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Marlett’s Musings: One D&D Next Playtester’s Laments

Marlett jpgBack in January, I received a phone call from our editor/DM asking me if I’d like to help play test 5e… my response was quite obvious.  But excitement quickly turned to disappointment and bewilderment however, once we gathered for our first playtest session and the pdfs were handed around.  I thought, “this had to be a mistake”.

I’ll say it right out: I hate D&DNext.  While indeed, the Public Playtest version of the rules are much better than v1.0 and v1.5 we had previously, I still have zero interest in playing a retro-clone of previous versions of Dungeons & Dragons.  So far, the rules appear to lean heavily on 2nd Edition as the Core Set.  Honestly, they don’t feel much different than what we played in 1989, with the house rules we had in place back then.

I know, I know… the WotC Dev Team and countless others have stated time and again that this is still just a playtest, and that the rules will be made modular so it can be made as complex or simple as we wish – but promises are just written on the wind until complete.  This is not a slight at the ability of the Devs, nor to impugn their credibility, but we all have seen what Hasbro corporate can do to the D&D team with a flick of the pen (or the click of a keyboard).

From the outset, D&D Next is designed to be modular.  But does anyone believe that the PHB will ship with the ability to create characters ranging from the current style to 4e-like complexity?  I believe they will make different books for different rule sets and market them as such.  I have no interest in going back to the 2e Skills & Powers days where X class gets their book in February, Y class gets it in July, and Z class gets the bad news of “Oh, it looks like it’ll be out next year!”  It all leads to power creep and worse.  It’s been evident in all editions that as later materials are released, they are generally more powerful than the starting PHB stuff, and more prone to breaking encounters – or even whole campaigns!

I really don’t understand how they have managed to convince the WotC leadership, much less the Hasbro execs, that it’s for the good of the brand to scrap what they started in 4e and spend the last year recreating the old wheel.  I don’t know how many man-hours and how much money has been spent on this project, but it seems like quite a gamble from a business perspective.

There are folks who claim that 4e was a financial failure.  I have seen, however, some people quoted that the 4e PHB was the top selling book of all time for D&D.  Despite being a publicly traded company, Hasbro’s financial books are hard to navigate, and we may never know the truth about how well 4e has done.  Given the monolithic success of Magic the Gathering, I have to believe that if D&D isn’t a loss-leader for the WotC division, then it’s close.  Magic the Gathering is considered one of Hasbro’s (not just WotC’s) core 8 brands, and it brings in the lion’s share of the WotC division revenue.  My guess is that D&D doesn’t even show up on the investor’s sheets.  This is why the D&D group takes a financial hit every year, and why we see our favorite folks who write and edit our books, paint our artwork, and design our game get let go every holiday season.  And that sucks!

Is this because the 4e materials really don’t sell all that well anymore, or is it because of unrealistic expectations?  D&D 4e probably didn’t match previous editions in terms of sales, but perhaps that was not the fault of the edition, nor the player base, but more so because times have simply changed.

If you think about it, Second Edition was the king of all Editions.  They had the most settings published out of any edition:  Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, etc, etc, etc… this was the era of the boxed set and it ruled over the RPG lands.  They also dabbled in the modular characters with the Skills & Powers and edition-specific class books.  Unfortunately, I believe that these add-ons are what broke 2nd Edition, which led us to…

Third Edition!  D&D 3rd Edition had a book for damned near everything! There were tons of Monster Manuals, every option and form of magic possible, whole books of magic items and spells, settings, and more!  This was the era of the hardbacks – and it was also good for sales – even if every book didn’t sell well.

The problem is that after 3rd Edition came out, the world changed.  Casual, portable, and console gaming have consumed much of the free time of the population, and MMOs allow everyone (yes – even the DM) to gather together and play a D&D-like experience without all the work involved.  Take my D&D group: the “baby” of our D&D group is 30 years old and the rest of us are between 40-50.  We all have jobs, families, mortgages, kids, the American Dream, so to speak.  We just don’t have the time to sit and play 12 hour mega D&D sessions like we did in high school or college.  I also have no wish to sit and page through a stack of books creating and updating character sheets.  Dammit, I want a digital tool that does this!  This is the biggest threat to D&D as such: time, or the lack thereof.  The D&D gamer demographic is aging, and it doesn’t look like it’s changing very much.

But along came Fourth Edition, and it was a paradigm shift in D&D.  Of course, it also caused the gaming community to split, and caused, if not the First, then probably the Greatest Edition War.  Comments made by the Dev team, and among members of the D&D Community itself caused some seriously hard feelings, and some of those the rifts have never healed.  Many old-time players said that 4e “wasn’t D&D”.  This debate will likely never be solved, but I believe that 4E is just as much D&D as my 2010 F-150 is just as much “a truck” as the 1981 F-150 I learned to drive on.  Times change, and things evolve,  but basically games are what they are.  I believe that the 4e team felt they needed to revamp D&D into the current edition in order to give the brand a jumpstart, and to try to broaden the field, and maybe even to bring in some younger and newer gamers into the aging demographic.

