The Future of Dungeons & Dragons – Part 2

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 24, 2011

Yesterday I wrote about what The Future of Dungeons & Dragons might look like by considering what the present edition of Dungeons & Dragons offers us as players in order to get a sense of what might lie ahead for the game. The ongoing Legends & Lore series by Mike Mearls provides some insight into what the designers are thinking about and they are clearly looking to the player base for feedback. Why else would Mike be writing his column? In short, the fine folks at Wizards of the Coast want to create a gaming experience that we, the players, want to play. Pretty simple really.

But in fact it’s not going to be simple at all. The reality is that everyone wants something slightly different from the game. We all play it a little differently. Go from one group to the next and you’ll encounter a new house rule or certain source books that are off limits. So designing a game we will all enjoy is a tougher prospect than it might originally seem.

With all of this being said I have decided to offer my considerable wisdom and experience on the subject matter. Yes, I have decided to enter the debate on what would make D&D great. The things I would love to see in the edition of the game.

A Return To 20 Levels

The three tiers of play that we have in 4e are great. They are clearly defined and each adds a level of complexity to the game and assists in telling the story. However, as we all know combat can slow down in 4e. Epic level combat can really slow down even with experienced players. Simply look at the level of material and support that there is for epic level play and you realize there is a clear argument for scaling the game back to 20 levels. WotC knows what level our characters are through Character Builder, they know how few of us have attained epic level.

In the next edition of D&D I wouldn’t be surprised to see a return to 20 levels of play. Within two or three years of the games release an Epic Level Sourcebook would be provided to support play beyond level 20. Just like they did with 3.5e D&D. I think this just make sense. It allows the developers to devot more space in any book with lighter elements that flesh out the gaming experience. It also allows them to publish a book down the line that will generate further revenue.

A Modular Game Experience

This is a subject that Mike Mearls has recently discussed in the Legends & Lore column (The Rules). The basic premise is that the complexity of the game could be scaled. As character complexity and therefore power level increases the DM would have certain tools available to increase the challenge that monsters and traps would present. I’m a fan of this idea as it allows players to customize their gaming experience.

New players to the game won’t be overwhelmed by options, they can start slow and add layers to their characters as they grow in knowledge about the game. Once again this also allows WotC to release different source material to support these ideas. All that is required is to create a system that will allow new elements to be added to it with subsequent releases. We have already seen something akin to this with the release of the PHB3 and the psionic power point system. You could argue that the release of Essentials also builds on this idea. Expect 5e D&D to build on this idea further, in fact expect it to be a central feature of the game.

A Multi-Gaming Experience

What exactly do I mean by this? With the release of 4e WotC really dropped the ball on the D&D Insider. Items were released buggy, late or not at all. In short they lost out on an awesome opportunity. Expect them to get it right, out of the gate, with 5e.

One thing that I would like WotC to embrace is the digital age. There is only so much of a market for physical books. Now, guys like Ameron are still going to buy every release, but people like me aren’t. Not when I’m paying for the content monthly through a subscription. Fewer people are unfortunately in local gaming shops, and while programs like D&D Encounters help offset this, purchasing digitally just makes sense. Put your hand up if you order your books through Amazon and take advantage of some significant discounts. It’s a fact of life.

What I would like to see with 5e at release is a fully functional DDI. Equipped with Character Builder, Dungeon & Dragon magazines, the Compendium, a Dungeon tool, and monster creator. Really the things we have now and that are in beta. But I’m not done there. I’d like to see a video game release to support 5e at release. WotC is owned by Hasboro, which owns Atari so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Perhaps even a simple flash based games, which can be incredibly complex. In short anything that can drive more people to play a great game. I guess I want them to release any new edition with all cylinders firing.

The finaly element of any new edition of the game that I would like to see is a smaller amount of character classes. I normally play once a week, it is a sheer impossibility for me to even dream of playing a dozen of the 45 classes available to me in any level of depth. I would rather see the options become available throught Paragon Paths or the equivalent.

Well there you have it. My wish list on what a new edition might look like. No doubt as time passes my wishes will change and morph. Most likely I’ll just add to the list. What about you? If you could see one thing either remain constant from 4e to 5e D&D or be added what would it be?

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1 Tourq August 24, 2011 at 10:49 am

I wouldn’t mind playing epic level by cutting my PC’s powers in half, and upping the severity of the powers I keep.

