The Future of Dungeons & Dragons

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on August 23, 2011

It happens every year, right after GenCon. I don’t know if it’s the hangover of a great week of gaming, which I missed this year, or if it’s the plethora of new information that GenCon brings us, but this time of year always makes me ask the question: what next? Where do we go from here? Normally we get a very clear picture of what’s forthcoming over the next 12 months at the D&D Preview Seminar. However, this year we only got highlights for the next few months. The primary reason for this is that Mike Mearls only just took over as the guy in charge and things are in flux. Or is there something more than that going on? Conspiracy theorists, think what you will.

If you want to know if there is something more going on in the background all you need to do is read Mike Mearls’ Legends & Lore column on the D&D website. If you’ve been following Mike’s column for the past little while you’ve gained some insight into what he’s thinking, the questions he’s asking the community and what it means for the future of D&D. I’m sure that 5e is being discussed behind closed doors, but I have no idea when it will be released. Actually I don’t care because I’m having a lot of fun playing 4e right now.

However, I am interested in where WotC is going with D&D and what the next incarnation will look like. In my mind the best way to figure out where you’re going is to look at what you’ve done in the past. I have no doubt that Mike and his team are doing this. But just to fulfill my ego, here are my thoughts on the subject.

Just to have some fun with this I’m going to break down my thoughts on 4e D&D as a skill challenge. Each element is assigned a success or a failure.

D&D Essentials – Success

That’s right I said success. A lot of people, myself included, had misgivings when the Essentials line launched. It seemed like a really big step backwards for 4e. It simplified the power selection system and in my opinion some of the classes are rather dull, leaving me with little to do on my turn.

However, D&D Essentials is an essential (pun intended) way to convert new players. The original release of 4e D&D was slightly too complex for a new player to fully grasp, especially if they joined a group that was getting on in levels. The Essentials system is simple, but still fun and does contain some level of depth and choice. It just isn’t overwhelming like core 4e releases are with all the Powers supplements.

I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here. I strongly feel that the Essentials line is what 4e should have been at release. The Player’s Handbook should have been a follow-up release to add a different level of complexity to character creation.

I would hazard a guess that the Essentials character progression may form the base line for character creation in a future release of D&D.

Tactical Combat – Success

I’ll say it up front, combat can be slow, but it is so deep and rich in the options available that any slowdown in game play is acceptable. The myriad of options available to players allows for a rich tapestry to unfold during combat.

Creative DMs bring monsters in waves, keeping players on their toes. The resource management from healing surges, daily power usage, to when to go nova all need to be considered during combat. Combat in 4e, more than any other edition, requires synergies between characters and requires teamwork. The result of not meeting this standard is still a fun experience, but when you take it to the next level and embrace tactical combat you end up with an experience unlike any other. In short you can end up with some truly legendary encounters.

Minis – Success

This was almost a failure as WotC cancelled their mini product line. They have however rectified that situation and are resurrecting minis. I feel they have also gotten things right the second time around. Rather than the sealed-box collectible approach, we are getting blister packs full of monsters we love to have our players kill. Or perhaps it’s that we love to use to kill our player’s characters. Pick your poison. Either way minis are invaluable in providing the rich tactical game play available to us in 4e combat.

All Crunch, No Fluff – Failure

The PHB1 has four sections worth talking about.

  1. Making a character.
  2. The character classes.
  3. The rules or how to run combat.
  4. Magic items.

The character class section contained over 150 pages devoted to eight character classes. Each class got around two pages of fluff. It was all crunch.

At the time it was new and exciting, but it also made my head spin. I mean how do you keep all those powers straight? Add to this that the players learned nothing about the world they were playing in. You had to read the DMG for that, but as a player isn’t that book off limits? Ok maybe not, but even then there was a noted lack of fluff in 4e. The books and supplements that have come out since haven’t don’t much to change that.

The Powers line of books contained just that, more powers. When you look at the ratio of crunch to fluff, the ratio is staggering. Now to be fair the fine folks at WotC have made a successful insight check about this very issue. The Essentials line was a step away from crunch. There were less options and slightly more fluff about the character classes. I haven’t seen the new Neverwinter Campaign Setting, but my understanding is it is solid with a lot of great source material (a.k.a. fluff) for DMs and players to use.

