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Wizards Watch: Contemplating “The Future of D&D”

future of DnD panelWish 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!

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 “Wizards Watch: Contemplating “The Future of D&D””

  1. While I am glad the Wizards people are talking about what they are doing, they have reached the point where they really aren’t saying anything. Was there really anything in that hour long video that we haven’t heard before? I liked the article and the summation, but you’re straining to try and glean out any tiny tidbit you can from a talk that was 60 minutes long.

    I don’t begrudge the Wizards people with what they are trying to do and the pressure they must feel, but it is time for the playtest to be released to the world. No more talk, let’s see where this game is going. In Project Management school we were taught the concept of “Ready, Fire, Aim” because if you wait for it to be perfect, well, it’ll never be perfect.

  2. Frank Foulis (@DarthJerod) says:

    PAX East had a newer build, I would think they will take the feedback they got there and work it in with the internal stuff they are doing and maybe around May we would see something for the open test.

  3. @Roger – I’m not sure I agree – I think we heard quite a few things in that hour we had not heard before – for example, we heard where the team is having sticking points on rules (like a skill system), the concerns Mearls has about this edition, and what a rule “module” is likely to be and how it might fit into the whole. You are right that the Wizards folks are under pressure, but I think it is still far too early for a ruleset to be released to the world. It would be like throwing out a video game in the “alpha” test stage, full of bugs and problems – that would kill off interest from the fans pretty fast. So for now, I think that all we can do is watch for those tidbits to drop, ponder their meaning, and speculate on what Next will be like.

  4. Dave Wainio says:

    You know, a few months ago I cared about what D&D Next would be like. But as time and speculation drags on I find myself loosing interest. Not because of anything I have read that I liked or disliked, but I guess because I find myself wondering if I personally really need a new flavor of D&D. And the answer seems to be “no, not really”.

  5. Alphastream says:

    They have a really tough challenge. I’m glad to hear so many people finding the DDXP and the PAX seminars useful, and especially hearing so many people say they had a great time and were excited to play more D&D (even with their current edition) as a result.

    Neuroglyph, I think the “off the grid” discussion is based on many players feeling that starting with 3E the grid became a mandatory component, to the point of being a shackle. Certain 3E adventures, and most 4E adventures (especially the early ones) are an on-off switch of combat or RP/Skill Challenge, with the heavy default being Combat. Grid combat is awesome, because it is tactical and visual and so on, but it can lose open play, imagination, creativity, and the like. We’ve had really good experiments with grid-less combat in 4E with Ashes of Athas, but it is still a fundamental force for the recent editions.

    I like that Next will support either. And I say that while loving 4E’s tactical aspects (especially movement). I suspect that this is an aspect modules can add in. Maybe a module adds forced movement, for example. But I also know that the game is less approachable and also less attractive to many when it is grid-dominant.

  6. @Alphastream – I just look at all the trouble and arguments pre-grid play had, and I’d rather not go back to it. Non-grid play means that every is trying to imagine the same geometry of a combat, and invariably someone will envision something different, leading to confusion and an argument at the table. And frankly, I’d be careful in suggesting that a grid causes a loss of imagination and creativity – in fact, I’ve found that 4E was a DM Renaissance for me, and I’ve been creating and using far more new terrains and hazards in combats, as well as other gimmicks, in place of monsters at times. I’m curious how you run the Ashes of Athas without a grid, but it seems to me that many combat maneuvers and concepts would have trouble being implemented without one. If memory serves, it seems to me that 3rd ed and 4E added a lot more options to the melee characters’ toolbox by including a grid, rather than limiting them to a simple swing or double swing while standing toe-to-toe with a monster, or holding a hallway while the wizard AoE’d in front of them. In fact, I think the only shackles a grid imposed was on wizards, who finally had to accept that their spells couldn’t hit everything they wanted all the time.

  7. Dave Wainio says:

    i don’t really understand why people worry about a “grid”. I have played plenty of games over the years where movement and ranges were listed in feet, meters, scale “inches”, etc. We always found that a battlemap with hexes or grids was much easier to deal with then measuring with a tape maeasure.

    To me, Range 5 squares of Range 25 feet is the same things. Have people lost their ability to use their imagination so much that measurments in squares or hexes really changes the game experience for them?

    The only time it annoyed me was (and is) explosions that come out square or diamond shaped to fit a grid. For over 20 years we had no problems with circles on a grid map. If you were in a box only partially in the radius you got a 50/50 roll to be just outside the explosion. Simple stuff. Not sure why everything became so legislative with exact borders and metarules. (Like the Rule of the Universe that only 1 person fits in a five ny five foot area unless the second is prone. How many people jam in elevators around that size every day across the planet).

  8. Dave Wainio says:

    That is “range 5 squares OR range 25 feet is the same thing”. didn’t check for typos before posting.

  9. Hunterian7 says:

    @Alphastream- they only have a tough challenge because it is something they are doing to themselves.

    This whole ‘earlier edition’ nostalgic fever Mike Mearls is fixated on needs to Go Away- quickly. The vast majority of D&D players are 3.5 and 4th (Paizo and WotC respectively). Mike Mearls came from 2nd edition and that makes him DANGEROUS to the health of D&D. I was born in 1975- I started with the pink D&D Basic Box in 1980 and I don’t give a damn about the roots of D&D. This is 2012- NOT 1990. I hope WotC fails. D&D Next is coming out too soon. Period.

  10. With the announcement this week that the playtest will begin released to the public on May 24th I am guess I am getting what I asked for. I am definitely … curious, excited … probably both.

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