May 19, 2014

D&D 5e... So. What?

Fair warning, if you're a dyed-in-the-wool D&D fan that's been frothing at the mouth for the next edition of D&D since they announced the Open Playtest, you should probably just skip this post entirely.  In fact, just pretend it didn't exist, and we'll both be happier for it.

So, the news has been dropped that the next version of D&D (which I'm calling 5e for simplicity) will be released this summer, starting with a Beginner Box in July and followed with a new release each subsequent month.  Obviously being D&D (aka the 800 pound gorilla in the RPG industry), this is fairly big news for a lot of folks.  After all, it's been quite a while since WotC last published a D&D gaming product for retail sale.

Personally, my reaction to this news could be summed up in two words...

So. What?

I'll be honest, the last time I played D&D and actually had fun was in a Dark Sun campaign which was under the 4e ruleset (Human Stone Fist Monk with Wilder theme if you're curious; much boot to the head).  I know that opinions on 4e are rather... divided, but while it didn't wow me, neither did 4e leave me entirely cold, though admittedly I never saw it as an actual "role"-playing game really being more of a tactical combat simulator that used physical maps, tokens, and dice instead of being reliant upon a computer.  It's not a system I'd be in a hurry to play again, but I don't loathe it either.

But the fact remains that as much as 3rd edition was a base-breaker for the D&D fandom, 4e was even more so, due to the many significant and rather radical changes in how the game worked.  3e was itself different, but still had ties to prior versions of AD&D, just as AD&D 2nd edition had ties to AD&D 1st edition.  4e was such a different animal that it was hard to find a middle ground.

Brian Casey aka Fiddleback made a tweet this morning that really caught my attention, which he expounded upon here at the Mad Adventurer's Society:

He and I are of a similar wavelength in regards to the upcoming/inevitable 5th edition.  In particular, I'd like to call to attention his point about how much the gaming industry as changed since 4e was released.

Ten years ago, we didn't have things like Kickstarter, and the number of viable indie RPG companies was fairly small.  RPG publishing was predominately big companies like Wizards of the Coast or Alderac Entertainment Group or White Wolf, companies that had been in business for quite some time.  But things have changed.  Paizo went from being a magazine publisher to being the folks publishing one of the two largest RPG product lines on the market (where they stand in regards to WotC is a matter of opinion that varies from one person to the next).

One of my favorite companies to support, Evil Hat Productions (i.e. the folks behind FATE and the Dresden Files RPG) probably wouldn't have been able to make it in the RPG industry as it existed at that time, or at least wouldn't have the degree of success they've been having.

But with the advent of Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, it's a much different industry.  Indie RPGs are now a heck of a lot more accessible, and you can get a lot of bang for your buck when you make a pledge to support a given funding campaign.  I got a pretty good amount of swag from Evil Hat's FATE Kickstarter, as well as Green Ronin's Mutants & Masterminds 10th Anniversary Kickstarter and the Deadlands Noir Kickstarter (oh how I wish I could have pledged more back then).  And there's been a couple of minor projects that I gladly supported simply because they sounded interesting.  Some of them came to fruition, some didn't.  I guess I've been lucky in that I've only had a single Kickstarter go sour with the money taken and nothing to show for it. The fact still remains that the gaming industry is no longer reliant on those big companies to produce RPGs that we're hoping to like.  Now, smaller companies can more easily find those "niche markets" for their ideas that a decade ago probably would have wasted away in obscurity.

There's also the simple fact that for most companies, PDF publishing and Open Gaming Licenses are a huge thing.  Putting together a semi-professional looking PDF and submitting to sites like DriveThruRPG isn't that difficult and the publisher gets to skip over a number of other costs, such as printing and shipping.  And with just about every gamer having some form of internet access and a portable device these days, getting those PDFs and using them at the table is quite simple.  And like Kickstarter campaigns, it's pretty easy for someone with a real niche product to find folks that are willing to buy a PDF of it.

So where does that leave Wizards of the Coast and 5e?  More than likely, facing an uphill battle if they want to re-establish the massive customer base they had back when 3e was at it's height.  Response to the recent Open Playtest materials has been as mixed as the post-release response to 4e was, with some folks loving it, some folks hating it, and some folks simply wondering why they should care anymore?

Me, I'm in that third camp.  I tried out the materials for the Open Playtest under a couple iterations, but I found myself often wondering "why should I even care at this point?"  I already had access to all the books for what I honestly feel is the best version of a d20 system out there in the form of Star Wars Saga Edition, which is one of the few d20 games that I'd play or run at this point, with Mutants & Masterminds being the other.  And the answer I ultimately came to was "I shouldn't."