I think one of the major reasons for not having as much fluff is the tactical nature of combat and the desire to present different options to players. This resulted in more powers being created to support this. It also stems from the decision to only release two campaign books for each campaign. With the release of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting WotC has broken this rule as The Forgotten Realms now has three books. But look at Dark Sun, one of its books was a monster guide. Surely there is more creative material they could dream up for Athas. It hasn’t been active as a campaign setting since AD&D 2e and it did beat out Dragonlance, Planescape and all the other worlds that have existed for D&D.

Abundance of Character Class/Race Combinations – Failure

Truth hurts. D&D 4e has about 16 too many character classes. Type “class” into the Compendium and you will see 65 choices under the class dropdown box. Granted 25 of those are Hybrid, but that still leaves 40 character classes available to a first level character. I won’t even start about Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies.

The worst part is that there are three Fighter options, three Wizard options, two Cleric options, two Paladin options, etc. In short there are far too many classes available and too many variants of each class. Of course this is something I’ve said before, I mean how many classes are too many?

Add to this the number of races available and the combinations are mind numbing. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are cool, but how do you support all this material? I mean people (all three of them) are crying for Shardmind Runepriest support!

With the Character Builder being online WotC know exactly what classes and races are being played. They know that no one is playing a Shardmind Runepriest. I’m guessing that an overwhelming majority of players are playing class/race combinations available in PHB1 or the Essentials books. That’s only 18 classes. Ok actually it is 9, but the Essentials release has variations of the different classes (Knight vs. Slayer, etc).

I understand that WotC is a business, that they need to release new products to make money or we won’t have this great game to play. However, 65 character classes with about as many pages of fluff to explain how the class functions in the world does not make a deep role playing experience. Reread my thoughts on crunch vs. fluff above if you need a refresher. Toss on Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies and it’s way too much.

Now, I have had players tell me that they love all the choice that 4e makes available. I agree with these players. I like choice too, but 65 class choices are too many. As I’ve said in the past, cut down the core classes, give us more Paragon Paths to make that choice more interesting. I mean why can’t the Warden be a Paragon Path? Sure it wouldn’t be the robust class it is now, but the class itself could lend itself to two or three different Paragon Paths.

Granted you really only need to choose 1 of 4 roles which is the most profound choice you make. Great Segway don’t you think?

The Role System – Success

4e D&D introduced the role system. An official way of categorizing what your character brought to the table, err party. I’m a fan. In fact I would argue that the roles are the new character classes of 4e and that the existing character classes are sub-categories within the role.

The balance that the role system brings to party design and encounter design is intriguing. While one character from each role is preferred, it isn’t essential. In fact parties of only strikers can be rather devastating, if somewhat limited in their abilities.

Public Play – Success

Between LFR, D&D Encounters and the upcoming Lair Assault public play has been a boon for D&D. Our weekly Encounters review is a popular column that routinely sees good traffic and is a great way for players to share their experiences with D&D Encounters.

The desire by WotC to go out and engage veteran and new gamers alike has been a win. Players are in their FLGS playing D&D, meeting new players and having a great time. WotC has responded by providing some top notch encounters with great maps. Each season seems to build on the experience from the previous providing for a great gaming experience.

Magic Items – Failure

I am not a fan of magic items in 4e. My opinion is all the daily and encounter powers that items grant further confuse and complicate combat. It seems almost every game someone asks to use an item after their turn ends because they forgot they had it.

My other complaint is the sheer number of items that are available. I would wager that there are more than a handful of items that have never been equipped by anyone and that never will. Like feats, there are a handful of items that everyone takes. Other items support highly specialized builds and are only selected for that purpose. To be sure there are a few gems hidden here and there that many players don’t know about.

Again my complaint here isn’t the sheer number of items, it’s the addition of item powers. 4e combat is already a very rich experience. I believe the addition of item powers detracts from the flow and pace of the game.


Three failures results in what? A new edition? Of course the subjects I selected as a success might be a failure for you and vice versa. Either way it is interesting to look back on 4e and pick out the elements that have definitely enhanced the game and those that are questionable. Have I hit the mark with my comments or am I way off base?

