Friday, May 25, 2012

"D&D Next" - My Take

So I downloaded the D&D Next play-test rules last night.

Now I read on some blogger’s site that WotC dropped the non-disclosure agreement on their latest package, but that’s not how I read the “terms and agreement” legal stuff. In this particular case, I’m going to err on the side of caution (I always do, actually, though some feel my B/X Companion skirts the edge with its lack of legal mumbo-jumbo), and not get into too many specifics. Instead, I’ll just write about my thoughts and feelings on the rules that have been released.

Besides, you can always go download ‘em yourself if you’re interested.

The play-test package consists of a folder containing several documents, including pre-gen characters (there are no chargen rules) and recycled/converted Old School adventure module (which one…let’s just say one of my personal favorites…and one Mike Mearls has decried in the past as “pointless,” “endearingly bad,” and a “crime against logic”). You get the rules you need to run a play-test (duh), some GM guidelines, and a partial bestiary (enough to run the monsters in the adventure). There is one piece of recycled art in the entire package…it really is simply play-start rules.

After reviewing all the documents, here’s my take:

Well, actually, BEFORE I give my thoughts let me preface it a bit. Yesterday, I wrote about how I had a chance to watch the new Conan movie and that (in my eyes) it compares unfavorably to the “original” film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mentioned briefly some thoughts on change and progress and I want to expound on that a bit.

CHANGE is a part of life…it’s just something we must accept and respect. I mean, we can choose NOT to accept and respect it, but then we’ll get beat about the head and shoulders with it. LIFE, in part, is about change…it’s about growing and developing and transforming, hopefully for the better. Sure, for most of us it is more comfortable when things change slowly (or don’t change at all), and NOT just because we (humans) are lazy or slaves to inertia. It takes time and effort to master any aspect of life, and it can be terribly frustrating to put time and effort into mastery of something only to have the game (so to speak) suddenly changed on you.

But we’re not put on this planet to stand pat. We are here to evolve spiritually, as much in response to our own physical and mental growth as to the changes that occur in our environment. Many times I have held my son and felt sad knowing that he will not stay this tiny, helpless baby forever, and that he will eventually grow into an independent human with his own thoughts and dreams and flaws, just as I myself did. And while that’s sad (because I like holding him and caring for him and protecting him) it’s wonderful, too, because it’s good for his soul development, it’s good for my soul development (as I learn to let go of my attachments), and it’s (hopefully) good for the world…so long as my wife and I do a good job in helping to raise a positive, constructive member of society.

Of course, with change one inherits a whole slew of new challenges, right? These days, people can complain about air pollution from traffic congestion, but when cars were first put on the road people were thrilled that it would mean the end of roads covered thick with horse manure. Cars were going to be GREAT for the environment!

That’s a simplistic example. How about the fact that our 21st century technology has helped to make our lives a wonder of comfort and luxury compared to that of our forebears…but has created a dependency on that technology, a lack of self-sufficiency, and helped to alienate folks from the shared community we once had? Have computers helped “save trees” when printing at the touch of a button has created such a demand for bulk paper?

But we ARE learning and developing. Feudalism wasn’t very helpful to the elevation of people as self-actualized individuals, and perhaps one day we’ll reach a consensus regarding the similar deficiencies of capitalism. Change is inevitable and it’s GOOD for us. When acting un-selfishly (which humans do more often than cynics might consider), we help REFINE our world, bringing it closer to an idealistic place for all us residents of the planet. Change is a refining process…I prefer that term to “perfecting” as to be “perfect” simply means to be “complete and utterly itself, undiminished.” Which the world already IS, at any particular moment in time. But perfect as it is, our world can always stand a bit more refinement.

The idea of change as PROGRESS often feels (to me) based on the presumption that something is NOT perfect, or is somehow flawed in a way that requires “fixing.” It’s a murky line, I realize. The USA in the 1960s was in need of Civil Rights movement, because it needed to refine its laws, bringing the country closer to an idealistic place that was pleasant for ALL its citizens. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, the USA was still a “perfect USA;” it’s just that the definition of USA at that time included the paradigm that some folks received less consideration than others within the society. The Civil Rights movement didn’t move the USA closer to “perfection;” instead it helped refine our definition of what this society was supposed to be about, i.e. a little bit of equality for everyone. The term “progress” seems to indicate inevitability (as in, we are “progressing” down a road to a foreseen end), and I don’t see that to be the case. Change is inevitable, but it’s not always UPWARDS towards a BETTER future, as recent political movements aptly illustrate.