I've got two bookcases packed with a variety of RPGs that I very much enjoy playing or at the very least enjoy just occasionally reading through.  I've got a number of PDFs for several of those games and several more sitting on my hard drive.  But my D&D books?  The 3e books are pretty much gone (and I had a lot of those at one point), with only two 3e books surviving my purge of "stuff I no longer need."  I've still got 4e books that are semi-accessible, but honestly I don't have that many of them (the core set, each of the various PHBs, the two Essentials player books, and a couple supplements is all) and it's been quite a while since I picked up one of those to just read through it.

So as far as D&D 5e goes, I'm a lost cause for anyone trying to convince me to pick up the new rules.  At most, I might pick up a copy of the PHB if I can get a really good price on it, but that's not likely as none of the folks I game with have an interest in any version of D&D these days.

And that's okay, because unlike the RPG industry of old, there are a wealth of options out there for the discerning gamer.  So while D&D is likely to remain the "face" of the RPG hobby, particularly to the mainstream media and those on the outside looking in, that doesn't mean that gamers have to overjoyed or even be interested that a new version of D&D is on the horizon.  Will D&D probably be the "introductory" RPG for a number of gamers in the years to come?  Probably, though Pathfinder is probably catching up given the number of gamers that cut their teeth on 3rd edition D&D.

Personally, I feel there are much stronger options to introducing folks to the gaming hobby that D&D.  Green Ronin's Dragon Age and Pinnacle's Savage Worlds are two of them.  There's also Fate Accelerated Edition if I need to come up with something on the fly, though I'll admit my comfort level with that system is not the best in terms of being a GM.  But that's my opinion, and I'm sure there are plenty of folks that feel there are other systems that would be better for an introduction to the RPG hobby.  But that's the beauty if it all, is that there are so many other options.  I suspect that had the number of options that exist today been around when I got my introduction (D&D Red Box) was a much smaller guy, my head likely would have been spinning.

Back then (a lot longer ago than I'd like to admit), there really wasn't much choice beyond D&D.  At least in the areas I grew up in, you were lucky if the local bookstore carried anything more than a few D&D books and some dice; if you wanted something other than D&D, you were pretty much out of luck.

But *cough* number of years later, I can very easily walk past a table where any version of D&D is being played, pausing perhaps briefly for a second or two to see what's going on, and then move along.  During GenCon last year, I very briefly swung by the WotC set-up, took a couple of pics of the big-ass drider statue, and left the area with zero interest in playing a session of D&DNext.  I tried the playtest material, wasn't really enthused or frankly impressed by the state of things towards the end, and unless WotC has done some really major revisions, odds are that 5e is going to be many of the things that I simply didn't care for.

For those of you out there are chomping at the bit for the next version of D&D, I hope you enjoy it.  But I've got a sinking feeling there's going to be nearly as much divisiveness over the new edition as there was each time a new edition of D&D got released, ranging from the folks that liked the old(er) edition to folks that are disappointed that this new edition failed to live up to their expectations or simply doesn't deliver the D&D experience they want.

And for me, given how non-relevant D&D is to my gaming these days, I again ask "so what?"  I've got plenty of other RPGs that I very much enjoy playing, with currently being in two FFG Star Wars campaign (and am eager to get my hands on the Age of Rebellion core rulebook within the next couple weeks and hopefully the Force and Destiny Beta this August) and a Mutants & Masterminds campaign (hard to top the chance to play Spider-Man, quips and all).

Edit: Well, it seems that WotC did one of the last things I'd have expected, that being to offer the "basic" rules as a free PDF download from their website, covering levels 1 thru 20 but keeping things very "bare bones" much like the old Basic D&D box sets did.  You'll have your standard four classes (fighter, rogue, cleric, wizard/mage) and races (human, elves, dwarves, halfings) to start with, so it'll be enough to give those curious a chance to see if the new D&D is something they'd want to follow up on or simply pass over.

At the very least, they'll have folks willing to check out the new D&D, which will likely provide a much needed boost towards the goal of making D&D as relevant to gamers as it was back in the 3.X/d20 hey-day.  I'm still not sold on the product (again based on the last iteration of the Beta playtest rules), but I'll at least check out the Basic PDF and see if the system is something I'm willing to put money towards.

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