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1 Skeeter August 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Great article! Personally, I think 4E Essentials is our new edition of D&D. The core mechanics of 4E work very well, and Essential is the reboot that cleaned up what the developers wanted to clean up. I personally don’t think there will be a 5E for a very long time. But I’ve been wrong before.
I think the future of D&D is in expanding the D&D brand to new customers. Products like the red box and the board games and the D&D Encounters program make D&D accessible to new and returning players. D&D is never going to make WOTC a huge amount of money, and I think WOTC is realizing that. Any game in which the primary tool is your imagination just has a limited profit potential. So I think we’re going to continue to see new and innovative ideas to get the D&D brand out to new players without a major reboot of the core (pardon the pun) RPG.

2 BeanBag August 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm

I very much agree on many of the points. As to where to go from here, I would say:
1) More Fluff In each and every page
2) More Indexes, not just compendium searches
3) Advanced books (remember the gold box?) Guilds/Gods/Epic Tier support
What I dont want ( fear ) is a reshaping of the Skills, DC’s, and other crunch items that actually work for once.

3 Kenneth McNay August 23, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I’d say the D&D Essentials is a failure. I still look over it and think it should have been considered, perused, enjoyed, and shelved until a new edition was underway, then brought out and redeveloped into a new perspective on the game through the lens of that edition–not 4e.

I’d place minis as a break even. I can imagine a per-order style of production. Minis could be designed (possibly suggested by gamers) and purchased on-demand. However, I’m not an economist and couldn’t say anything for the accounting of costs for such a pattern of production. I’m glad that minis are returning, but I suspect the cost will be higher, and the collections will be smaller.

I see the role system as a break even too. It is great that the codified these elements of the game and built mechanics that actively support that element, but I’d prefer to see more opportunity to build a class without so much ocnnection and demand to fulfill a specific role. Crossing into another role is nearly impossible (and barely worthwhile); I’d have preferred more support for crossing into a different role within a single class.

I fully agree about magic items as a failure. It is all the worse for the need to support the mathematical goal of the Rule of 55% at all levels. I think the magic items have been heavily diluted by the sheer number.

I enjoy Mearls’ L&L and I can see how a future for D&D 5e is emerging. I still worry that more time and effort should be spent on enriching 4e–particularly campaign settings in existance and campaign settings in potentia.

4 Shane August 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm

@Kenneth – customized minis on demand will become much more viable when mass 3D printing is more readily available. WotC would be wise to look into something like this. Plastic, which requires oil in its production, is just not cost effective for such an endeavor.

5 Lahrs August 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm

I am actually a fan of all of the classes because we all have our favorites. but there is always something new to try when we get the bug (or TPK). Six months ago I created a shaman for LFR, which we had never had in any of my groups and I have had more fun with it than any other class. I like the fact that there are so many options that if one class doesn’t fit exactly what I am looking for, there are many more to try. I think it only becomes too much if you can’t tell the difference between the new classes. I do believe a few classes have done this, but overall, I think the majority offer a distinct flavor to them to make them worthwhile options.

My biggest gripe with minis is the collectible nature they have become due to the rarity structure they have in place. I could understand it when they were intended as a separate game (DDM), but now it is just infuriating, especially now that they have the Ultra Rare pieces. I don’t need just one zombie for a battle, I need multiple, yet being a rare piece, not only are they hard to find, but buying them as singles is costly. Wizards have made minis essential for play, yet they treat this item differently than any other essential component. Imagine if they Monster Manuals were set up the same way, with random monsters and some, like zombies, were rare, making finding the proper stat blocks that much more difficult to acquire. Lastly, where the heck are the Deva minis? Seriously, it is a PHB2 race.

Essentials are a wash, but only because of the timing. I agree they should have come out first, but since they did not, I have to review it as such. The Essentials line is great for new people to D&D, but even people who have played, but haven’t played 4th seem to be able to pick up non-Essentials quickly enough. Once you break that barrier, having all the extra options from the PHB’s makes going back more difficult. I do not dislike Essentials, and I prefer to use them when teaching the game to new people and there are a few classes that have excelled with the Essentials books.

