DDXP 2012: “Charting the Course: An Edition for All Editions” and “New Products” Seminars

This past weekend was DDXP, and since this the new edition of D&D was announced recently, this was both the first chance the public would both find out directly from the mouths of the people making the game what it would be like, as well as try a limited demo of the new game. Like in 2008, questions about the new game were answered, and new ones were created. And just like back then, we were on the scene to report on the goings on to try to bring you a taste of the information available if you couldn’t be there.

Aside from all the games being run (of the new D&D, 4e, and every other edition), there were also four seminars run by Wizards of the Coast staff. I was able to attend two: “Charting the Course: An Edition for All Editions” and “New Product Seminar.” Vanir attended the “Class Design: From Assassins to Wizards” seminar. A fourth was unattended by us (because we were all making our way home.)

The following is a summation of the two seminars I attended with some of our commentary and thoughts. If you’d prefer to read the entire transcript, or watch the video, those are available elsewhere:

Charting the Course: An Edition for all Editions

  •  This seminar was moderated by Greg Bilsland, and on stage were Monte Cook, Mike Mearls, and Jeremy Crawford. This was the seminar to discuss the goals and challenges of the new edition of D&D, but not anything about what specific products will be made or about any kind of digital tools.
  • The panelists discussed what they wanted to make sure was carried forward from all editions of D&D: the relationship between the players and the DM, players being creative and exploring a world, a synthesis between a toolbox for creating worlds and stories by using creative magic plus good game design. Also, fireballs.
  • The first thing they looked at was what all RPGs do. And then, the focus was on what D&D does that not all RPGs do. Then from there, it was a focus on shared language: things like Armor Class, saving throws, etc. Then there are shared stories that make up D&D culture, like the gazebo or the Head of Vecna.
  • At first, the goal was to distill the entire history of the game down to a core game, a foundation on which different modules can be added to faciliate all the different styles of those who play D&D. While you can just play the core game, you can add on different modules depending on your style, to make it a much more tactical battle-heavy game or a heavily story-driven game that even lacks dice. (At this point, I could see that some of the panelists were thinking about the Penny Arcade comic.)
  • While that was the goal of the design team, the development team meanwhile looks at what the designers have made, along with what goals they have, and help to assess if those goals are being met or need further work. Each rule is considered for its potential consequences, both short term and long term, and if those consequences are good for the game or maybe bad for the game, or perhaps initially good but bad in the long run. The development team also handles the math end of things, like expected monster damage by level.
  • How is the concept of modules being reconciled with groups that have an expectation of game balance? Modules aren’t necessarily an on/off switch, but instead a spectrum of choices. So the seeds of any potential module are planted in the core game itself, which has a certain expectation of balance. As an example, the fighter is built on some core abilities and concepts. Players can opt-in to more customization to exchange some core abilities for others. Between two given fighters, one may be more complex, but because it’s always a trade-off, they remain balanced with each other.
  • Meanwhile, DMs have optional modules to customize the game for what they want to run. If the DM says that he wants to run a very tactical game, the players know that they should probably create their characters appropriately, or at least they know what to expect. Even if the DM is running a very character-driven game, a player could still make a very tactical character with the understanding that won’t be the focus of the game.
  • Modules would even allow the game to shift styles in mid-campaign to react to DM and player needs. Modules can even be used for a single story, like using mass battle rules for a session, or used for the entire campaign for a campaign that focuses on that. The modules will contain multiple options, so that a war campaign could either focus on things from a broader perspective, or the PCs as unit leaders.
  • They’ve identified three “pillars” of D&D: combat, exploration, and roleplaying. Those three pillars have helped the designers with class design. It gives a lens to recognize each class’s contribution to each one. Likewise, classes could be customized to let players move their priorities. While rogues tend towards being exploration heavy with their skills, they could be customized into more of a “stabby” rogue.
  • High level play is being looked at closely, since there is a general impression that every version of D&D has broken down at a certain level. They’re committed to making high level play work, but to get there, they’re looking to playtesters to tell them what exactly hasn’t worked in previous editions. Mike conjectured that disparities are always going to develop the longer a game goes on just because of familiarity and mastery. Once the team identifies what a functional high level game should look like and why it is perceived to not work, it’ll be easier to design towards that goal. A later seminar clarified that one idea is the ability to trade multiple lower level abilities for one high level ability, so the abilities get stronger, but you don’t keep an overwhelming number of options.
  • One goal is to make sure that lower level threats remain relevant at all levels. Orcs start scary to a 1st level character, become easier to deal with, but in previous editions could become a threat that could not pose any danger to a higher level party, even in greater numbers. Under this model, a nation of orcs still could do damage to higher level characters. In order to accomplish this and several other goals, the focus will be on providing higher level characters more interesting things to do instead of focusing on higher attack bonuses. This also has the effect that if the DM needs an orc for the story, he can always open the Monster Manual (or equivalent) and use the orc as is, instead of having to fudge it, let it be useless, or go through some kind of leveling process that takes time.
  • Internal playtesting to the new edition has been going on about 9 months, and the main lesson they’ve learned is how diverse people’s experience is with D&D as a whole. Of course, this means that sometimes feedback is diametrically opposed. It’s the designers’ jobs to come up with new and creative solutions that will help address the concerns of both groups.
  • Part of the challenge with coming up with what the D&D version of something “is,” like what being a D&D wizard means, since that’s distinct from a Gandalf or Harry Potter. Is the D&D ranger best represented by Aragorn or Drizzt? Those are the questions that they need to answer.
  • Adventure design for published adventures is another challenge of the new game. The plan is to design some adventures broadly to try and hit all play styles and adapted by the DM to their group, while others will be more focused on a specific playstyle, and the module system should help in identifying who a specific adventure is designed for.
  • The team on stage was asked what their style is in D&D, and thus what kind of modules they used. Monte said he likes using minis but not for super-tactical games, with lots of social interaction and exploring. Mike prefers games that start with a simple core game, then introduce new pieces as the campaign goes on, making a flexible campaign for the players. Jeremy likes to use the modularity on a session-to-session basis dictated by the story: an adventure based in a city that doesn’t use minis or even dice rolling is one example, as is a session that features a big battle and uses minis and lots of dice rolling.

