Most people with a strong interest in D&D were not surprised by the recent announcement that Wizards of the Coast is in the process of creating and playtesting the next iteration of the game. The signs of its arrival were pretty clear if you knew where to look: the split in the player base, the design tenets of the most recent Wizards’ publications, the staffing changes at Wizards, the contents of various articles on the Wizards’ website, and many other clues hinted at a large-scale project in the offing.
Although the announcement was made just a few short days ago, speculation, discussion, analysis, and predictions are running rampant in every corner of the RPG world in anticipating of the D&D Experience convention, where the first public playtests will be held. As one would expect, the chatter runs the gamut from the typical Wizards-bashing on one end to outright giddiness on the other. As a freelancer who has done a bit of work for Wizards over the past few years, my natural inclination is to the side of giddiness. I have both a sentimental attachment and a professional interest that strongly hopes Wizards succeeds spectacularly. Indeed, I will continue to work to my best ability to make sure that happens in any of my projects.
However, there is the part of me that has been playing and enjoying D&D for three decades. That part of me must also look at the hobby, the business, and the game objectively. This new version of the game will be the one that my daughter will play during the same time of her life when I started playing, when all those amazing hours of fun and shared storytelling helped make me the person I am. I want the game to be fun and challenging and smart and encouraging imagination. I want that for her, and for me, and for players everywhere.
Long Ago and Far Away
The goals of the new design team are simply expressed but will be incredibly difficult to fulfill: bring all of the best parts of previous editions into a new iteration that players with different desires can play together. Cynics scoff at this as an impossible task, and they might right. That’s OK. I think that it is a goal worth pursuing, even if the final results fall short of it. You cannot even approach the goal if you don’t try.
The first step in meeting that goal is recognizing the evolution of the game. I know that many of the members of the design team have been playing older editions of the game to remind themselves, with first-hand experience, what those games were like. I have not had the chance to play the games, but I have gone through my old books (conveniently timed thanks to some house remodeling) to refresh my memory about what the rules of the game once were, and how my groups used those rules.
Rather than a point-by-point, edition-by-edition rundown of where the game has been, I must summarize. I owe my sanity that. The next months and years that the new iteration will be in design will see enough evaluation of older games to keep one busy reading. Some very smart people have already started.
What I will try to look at are what I see as the general trends rather than specific rules. (Some of these trends I have brought up in past articles in different contexts, so if I repeat myself much I apologize. Just consider it practice for when I will start embarrassing my family. More than I already do.) AD&D (sometimes called First Edition) was a mess of a rules set, in terms of mechanics of a game—and yet it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had gaming. I’m sure some of this is nostalgia, but not all of it is. I’m sure some of this is the newness of the game and the genre, but not all of it is. Looking back at that edition from the perspective of a designer and through the lens of countless RPGs, the game just excelled at getting to the stories. It might be because the game “borrowed” from so many great works of fiction that you couldn’t help be in a story as you played. Part of it had to be because there were so few choices that a character could make in terms of game elements that all of the decisions were made in the game.
I do strongly believe that a large part, and perhaps the largest part, of the games draw was that each group that played had to basically design their own game. Like I said, the rules were quite interesting, in that Chinese proverb sort of way. Those who are very generous say that the rules were written as they were because they were guidelines. Well, I can tell you that they became guidelines pretty quickly regardless of the intent, because most of them were house-ruled into something completely different. And I don’t mean “Little House on the Prairie” house-ruled. I mean “200,000-square-foot mansion” house-ruled. The game was great because it was a game that the group created as much as the published rules did.
In this game, the DM was in control. There was no question about it. Sure, different DMs ran things differently and player input was usually welcomed, but the only rule of the game was that the DM made the rules. Players who have grown up with discussion boards and errata and computer games might shudder at this, but not only was it not scary or dictatorial, it was liberating. Yes, the DM was in charge of the story, but, when done right, so were the players. For groups that got along and understood how they wanted the game to play, it was Zen-like: the more you let go of the control, the more control of the story you had.