Public play has been awesome and I think has been the shining moment of 4E. We have so many great, and FREE material to use it is almost overwhelming. I have taken a few sessions of LFR to our local mall’s food court and have been able to pull in quite a few people that way. And if anyone is interested in playing, I can just hand them a pregen and newbies seem to love the shiny single card pregens.

Magic items, ugh, completely agree with you. Whenever I pick an item for myself, I do my best to pick ones with passive abilities over anything with a cool daily. The daily may be cool, but it is too often forgotten to be useful. That is my fault, I can accept that, but dailies should be tied to wondrous items, not my +1 sword.

Fortune Cards – Failure
Nobody should ever be allowed to buy power in D&D, and to me that is all the Fortune Cards are, a chance to buy power. They have sold poorly in my area, and even at GenCon I didn’t see too many people using them, but if even one person does at the table, that person now gets an unfair advantage, even if only a small one. I have banned them from my home game and would ban them from public play if it didn’t interfere with the shops revenue, though again they are very poor sellers at our store.

6 FunkFugiyama August 23, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Good article and well thought out.

I was a AD&D first edition player and had not played in something like 25 years (God I feel old now) and decided to jump back into the game. I started just a couple of months after 4e came out and I am loving it. I forgot how much fun it was to play D&D. But there are some things that I dislike and hope some things are changed in future developments.

Tactical Combat and minis – success.
I have always loved minis (I’ve really gotten into painting them) and now I get to use them as true avatars in tactical combat. The issue I have is that making minis and the grid an integral part of combat it raises the cost of the game. Something that, as a kid, gets to be too much for a allowance or paper route money.

Abundance of Character Class/Race Combinations – Failure
There are so many different types its aggravating. Not only that but it is very difficult to put a character together. Especially if you want to use a class from one book and a race from another, you can be flipping pages and books for hours and still not be sure you have the right stat adjustments and numbers in the right place. It’s so confusing that there is no wonder why WOTC has a Character Builder on the internet. You almost HAVE to use it to get a character done right. I think the Character Builder should be free. Pay if you want to keep the info. on their site.

Public Play – Success
When I first played D&D it was in public and played almost every Sunday at a The Games Store, where someone would DM their dungeon of whatever level and you brought your own character to play. Lots of fun. I’d like to see more of that. But yes, Encounters, when I’ve been able to play, is great fun. The mix of the regulars and newbies is fun too. Especially when they realize that they can do anything they can imagine, as long as the DM allows it, is pretty cool to see… in public.
Also I am one of the many who enjoys reading what happened during the latest Encounter on this site. Vicarious good times.

Magic Items – Failure
I don’t get it. Simplification is needed. I used to love creating magic items. Now I have no idea how.

@Lahrs – Fortune Cards – Failure
My first thought when these came out: WTF? Do not confuse D&D with Magic The Gathering. However… if my character were to get a new ability that it could use for its life, and all of the abilities came on a card that would be cool and make life a little easier. There just never seems to be enough room on a character sheet for Putting all the info. needed for an ability.

7 Jeramy M Pappas August 23, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Here, here. It’s nice to see someone who appreciates all of the pieces that make the whole. “Role is the new class” is a brilliant observation. The next time I’m teaching someone to create a D&D character, I’m going to make it a point to have them pick a role first. That really cuts down on the class selection overload.


8 Phantasmavore August 23, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Another articulate and well thought out post!

Having just returned to D&D after having been away since the days of AD&D 2nd ed, I can say that I’m happy with 4e and the Essentials line, supplemented by my subscription to DDI and the Character Builder and Compendium. I can see how one could easily suffer from race/class overload without those 2 online resources, however. Starting with Essentials and then folding in materials from the PHB, etc seems a good way to go and is easily done with teh DDI subscription, not so easily done without, I’d wager. I hope we don’t get 5e for a good while, as I’m finally hitting a comfort zone with 4e and would hate to have to relearn/purchase a whole new system.

