Monday, January 9, 2012


So. D&D Fifth Edition is announced. Now what?

At this point, we know nothing about the actual game – it’s way too early in development – but its design process sure looks interesting. They want feedback from the community, and will start an open playtest sometime this spring. I definitely intend to participate, and post my opinions on the process on this blog. That said… I don’t really know if I’ll make the switch to the new game.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m in love with D&D 4E. It is by no means a perfect game (I wouldn’t be able to write as much about how to fix it, if it were!), but it is the closest thing I’ve found. It has an amazing tactical combat system, a solid rules framework, and requires an extremely low amount of effort from the DM. It has been a live game with regular updates, fixing most of the broken stuff, and overall polishing the engine. It is quite easy to generate house rules and new content for it. And it’s FUN.

On the other hand, it can’t be said that 4E has been a rousing success, from a business perspective. I wouldn’t call it a straight failure, either, but it’s clear that it has not lived up to the high standards that should be expected from a brand as strong as Dungeons & Dragons. The strong reaction against 4E from a significant portion of the D&D community, which eventually led to the huge success of Pathfinder RPG (an independent D&D 3.5 spinoff which has reportedly overtaken D&D in sales over the last year) was a big hit against it. Also, the controversial semi-reset of the edition brought by the D&D Essentials line by the end of 2010 (barely 2 years after the game had come out) was a sign that something was off – and an attempt to turn the tables which didn’t work out all that well.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that one of the primary goals of D&D 5E will be to regroup this fragmented fanbase. The open playtest (an idea borrowed from Pathfinder’s book, by the way) is a step in this direction, as are most of the ideas and discussion presented on the Legends and Lore column, over at the official D&D site. They want “a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game” – but is such a thing really possible? Right now we have three very different kinds of players, between the players of D&D 4E, those of D&D3E/Pathfinder, and the ones that enjoy older editions of D&D or retro-clones. Those groups share in common the love for exploring Dungeons and slaying Dragons, but other than that, their games of choice are quite different from each other. I honestly can’t imagine how a single game could please all of them.

I have a lot of faith in Wizards of the Coast as a company, and in the ability of designers like Mike Mearls to produce great games, and I fully understand the reasoning behind their current design priorities. That said, while I believe that however D&D 5E turns out it will likely be an enjoyable game for me… I suspect I won’t enjoy it as much as 4E.

If I could make the wish, the best possible fifth edition for me would be a light revision of 4E, cleaning up all of the minor problems with the system (feat taxes, masterwork armor, multi-attacks, skill scaling, defense scaling, minion design…) and presenting a clean slate for classes, feats, and magic items… while remaining mostly backwards compatible with existing 4E material. This is something I would greatly enjoy, and gladly spend money on. It’s also NOT what D&D 5E is likely to be – rather, in order to appeal to the majority of the fanbase, the new edition will need to take elements from 4E, but also from 3E, older editions, and something brand new. So chances are that this new game will have less of what I currently enjoy, rather than more.

Of course, they might still surprise me – and I keep my fingers crossed. For now, I expect to spend the following months trying to make D&D5E as great a game as possible… and maybe, when all this is over, I’ll go back to my good old Fourth Edition – and keep playing it and slowly changing it to be my own Perfect Game.


  1. Agreed! One small tid-bit I read in the press releases that I liked was the idea that they would make their rulesets "modular." This is something you touched on back when you were writing about your magic item redesign, but the general idea I think would be that if you bought a book (aka module), the DM could decide to add that book's ruleset and items to the game. This could potentially fix a lot of issues regarding item and feat bloat, and allow more or less complex rules regarding things like wizard spells. Hopefully, one of those modules will include a clean-up of the things you mentioned above (regarding feat taxes, etc) allowing those of us who like 4e to play 5e with a cleaner, more streamlined rules-set.

