has followed 4E, as I am sure you have, will know they couldn’t even support the three different tiers of play within the same exact core set of rules. There is utterly no way anyone can get me to believe that Wizards are suddenly going to turn around and adequately support your “Basic style”, “3rd Edition Style” and “4th Edition” modules at the same time. Especially when it comes to how monsters are “designed” (I use the term very loosely there from what I have seen) and how adventures are set up.

    This really is an extension of the “Trust” issue there, as Wizards during 4Es lifespan went out of their way to systematically fail at or break every promise they made. For example, they ceased effectively supporting epic tier after essentials came out. They completely broke and then dropped support for the offline monster builder, in favor of an online one that for months couldn’t even build monsters. Numerous classes failed to get significant or even relevant support, like the Seeker and Runepriest. The ridiculous limits on the online character builder, which made it a worthless resource in my in person games in comparison to how invaluable the offline version had been. The abject failure to provide the virtual table top and so on.

    Wizards are going to have to do a lot more than release a vague retroclone to convince me that DnDnext is going to be worth continuing to spend my time on. More importantly, they will not only have to release a decent system, but they are going to have to show consistent excellent support for that system. I actually view the second part as the insurmountable challenge that Wizards are facing above all the other mechanical issues, like the current illogical monster and encounter design rules, potential class resentment and other issues.

  7. @Aegeri – You hit the nail on the head, and you touched on many of the reasons that the “Trust” issue is probably the hardest one to overcome. I do disagree about the modules though – I think that in many respects, you can take a game like 3.5 and strip it down to where it mechanically plays very much like AD&D. Maybe the mechanics aren’t exactly the same, like negative AC and hit tables versus positive AC and attack bonuses, but one could approximate the simplicity of AD&D play by tossing out certain complex rule sets.

    That’s why I think, in theory, one could write a set of modules to take a basic system and increase its complexity to a point where it plays like a 3.5 or 4E game. The real question is whether or not the designers can write that set of modules – and will it be cost effective for gamers who want a complex game to buy the basic rules and all the modular rule sets to get where they want to be?

  8. Aegeri says:

    I am not saying that it’s not easy to make modules, because it will be simple to just make a tactical module, throw a bunch of rules together and sell it in a book. What I am saying Wizards will struggle with is the concept that once you MAKE that book, you have to keep adding things into the game that use it. In essence, it’s like converting an adventure from 2E to 3E or either of those into 4E. You’re dealing with very different assumptions and game design: So whose going to bear the burden?

    Think of it this way, will Wizards provide adequate and sufficient tactical module assuming adventures or supplements for those who want them? Will they make adventures/supplements that use more of a 3rd edition assumption? Will they make adventures/supplements for the 2E style basic rules, which is the core of DnDnext right now? Will they make all three of these at exactly the same time?

    The answer is obvious. No. Compare the above to what happened to the tiers of play in 4E and what I’m getting at becomes clear. Your tactical module, which has the most complexity and requires the most demanding encounter design to be fun is your epic tier. Your midway point is the 3rd ed like game, which is more like paragon tier and finally you have your basic core rules – which ends up being your heroic tier.

    I will guarantee you, give DnDnext 2 years after its release and they will barely support anything outside of the basic modules. In essence, they will release the modules as a “fix” to the core problem – much like how MM3 finally fixed the maths of epic tier monsters making them challenging – but then utterly fail to support the DM who wants the tactical module. It will thus become disproportionate work and limit the material you will want/find useful – putting more and more onus on the DM.

    It’s not even really about buying X, Y and Z to get what you want, but if wizards only goes as far as putting out X but forgetting entirely that Y and Z are needed to make it a truly legitimate choice. I loved 4E and running two games was something entirely feasible for me all the way up until high level. This had only one simple answer: There just wasn’t the support for high level games I assumed was coming post-MM3. The more the game continued, the more work I had to do making everything by myself (including magic items and monsters, don’t forget how badly they borked the post-essentials magic item system as well).

    Time rapidly became my enemy in terms of being able to run DnD games and particularly high level ones. The balance of 4E after MM3 was such that I could definitively challenge my epic level PCs: But the tools weren’t there. The inspiration wasn’t there. Interesting encounter maps weren’t there. Example adventures weren’t there. The amount of monsters outside of Demons completely shrivelled up into nothing. Essentially the lack of support just meant the preparation time went through the roof, DM frustration followed and campaign abandonment as well. I got through two 1-30 4E campaigns through sheer bloody mindedness: Not because of the fact wizards supported the playstyle I enjoy (which is high level DnD).

    I am not willing to do that again, especially with a system that has as many inherent problems to its core rules that DnDnext has that 4E solved or didn’t have.

  9. [...] Neuroglyph Games also talked a bit about the Gencon seminars, and why they convinced him to keep playtesting. [...]

  10. [...] packet came out. I have a few further observations to share but I’ll start with pointing to a good read from this past week about Next. The Neuroglyph Games post makes good points and I agree with most [...]

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