D&D Next: Roleplaying Is Out of the Trunk and Into the Backseat

The cat has pretty much clawed his way out of the bag. D&D Next is floating around everywhere and causing a lot of fuss. I know it's stuffing hairballs all over the blog world so I'll do my best to make
this worth your while. Especially since I'm a little rusty after a not so successful Kickstarter run.

Next Me One More Time

Ok, so Wizard's goal seems pretty clear I think: unify the rift between players and appease as many interests with one product as possible. I'd like to think that I'm not naive though. That somewhere in there a new version of Dungeons and Dragons is also about reclaiming the consumer base. Sales plummeted (compared to what Hasbro was used to) after 4th Edition whether you liked it or not. Money talks and our designers have been cued to listen.

If you're not convinced that money matters for big gaming publishers, look at what happened to White Wolf. They cashed in their chips, left a few consolation projects no one hears about and their parent company has thrown everything into MMOs.

I'm not trying to vilify Mike Mearls and his team. I just think we have to look at the big picture to understand D&D Next and formulate the right expectations. They are real people who care about this game but it probably doesn't help that they have a massive parent company that they have to appease. And I'm sure they don't want what the downsizing that happened to White Wolf to happen to them.

Does Roleplaying really fit into D&D?

Short answer: I think it does. I believe it did so in the past but that in the last few years we have seen it trickle away. Maybe it wasn't intentional but how can it be addressed now? It seems a legitimate concern that people want a roleplaying game from D&D and not a boardgame or something that plays like a boardgame.

The rift between consumers of D&D and its designers doesn't seem to have started yesterday either. I would like to think it started when D&D attempted to become a product with less abstraction and more concrete rules.

Whether this is 2nd edition, 3rd, or 4th is entirely up to interpretation. Each version has sidelined stragglers. Logic would suggest that it's been part of a gradual progression. Maybe we just didn't notice or didn't have the foresight to see where it was going.

If that's true then I think we all share bit of the blame for this "mistake" and we have to come together as a community if we decide we want to correct it.

The Heart of the Matter: Concrete Rules

"I think D&D has been caught overdosing on too many concrete mechanics."
We love for things to be spelled out to us. We are more receptive to things that are easier to understand. I think that's human nature. Try giving a mission objective that's more than three words to anyone and you'll likely get a slack jawed response.

But we are also lazy; if you play video games or watch movies you can probably relate to how many forms of media have become easier to consume over the last few years: whether it's teleporting in Fallout 4, autosaving in general, or any Marvel movie.

It's not all bad. D&D probably has under its belt the most balanced RPG ever created. But then there's that old adage right? "All things in moderation." We sometimes need the open ended, undefined, infinite, and indescribable. Even if it means a less balanced game. Open to possibilities. Just those three words together almost seem like magic.

D&D I think has been caught overdosing on too many concrete mechanics. You play on a grid, you move miniatures, you have abilities that are defined exclusively by numbers.

Some of these things are being addressed now but there is still nowhere on the official character sheet that is concerned with who your character really is as a person instead of just statistics.

How about their general motivation? Where do they come from? Do they have family, loved ones? Do they have enemies? What is his or her goal in life? How about their past? The sum of these little things create the roleplaying experience for me, not the taking of a "5ft step".

I know there are people out there who play like this. But the game as far as I can tell couldn't care less. The rules and the mechanics don't react to these details. Let's not kid ourselves, D&D as it is right now is a hack-and-slash. Maybe it has always been the case. Video games though have conquered that brainless guilty pleasure and they are much better at it.

So what role does D&D have if it's no longer defined by this kind of archaic niche it no longer exclusively dominates?

Put A Little Fill-In-The-Blanks In My Life

I think Wizard's needs to focus on what makes tabletop RPGs different from video games, even their own D&D Online. With tabletop RPGs content is never finite and mechanics can be created, broken, or appended.

D&D is about magic as much as it is about fantasy in general. We're walking into our 5th edition of D&D and yet we don't have the encouragement, mechanics, and guidance for players and DMs to really create their own spells instead of defaulting to a list. If magic is organic it could adapt, it could evolve. That doesn't feel like the magic we know from D&D.

Maybe that's breaking tradition but sometimes tradition needs to be broken because it can also stagnate and hold you back. The more important question I think is if such a move would be in the spirit of D&D, in the spirit of aspiring to be an even greater fantasy roleplaying game? I think it would be.

The introduction of Themes and Backgrounds has been an interesting move by the designers. It feels like a step in the right direction, having the character be defined by background and personality more than by a list of allowed choices in a Class. But that's about where the ball stops rolling.

Can we create our own Backgrounds and Themes? That would be another step in the right direction. The Skill system seems like it needs something new too, take a look at 13th Age's innovation in that arena.

Will the setting ever be considered in the rules? Some of the most highly regarded games have the worst mechanics but incredible settings. If setting is enough to make someone play a game they would otherwise hate, how much of an impact does it make when you divorce it from the core rules?

No Wizard's, I don't think you can make everything modular. The rules and mechanics of a game need to consider a setting specifically. If I abuse magic, do the great Mages sever my ties to the source?

Generic rules always lack identity and miss out on really connecting with the setting. I don't want it to be a cosmetic choice anymore. Maybe corporate wants it that way, release three settings and that many supplements. They definitely wouldn't care about this little technicality.


D&D Next will have a hard time meeting all of our expectations, but we can at least hope it starts heading back in the right direction.

I like the few bits of innovation introduced, combat feels more like the kind of game I would want to run, classes seem more enjoyable but they could definitely learn a thing or two from the depth added to them in Pathfinder.

Abilities feel less supernatural and more like extensions of what a character already does. Overall I'm happy but I know there's a lot more work to be done.