As an AD&D vet, I’d never really used minis and maps explicitly tactically in my RPG sessions, so that whole element was new to me when I came back to the hobby via Encounters. At first I was like , ugh, WoW on paper and table, but then after a few sessions of play, the minis and mapgrid really grew on me to the point that I’m now looking to purchase a set of them soon for my return to the DM side of the screen. The trick lies in not letting things devolve into a minis wargaming gathering, and keeping the focus on roleplay. So long as that happens, I’m fine and happy with minis and tactical combat at the table.

Bring on the fluff, i say! My favorite books so far that I’ve purchased have been Neverwinter, Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide, and Forgotten Realms Players Companion. I hope WotC expands the settings with story fluff so we can sink our teeth into the current status quo of settings like the Forgotten realms. Bring back Dragonlance! More Ravenloft!

I’m not into the Fortune Cards things, though people at my Encounters session use them. I find I get by just fine without them, and would rather have them be the the class power cards that were released – a reference tool rather than an in-game use item.

Overall, I’m quite happy with my return to the hobby and hope WotC focuses on releasing more resources like Neverwinter rather than churning out 5e.

9 Wimwick August 23, 2011 at 11:14 pm

@ Everyone
Wow! Thanks for sharing all the idea’s. It’s clear that we all have some passionate idea’s about where the game could go.

10 Sunyaku August 24, 2011 at 1:32 am

Hmm… Fortune cards have actually sold quite well at our store…

11 Chris August 24, 2011 at 1:53 am

A fascinating read. As somebody who was not at all happy with the direction 4th Edition went in, it’s good to read an article that highlights some of the positive steps it made.

My main gripe, and it’s one you touched on, is the ratio of crunch to fluff. It feels like the roleplay side of the game has been all but done away with in favor of MMO style roles and combat ideas.

Kind of wishing I had a miniature collection to draw on though. I’m curious to see how a combat would play out.

12 Lahrs August 24, 2011 at 2:36 am

@Sunyaku – I state my opinion on Fortune cards here, but I feel I have been successful in not spreading my opinion around at the store to influence sales. I know people like to get them as Rewards from Encounters (which reminds me, I need to bring them Wednesday, forgot last week), but I think it is more of a “cool, I got a reward” rather than a “cool, my collection is growing.” I much prefer the one shot renown cards we used to get.

@FunkFugiyama – It sounds like you are describing the Power Cards that came out during early 4th. They were a set of cards for each class with all of their powers. There are a few people who use them (or print off the character sheet from DDI and cut them out and put the powers in sleeves).

@Phantasmavore – One thing I do during home games is role play some battles without the minis. For example, a fighter goes first down a crevasse and hits a landing. Fighter rolls init. His is lower so the hidden rats attack (no roll) doing 2 pts of damage. He then RPs a bit, and starts wildly swinging and kicking and kicks the rats off the edge. Encounter over. That is super simplified of what it can be, but it is a small battle without minis, gets everyone on their toes, is super quick and helps make the battles with minis a bit more epic. Either that, or give out story bits in the middle of combat. Have the enemies talk to each other and to the party. I have noticed combat can be very quiet and it can begin to feel like D&D chess.

I am exhausted and should be in bed. I am afraid to wake up in the morning and reread this… anyway, more thoughts of the moment.

13 Rabbit is wise August 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm

I love all the classes and race combo’s… I hate the fact that in 4e magic items are almost needed in order to fight with like level monsters…. Power creep fits in there somewhere too… Over all I give 4e an A-

14 Rico August 25, 2011 at 1:23 am

Great article. I don’t think there is anything in it with which I disagree. I am happy to hear that minis are coming back, but can you point me to an official announcement for that? I seem to have missed it.

15 Kilsek August 25, 2011 at 11:38 am

The crunch-flavor balance is something I always seek and blog often about because it’s so important to a rich D&D experience.

This crunch-flavor balance has been steadily being brought back, well before Neverwinter, though. It started with MM3, the Monster Vault series and Heroes of Shadow: good trend setters.

I also agree with you on magic items – they’re less inspirational than ever, and game-wise, they just add to the complexity and turn time more often than not.

Question is, what do we do about it? Is Mordenkainen’s Emporium, like I talked about recently on Leonine Roar, part of the magic item answer for 4e?

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