“This is a game that is fun. It helps you imagine.”
-Frank Mentzer, D&D Basic Rules Red Box, 1983
Well met, travelers! There’s a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons on the horizon, and opinions are very mixed about what that means for the game. I’m here to offer some thoughts, and maybe enable you to continue to have fun imagining heroes & monsters.
When I started playing Tactical Studies Rules (TSR)’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) back in 1992, I was a high school freshman who was enamored with everything I could read. The fact that many aspects of the system seemed needlessly complex1 didn’t bother me, because I was just overjoyed to have a chance to act out fantasy stories with my friends. Now, 21 years later, I’m a happy DM & player of Wizards of the Coast (WotC)’s 4th edition D&D who appreciates the balance of the current system, who runs a home game with very inventive players, and who loves bringing new players to the table via the D&D Encounters program and other organized play events at the Modern Myths Northampton store and area conventions.
That new version I mentioned, currently labeled D&D Next2, has been a bit controversial, to say the least. If you search online, you’ll find lots of folks complaining that Next isn’t as balanced as 4e, or tries too hard to force older edition concepts into a new frame, or is too deadly, or is not deadly enough, or is bad because it’s too different, or is bad because it’s too similar to an older edition. Heck, I’ve probably been one of those online voices from time to time. But after spending far too many hours reading & commenting in online forums and blogs from other players and DMs, listening to podcasts, reading concept articles from the developers at WotC about what they’re trying to do, and playtesting each iteration in as many different scenarios as I can imagine, I’ve come to accept something: there’s a new game coming out (no matter how much some folks might complain), and it’s a set of rules that can actually enable players to have fun imagining. Maybe it won’t be my favorite set of rules, but it does have its merits. I’d like to talk about some of those, and give you a taste for what’s “Next” in D&D.
There’s this new dice mechanic that’s pretty cool called “advantage/disadvantage”. When you have advantage, you roll 2 dice & use the higher value, representing a situation where you’ve got some kind of upper hand (flanking an enemy, or sneaking up on a dozing guard). When you’re at a disadvantage (lower ground, in the dark, etc.), you roll 2 dice & take the lower value. This one mechanic removes the need for lots of plusses and minuses of previous editions, creating much faster combat scenarios than in previous versions of the game, with much less math. While some of my engineering friends have pointed out that there are balance flaws in the implementation of this mechanic, it’s a cool and fun idea, so I’m okay if it’s 0.007% less scalable than some other system.
There has also been a lot of discussion of modularity. That means that the basic version of the game will have very simple rules, but if you’d like to include rules for something advanced (like maybe critical hits on specific body parts, or magic that uses spell points), there will (eventually) be a separate rules module that you can add-on to your game to accommodate for that. While this might make certain organized play events a little (or a lot) more complex as everyone tries to figure out which modules everyone is using, it opens up a wide variety of options for DMs in home games, and lets them tailor the rules to match the style of play each group is looking for.
Finally, the big buzzword in each playtest of Next has been “iconic”. The developers at WotC are trying to make the newest version of the game something that feels familiar, so that any player from any of the almost 40 years of D&D can pick up a Next character sheet and feel comfortable fighting dragons in a way that feels reminiscent and exciting. They want us to feel just like we did when we first played, no matter what edition we started with. While I think that, practically, that’s an impossible feat to accomplish, it’s still a laudable goal. In the midst of this quest to attain the ultimate D&D experience, though, WotC has also begun reprinting rules books for previous editions (even the old TSR stuff), and offering PDFs of old adventures, because maybe some people would rather use the 2nd edition rules that they started with instead of learning the new system. WotC seems conscious of the idea that while they can try to make the best version possible with Next, “best” is a subjective term, especially among a demographic as varied as “gamers.” The official D&D web site has several polls each week pertaining to rules, classes, monsters, and other game experiences, so that the developers can crowd-source to choose the options that will appeal to the most players. But what they seem to have realized is that D&D players, like any other demographic, are varied in their opinions, and are going to be impossible to please 100% of the time.
The early versions of D&D Next that I’ve experienced have had plenty of flaws, don’t get me wrong. Some of them felt so egregious that they occasionally made the game not fun for me to play in certain playtests. WotC has tried some ideas that fell completely flat (feature-less fighters), some that seemed to recall poor mechanics of previous editions (very low HP), some that were hugely over-powered (sorcerers), and some that felt just a little weird (initially dwarven clerics couldn’t use warhammers). With each playtest, though, they’ve tried to introduce new content and/or fix old content, and I’m fairly certain that when they finally do get around to releasing the Official, For Real, Final3 version of this edition, it’ll be full of well-tested rules & concepts. And many convention-goers have already had a blast using the unfinished Next rules. Sure, Next will never be the 4th edition that I currently love… but neither are any other non-4E games on the shelf, and I have lots of fun playing those.
And when I think about it, most every game I’ve ever enjoyed has had its flaws… like the bloated dice values in West End’s Star Wars system, or shifter super-team silliness in Werewolf: The Apocalypse, or the bad editing in a book like Riddle of Steel, or the built-in ennui & detached superiority of Vampire LARPing, or the deadliness of Deadlands, or the lack of a pizza expansion for Ninja Burger, or the often excessive combat length in 4E D&D. That doesn’t make those systems inherently bad… it just makes them individual. For each of those flaws, there have been merits that have made me love those games more than I disliked some of their parts. The same holds true with D&D Next.
So as we move towards the eventual release of the next edition of D&D (reportedly 2014 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the game), let’s keep an open mind and look at the many options available to us as gamers. Some players will see a version of the Next rules and love them. Others will prefer a previous edition, and will continue to support their favorite edition. Still others will look at other D&D inspired fantasy games, like Pathfinder or 13th Age. What matters most with any gaming product is that you set as your goal the idea that people should have fun playing together. There are systems out there for every style of play, but having fun is what really matters in the end.
If you have thoughts on D&D Next, or on any other fantasy role-playing systems that you’d like to see on the shelves at Modern Myths, leave them in the comments section.
Teacher, Gamer, Half-Elf Cleric of Ioun
1. go ahead, kids, Google “THAC0” or “to-hit matrices” and see if they makes sense to you
2. while WotC execs have said that won’t be the final title, it’s the only name we’ve got for it right now
3. and not “final” in the way that Final Fantasy was final. Yes, I know the history of the title, I’m just using it for an example here. I mean, after the company realized that they didn’t need to shut their doors due to FF1’s popularity, couldn’t they have stopped referring to the games as “final” fantasies in any of the 20 or so subsequent titles?