The Connection Is Made
Another thing to remember, as it will become important later, is that there was no significant inter-connectedness like there is today with our Facebooks and Twitters and infinite niche forums. A few small conventions and periodicals (we had this stuff called paper back then) were the main places for cross-pollination of ideas. For the most part, people were playing and not really worrying about how other people were playing. A “character optimization board” was the piece of wood the DM hit you with when you thought your PC was so cool and invincible. Min-maxing was finding a way to flick your wrist just right so that your wizard PC got 4 hit points when he leveled instead of just 1.
When Second Edition D&D was released, I didn’t notice much of a change in the game. A few more options were offered to the PCs, giving the player a few more decisions to make. It seemed like a little power was taken away from the DMs and given to the players, but all of my groups soldiered on with little thought. We ignored a lot of the extra material that was released at the end of the 1990s, and just continued our happy campaigns with all our favorite house-rules and quirks.
Third Edition turned everything on its ear. This was both good and bad. It became a much better game in terms of rule mechanics. Elements of the game that were convoluted and seemingly mystical became as easy as beginning algebra. We all know that huge weight that was lifted when THAC0 went away. Players now longer had to worry or wonder about what a DM might do to make things rough for them regarding how something worked, because there seemed to be a rule for everything.
And then there were the character rules. All of the character options, the multiclassing freedoms, the customization through feats: it was a player’s dream. And for all that, it was also a DM’s nightmare. Whereas everything in the first two editions seemed to focus on exploration and story, everything in this edition seemed to focus on the rules. Opening a door became a rule. And the rule was written down. The rules became a tool of the player and a burden to the DM. This edition of the game was the first that I voluntarily stopped playing because I was just burned out. And what made it worse for me was the discussion of the rules. It was bad enough that the players were pulling out 4 different books to try to argue a miniscule point. But now they could pull out their laptops and show 45 other people all pulling out their own books and argue the same points.
Fourth Edition came just in time. I was seconds away from taking up a less frustrating pastime like demolitions or shark baiting. This edition began to return some of the power to the DM. Not a lot, but a little. Most of the power was returned by streamlining rules to get them out of the way so the story could come back into focus. And some of the player rules were streamlined as well. Those of us who had DMed and played in the earliest editions could see the old “exploration and story” light at the end of the tunnel. But things were still a little off. That light was blocked a bit by a strong focus on “encounters” which emphasized the same grid-and-movement mindset that 3e introduced. The feeling of “campaign” that the earliest editions encouraged was still a bit hazy, especially for those who only played 3e and 4e.
Old Arguments, New Technologies
And the Internet is still there. It gives us the beauty of communication, but we use it to clamor for errata and clarification and justification and perfection. We have a tool for sharing stories like no other, and we use it to nitpick and gripe and limit our imaginations rather than free them. I am as guilty as anyone in this, perhaps moreso. I have striven to make campaigns that embrace the ugly perfection of rules over the beauty chaos of a story shared. And in my foolishness, I would probably make the same mistakes again.
Having said all this, I need to make it clear that this is just my severely biased opinion, and it is a bunch of opinions that have been simplified and distilled down to an essence that does not capture my whole experience. I have loved D&D since even before they added the “A” at the beginning. Even at its most frustrating, I would still take a game of any edition of D&D over just about any other hobby to share with a group of friends (or in some cases, strangers). There is still more story in even the most tactical game of D&D than there is in all reality TV put together. Unless “Celebrity Housekeepers of Waterdeep” is on some network’s spring schedule.
So, as I sit with everyone else and wait to see the first draft of the rules that we will all get to playtest, I have much hope for what the game can become. I would love to see the streamlined balance of 4e, the players’ ability to create a truly unique character of 3e, but the power for the DM to bring about an inspiring and fun story that was enjoyed most in those earliest versions of the game. It may not happen, but count me as one of those cheering that we are all going to get a chance to make it happen together.