However, I’ll never go back to paying for a subscription. After having wasted that money on money-hungry WotC, I can easily see myself avoiding 5e. Sure, I’ll be curious about it, but I just don’t want to go through all that again.

That’s my two copper pieces.

2 Lahrs August 24, 2011 at 11:05 am

I run the D&D program at our store and have received some great discounts on products because of this. If not, I would have gone the much cheaper Amazon route. The books are simply too expensive at MSRP (I thought Essentials was a great price point however). With the high price, many of my players either borrow books or have illegal .pdf’s of them. Not saying piracy is right, just stating what happens. I also have D&D Insider, which makes owning the books other than the rules compendium redundant. The problem I see though is by removing the need for books, either from high price, piracy which they have no control over, or DDI, removes the incentive for shops to run programs like Encounters. Shops are there to make money, they pay for space, electricity and all that other fun stuff. Encounters are free, but the goal is to bring in new customers. If the people come in to play for free, but never buy anything from the shop, what incentive does the shop have to keep running all the free programs?

3 Philo Pharynx August 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I think the tiers will be incorporated into the modularity. Just like the old basic/expert/… sets, we’ll start with heroic, get paragon, and then epic. A lot of people like heroic play (especially now that 4e has made starting characters fun).

I think the edition wars might have been lessened if they had introduced essentials first, but then if they had introduced the original style characters they would have felt like an add-on. Sort of like some of the later 3.5 books – incarnum, book of nine swords, etc. It wouldn’t have been as revolutionary.

The digital/paper divide is a sign of the times. I prefer digital books – especially when you need to cart a dozen books to a game. Even if you like physical books, the huge online retailers will always have advantages of scale that a small store can’t have. The only way I see game stores surviving is by being more focused on services like games (perhaps with a cover charge) or by having exclusives that can only be purchased at a game store. If you bought the physical book and got a digital copy for free if you buy at the game store, that would be an advantage.

The subscription model is cool, but I know a lot of people that have issues with it. One big one is that they were providing a lot of content at the beginning, but recently offer nearly nothing. Still, most people are so into the compendium and character builder that they don’t want to break with the subscription. Second, the DDI subsciption gets you all of the crunch of the game, but almost none of the fluff. Most people I know don’t like the choice to buy the crunch twice (by buying books in addition to DDI) or to forego the fluff (by not buying books).

I have an idea to change it – make it like they originally announced. You have a free or nearly free character builder and compendium. But it only gives base details (name, prereq) and book references. Then as you buy digital books or register physical books, the builder and compendium provide full details about the content you’ve bought (this will help fight digital piracy, but will require overhead by itself). Then you offer a subscription to the books that buys you the digital copy of everything – fluff and crunch. Perhaps encourage game stores to offer subscriptions where you get the books and the digital subscription as well.

Releasing the game with all the tools would be nice, but it means a bigger risk. You need to produce the new game and the tools simultaneously and if there is a problem, you need to delay everything.

4 Phantasmavore August 24, 2011 at 3:22 pm

I like the notion of 5e (when it comes, but hopefully not any time TOO soon!) being modular, though I’d like to keep the 30 levels/heroic/paragon/epic tiers. If they stagger the release of each module/tier, that’d be fine with me. I also like the notion of an integrated paper/digital game – maybe giving digital access to corebooks bought hardcopy, and releasing more fluff online via PDF downloads. I donno, its a similar quandary faced by my other hobby of the comic book industry and both major producers (DC and Marvel) are trying new things with digital media.

What I’d really like to see in either hardcopy or digital is setting fluff – both proprietary campaigns, and maybe resources for creating home campaigns of varying themes/flavors/styles.

All this having been said, I’m a little late to the party (no pun intended) and hope they keep 4e/Essentials around a while longer so I don’thave to re-up into a whole new system after I’ve finally learned/mastered the current one.

5 Shaper and Maker August 24, 2011 at 3:40 pm

What I’d like to see moved to 5E? First, I don’t see going back to a game where the fighter generally just hits. I like it that at some point you just stop gaining new powers at new levels but you just replace them, or they get stronger. In 4E hitpoints are weighted to 1st level, I wonder if they could be even more so?

I read that you didn’t like magic items. I agree there are issues, especially if you don’t play ready adventure paths but prepare your own games, but they DO have a certain flavor I like. Maybe they would work better if amount of wearable magic items was still smaller, say 3? Hmm, maybe my tastes are just moving too far away from D&D -style.

