Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons 5e--Fixing What Isn't Broken?

A couple weeks ago, Wizards of the Coast officially announced they are working on a new edition of the Dungeons & Dragons rules set. An article on Forbes.com gave a few more details, as the writer had a chance to check out an early draft of the new rules.

From what I can gather so far, the new version of D&D is being designed to be very customizable. There's an a la carte aspect to it that will allow Dungeon Masters to use the parts of the rules that best fit the campaign they want to run. On its face, that seems like a pretty cool idea.

My problem is, I can't help but think they're just trying to put a nice spin on the fact that the last edition of the rules was not as successful as they expected it to be, and sales are flagging, so they are rebooting the system again. That's sad to me, because I really like the fourth edition of D&D--or at least I did, when it was first launched. When it first came out in 2008, the 4th edition of D&D was arguably the most accessible edition yet. From my experience, it was the most friendly for new players, and it encouraged cooperative strategy in a way previous editions hadn't since the original "red box" Basic D&D rules.

I was at the D&D Experience the year that 4th editon launched (along with Max Saltonstall and Alana Abbott). Not only did we interview a bunch of the designers about the new rules, but we got plenty of hands-on time with them as well. There was a genuine enthusiasm about how 4th edition was really going to open the game up to new audiences, primarily beacuse of two factors. One was the accessiblilty I mentioned previously. The rules were streamlines, roles were clearer, and it was really easy to jump right in and get a feel for the game. The second reason for the enthusaism around 4th edition was the aggressive digital strategy that Wizards of the Coast had. The new rules were going to launch alongside a rubust set of online tools for character creation and ongoing game play. The centerpiece of that strategy was the "online gaming table"--a virtual table that would allow players from all over the world to get together and game around a virtual tabletop. This online gaming table would incorporate the rules, have tools for DMs to track gameplay, and allow combat to play out via virtual miniatures. They were going to recreate the tabletop gaming experiene online, so that new players and gaming groups who no longer lived near each other could come together and play.

Sadly, the ambitious online strategy never came to fruition. Wizards was eventually able to get some of the online tools up and running, but the online gaming table never materialized. Further, they began a subscription system that required people to pay for a lot of those tools, which further fractured the game's audience. In my opinion, it was this failure that led to 4th edition not living up to expectations, and not bringing in a lot of new gamers. Once that happened, the hardcore D&D fans were the only ones left, and they weren't completely happy with the new rules. In the eyes of the hardcore, the game had been watered down to make it more accessible. So, Wizards of the Coast started tweaking the rules, adding new supplements, and trying to please the core audience that was left supporting the game.

Now, it seems that the folks at Wizards of the Coast are looking for a fresh start with a new edition. From the looks of it, this strategy is looking to bring back lapsed players as opposed to bringing in new players--it's aiming to be a "best of" edition, pulling from all of the other editions that have come out over the years. This sounds exciting for those who have played D&D in the past, but felt 4e was a little watered down. However, a more complex and customizable version of the rules isn't necessarily going to be accessible to new players in the way 4th edition was. It feels like Wizards decided that strategy didn't work, so they're going back to the hardcore as opposed to trying to expand the audience.

I'll be following the development of the new rules, and I'm sure I'll pick them up as soon as they come out. But I feel like Wizards is kind of missing the boat with this strategy. The problem wasn't the rules, it was the failure of their digital strategy. They should be rebooting that, not the game.