Which is why I don’t understand the reason WotC is reinventing the wheel?  The back catalog of D&D is deep and wide, and still viable – how about getting it released to the gaming world, but do it right.  WotC has announced some special edition 1st Edition PHBs and DMGs, but these seem more like nostalgia pieces than anything else.  It’s time for the old material to catch-up – and it must go digital!  So far, it hasn’t, and I’m boggled as to why.  Personally, I’m afraid that WotC is going to use the Paizo model and make their own online store, which is foolhardy in my opinion.  The control of the materials, and more importantly the control of the revenue, must certainly be attractive to them, but I believe it’s a mistake.  The responsibilities will far outweigh the positives.  WotC will be a much bigger fish than Paizo, and therefore a much bigger target for any hacker with a grudge, greed, or an excess of boredom.  If they have an online store, then the state and federal financial responsibilities will be enormous in case of a security breach.  Nearly every week a major company announces a data breach, and it’s only going to get worse.   As a consumer, your responsibility for ID theft in a data breach scenario like this is probably $50 or less (given your card issuer and/or local laws), but the institution who loses the data faces considerably more in penalties.

If WotC did decide to release the back catalog, they might want to consider just using the Kindle Store, Nook Store, the iBookstore, Google Play, and whatever the bloody hell Microsoft is going to settle on for Windows 8.  All of these stores are using the latest epub-enabled book formats for extremely rich content.  Not to mention, it could allow you be able to pull up pictures or audio of the monster to show the group on the fly.  Or how about addedition content like a short video clip of  “DM to the Stars”  Chris Perkins running the very encounter you’re about to try and DM?  And all of it can be secure, safely backed up for the purchaser, and open to more consumers.  What extra exposure for D&D would come if the PHB (pick any edition) was the featured item that pops up in the app on the Kindle store or Apple’s iBookstore?  I believe that each bookstore also has the ability to allow younger users without credit cards the ability to buy with an “account allowance”.  I know that I have fond memories of getting someone to drive me to the bookstore to buy the latest release, and this is something that may not happen for too much longer the way bookstores are fading.  Using established online sales agents would broaden the purchaser base far above any credit-card based store that is being done “in-house”.

Heck, the GSL, OGL, and any other license could be written easily and fairly to enable WotC to be the publisher of 3rd party material in the online storefronts.  It would be much like the freelancers do now when they create the material, but WotC staff could edit and provide artwork and publish it. Revenue could then be split between the company and the author, or WotC could just pay per word or whatever their contract states.

And WotC, please consider putting all the old editions rule sets in DDI!  Either charge a nominal fee for access or sell the individual items virtually, and include all the PHBs, DMGs, modules, splatbooks, old individual issues of Dragon, and everything else from the past.  Modules can be pre-created and ready to run on the VT with tiles, monsters, and treasure, with either a subscription to have full access or a micro transaction like fee ($1) to access it for per session.

Of course, this will require a much more robust and portable version of the DDI tools than we currently have, and frankly I fear just isn’t possible right now.  Those who have read some of the things I’ve posted here previously know my contempt for the DDI team, but it appears it is all WotC has to work with, and I do not believe that they are capable of creating and managing the kind of online tools or store that would enable everyone to utilize the materials to the fullest extent.  The flaws in the current DDI tools are well documented and don’t lend me any confidence.

I may be generalizing, but most programmers are by nature, geeks.  Many of them have a history with D&D, so how many would jump at the chance to work on tools for online and offline use.  Build a new team that can make a toolset that shines.  And seriously, going forward DDI needs to incorporate mobile devices (android, iOS, Win8 on tablets and smartphones) with both an online (VT) component, and offline options for tools like Character Builder, a DM Encounter Builder, a Monster Builder, etc.  I really hate the new online CB, and wish it would go back to an offline version.  Even an offline builder could have the ability to buy content from an online store as I mentioned above.

Without a doubt, D&D 4e is my preferred version now.  I feel that writing D&DNext for the “old school” players is like making a mix tape for the girl (or guy) in high school that dumped you – it might be cathartic, or even nostalgic, but it rarely worked to get them back.  In fact, it’s kind of a slap in the face of the people who enthusiastically adopted 4e.  Remember, it’s the 4e players that showed brand loyalty, and who kept buying your products, as opposed to the other “fans” who went to Pathfinder or kept playing older editions.  It’s 4e players that are the only ones who have contributed to WotC revenue for the last 4 years.  And I’m saddened that a vocal subset of the gaming community managed to get a fresh and vibrant edition of D&D killed well before it’s time.