  2. Modular & generic! Scalable! I think there were good things in 4e, but there wasn't any ROOM-- you want a low magic setting? Not really room. You want a non-combat focused story? Sorry! Etc.

  3. I am skeptical that this will do anything but further fragment an already thoroughly-fragmented hobby. WotC's biggest problem right now is WotC, and it has little to do with their rule sets.

    I will certainly buy, almost certainly appreciate, and probably love 5e. But I don't think any grand reunification of the hobby is in the cards at this point, unless WotC does a 180 on its public relations and somehow makes Paizo their ally instead of their chief rival. I'm skeptical, with the Hasbro overlords, they can make this shift; among the things that are necessary, IMO, is a more-open license than the GSL and the publication of PDFs.

    I'm a huge 4e fan, and I'll just take my own advice from the 3e-4e switchover. If 5e ends up sucking or even dying on the vine, it's not like my books will spontaneously combust.

  4. I wonder if Hasbro just doesn't get the gamer model. A toy company probably has a mindset that it's going to lose a customer when they turn 18 (or so) and new 4 year-olds are going to join they're customer-pool. Therefore coming out with a new product every few years works, because the young kids will pick it up. But with online games and other distractions I don't know if you can alienate your older customers this way. You need to keep them and have them passing on the hobby to a younger generation.

    Not worded very well, but hopefully you get what I mean.

  5. How can you put minion design as one of the main issues of 4E, but not solo monster design? Atrocious!

  6. anoddexperiment: The modular ruleset looks promising, but also damn hard to get right. Aside from balance concerns, one of my fears is that we might just be replacing one type of bloat (feats, items, powers) or other (modules). The good news is, the "clean-up" module you suggest wouldn't really be needed, since they are presumably working with a brand new game core which should have the right math from the beginning (assuming they have learned from 4e mistakes).

    mordicai: I agree that 5e (or D&D Next, or however they end up calling it) will likely allow for a lot more variety than previous editions, but one of your examples is a bit odd: You could, indeed, play a low magic (or even no magic) setting in 4e, since all-martial parties were very viable, and rules for replacing magic items existed (and were the default in settings like Dark Sun!). In fact, I'd go as far as saying that 4e is the best edition for playing without magic thanks to the introduction of the warlord class, and healing surges in general...

    dwarf74: The next edition will need to be a really awesome game just to prevent further fragmentation (from 4e fans), never mind bringing everybody together. It's early to tell if they will actually be able to pull it off, but I wouldn't say it's an impossible task. I'm not really familiar with the pathfinder community, but I doubt most of them are really WoTC haters - if 5e turns out to be a good product that caters to the tastes of 3e fans, a LOT of people will try it out. The trick, of course, is doing so while also making it interesting for current 4e players AND all the old-schoolers out there. And then, even if they do succeed, there is a definite risk of having fragmentation within the 5e community, due to the variety of modules and styles...

    TMcG: I think I get your meaning. From the interviews I've read, the latest edition changes (to 4e, and now to 5e) have been triggered by sales declines - in the case of 3.x, they had basically released books covering all conceivable topics, and in 4e, though there is untapped design space, the sales at this point must be far from exciting. And there is only so much you can do to turn this around without forcing an edition change - the Essentials line for 4e was one such attempt, and it likely didn't meet its expectations. At that point, the only option other than a new edition is to give up on the game line - which doesn't really make sense, from WoTC's point of view. A different issue is whether a new edition can be released without pissing off your previous customers - in theory, a more conservative edition would be less alienating... but would it sell?

    Thomas: Current design for solo monsters may be clunky and full of ad-hoc patches... but in my opinion, it works. Ever since Monster Vault was released, I have run more than half a dozen solo encounters where I used a monster straight out of the book, and had no problems at all. By contrast, even modern minions remain a joke in terms of challenge, and I have only been able to make them work through house rules ( ). Also, recent forum discussions about minions ( ) suggest that this is a common problem: just about everybody has their own minion patch.