So, okay, back to RPGs, and D&D Next specifically:

Let’s forget for the moment the business concept associated with bringing out new editions every few years. You know car companies help keep their business going through three things: new customers (who really just replace old customers), replacement (cars eventually break-down), and juicing (pumping people up with the latest-greatest must-have vehicle design). The RPG industry can rely on the new customer thing (assuming the hobby can stay relevant in the fact of Wii’s and XBOX Kinects), but very little on replacement (even though you can put books together with shitty binding glue, the wear and tear is not nearly as bad as the wear and tear on an automobile). Juicing (which is what new editions amount to) really is the main way to keep a game company in the biz of putting out games.

But ignoring the business reason of a new edition, what’s the stated reason for the new edition? IS there a stated reason?

Maybe my Google Fu is just rusty, but trying to find a WHY is an extremely obscure (or irrelevant) question as far as the internet is concerned. It’s like trying to find out why Nike decided to redesign NFL uniforms: lots of discussion on WHAT those uniforms look like and HOW people like (or hate) ‘em but no real reasons as to WHY. Who cares, right? The WHY apparently is not news-worthy, nor worthy of much thought. It’s HAPPENING dammit! Get over it!

Well, I like to know the why. Why is it necessary to devote so many man-hours to the creation of a new D&D? Why have the open play-testing, the NDAs, the feedback surveys? What’s the NON-business reason? Simple “progress?” That’s an illusion. Something broke and needs to be fixed? As far as I can tell, if anything was broken it was broken by WotC…and on purpose.

Right or wrong? Because if this is just an effort to unite all the different edition warriors under one roof, or bring the Pathfinder kids back into the fold, whose fault is it for the alienation in the first place? Why not simply apologize and reverse your position?

Ha…that’s just a joke folks. Pandora’s Box was opened waaaay too long ago to ever get everyone on the same page. If THAT’s their stated, non-business reason for creating a New Edition, then what they’re hoping to do is nothing more (or less) than simply creating a NEW fantasy RPG that uses the name “Dungeons & Dragons,” apes certain tropes found within earlier editions, and yet provides a rule set SO AWESOME that all those people playing defunct editions or retro-clones will jump back on the D&D train and ride that hobby line.

Reviewing the play-test rules I see a mishmash of a lot of things: I see something that resembles that Microlite20. I see stuff resembling DCC and HackMaster Basic. I see stuff that I can only assume are from 4th Edition (like, magic-users can cast unlimited numbers of cantrips including "cantrips" like magic missile and ray of frost). I see milking Old School Gygax for actual adventure scenarios. I see the “new school” idea (previously only seen by me in post-90s, non-D&D RPGs) advising “fudging” (i.e. ignoring dice rolls that don’t provide “dramatically appropriate” results). I see death being taken off the table, for the most part, with some specific rules to draw out the survivability of characters. I see skills and individual initiative, two of my personal pet peeves.

There are two different thoughts that strike me after reviewing the play-test material:

#1: This is not a REFINEMENT of D&D. This is not a distillation of D&D down to its essential foundation in a stream-lined game that allows maximum modularity of choice. Maybe that was the initial idea (I think I read that somewhere), but this is much more “kitchen sink-y” in a “let’s-try-to-keep-this-streamlined” package. If it’s trying to “refine” anything, it’s attempting to refine all the things that have been held up as “great innovations” in recent years. Of course, this is just the play-test version…perhaps the final version will be a very different format and this version simply includes the modularity for the sake of testing.

#2: My original thought on D&D Next…that D&D players should just go and create their OWN versions of D&D called “D&D Mine”…still stands. I see nothing here that I or someone else couldn’t have done with a little thought, a word processor, and some house rules. I was a little surprised to see some of the language in the play-test materials is eerily close to my own writing in a couple recent projects (specifically my superhero game!). It just reiterates to me that rather than play-testing or (God forbid!) purchasing their product, my time would be better spent writing-up my own version of D&D for personal use and enjoyment. It’s not necessary to spend the time learning the nuances of a new edition of the game…especially if I just plan on house-ruling it with my own nuances. I’d be better served simply putting together my own game.

