Learning from History

So, today Wizards of the Coast announced the new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons ((Note that they’re not calling it 5th Edition, but pretty much everyone else is right now.)). Of course, you know that, because that’s pretty much all that gamers are talking about on the Internet today.

I’m cautiously optimistic about the new edition. Every new edition of D&D has, to my mind, added something new and valuable to the D&D gaming experience, even if it’s left behind some things of value from previous editions, and I expect that this edition is going to be no different. It’s going to do some things right, and it’s going to miss the boat on some things. That said, the stated design goal of making an edition that is accessible and open to fans of all editions ((A noble goal. I just don’t know how realistic it is.)) points to the folks over at WotC recognizing that there are things of value that have been left behind in the previous years, and looking to correct that.

So. Cautiously optimistic, as I said. But as we wind down 4E ((I have no intention of jumping ship over to 5E right away unless it shows massive improvements over 4E AND can accommodate my ongoing campaign without the need for extensive revision of characters.)), there are some things that I really hope the design and development folks over at WotC have learned from the 4E experience:

  • Value external playtester feedback. The various articles note how external playtester feedback was pretty much ignored in the development of 4E. This is a mistake, because it’s the external testers who will tell you what the game actually plays like at the table. Internal playtesters are great – and necessary – but they’ve often been steeped in the development process, and are coming to the game with a very narrow set of expectations. External playtesters have a much broader range of expectations ((i.e., they have not drunk the company kool-aid.)), and are better representative of the target audience. But that’s a no-brainer, right? WotC says it’s going to listen more to playtesters this time around. Let’s hope they follow through.
  • Deliver what you promise. What I’m talking about here specifically is the horrible mess the online tools for 4E are. Sure, the character builder and the compendium are pretty good, but I still use the downloadable version of the monster builder, because the web-based one doesn’t have half of the functionality I need for tweaking monsters. And the virtual game table is only now really becoming available. And all the other adventure tools are… well, just not there. These are all really disappointing to someone who is paying for DDI every year, and finding himself using exactly one tool. So, you know, keep an eye on promises and the fulfillment thereof.
  • It’s not all about the combats. 4E is a very focused, finely tuned ruleset, developed to make exciting, cinematic combats. And then you throw in some stuff to give the characters a reason for going from one combat to another. There really isn’t a lot out there to support play outside of combat – there’s just enough to allow the characters to find their way to the next fight. This is a large part of what makes the game feel very much like a video game ((I don’t know that it does that much, but that’s one of the primary complaints I hear.)), and sends people looking for other things to play. All ((Well, not all, but certainly most.)) of the complexity and support for the game lies in the combat system, which emphasizes a very particular style of play. Broadening some of that complexity and emphasis would broaden the audience for the game and win back market share, I think.
  • Look close to home for innovation. It’s obvious that the 4E developers looked long and hard at board games, card games, and video games when designing 4E, and that’s a good thing. But it seems to me that there are a lot of exciting new game designs out there in RPG-land, too, and looking at some of the indie ((Whatever that really means.)) RPGs and story games could provide a lot of ideas and insights into how to support non-combat actions, and how to speed up combats as well. Which is something I think D&D needs.
  • Build in an entry strategy from the get-go. Start with the Essentials line, and then add the complexity. Don’t come in half-way ((Or three-quarters of the way, in this case.)) through with the beginner set. I think this one is a no-brainer, but just putting it out there. That way, you don’t have to rely on the current fans – who may or may not make the edition switch – to build the market. You can capture the new gamers hitting the scene, and maybe even pull in the old-school fans who have poo-poohed the complexity of modern editions.
  • Remember that the rules are a tool set. The rules are not the game. The game is what happens at the table. WotC is not the dispenser of truth about how to play the game, they are the providers of the rules, and the DM and players get to mangle them as they see fit. The groups are going to house-rule stuff, and twist stuff, and home-brew stuff, and just plain get stuff wrong, and that’s great, as long as they have fun. Concentrate on providing them a tool kit they can use to build their own coolness in-game, rather than a hard-and-fast, rigidly defined game experience. Leave room for the players and DMs to inject themselves into every level of gameplay and – as far as possible – support the different types of play experience. I know, that last bit is tough – be all things to all people – but it’s a valuable goal.

Those are the big lessons I hope WotC takes forward into this new iteration. Beyond that, I have my own pet peeves that I hope get eliminated and sacred cows that I hope get supported or returned to play.

There is, of course, going to be some public outcry about the whole thing – it’s another cash grab ((C’mon, guys. WotC is a business, and of course they want to make money. That does not preclude them also wanting to make the best game they can. After all, that will net them more money, right?)), they’re ruining my favourite edition, they won’t listen to the fans enough, they will listen to the fans too much, it’s too much like game X, it’s not enough like game X, the whole thing is going to crash and burn, etc.

For my part, I’m cautiously optimistic, based on past experience. Let’s see if WotC can indeed produce a D&D game that is all things to all fans.

I’d be happy if they succeeded.

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2 Responses to Learning from History

  1. keith wikle says:


    I’ve been reading a lot of the twitter fire-hose today from a variety of bloggers. Your so far has struck me as the most measured. Your point on, it’s not all about the combats struck a chord with me.

    As a very die-hard table top gamer and a very lukewarm computer gamer, I followed most of the DND versions, from AD&D until about 3.5 and then I stopped playing. My kids were growing up and I just had other things to do. I have come back to DND with my now 15 year old son and played a lot of 4e.
    I actually kind of like it… mostly.

    The tactical battle mat stuff is really fun, it has taken something that was always way too abstracted and made it more like the mini-systems it was based off in the old days. That concreteness came with a price, the other aspects of the game were diminished. And part of that focus on combat is always on the players and DMs too, lest we blame the system too much, and not ourselves enough.

    The other part though is on the game mechanics. Skill challenges, and skills in general do a very poor job of making non-combat oriented activity enjoyable/fun/possible. Other game systems, such as Fate/Dresden do a much better job of trying to come up with a rules set that encourages players to role-play and stretch themselves a bit.

    It will be a tough challenge to make a game that has good combat rules, and a good system for managing non-combat scenarios. But I would hope that as you pointed out, that by looking closer to home, rather than at computer games, they might be closer to finding the answer.

    Good Post.

  2. Zooroos says:

    Hi there! You may be interested in this post from some Paizo freelancer that, aside from also having drunk the Golem’s kool-aid, offer really good insights about the business model of WotC, and how it affects each and every D&D edition so far… Worth checking out, I think:


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