Alright, it is. A little bit.
As you almost certainly already know, Wizards of the Coast recently announced that the company had begun development of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, accompanied by a call to gamers to participate in the process of creating the new edition. Many of us DnD-ers are quite internet savvy and have taken to the webstreets to promulgate their own ideas for what Wizards should do with 5th edition. I think I’m a sight more cynical than most of the community: since, less than three full years after the release of 4th Edition, Pathfinder sales have been consistently better. Simply put, Paizo is kicking the crap out of Wizards, and Dungeons and Dragons is in danger of being completely dethroned as the fantasy simulationist roleplaying game of choice. So they’ve made a bold move.
Here’s a simple timeline:
- 1st Edition: released 1978
- 2nd Edition: released 1989 (11 years)
- 3rd Edition: released 2000 (11 years); 3.5 released in 2003
- 4th Edition: announced GenCon 2007, released June 2008
- 5th Edition: announced January 2012, release TBD
Obviously, this is very simplified. Advanced was released in 1979, so maybe you consider that to be different than the main game and perhaps it deserves an entry. Either way, I think the signal Wizards is flashing is quite clear: they’re pulling the plug on 4th Edition.
Now, I’m not trying to add fuel to culture wars. I’m not here to say one edition is better than any other edition, but I think the evidence is clear: Wizards is worried enough about 4th Edition sales to announce a new edition only 3.5 years into the life of their newest product. Announcing itself is a damning step, since this will certainly mean that 4th Edition sales will take a hit (since consumers will be loathe to buy more books from a game that is going to be obsolete in a year or so). Undoubtedly, they’re transferring some people from 4e development to 5e development, so the quality of the supplements that do get published in the next year might be lacking. Wizards is forsaking 4th edition for the hopes of recapturing a share of 5th edition.
It’s quite a bold move indeed. They’ve got to get 5th out the door rather quickly: I can easily imagine (more) people jumping ship to Pathfinder, an actively supported, successful, OGL product in the vacuum between editions.
I promised a post that was not about 5th edition. While I won’t run directly back into Wizards’ open arms like a lost puppy eager to trade my dollars for permission to create my own fantasy world using their framework, I do appreciate that the company seems to recognize that they ignored the concerns of a vocal segment of the community about 4e, and are at least trying to bring them back into the fold. Yes, their attempt is clumsy and stinks of marketing-speak, but the thought counts. Right?
There was a good Penny Arcade comic satirizing the call to arms. It’s funny, but this is definitely going to happen to an extent. Let’s assume that Wizards is serious about seeking the community’s input. How can we help them? In my opinion, the Edition Wars have left us with a divided community and a torn identity. Before we can move forward, we have to take stock of where we’ve been and where we are: what, exactly, IS Dungeons and Dragons?
Like them or hate them, levels are an inextricable part of the D&D experience. They are an easily communicated context for a character’s power (“experience”) level. The more levels you have, generally, the stronger you are, whether that strength is measured in the ability to absorb blows, deal out damage, the power or quantity of magic available, and so on. They’ve been around since 1e, and their importance has changed over the years, but levels are the core unit of power. Compare, for example, to other games where you spend XP like currency.
Now, levels can be very useful. They are a stat that all players have that is meaningful, and since characters will generally be in the same level range, we can base powers which have variable outputs off of character level (or class level, or caster level, or manifester level, or whatever level). We can say damage for Ability X is 5 points per level, and damage for Ability Y is 2 points plus 3 per level, and so on.
Levels also give us a framework off of which we dole out abilities. This helps prevent characters from getting “powerful” abilities when it’s inappropriate for them to do so. If we deem Ability X and Power Y to be of relatively equal power, we can allow access to them at the same level.
You can already see where this can easily go wrong. Circumventing this system gets abusive quickly. Things that give a character a higher effective level should be meted out judiciously, since so many things end up basing off this base number. When so much work is put into balancing things against a number, easily accessible spoofing of that number throws off the balance work. This became a problem late in the 3.0/3.5 design cycle, where boosting Caster Level was so powerful, or so many cool, flavorful races were unplayable because of the Effective Character Level offset.
Another problem with level is that, as much as we want, we can’t make a Level 1 character always equal to another Level 1 character, but that’s because of our next unique Dungeons and Dragons construction: the character class.
Classes have gone through changes over time (remember, some of the original classes were Dwarf and Elf), but we as a Dungeons and Dragons community have come to know classes as part character archetype, part party role, part access to abilities. Classes are a necessary extension of the level system, but could certainly exist in games without them (think of Professions from Call of Cthulhu, where you get access to certain skills as “Occupational Skills”). As development of Dungeons and Dragons progressed, class eventually separated from level (and in some ways became its own separate progression).
Nothing defines your character more in DnD than your class. Being a Barbarian, or a Paladin, or a Wizard brings a discrete set of abilities. While there is tremendous variation within the classes, the general archetype remains the same. Usually these classes have defining abilities, such as a barbarian’s rage, or a wizard’s magic, or a rogue’s backstabbing.
The class system, like the level system, has some warts. You can’t create your own class (and in editions where you could, the results were often disastrously unbalanced), and of course, each class was not made equal. Nor would we want to, right? One of the thrills of playing a roleplaying game is to express your character’s uniqueness. Class selection goes a long way to defining that uniqueness. In my opinion, one of the more disappointing facets upon release of 4th edition was the sterilization of class uniqueness in favor of balance. Yes, I might be “twirling a blade to distract the enemy” and you might “toss a bit of dirt in your enemy’s eye”, but if we’re both doing [W] plus Stun for 1 round, our abilities are the same.
