Reactions to the D&D “5E” announcements/rumors

I’ve heard some rumblings about a new edition of D&D today, and finally caught a couple of links in my Twitter feed. (I could just Google this stuff, but I’m lazy and feel like I can trust re-tweeted links from known sources better.)

I’m having two reactions to these rumors, and I think these apply to not only gaming, but technology and programming and all sorts of other things. (Admittedly, they are gut reactions.)

Learn to recognize when you’re being sold the “next big thing” line, but don’t overreact. 4E’s marketing was all about how it makes the game more accessible and easier to play. And it did that, mainly by adopting some game mechanics from MMOs. Fundamentally, this isn’t a bad thing. Rumors pointing to a more old-school approach suggest either it didn’t work or it went too far.

This seems to be the fundamental problem with a lot of leaps in design/technology: to ease the uncertainty, it’s hailed as the “next big thing” (the implication usually being that those who don’t like it don’t “get it”). For other examples, look at WPF vs. WinForms and .NET vs. WinRT. Or look at any new programming methodology that gets some good buzz behind it. Maybe we’d do well to consciously remember almost every “next big thing” will somehow, someday be “old and busted,” if only because it loses its novelty, and that you can’t say with certainty what “the next big thing” will be until well after it actually becomes “the next big thing”.

But being a naysayer may be as bad as being sold on the party line. 4E was a different system than 3E. It did some things better and some things worse, but it wasn’t on the whole a huge step back–more like a lateral move. Ultimately, I hope the update will capitialize on the good things while dropping the things that didn’t work. But if you deny that an about-face means the whole thing wasn’t as successful as hoped, you might end up missing the “next small, iterative thing” because it’s not the much-heralded “next big thing.”

My point, I suppose, is that the best response is to realize it is a line and ignore it. And railing against it is not ignoring it–you’re still allowing the line to dictate the terms of the conversation.

As an aside, I think companies damage trust with their customers when they play a strong “next big thing” line and it fizzles. Of course, that’s just me–I’m overly literal and I have a strong reaction to trying to reframe reality in ways that turn out to be decidedly unrealistic. But I have a feeling the “reality-based community” is not a large portion of anyone’s target audience.

WotC is doing well to frame this announcement by focusing on the fact that game development is an iterative, sometimes opinionated process, rather than playing “the next big thing” card again. I don’t know if that will convince people to buy a new set of books.

There is no universal system for anything. I find the talk of a single system a bit disconcerting. 3E was a very tools-oriented system and 4E was a very game-experience-oriented system. Both of these are valid approaches for different types of people, the success of which depends upon whether a niche will buy enough to support the product line. And the quality of each approach depends on making design choices that support that approach–it’s nearly impossible to create a good restricted, simplified system and cater to people who want an open, free-form toolbox.

To put it another way, even if it’s community-driven, it will not necessarily be universal.

4E was divisive is because it told 3E D&D fans “this is what we’re about now.” That didn’t sit well with me, but I recognized 3E and 4E were the right tools for different types of campaigns (in terms of genre, feel, player types, and scheduling/effort). No matter what the company line was, I was free to choose which tools I would use.

The two approaches could almost be separate product lines, or maybe alternate rules sets of rules à la Unearthed Arcana. (And it appears this is not too far off.) But any attempt to say “this is the secret formula” will end up looking dated in a few years, even if it was borne out of community involvement and playtesting.

Of course, the rub in WotC’s case is that you have to have a business model to go along with whatever decision you make. Will subscriptions work as well as they hope? I’m not sure. I only recently decided to shell out for D&D Insider, but $9.95/month is painful for one semi-regular game. Is there a middle way between a subscription-based model and model based on endless splatbooks? I don’t know.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I haven’t played a lot of 4E. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of (and which may have little to do with the game itself) I haven’t been all that excited about learning the rules in depth as I was with 3E. Will these updates fix that for me, or will it make me say “screw it, I’m sticking with 3E”?

(EDIT: I actually went back and read some of the original source articles and updated this post.)