Audience Q&A

  • Will customization be more like multiclassing, or within the class itself? Both are viable options. Class customization is easier, while multiclassing is more of a drastic change that requires more committment and rules mastery. The playtests will hint at some of these options. For example, in the playtest, the fighter could also be a noble which grants some social skills.
  • What support will there be for new players? Complexity will be managed by products, all supported by the same core game, to give the right experience for the audience picking that product up, but the rules will transfer between games.
  • What empowers the players to be more creative in the game? They’re moving away from looking at a character sheet to provide most of the options, and instead to think beyond what is listed to create limitless options. As well, empowering the DM means that they have the power to adjucate better the players being more creative.
  • What will be the role of random charts in the new edition? There are different styles of DM that are inspired by different things. One type of DM likes to make their adventures using random tables. Random tables will be back in this edition, but will be a tool and not a requirement.
  • How easy is it to switch play-styles in mid-session? Modules will all have a basic implementation that is easy to pick up and run.
  • How will the new edition address organized play? No specific decisions have been made yet, but there will probably be a set of modules that’s standard for organized play, similar to what’s in place now. There will still be room for DMs to customize for their game, but the basic implementation will be shared.
  • What’s the expectation of getting playgroups together with different styles? They want the game to support multiple styles at the same table. So a player that wants something simple can play it, and even as the campaign goes on, can remain a simple character or can decide to add more complexity as they get more familiar with it. One example of this kind of implementation is the Essentials vs. pre-Essentials 4e class design. This spectrum will be widened even further in the new edition.
  • If some characters are simple, and some are complex, how will the game deal with some players taking considerably longer to take their action? One goal of the new edition is to keep combat quick, no matter what kind of character you’re playing. The game should keep moving no matter what options are there.
  • Has D&D taken itself too seriously recently? According to Mike, D&D always needs an element of chaos that can lead to silly or serious situations. One area where they’re addressing the “overly-serious” D&D is in art direction. The art conceptualization process for the new D&D has lead to images of more grounded characters. Not all PCs will look like superheroes: some heroes will look like they’ve just barely survived. Some heroes won’t look like they’ve shaved in a few days. Some halflings will look like they’ve eaten too many muffins.
  • Will classes by specialized to specific pillars? Classes will be better in some areas than others, but not character will ever be completely useless at any of the pillars.

