January 12, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition on the Horizon

ENTERTAINMENT - On January 9th Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, announced they had begun development of a 5th Edition of the game.

This could be potentially good or bad. If you know anything about Dungeons & Dragons you might know that the 4th Edition of D&D was heavily boycotted by fans upset over excessive rules changes and slow repetitive combat rules.

First published in 1974, the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons pits heroic wizards, knights, rogues and priests against zombies, ogres, orcs, dragons and a wide variety of other baddies... using just dice, paper and interactive storytelling.

Each player plays a character (ie. an elf archer or a dwarf barbarian), gives them a name, a description, a list of weapons / equipment / spells they can use and everything is written down on a piece of paper called a Character Sheet.

The players then act a team to overcome obstacles usually laid out on the table using miniatures, maps and then roll dice to determine random results when fighting orcs, climbing cliffs, charming the barmaid, etc. The baddies and Non-Player Characters are all controlled by a storyteller known as the "Dungeon Master" (an honourific title if ever there was one). Because its a game where imagination and roleplaying of the characters are encouraged its a highly enjoyable game and very popular amongst creative types and nerds.

However the problem is the rules which govern gameplay. The publisher Wizards of the Coast keeps changing the rules in an obvious effort to both correct poorly conceived rules which players argue about and also to SELL MORE RULEBOOKS (and make a tonne of money in the process).

When 3rd Edition D&D came out in 2000 they sold a lot of rulebooks and made huge profits. However some of the players were unhappy with some of the rules so in 2003 they came out with version 3.5 to make some of the whiners and "rules lawyers" happy. (And sold even more books, made more profits.) To make it even more interesting they developed the "d20 System" which was then used for other D&D-esque games such as "d20 Modern" and "d20 Star Wars", allowing players to effectively play any kind of game they wanted to.

But when 4th Edition came out in 2008 there was a backlash.

Players revolted. Some of them formed boycotts of the new edition. Most decided to stick with 3rd Edition or 3.5. Players did try the new 4th Edition rules, but most of them didn't like the rules, complaining it made combat too slow, made the game system too much like the strategy game 'Warhammer' or the card game 'Magic the Gathering' or even too much like online MMORPGs like 'World of Warcraft'... and these new rules were distracting from the roleplaying and fast combat system players had come to know and love. According to players the new combat system was tossed out and "apparently replaced with a new system created by a game designer who plays too much Warhammer and Magic the Gathering."

Wizards of the Coast, which also publishes the card game 'Magic the Gathering', was apparently attempting to encourage more collectible card gamers and Warhammer players to try D&D. The attempt was flawed because it left D&D players (some of whom have been playing the game since the 1970s) upset that their game was being defiled by a bunch of greedy capitalists.

Some players even went back to playing 1st and 2nd Edition D&D because they enjoyed the retro feel of the game and simplicity of the rules.

Hasbro, which now owns Wizards of the Coast, however took notice of this boycott... and they also took note of an essay circulating the internet about whether all the D&D players are playing "the same game" (regardless of what edition it is) and how many rules can we change before it stops being the same game?

Thus the new 5th Edition development has an interesting goal, so says the new developers. In rewriting the rules of D&D they are revisiting all the older rules to try and create an “universal rule set” which unifies all players under one single system.

“We’re focusing on what gets people excited about D&D, and making sure we have a game that encompasses all different styles,” says Mike Mearls, group manager for the D&D research and development team.

Their goal is to make a system that will make everyone happy, regardless of whether they are playing 1st Edition, 2nd, 3rd or 3.5. (And hopefully they will toss out any ideas of 4th Edition as a bad idea that never should have happened.)

Their end goal, obviously, is to sell more rulebooks to all D&D players, but to do such a good job of designing the new edition that everyone will want the new rulebooks and be happy about buying them.

The game designers are looking back at each edition of the game going back to 1974, and identifying core rules that make the game work best. They’re soliciting suggestions from players via weekly columns on their web site, and through community discussion threads. During the coming year they’re planning several rounds of playtesting, allowing fans to try out new rules before they’re finalized, and identify what does and doesn’t work.

When completed they hope to craft an universal rule set that all players will enjoy... in the process they're thinking of including a lot of modular "optional rules" which allows players to customize the game as they see fit.

Wizards staff are acutely aware that 4th Edition was a flop and upset many long-time players. This time around, Wizards doesn’t want to make the same mistake and wants to avoid railroading (gamer term meaning "forcing") the new edition into something players won't like.

"I’m not a fan of fourth edition. I find the combat slow, the powers limiting, and the rules inhospitable to the kind of creative world-building, story-telling and problem-solving that make D&D great," says David M. Ewalt, Forbes staff reporter, one of a team of journalists who were invited in December to test out an early draft of 5th Edition D&D.

According to Ewalt the 5th Edition rules "show promise. They’re simple without being stupid, and efficient without being shallow. Combat was quick and satisfying; we got through most of an adventure in just a few hours."

So 5th Edition is a step in the right direction, however...

Dungeons & Dragons should belong to the players, not the publisher. Its the players who make up the game. The publisher may own the rights to publish whatever crappy rulebooks they want, but the players are the game. If they don't like the rulebooks they will use other / older rulebooks that they do like. Wizards of the Coast has a responsibility to get it right this time and then NEVER make another edition ever again. If they want to keep publishing books, fine, but the "universal rule set" when its finally made should be just that: Universal.

See Also
Dungeons & Dragons Online

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