Friday, January 20, 2012

Reflections on editions and changes over the years - D&D Next

New editions cause angst to many players. We all realize that WOTC isn’t going to come collect your books and that you can keep on playing past the “deadline” – and some of us do just that – but there’s a psychological factor for many people (myself included) when your game is “dead” that decreases interest in playing it. I’ve come to recognize it and I am pretty good at working past it though it tends to be easier with older games for some reason – maybe a few years have to pass and then they achieve classic status in my mind. I notice that so far WOTC is being very careful not to call it “5th Edition” as that very name implies a 6th Edition (probably about 2015 at this rate). As the lifespan of each edition has decreased, long term players have commented that they are not getting their money’s worth out of the books they buy and that they are tired of learning the rules all over again. I find this an eminently sensible position – if a game works and I like it, why should I buy all those same books all over again every 5 years? I know how it benefits the company but what problem are we solving here for the player? If it doesn’t make the game better in some clear way then why should I spend that money and time on the new version when I could instead keep right on playing with the old one?

Thus, my two biggest concerns with The New Thing:

One of the stated goals of Next is to never require a new edition. I think that’s a questionable goal. From a business perspective, the easiest money you can make is from printing a new Player’s Handbook. Why would you explicitly state that one of your design goals rules this out? Because on the flip side the players know how that works, and we see it as an unlikely scenario and that leads us to conclude that someone is not being honest about their plans. Looking for nuances, if the plan is to print an updated PHB for what is technically the same edition at set intervals, well, that’s not exactly “not” a new edition if I’m still going to need to buy a new book every few years now is it? Either way it looks a lot like a deceptive approach and I hope someone is thinking this through. If the company was to go to an annual update model (2012 PHB, 2013 PHB, etc.) as I suggested when Essentials came out then I think most players could be convinced of the benefits if they would just be upfront about the plan! They also need to keep it cheap. Additionally, something similar was said about 4th Edition and we can all see how that turned out.

The other goal that concerns me is to present a set of rules that caters to players of every edition and “unifies the game”. It’s a noble goal, no doubt, but it puts constraints on the design that I don’t think a new edition needs. Some of the biggest differences between players of each edition are mechanical ones – they don’t like the way one edition handles things compared to another edition's approach. How is one set of rules going to reconcile something as basic as ascending vs. descending armor class? How about a complete lack of skills (OD&D) vs. a few class‐specific skills (Thieves in 1E) vs. a full‐blown universal skill system (3E) vs. only encounter‐relevant skills (4E)? How about Feats vs. no Feats? Racial limits? Wizards and armor? Clerics and edged weapons? Multiclassing –is it for demi‐humans only? Is it per‐level‐mix‐and‐match‐as-desired like in 3rd? Is it handled via Feats? Prestige classes? Paragon paths? I just don’t see a way to integrate these different systems in a coherent game system short of including them all and saying “pick which one you want”! Guess what? I can already do that! I have Basic! I have 1E! I have 2E‐3E‐4E! I can pick which edition I want to play and start up a new campaign any time I want to! Thanks to the miracle of the Internet so can anyone else! Between PDF sales and eBay there’s a ton of material easily and cheaply available for nearly any edition of any game! Beyond that we have retro clones in a multitude of flavors plus Pathfinder, the biggest “retro‐clone” of all! So to me this new edition is now not just competing to be better than 4E – it’s attempting to be better than all of the prior editions to all of the people that think their chosen edition is the best. That’s a very high bar to set, one unlikely to be overcome IMO.

Additionally I don’t really want the mechanics of the 2013 edition to spend a whole lot of time looking backward to the Cleric vs. Undead tables of 1978 – I have that already, and anyone who doesn't probably doesn't care! If you don’t have something new to say about it then I don’t need a new set of rules. I don’t even need a simple refinement of 4E as my 5E – I’m willing to take a look at a completely different approach if it makes for a good game. What I don’t automatically agree is healthy is the appeal to disgruntled players. Looking at their concerns, sure. Bending the game backwards 20+ years, not so good. Do you think the kids learning to play this decade care how wizards worked in the 80’s? Is that relevant to them at all? Let me tell you from experience – no! Should their interests and expectations be a part of this process? I’d say at least as much as the guys who stopped at 1E and possibly more! The 1E guys have their edition, and in 3 updates since then they’ve said “No thanks”, to the point that some brag about how it's been 20 years or more since they purchased a D&D product! So quit poking them with the edition stick and let them go!

Now despite these misgivings I am interested in seeing what comes out of this whole operation. I've moved along (eventually) with every new edition of D&D and in general I would expect to do the same here. I do see some early signs that have me concerned about the direction of the game but I'm willing to give it a chance. I'd  like to see them look backward for inspiration, but look forward for the design. Don't concentrate so much about pleasing all former and current fans - think about the future and make the best D&D that you can make. Impress us.


Fenway5 said...

Insightful and well said sir!

Amanda Heitler said...

Interesting thoughts and much appreciated.