I’ve slowly started to move away from 4E, even if I’ll likely continue my campaign for more than 10 sessions. I wonder if 5E will be interesting enough to pull me back.

6 Philo Pharynx August 24, 2011 at 3:58 pm

@Phantasmavore, No matter when a new edition lands it’ll be too soon for many people and too long for others. And as the old school revolution proves, you never need to switch out of a game that you’re having fun with.

7 Kenneth McNay August 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm

I’d prefer to see the levels fall lower than 20. I think that a game of fewer levels which have more distinction between could create a more improved experience. I believe Encounters has well shown that level 1 does not require kobolds and goblins; even at level 1 or 2 adventurers can be facing dragons, beholders, chokers, massive spiders, undead, traps, hazards, and so much more; b/c it scales reasonably well.

In this sense, the level could be removed from a nature of PC growth and be emplaced as a means of distributing player options which apply to the tale being told. Then, narratively, the level can mean nothing more than the relative high or low number of options available to players regardless of what the characters face up against or whether they are fresh-faced, young upstarts or grizzled veterans.

It is already very easy to accomplish this through 4e; I can imagine that with some proper implementation, the tiers could become more distinctive and levels can be reduced to perhaps 3-4 per tier instead of 10/tier. Material could include plenty of crunch related to the DM and PC options per tier, but could also embellish on the narrative wonder of each tier of play.

Gamemasters could easily decide they simply never want to run a low tier game, and offer plenty of options to their players that emppower them for a high tier game, but not have so much work behind forming 20+ levels of background and structure to their character.

In addition, the math could be reduced to a small number of tiers (b/c possibly we could see additional tiers of play existing through the modular nature of the future game) and the math could be far more applicable to a spcific tier.

well, it is something to consider.

8 Skeeter August 24, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Jeez. I can’t believe we’re talking about 5th edition when Essentials (“the future direction of D&D”) is not even one year old. Sigh.

9 Paik the Kenku Monk August 25, 2011 at 10:43 am

My thoughts too are in the digital domain. As tablets get cheaper I will definitely use digital sources. But the price point on digital books is somewhat comparable to the paper copy which I think is crazy. I know all the logistics behind it (type setting, reformatting, licensing fees, writer fees) but I think paying $7 for a digital copy of a book that retails for $8.99 is crazy. It leads to pirating is my feeling. This needs an overhaul.

I also agree on the price point/ experience of the Essentials/Encounters line. It got me back into the game after 20 years or so, so mission accomplished. I will be sticking with 4E/ Essentials though as I like this version and enjoy the play.. Plus I just got a really good understanding of the rules again.

Thanks for listening and keep up the great work!

10 Kilsek August 25, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Wizards is just now starting to talk about releasing and supporting more epic content.

I think it’s a simple pacing and practicality thing – combats, and by extensiion, sessions and leveling take so long in 4e, that it takes several months if not *years* for a typical campaign to hit and conclude in epic play. The default, out-of-box game should not be this slow. Especially not these days with all the entertainment choices and technology we have.

I’ve followed the modular D&D thread and comments, and it has promise. Still, that classic or out-of-box experience, like I’ve said before, has to exist. Otherwise we end up with the monster that 3e became: unrecognizable D&D games from game to game, loaded down by pages of house rules.

And circling back to technology, the last thing you mentioned, yes, it’s been a clear disaster. I wish I could put it more delicately but, it really showed that digital D&D was something new to Wizards, and it’s still showing. The rest of the world is going at a blurred pace when it comes to digital support, but DDI has always been at a snail’s pace, especially when it comes to the Character Builder and Adventure Tools. Those two may look pretty, but their functionality and continuous enhancement have been inconsistent since release.

11 Sunyaku August 25, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I enjoy a good challenge, and frankly, something about characters that could become more powerful than “gods” always bothered me in 4e. I have no problem with a party of level 20 characters trying to take down a level 33 Orcus. If the math doesn’t work out, all you need is a special plot device to players have to achieve to even the odds a bit.

12 Wimwick August 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm

@ Everyone
Great insight and comments. It’s clear that there is a lot of passion about the game. While 5e is still a long way out 2 or 3 years? It is fun to dream up different idea’s.

I for one look forward to the future of D&D. Not just dreaming about 5e, but also the further additions to 4e.

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