Unless you are a gamer that's been living under a rock for the past week, you've heard the chatter surrounding Wizards of The Coast's major Dungeons & Dragons announcement: whether you are a First Edition or Fourth Edition fan, Wizards wants you back. Their plan to bring players of all ilks back to the table was revealed early last week in the New York Times. In short, Wizards is focused on creating a brand new D&D edition with broad appeal, and is ramping up a massive playtesting program to ensure the finished product has just that.
At first glance, the two prongs of that strategy seem contradictory, though. How will the Dungeons & Dragons design team manage to take direct feedback from its most hardcore fans, yet still end up with a product that is appealing beyond the core gamer?
Even in these early stages, it's obvious that WotC is trying to shy away from the edition wars that have fragmented their community in the past. The next project is not being called D&D 5th Edition at this point, and is instead being referred to under the unofficial working title of "D&D Next."
This plan to create a modular system that appeals to any D&D fan is an ambitious one. For seasoned RPG players who know exactly what they want, there are superior systems available that cater directly to the player's desired roleplaying experience. The one advantage that D&D holds over all of these competing systems is that everyone already knows how to play D&D. Every gamer also knows that actually finding other people to game with is the hardest part of gaming, and therefore, players more often than not wind up meeting at the common ground of D&D.
This man should have no trouble playing "D&D Next"
Although D&D is a business and needs to move product to turn a profit, it need to be careful not to muddy the waters with rules unification via modules. Everything needs to be in the box. It may be tempting to create the most universal core system possible and release just that, but if the path to success lied there, then we'd all be playing GURPS already.
If players are required to purchase module after module in order to bring together the various edition rules, then D&D runs the risk of further fragmenting its last bit of ground as the common RPG system. The true holy grail of this edition development should be an evergreen product that encompasses the entire rules set, from simple flavors to the most complex, thereby cementing it as the one product that all RPG players must own.
For all the lip service being paid to the "hardcore gamer," I contend that this crowd is not so important to D&D's long-term success. As a fan of the system, you may not want to hear that, but as has been shown lately in video games, the potential audience of gamers is much wider than our small circles. Dungeons & Dragons needs to establish a clean experience that brings in an army of new players in the same way that $0.99 iPhone games and Facebook gaming are shaking up the digital world, but WotC will be leveraging all of D&D's past success in order to do so.
A recent quote from lead designer Monte Cook shows that the WotC staff is well aware of the importance that clean integration holds in this new edition's success:
"...this sounds so crazy that you probably won't believe it right now—we're designing the game so that not every player has to choose from the same set of options. Again, imagine a game where one player has a simple character sheet that has just a few things noted on it, and the player next to him has all sorts of skills, feats, and special abilities. And yet they can still play the game together and everything remains relatively balanced. Your 1E-loving friend can play in your 3E-style game and not have to deal with all the options he or she doesn't want or need. Or vice versa. It's all up to you to decide."
It's obvious that something needed to be done to rein in the various editions, though. Dungeons & Dragons has spawned 3rd Edition, 3rd Edition Revised (3.5), 4th Edition, and the Essentials offshoot all in the same time that it used to take for one edition increment to be published. Even more troublesome is the fact that Paizo Published came onto the scene with Pathfinder. With their own evolution of the D&D 3.5 rules, Paizo used a similar mass playtesting campaign to steal away a significant chunk of D&D's core gamer audience. Will some of this crowd come back to D&D for the promise of a unifying edition?
This is big news for the RPG community, and you should care about the announcement for its potential impact to your hobby. One thing is for sure, "D&D Next" will not arrive and go quietly unnoticed - its mere announcement has turned more mainstream media heads than any other hobby gaming news has. Instead, this new edition will either be the downfall or a decades-beloved franchise, or it will do more to expand the RPG hobby than any previous product. My hope is for the latter.
If you want to participate in the D&D Next playtest, there will be plenty of opportunities. Wizards is taking signups on their website as we speak, and will also place a big focus on D&D Next at their DDXP (D&D Experience) event later this month. Taking place from Jan 26-29th in Fort Wayne, IN, attendees can take part in the 4-hour Caves of Chaos playtest session as well as sit in on multiple WotC staff discussion panels and seminars. Following DDXP, open playtesting will expand to a much wider audience in the spring.
Note: I'll be going under NDA soon to participate in WotC's closed playtest track, so I won't be able to report back on the all of the finer details of the development of "D&D Next," but I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to this next edition, and to help make sure that some of the above concerns are addressed.