We all love D&D as our favorite RPG, and we want to enjoy the hobby for years to come.  Many defenders of D&D Next are claiming that we can, and that “no one will come take your 4e books away”.  While that may be true, and as I previously stated, I don’t have time or inclination to spend time poring through books and making characters by hand.  And I just can’t believe that WotC will maintain 4e support in DDI for very long after Next hits the shelves.  In a business,  just about any expense can be considered unjustified.

If D&D Next gets implemented as planned, then everyone who has been railing against 4e and clamoring for the return of the past better damned well buy two copies of everything.  Because I’m afraid that if it doesn’t sell well enough to satisfy the Hasbro’s mysterious and likely high sales expectations, then Next might well be our last version of D&D for a long time.  If Hasbro doesn’t sell off the rights to someone else, then they could just kill the IP altogether.

Or worse, we go through all this again in 4 or 5 more years…

About The Author

When not managing the IT Department for a mid-western university, Marlett likes to apply himself to healing his comrades in the thick of battle, preferably while drinking large amounts of dwarven ale and telling naughty elf-jokes. Incarnations of this stumpy, thick-bearded dwarf health-care worker have appeared in at least three different D&D campaigns, and at least four different MMOs, ready to triage his compatriots as they get mauled by horrible monsters!


8 Responses to “Marlett’s Musings: One D&D Next Playtester’s Laments”

  1. Lochness_Hamster says:

    Very good blog post, echoes my thoughts pretty much

  2. justaguy says:

    It’s interesting to read this, as if I look across the isle at the ODnD folk they tend to clamor that Next is “to much like 4e”, and not catering to them. And additionally, if it were up the them they’d be happy if it failed and WotC folded on the IP cause they have everything they need with their clones (or original books).

    I, personally, have only just entered the play test (special I am not) and been exposed to a single session run at Origins. To me, the core rules seem to be very 3x like with some 4e stuff tacked on… which I don’t mean in a bad way. Both have a lot of stuff I like about them, so were it up to me some mash up of the two would be the ideal edition.

  3. Arbanax says:

    Hey Martlet appreciate your points and the passion with which you put them across. I to came back onboard to D&D with 4e (having played OD&D and AD&D) now though I find I am getting burnt out on it. I love some aspects of it, but playtesting the other day, revealed how 4e has its many drawbacks as well.

    For one thing I loved that magic felt magical, that improvisation wasn’t a sub optimal choice compared to one of your go to encounter powers. I often think that D&Dnext might be the rules you start with and 4e be the epic version you finish on. Last time I looked D&D was still a game of imagination and I hope this version, based on player feedback and input will continue to enhance and encourage imagination not stifle it.

    And that the best of 4e (balanced encounters, tactical combat, well rounded parties with lots of options and brilliant clever and interesting monsters) together with the improvisational elements and magic and exploration and RP might come together.

    For instance I loved that in the playtest we finally weren’t playing through set piece encounters, but going from one place to another where encounters happened more on the fly. I realise everything in D&Dnext can be done in someway in 4e, but the conceit of the game makes that something that has to be houseruled. I hate for instance that it pretty much kills improvisation, (so did 3-3.5) because if you’ve not got the skill or training forget it.

    Originally when 4e came out they talked about learning to say yes, but in reality if you can’t play to your strengths, you end up with suboptimal choices. Sure I can grab this table instead of my sword and use it as a makeshift shield to blundgeon those oncoming orcs, but don’t expect the DM to give you anything but a basic melee attack. Which ends up meaning you go back to one of the powers on your sheet to get better damage and effects instead. So 4e talked improvisation but the powers and skills you got discouraged it. I realise that D&Dnext might not be the fairtale version where everything comes good, but I hope that with the openness, playtesting and opportunity to be involved early on, will give it the absolute best chance of being it.

    Thanks for your well thought through argument, I appreciate it as it helps shape my own.


  4. Ashran says:

    I would not say I hate dndnext yet. From what I have seen of the rules so far, I think It’s not for me and my players. I’ll wait untill I have seen the finished product before giving a final judgment on it. What is certain, however, that right now, I don’t like it.
    I don’t buy the retro feeling that seems to be all the craze nowadays. You see, I played dnd in one form or the other since roughly 1982. I have played all editions from the boxed sets to 4E and even tested Pathfinder. But my favorite edition right now is 4E for the balance it gave us, for the fact that anyone, whatever the class can shine on the battlefield and anwhere else, really. I think getting back to a time where class were so unbalanced is a mistake.
    What I wanted for a new edition is them to embrace 4E and push it even further. Not backpedalling like they are doing right now. 4E was the edition the most Dm and players’ friendly. It’s a shame to let it rot like that.
    Like you, I think, however, that WoTC i s sleeping on a ancient dragon’s Hoard with all the published material they could sell digitally. Heck they could also have some interns adapting the stuff to any editions and sell pdfs of those updated books. Or sell them as they were printed.The settings book seem the easily adapted, since most of the time the rules they contain are just NPC, a spell here and there, a monster, or a magic item… Not that hard to change to any edition. Would’nt you love to have the book on moonshae from yore, updated with 4E stats ? I know I would. It would even be an incentive for old gamers that have it to buy it anew, if they are now playing another edition. And that goes for all setting (planescape, spelljammer, birthright, greyhawk and so on and so forth). I would not cost them so much, since most of the text is already written.

