Wizards of the Coast has announced D&D Next, the successor to D&D 4th Edition aimed squarely at unifying the game’s fractured fan base. My gaming group is practically a case study for 5th Edition — we played 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition (both flavors), and 4th Edition, but finally gave up on the game when the group couldn’t agree on which version to play. 60% of the group wanted to play D&D 3x or the Pathfinder Beta, 40% wanted to play D&D 4th Edition. We split the difference and played Star Wars: Saga Edition, which addressed many of our issues with both systems, and gave us a much needed break from the fantasy genre.
We’ve since returned to fantasy … but not D&D. Instead we’re playing the Pathfinder RPG and Paizo’s Second Darkness adventure path. I can’t speculate on what it would take to bring the Blackrazor Guild back to D&D — we simply haven’t talked about it enough — but I know that I am looking for.
Simple, Fast, and Expandable
Even before Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, I was getting tired of 3rd Edition. Don’t get me wrong it — it was fun, and there was a lot to like, but it was complex, and tended to bog down at higher levels (particularly when you had fighters making 6 attacks per round and wizards with 100+ spells). 4th Edition traded out 3E’s complexities for all new complexities of its own. Gone were iterative attacks and infinite spell lists; in where all manner of reactions, monsters with too many hit points, and powers with odd combinations (I shoot the orc with a burst of light … and everyone heals X hit points).
None if it was simpler, and little of it was truly fast. What I want is something that hews closer to games like Savage Worlds or Dragon Age. They provide you with the basic rules you need to cover 80% of what you’re going to come across. More comprehensive rules are covered in expansions or setting books — for example, Savage Worlds has the core rules that cover any setting, but for superhero-specific rules you can use Necessary Evil or the Supers Companion. Dragon Age follows a more traditional D&D path, with the basic rules in Set 1, and more options introduce in Sets 2 and 3, but it’s still very manageable.
Both play fast. I’ve been running a lunchtime Savage Worlds game for the last year, and we’re able to get in both a combat and some role playing in every session. I’m not saying that’s impossible with D&D 3x, D&D 4x, or Pathfinder … but it’s certainly not as easy.
As a fortysomething Dungeon Master, I want to maximize my play time. I want a game that lets me knock out two or three combats in a Sunday evening rather than one big conflagration. I’ve got an hour, maybe two, to prep for my biweekly game — I don’t want to spend it deciphering stat blocks.
Bring Back Dragon and Dungeon
One of the worst gut punches delivered by Wizards of the Coast was canceling the print editions of Dragon and Dungeon. The magazines were my monthly connection to the game I loved — even if I wasn’t buying new books, I could look forward to a new magazine. I likely would have kept my subscription even during the 4E years, but alas, Wizards cancelled the magazines in a vain attempt to give people a reason to subscribe to D&D Insider.
I tried D&D Insider for a time, but frankly it just wasn’t the same. Reading a magazine online is work, and I work enough during the week. Having an iPad makes magazine reading easier … but Wizards even killed that by eliminated the monthly PDF compilations.
Thankfully Kobold Quarterly has filled the void left by Dragon, and Pathfinder’s Adventure Paths a decent substitute for Dungeon, but it’s not the same. Restoring Dragon and Dungeon to print status would go along way toward winning me back.
I realize this may be a fool’s errand, but I think the community needs some sort of a magazine. It may not be print — I’d happily buy a well-made ePub or tablet-based magazine — but we need something more than a web site to pull people together. A magazine could be that thing.
Dungeon Master Support
One of the best things about D&D 4th Edition is how they made life easier for the Dungeon Master. 3rd Edition forced parity between players and Dungeon Masters; every character and every monster was built using the same rule set. Some of my players loved that, but it meant that stat blocks could be a nightmare, particularly for high level monsters or NPCs with dozens of abilities and powers (high level NPCs, who, btw, likely wouldn’t survive more than a few rounds of combat).
4th Edition gave DMs everything they needed to run the game in one stat block. This could result in the occasional oddity — why can’t the players loot the kobold’s explosive arrows, just because they are a “power” — but I loved being able to pull a monster from the Monster Manual and have everything I need to run it on a single page.
Star Wars: Saga Edition was also good at supporting overworked game masters. While stat blocks could still be a challenge, they released a host of GM-friendly books packed with mini-adventures, battle station creation rules, hazards, and much more. Designing encounters for Star Wars was a blast, in large part because I knew I had 13 books worth of tools to rely on.
Wizards went too far in some places — 4E’s treasure bundles were convenient, but felt overly constraining — but they get an A for effort. It’d like to see that continued into 5th edition.
One of the things I enjoyed most about D&D 4th Edition was the skill challenge mechanic. Often misunderstood, and seemingly just as often mis-used, skill challenges provided skillful characters with the sort of challenges usually reserved for combat. It set up a win/lose scenario for negotiations, chases, journeys and the like that extended such things beyond a simple skill check. Run correctly, a skill challenge became a chance for players to riff on one another’s ideas, and the campaign was better for it.
We brought the mechanic into our Star Wars campaign, and it was better for it. Some of our most epic encounters — like when the Aeon Harrier’s exterior was fused solid after bouncing too close to a proto-star nebula — came about because of skill challenges. It’s a mechanic that resonated with our group, and it gave non-combat characters a way to shine. That’s something worth building upon.
Wizards of the Coast needs a sane policy for digital copies, and one that involves more than chopping their books into tiny bits and feeding them into web applications. Since 4E was released we saw their digital magazines become web pages and their previous edition PDFs ripped from their digital bookshelves. The long-promised digital gaming table, long little more than vaporware, is in beta … but who knows if or when it will be released?
While I understand they have piracy concerns, those self-same concerns don’t seem to have hurt Paizo’s Pathfinder, which offers extensive PDF support. I don’t know how their strategy of offering $10 PDFs for their core books has affected their bottom line, but it’s helped me tremendously, allowing me to get all of the books I need months before I was able to afford them in print.
The other major RPG publishers (and in this category, I realize “major” is relative) also offer PDF equivalents: Green Ronin (Dragon Age, Mutants & Masterminds), Pinnacle Entertainment Group (Savage Worlds), Evil Hat (Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files). Of course, they don’t have to report to suits at Hasbro, but Wizards needs to figure out some way to handle the eBooks question.
Moreover, I’d like to see them move beyond simple PDFs. A robust ePub book, perhaps with embedded video examples explaining key concepts, could be really cool. If they do choose to atomize the ruleset a la 4E, I’d love to see a proper Web API that developers could use to create mobile applications for smartphones and tablets, as well as cool desktop and mobile web apps. This would be difficult for WotC to pull off — they’ve never been good at web and application development — but it would do wonders for the community.
A reason to come home
Having said all this, what I really want is a reason to come home. I want a game I really enjoy, one that I can convince my friends to play. I want to play D&D again — I want to play it with the Blackrazors, I want to play it with my kids.
I don’t need to play Dungeons & Dragons — I can get by with Pathfinder, Savage Worlds or Dragon Age — but nostalgia is a powerful thing. I’d like to play D&D again … I just need good reasons to do it.