Magic and Magic Items:
Vorpal Sword. Bigby’s Crushing Fist. Cure Light Wounds. Bag of Holding. These are iconic DnD abilities and items (not to mention Wizards’ intellectual property :D).
Not only are they iconic, but they have always been a huge part of the game, especially for non-caster classes. Think about the fighters without their massively-enchanted battleaxes, elvish archers without their magical bows and quivers of Elhonna, rogues without their Cloaks of Elvenkind and bags of tricks. Everyone has their stories about how they held off a room full of Orcs with an immovable rod or how they hid out for days thanks to a ring of sustenance and bottle of air. magic items have been a huge part of the game.
Magic, too, has been incredibly important to the game. Magic created entire dungeons, cities, and planes out of nothing. Some of the most incredible landscapes and campaign settings have been shaped by potent magics (Dark Sun to name just one). Dungeons and Dragons is fantasy, not a renaissance revival, because of magic.
Furthermore, I think the system of magic envisioned by Jack Vance and incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons resonates today (Vancian Magic – warning, TVTropes link.) Having spells be packaged into discrete, unchangeable units (spells) which must be prepared in advance dictated the framework upon which wizards, sorcerers, clerics, and other spellcasters were built.
Where do we go from here?
You could argue that other core elements of Dungeons and Dragons (such as experience points or fantasy races, or, you know, dungeons and dragons) stand as the pillars of the game, and please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
If you accept my first premise, that Wizards believes 4th edition is a failure (at least commercially), then we need only look at these pillars to perhaps realize why. They kept levels but, in my opinion, broke a cardinal rule by basing too much off character level (such as the skill system). You could make the argument that the classes were just not different enough (plus, they added super- or meta-classes: striker, defender, leader, controller). You could say that they sterilized the magic system, muted the awesome power of magic items in favor of placing most of the capabilities in the Powers granted by the class.
Or, you could take the reverse approach. 30 levels was a welcome change, especially if the players level faster and gain new abilities more often. The classes were way more balanced than ever before, with Sorcerers and Rogues being fairly equal throughout their existence. Magic items were also brought into line, with no chance for a Staff of Power to disrupt the game when accidentally dropped into the laps of the PCs.
But, again, we’re not here to criticize 4th or 3rd or any past edition. We want to turn what we perceive as the central pillars of DnD into as much a part of its future as it has been of its past. The developers need to decide how they want to proceed. It’s certainly possible they could forsake all of them and completely remake the game (which many old vets believe they did for 4th edition), but, based on their call to arms, it seems like they want everyone to what we’ve done here: identify what DnD is at its core, and build from that core.
I would be remiss were I not to include some ways to build around this core I perceive. Firstly, I’d keep levels. There are plenty of games out there without them, and I think they provide a nice framework. I almost want to say “more levels” but I think 30 is daunting enough. Keep those levels coming, though. Spread out the abilities gained across levels so that the gain in power is not as jerky as it was in 3rd edition, especially when it comes to spell-casters.
Keep classes, too. They serve as kits to help build a character. However, don’t provide too many options within classes, and provide more “tracks” to follow within (not to steal from Paizo, but the variants they have built into character classes are great examples of the right way to customize classes with flavor). Have the classes be close in balance, but they don’t need to be perfectly balanced. DnD is, at its core, a cooperative game. Who cares if your friend is “more powerful”? Of course, different classes are going to be more powerful in certain situations. Make sure that those situations are clear, though. Furthermore, don’t try to fit every class into the same rules paradigm. It doesn’t make sense that a Barbarian can perform a maneuver only once per day. We suspend our disbelief when it comes to magic, but it’s a lot harder to swallow when it comes to doing a whirlwind attack.
Magic definitely should be reigned in from 3rd edition, but expanded from 4th edition. The real question, to me, is whether we should abandon the Vancian system. I’m really torn on this one. The flavor is weird and kind of arbitrary, but then again, so is magic. Personally, I think there should be multiple options for magic, but all of them should have drawbacks. Such is the nature for having the ability to ignore the laws of physics.
Magic items are one are I think DnD has actually been getting it wrong for a long time. Things shouldn’t be more and more standardized. Magic items should be hard-to-find, harder-to-acquire unique pieces of equipment that define stories. Sure, there’s a place for bags of holding and robes of power, but there needs to be a much easier way to create and integrate custom items. Even when I play today, I look back at my Encyclopedia Magicka to find obscure and often random magic items that someone created 30 years ago.
There are a lot more suggestions I could make: fix the economy! make crafting make sense! eliminate the arbitrary divide between “adventurers” and “normal people”! trust the DM more, not less (seriously, I knew there was going to be a problem with 4.0 when I saw there were rules to play w/o a DM)!
There’s a thought experiment in philosophy known as the Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’ paradox. It goes like this: after his many travels, Theseus returned from Athens and his ship was put on display in the city for generations. Whenever a plank or part rotted or was ruined, it was replaced. After some time, every piece had been replaced at least once. Was this ship that stood on display in Athens still the Ship of Theseus?
Dungeons and Dragons has undergone many changes over the years as well. Pieces have been removed once they were aged, rotted, and no longer useful and replaced with newer pieces. We stand on the edge of a precipice: only a few timbers remain? Do we replace them? And if we do, will it still be Dungeons and Dragons?