  5. Brent says:

    First of all, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts about the playtest. I have enjoyed the current playtest and I am excited to see where it will lead. That said, I enjoy hearing the thoughts of people who fall on the other side of the issue.

    I have been playing D&D since 1984. I have gone through every edition of the game. I still run regular games of 1e, 2e and 4e. I enjoy each and every edition. I am and will remain a big supporter of 4e. That said, I have grown weary of it in many ways. I am looking for a change. Something that blends the innovations of 4e, such as balance and reduced prep, with some of the more free form aspects of older editions. I am big believer in rulings over rules and the power of the DM. I do feel that 3e and 4e took a little too much away from the DM.

    Ultimately, I hope that the D&D Next playtest is a success and that it produces a fun and enjoyable game.

  6. Philo Pharynx says:

    You made lots of points in here, so I’m just going to dive in.

    1) There has never been a D&D version where all of the classes were released at the same time. It’s a matter of resources and economics. Each class requires a certain amount of development time and resources and takes up x amount of pages in the book. In DDN, the classes don’t take up much space, but each class will have a couple of associated themes and spellcasting classes have a list of spells and descriptions. People who want to play an old school type of game will already be upset at having to pay for all of these rules modules they won’t use, now they have to pay more because the book has 128 pages of classes and spell lists for exotic classes?

    Also, they need to make sure they have books on the schedule. Breaking this up over time allows that.

    Power creep is a definite issue. But 4e had very little power creep over time and most of that was adding backgrounds, themes and the fact that more moving parts allows people to make better combos.

    2) There’s several options for the back catalog. The minimum is simply scanning all the old stuff and making it image-based PDF’s. (i.e. Not user-friendly at all). The other end of the spectrum involves scanning, OCR’ing, editing to remove typos (both OCR and original), bookmarking, hyperlinking, scanning images, cleaning up images (heck some were reproduced badly in the original formats), mastering for different electronic document formats (potentially including DRM), and quality control. The time and skills required to do this range from a couple hours from an entry level person to a hundred hours or more of skilled work. In addition, they either need to pay overhead on their own electronic store or they will need to pay other stores. They also need to pay WotC overhead and Hasbro overhead. And they need to price it high enough that it makes enough profit to be worth doing.

    When you look at the back catalog, there’s a lot of material. Some of it will be in relatively high demand, like the planescape core set. How many people are going to buy the Al-Qadim Cities of Bone adventure box? A) as a boxed set, it will need more work (no matter what level of work they do), and will therefore be more expensive. B) It’s an adventure, so it’s going to mostly appeal to GM’s and not players (and GM’s that don’t write all of their own stuff). C) It’s for a less popular setting. D) It will be of most use to AD&D 2e players. E) A lot of AD&D players interested in Al-Qadim either have the original materials or have pirated it over the years.I’m not sure it would make back the money spent on making it digital. And there are eight adventure boxed sets for Al-Qadim. How many people will purchase all thirteen products?

    Now the long tail says that most products will eventually make a profit. But how many companies want to spend money today for a product that won’t be in the black for 3-5 years?

    3) DDI for all versions? That’s a lot of programming and a lot of maintenance. It’s also a boatload of data entry if they want to put in everything. All the books, all the modules, all the dragon magazine articles. It’s going to be expensive. Then take all of that expense and multiply it if you want to make it work on multiple platforms. And increase it again to have some parts online and some parts offline. If they bring back offline builders, they will have the same issue as before where people hacked the system and updated it without paying. And a lot of old-schoolers have publicly scoffed at paying a monthly fee to play D&D.

    Once again, I don’t think the economics works on this.

  7. UHF says:

    I’m a huge 4e.

    Buuut I switched to Pathfinder because I use premade adventures a lot. I feel that the average PF adventure easily kicks the butt of the best 4e adventure available.

    So, you can see where I’ll probably lie in all this.

    I feel that unless something is done with licensing, and\or WOTC puts on its big girl panties and starts writing some real adventures, this exercise will come to naught.

  8. Philo Pharynx says:

    I like good adventures. WotC doesn’t focus on it because they are less profitable. (they only get sold to DM’s) But amazing adventures spur interest in a game. I suggest looking into ENworld’s War of the Burning Sky and Zeitgeist. Both are really amazing.

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