New Products Seminar

  •  Mike Mearls was the primary presenter on this seminar, with other WotC staffers occasionally taking the stage to clarify. This seminar contained no information about the next version of D&D, but instead the remaining 4e and systemless products. Only the first part of the year was covered, and they want the products going forward to all have elements that can be used for other games.
  • The first was the big news about the AD&D (1st edition) reprints, owing to the fact that they discovered pristine copies of the original books in storage that they were able to scan and use to make new copies. The only changes are going to be the cover (the current mock-ups of which are pictured to the right), and changing the old ads in the back for ads for the Gygax Memorial Fund. As previously announced, these books will only be available through hobby game stores, and are a limited print run.
  • The next cycle of products was referred to as the Rise of the Underdark. An Encounters season will focus on the Drow.
  • May will have the Dungeon Survival Handbook, which will contain themes that tie into story elements to inform DMs of villains, plotlines, etc. (similar to the way Neverwinter handles them). The Q&A later also said that the book will have new Underdark-themed powers for other classes, and new PC races like Goblin and Kobold.
  • June will have an Urban Underdark dungeon tile set, and a new D&D Lair Assault with a Drow theme.
  • Menzoberranzan setting book comes in August. A new kind of campaign setting, with both options to use it as a standard setting for adventurers, or to play Drow who compete with each other directly as representatives of various Drow houses. Concurrently, a new type of Fortune Cards will be released called “Drow Treachery” cards that will support and encourage PCs to go after each other directly. Both are a first for D&D that directly support confrontation between PCs as a primary way to play.
  • July will see the release of another map pack for Forests of the Underdark.
  • Fourth quarter will see a book called Ed Greenwood Presents: Elminster’s Forgotten Realms. This book is modeled after Ed’s original campaign notes as well as his ongoing campaign. It is Ed Greenwood’s vision of the Realms as it has developed as he has run it, not the “official” presentation from TSR and WotC. It is still a playable campaign world (though it will be largely game mechanic-free) that is kind of a “What If?” version of the Forgotten Realms, different than what has been released to the public so far.
  • Lords of Waterdeep board game releases in March, a “euro game” style board game set in the Forgotten Realms. A few demo copies were played at the show, and the feedback was largely positive.
  • Dungeon Command, a tactical miniatures wargame, releases in July. Two faction boxes: Heroes of Cormyr and Sting of Lolth. Each box contains pre-painted minis, cards to play the war game, puzzle piece tiles to battle on, and Adventure Game system stats (i.e. Castle Ravenloft, etc.) The minis are a mix of new sculpts and existing sculpts, and new sculpts will likely depend on the success of Dungeon Command boxes. Each box will retail for $40, and a Game Day will support the launch of the game.
  • DDI will continue throughout 2012, supporting 4e with new content. Some content was teased: some Ravenloft and Dragonlance support will come out, the monthly Eye on Dark Sun columns will continue and there will be a Dark Sun-themed month, and an article called “Ecology of the Vegepygmy” will be released at some point.
  • Missing from the slides was Halls of the Undermountain, a big adventure that extends from the D&D Encounter season. The product will be a mega-adventure sandbox style game.

Audience Q&A

  • How will the Forgotten Realms be presented in the new edition? Mike said “it is not our job to tell DMs how they should feel about a time period of a campaign setting” so they will include them all as options. Like Star Wars has multiple eras that fans understand the differences and could play in any of them, they want to treat the Forgotten Realms the same way and let DMs choose where in the timeline their game takes place.
  • Anything to announce for digital games (i.e. video games)? Nothing new to announce: D&D Online is still ongoing, and Neverwinter is still in the making.
  • Will the Underdark cycle fit together? You won’t be able to take your character between them, but much of the Underdark organized play content is looking at similar events from different perspectives which will become clear once it’s going on.
  • Are DDI submissions changing? All DDI submissions should be for 4e until they say otherwise.
  • Any more support for Gamma World? They consider the game complete from a product perspective. (Probably the most disappointing part of any of the seminars.)
  • What is the status of 3rd party support going forward? Nothing new to announce on an open game license or similar, but they are looking at their options now and know that it’s important.

That’s all for the two seminars. Coming up next: everything else at DDXP, including what it’s like to run the new edition of D&D 4 times with the same adventure module.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

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