Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Calm Before the Storm

It is less than a month until the fifth edition of Dungeon's & Dragons launches. Technically, it's a bit longer than that before the corebooks drop, but July is when the Starter Set will be released, and along with it, the Basic D&D pdf that will supposedly allow you to create characters and run campaigns for them from level 1 all the way to level 20, or whatever the hell the cap is going to be.

My feelings about this have varied day-by-day. Mostly, I've been excited. It's D&D! The Disneyland of tabletop role-playing games! The 800 lb. gorilla! The hobby's flagship! But on some days...such as today, as I write this...I find myself weary, skeptical, quite possibly even pessimistic.

Disclaimer: I have NOT followed the beta/development of 5th edition.  The following opinions are based on pure hearsay from around the internet and the occasional article from the offical website. I may update this blog with new thoughts as information becomes more concrete.

There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the now-decaying corpse of the game's previous edition. The fourth edition of the game was released in 2007. That's a short seven years between that edition and this one. Now, third edition also only lasted seven years (from 2000-2007), but that game is still going strong today. Sure, it's no longer supported by Wizards of the Coast (D&D's publisher, also the makers of Magic: The Gathering), but the legacy of the third edition lives on through it's evolutionary off-shoot, Pathfinder. That game shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. So, in a way, third edition D&D is still out there. Yet 4th is dead and gone. As of now, I don't know of anyone who's going to "grognard" onto the 4th edition the way people have to the previous editions.

There are enough reasons for that to fill several blog entries, but where I'm going is this: the 4th edition was a radical departure from 3rd. But with 5th edition, it seems like Wizards of the Coast have decided to fall back to its 3.0/3.5 roots, and basically disavow 4th edition. I do not think this is a good idea. You cannot go home again, as the saying goes. Wizards reinvented D&D with its 4th edition. Though they can go ahead and call it a failure if they want, 5th edition should continue to re-invent and re-define the game. Instead, it's like they're calling a massive, industry-wide "do-over." A reboot. And the last thing this world needs is another half-assed reboot of something.

What would I have done? What would a re-invention/re-definement of D&D look like if I were the lead designer? I would have looked at today's trends, the writing on the wall, and jumped ahead of it to lead it. What do I mean? I would have taken my cues from story gaming. Specifically, if we're talking business, I would have tried to buy out Dungeon World, 13th Age, or maybe even Fate Core, or Warhammer FRP, and made one of them the new 5th edition of D&D. Failing that, I would have built a brand-new, proprietary system that focuses on collaborative storytelling and fast, exciting gameplay.

Hear me out here, alright? I think the time of the tactical wargamming RPG is over, or at the very least marginalized. How many people these days would rather bust out miniatures and grid maps when they could just play something on their tablet or game console? Or, if they really want the tactile humanness of real-stuff, a board game, or split the diffence with a collectible miniatures game? Yes, I know games like Warhammer and Warmachine and all that still have avid followings. Avid, but niche. And they cover those bases really well. Why make an RPG that exists anywhere around that space?

The future of RPGs, I believe, are narrative-based, character-driven games. That is a gaming experience that so many other competing forms of entertainment...including other table-top games...cannot match. If you want tactical battles, play a wargame. If you want something less tactical but still tactile, play an adventure boardgame. But if you want to tell a story while you play a game, play a role-playing game. That's what redefining D&D looks like to me.

Just imagine for a moment what Dungeon World would look like if it were owned by Wizards of the Coast. The millions of dollars it would have for development, marketing, Q&A, publishing, editing. The entire staff of professionals working around the clock on the game, refining the rules, coming up with new ideas, writing entire new books covering vast new subjects. Imagine revisiting every old D&D setting, every classic adventure, every iconic monster, magic item, and character class in a forward-thinking, smart system like what Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel have created with Dungeon World (who in turn refined from Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World. Respect where it's due, right?)

I'm certain there are many out there who scoff at this notion. It would ruin the scrappy indie-ness that makes Dungeon World special, they may say. Greedy business execs would dumb it down and rip out its soul, others may say. Wizards of the Coast would never make such a rules-light game because it wouldn't be profitable, they may all say. All of that may be true. But just imagine if it weren't. 

Now to be fair, I've heard that fifth edition is going to be far more flexible in the way it runs, and will indeed allow for a more narrative, story-game style. That may be true. I hope it is. It's also entirely possible that the game comes out, it's as crunchy as it's ever been, and it's awesome. My recent experience with Shadowrun has shown me that yes, even a game stuffed with rules can be fun, when done correctly. Whatever happens, I hope it makes the fifth edition great.

As I've said before, I consider myself an ambassador of the hobby, and my goal is to bring as many new players into the world of tabletop role-playing games as possible. That will be a whole hell of a lot easier if the next edition of the world's biggest, most well-known RPG doesn't suck.


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