Well, it’s official now. D&D is entering a new phase of its life. Not only is 5th Edition officially under way, but they’re asking us to help make the game the best it can be. That’s a very interesting question, Wizards. To start off, it’s worth asking why they are doing this in the first place.
Simply put, the fan base of D&D isn’t just broken, it’s shattered. 4th edition was released and reactions fell into one of two catagories. There were the people who loved what it did differently, making the game less about hunting through hundreds if not thousands of pages searching for that one feat or spell that would make your character concept really work. The miniature-focused, heavy tactical combat seemed like a natural progression to a game that had always been trying to get us to buy little plastic toys. Every character had a role to play in combat. Now, even at the beginning we paid for these things. Not having as many options to look at did make it simpler, but unfortunately it meant that most characters were very similar. While the tactical combat seemed great, it unfortunately meant that even relatively simple combats took forever. More complicated ones? I had a massive battle with characters fighting their way across a city block’s worth of roof-tops against a total of twenty opponents. It took us four and a half hours to resolve. While everyone has a role to play, its easy for the less explosive roles to seem less fun at the table. Sure, I might be a “Controller”, and I’m throwing status effects on my enemies so they are blind, or stunned, or rooted in place, and that’s fine. But then my friend the striker actually comes up to hit the guy, and suddenly what I’ve done, even if it was completely necessary for him to accomplish this, seems to pale in front of the large fistful of dice he’s doing in damage.
Now Wizards aren’t idiots, and they do listen at least a little. So in response to the lack of options, they released more. More races, more classes, hundreds more powers, and likewise feats. Now obviously this made the problem of having too many options start to crop up. But this is where they made a huge mistake. Dungeons And Dragons Insider sounds like a fantastic idea. Collect all the character options, make them searchable and accessible, give people useful applications they can use to create characters or enemies for those characters to face. The problem is a matter of pricing and the business model they’ve chosen. It costs ten dollars for a month of DDI if you buy just the month. This came back to bite them. Their books cost about thirty dollars. As long as they release more than one book every three months, a complete necessity if you’re trying to launch a new game, it’s cheaper to simply subscribe to DDI than to buy the books. Now, plenty of people bought the books, but not as many as could have.
explains a lot of the decisions that made it work just like it did, and also explains some of the more video-gamey design decisions that they made:
“Sometime around 2006, the D&D team made a big presentation to the Hasbro senior management on how they could take D&D up to the $50 million level and potentially keep growing it. The core of that plan was a synergistic relationship between the tabletop game and what came to be known as DDI. At the time Hasbro didn’t have the rights to do an MMO for D&D, so DDI was the next best thing. The Wizards team produced figures showing that there were millions of people playing D&D and that if they could move a moderate fraction of those people to DDI, they would achieve their revenue goals. Then DDI could be expanded over time and if/when Hasbro recovered the video gaming rights, it could be used as a platform to launch a true D&D MMO, which could take them over $100 million/year.
The DDI pitch was that the 4th Edition would be designed so that it would work best when played with DDI. DDI had a big VTT component of its design that would be the driver of this move to get folks to hybridize their tabletop game with digital tools. Unfortunately, a tragedy struck the DDI team and it never really recovered. The VTT wasn’t ready when 4e launched, and the explicit link between 4e and DDI that had been proposed to Hasbro’s execs never materialized. The team did a yoeman’s effort to make 4e work anyway while the VTT evolved, but they simply couldn’t hit the numbers they’d promised selling books alone. The marketplace backlash to 4e didn’t help either.”
So we know why 4th edition was the way it was. How can we make 5th edition better? Before I talk about what I think could be done, it’s worth mentioning that I’ve omitted a common complaint about 4th edition. First and foremost is that 4th Edition does not support roleplaying. Bull-pucky. It supports roleplaying to almost the exact same degree every other edition has. That is to say, not really at all. There are just a few more options available for non-combat spells and the like in 3.5 when compared to 4th, but when it comes right down to it, there are almost no rules or such for roleplaying in either. That is how it should be. Roleplaying flourishes best when it’s given almost no constraints. If I want my character to be a landless noble and my GM has no problems with that, it shouldn’t cost my character in other areas. I shouldn’t have to invest my limited resources into things that my character didn’t have to during his training. These games have GMs. The inestimable value of that is that you can let the GM balance the benefits that characters get before birth. 3.5’s problem was that it was broken in impossible-to-argue-with ways. Your choice was to either rewrite the rules almost in their entirety or to deal with a game that had a remarkable spread, from being incredibly potent at solving almost any problem, combat or non-combat, to being of only rough use in their only field of expertise. 4th edition’s problem was that it worked too hard to make everyone of equal utility, and ended up creating a system that felt very same-y until you had already invested a great deal of time and effort into it.
So get on with it. What do I want out of D&D 5th edition? I want a game that acknowledges that wizards have access to far more power than fighters do, and works from the ground up to make sure that at all levels of play, everyone feels like they have something to contribute. There are two ways that I can see to do that. Either rework the archetypes you’re using completely, so that you’re playing Aragorn, master of hidden healing knowledge, familiarity with the weaknesses of the forces of evil, and a great swordsman, with a magical blade, rather than Hrothgar the fighter who will need to find or purchase gear just to keep up with his opponents, and whose only hope is to get better at hitting people with your metal stick. The other, and more viable option in my opinion, although it would be a significant re-working of the game, is to drop classes altogether. Take the game Mutants and Masterminds, especially 2nd edition. You can model almost any kind of character you want, with gear that does whatever you want it to, and the powerful stuff simply costs more character creation points to purchase. Do you want to be a thief with a cat companion who can sneak through windows and maybe even open a door for you? In D&D you’ll need to put a couple levels in Ranger to do that, which comes with a lot of other baggage that you might not want. A classless system gets around all that. Do I think that it’ll happen? There’s a lot of history in D&D’s class system, but it’s certainly at the top of my wish list.