And maybe that’s something I need to return to, myself. One thing I forgot to mention in previous posts: these sword-swinging movies and TV shows, regardless of their artistic merits, are quite inspiring as far as a sword-swinging RPG is concerned. Not necessarily for their plots or characters, but for their art design and setting: things like the “iron throne” or the “great ice wall” or the “skeleton mask” or ruined cities and hidden monasteries and invading hordes and Swiss mercenaries, etc. All that stuff is cool and fodder for the imagination. Maybe I need to be getting back into the D&D swing o things.

As soon as I've wrapped up my own play-testing, of course.


  1. From the Cook/Marsh Expert booklet on page X59:

    "But I rolled it!" A common mistake most DMs make is to rely too much on random die rolls. An entire evening can be spoiled if an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.

    This kind of advice has been around since the beginning. It's not the way that I prefer to play now, but it's definitely not only new school thinking.

    1. It's noteworthy that this passage implies that fudging is only necessary for wilderness encounter rolls, to avoid derailing the game, and its examples are all about that rather than combat rolls. In the context it appears, where wilderness adventure is an adjunct to the meat of dungeoneering, it's sensible, if kludgey, advice.

    2. Yeah, agreed. The advice got expanded in the Rules Cyclopedia (and maybe Mentzer too, I'm not as familiar with that) to include:

      Likewise, the DM may choose numbers instead of rolling for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil the fun.

      The RC was published in 1991 though, so TSR was already into the 2E phase. Mentzer Basic was 1983, so this advice might have been from that period too, potentially.

    3. Basically, I read the advice in the playtest adventure to be "some people like high lethality, some people like low lethality; here are some methods to enable both styles." It could be a bit more explicit, but in general I think that is the only way they are going to be able to support multiple play styles.

  2. "..perhaps the final version will be a very different format and this version simply includes the modularity for the sake of testing."

    I think the current documents definitely includes the modularity for the sake of testing. The sample character sheets say the following (at the bottom of the Race, Class, Background section), "For a more old-school experience, don't use background and theme."

    So yes, the current pre-gen characters include all of the modules. If you don't want them just remove the Background and Theme sections.

  3. @ Brendan (@ D7):

    The rules quoted in from the Expert set do NOT imply fudging. The advice presented is:


    In other words, don't call for a roll (or make a roll yourself) when the result is self-evident. Random dice rolls provide a "range of possibility," and should be used when a range of possibility is desired.

    By contrast, the DNDNext play-test rules say roll the dice and ignore the result if you don't like it. You don't see that kind of "advice" (GM fiat enforced by game rules with a pretense of chance) until later games, like D6 Star Wars and (I believe) certain White Wolf games.

    @ Monk: I admit I didn't read too closely all the fine print on the character sheets, but that makes sense (I was presuming "modular options" would be noted in the regular game rules).

  4. @JB: The D&D Next advice on fudging could easily be fixed by specifying that the automatic success should be decided by the DM before any dice are rolled. If you know you can't justify a 1 result given the player-skill effort, don't roll, dammit.

  5. @ Roger (and others):

    The advice in the guidelines is actually much as it is in the Expert set; i.e. don't call for a die roll if it's not needed. At least, that the statement later on in the section.

    Unfortunately, the TITLE of the section is "Ignoring the Dice," and followed by the example given would seem to imply one should, well, ignore the result of the dice.

    It's probably just poor semantics, not a damnable philosophy (that I should probably write more about). But that was simply ONE small observation in the rule set, and not even something to chuck the rules for. The POINT of my post was something else anyway: that there's nothing here especially noteworthy or worth picking up and learning.

    Maybe I should have started with that?
    ; )

  6. The reason why Nike redesigned the pro uniforms is because they just got the contract and wanted to identify the league with the "Nike Look." The old ones were designed by Reebok, I think.

    That said, from what I could tell about the decision to create fifth edition (I hate D&D Next as a name) it seems that Wizards decided to redo the edition after watching so many of their customers flood away to another brand. It's a smart business move to listen to your customers' complaints and react accordingly.

  7. 4e was much LESS lethal than even 5e, in 5e a PC could die, its just really unlikely. I tried to kill PCs for the entire run of 4e and its near impossible for the amount of work I expect to be able to put in...

    1. @ Duncan:

      And how did it feel to simply be a fantasy generation machine for your players?
      ; )