I feel like this post should start with a Star Wars crawl: “It was a time of great change in Dungeons & Dragons…”
Gen Con, over a month past now, featured a few official D&D updates from Wizards of the Coast. Like last year’s keynote, they rented out a theater and hosted a press event followed by a Murder in Baldur’s Gate-themed “D&D party.” The D&D party featured a puzzle game, statues, a Drizz’t cake, and an introduction by an actor in full D&D garb (whose speech was genuinely funny and not cheesy, which is tough to pull off.)
Much of the information here comes from the press event, the subsequent party, and talking to a few sources in and around WotC sprinkled with a solid dose of opinions from yours truly.
Before we get to the RPG itself, it’s clear that D&D is pushing beyond just being a game. D&D is a brand, and the RPG is one part of it. (The biggest part of it, but still…)
Dungeons & Dragons Board and Digital Games
Creating new D&D board games seems to be working well for WotC, with easier pickup and play experiences than a full RPG. Such releases included the adventure games (Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, and Legend of Drizz’t), a revision of the classic Dungeon, as well as wargame Conquest of Nerath and minis game Dungeon Command. So far, there have been no new board games announced in the pipeline.
However, there’s one game in the series that seems to have outshined all the others: the award -winning euro-style worker placement game Lords of Waterdeep. The game just received its first expansion, Scoundrels of Skullport and as a big fan of the base game, I enjoy what the expansion adds to the game. Containing two different add-ons in one which can be used separately or combined into one longer game, the Undermountain side adds a few minor new twists to the game while beefing everything else up (more buildings, more Lords, more quests, more Intrigue, etc.) and the Skullport side introduces all that plus a new mechanic called Corruption that embraces a power at a price/tragedy of the commons for all your sinister Waterdeep dealings. Highly recommended, and I say this as someone who generally doesn’t like game expansions that introduce new rules.
Lords of Waterdeep is also scheduled for an iOS app from my favorite tabletop app maker Playdek, though indications are that this has been pushed to 2014. If they do as good a job on the game as they did on Ascension (especially how multiplayer is handled), I will be in a lot of LoW games at once come release.
Speaking of digital games, Wizards is also pushing other digital offerings. The recent Baldur’s Gate adaptation, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Shadows Over Mystara, and the Neverwinter MMO all received some time at their press meeting. Likewise, they’ll be launching a new mobile game called Arena of War that looks very 4e-influenced. There have been D&D Facebook games before that have been popular enough then ended unceremoniously, so let’s just say confidence in this area is not exactly high, but I sure wouldn’t mind having a D&D dungeon crawler on my iPad, one way or another.
D&D Branded Products and Books
Part of the D&D Next strategy is doubling down on the Forgotten Realms, by far their most popular setting, on every level. That’s part of why the new set of novels, to coincide with the big Sundering event that is shaking up the Realms once again.
That’s also why other, non-game items are focusing on Forgotten Realms characters. Hasbro has a LEGO-like toy called Kre-O, and various Forgotten Realms characters are getting their own Kre-O figures. I don’t have kids but I have heard some good things about Kre-O as far as “not-LEGOs” go. Many of the figures were previewed at the press event, and generally looked pretty slick.
This is likely one of those areas that’s a testing grounds, and if they sell well, you could be seeing other D&D-branded Hasbro items. Or breakfast cereal or whatever.
D&D Next Playtests and Launch
Last week, the final public playtest packet launched, containing more classes, races, and another big shift in skills. Aside from the tweaks themselves, this release is notable in that while development will continue on the game, it’ll be with smaller groups (both internal and external.) A lot of the development of the modular aspects is happening with smaller groups, which makes perfect sense to me. It’s hard to get useful feedback on very targeted ideas with too broad of an audience: you want the audience for those modules to be the same ones testing them. There’s also talk that while it was the last major revision to the packet, there will be other releases to the public, including class updates and similar. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they swerve again on skills, depending on reactions to the playtest packet. There’s a reason this is still a playtest packet, and not a “rules preview” – feedback can still shape some changes, even if not all groups will see the results until the game is released.
So does this mean the game is done? The D&D Next process has been ambitious on many levels, and I don’t have data for how successful it’s been. According to a press event at Gen Con, over 150,000 different people downloaded the rules. No exact numbers on how many surveys got back to them for each stage, but I’m guessing the numbers indicate a success for them, especially given the nature of a playtest.
Closing the public phase of the playtest definitely represents progress towards a release. The exact date hasn’t been announced, and my guess is that they won’t announce until they’re confidant they have most of everything solidified, so as to prevent having to shift the release unexpectedly later. However, I personally would be surprised if they don’t have something to sell at Gen Con 2014, even if it’s not a full core release (whatever shape that might take.) Considering they released a book for D&D Next this year at Gen Con (with rules that are already out of date, natch), I would highly doubt they won’t try to raise some revenue with new rules next year.
A Post-D&D Era
This is where I move from news territory heavily into opinion.
The question on many’s mind, especially during this period between editions when there’s not much being released for any D&D edition, is whether we need D&D at all. Many, many D&D fans went to D&D-fork Pathfinder, and with its devoted fanbase and consistent stream of releases, it continues to dominate sales charts. Meanwhile, other great games have come out that have served as “D&D off-ramps” (including 13th Age, Numenera, and Dungeon World.) With Kickstarter, we’re seeing new RPGs of all kinds being presented directly to consumers, all of which take time.
One thing, though, that I really appreciate about the messaging from the folks working on D&D is that they’re not ripping into other games. The messaging, especially games that are often casted as “rivals,” is that RPGs are not a “zero-sum” business. If that were true, well, I’d be spending a lot less on Kickstarters. The D&D staff is trying to make a game that appeals to their fans, not destroy some other game.
Dungeons & Dragons, as a game and as a name, is really important. My theory for several editions now is most of the RPG fanbase never touches a forum about D&D, rarely discusses it on social media, and never pulls up an online release schedule. Their primary point of contact, most likely, are the alpha-buyers in their group, usually the DM. (Though not always, I’ve certainly played with plenty of DMs who buy core books and run with those forever and never pay attention to anything else.)
I believe having a good, healthy Dungeons & Dragons is important to the hobby market as a whole. D&D Next flopping may not impact what games I play in the slightest, but it’s a loss to the games market. That affects game designers, and also would mean less in the way of pushing the hobby outside “the industry” and into popular culture. Coverage of D&D Encounters in mainstream news outlets and all the places the D&D Next announcement showed that this is one of their priorities: creating new D&D players.
I’ve said it before, but D&D has the ultimate unpleaseable fanbase. I think doing a public playtest of D&D was the right move for Wizards and hopefully has done at least some good in repairing their image among many gamers. At the same time, I haven’t envied them at any step. Every time a new post goes up or a new packet went out, there was immediate backlash. I get passionate about the game too- I wrote a post about a rule I really hated and really got into it at one point (and that rule got changed, so TOLDYA SUCKERS), it’s just amazing to me HOW uncharitable readers can be.
There’s much I love about the D&D community, and at the same time, no matter what edition or fork there is, there’s a lot of toxicity, and it genuinely affects my enjoyment of the game and the hobby. There’s just something about it that gets to me, and I’m not suggesting everyone play D&D Next and hold hands and don’t criticize (far from it). I just hope that there’s an appreciation for the role that Dungeons & Dragons plays in the RPG community. It was there first, it has name recognition in ways that pull in new players, lapsed players, adults and kids. Pushing away people with nothing but negativity helps no one.
Will D&D Next be the game for me when it comes out? Frankly, probably not, even with lots of options with the modules. Regardless, I still want D&D Next to succeed, and I hope many of you do too.