The two hurdles for D&D 5E

May 22, 2014

As the promo material is coming out, folks are beginning to buzz about the new edition of D&D.  I followed the playtest about half way through (cancer kinda put a crimp in it) but part of it was the parts I was most interested in got cut out and my interest dropped as well.

I see 5E as having two major challenges to overcome for it to be a significant improvement in the whole D&D game line:

Teaching how to play by “rulings”

I know a lot of the bits from articles and such on the design side spoke about the appreciation of old school play where the players could make up anything and the GM would rule on the spot.  Problem is, if you haven’t done roleplaying before, this doesn’t even occur to you as a possibility.

I know from teaching myself D&D from Red Box at age 12 – I got the rules that were in the box, I didn’t get the idea of how to make intelligent rulings on the spot, or that it was even a choice.  A fighter could fight, or run in a combat.  I didn’t know a fighter could, say, kick over the cauldron of burning tar onto someone and the GM would make up a rule for how that worked.

Just saying “make stuff up” in a few sentences of a whole book doesn’t particularly convey the central aspect of play.  It was one of the oral traditions that didn’t come in the box.  If this is going to be a core feature of play, it’s going to need some good explanation and examples.

This is going to be especially true if this is the feature that makes this edition move away from the crunch factor that many people have loved about D20 and later 4th edition D&D.  If you want to give people more options IN play, without more crunch, they have to know how to engage and use it.

Getting on the same page

The bigger issue is going to be whether they give people adequate tools to figure out how to play the same game when they say “Let’s play D&D”. This has been the longest running issue and one of the core walls that makes it hard for new players to enter.  Whereas many folks look at my Same Page Tool as a helpful step forward, I see it more as a crutch in the face of games that failed to give people the tools to play them.

This becomes especially a focal issue as the design call has been for modular game design that allows many different styles of D&D to be supported by the rules.  If this is true, it’s going to be critical for groups to be able to say what parts they’re using and what kind of gameplay they expect to see come out of it.

Tied into the first hurdle, the one benefit a lot of crunchy games had was more standardization around expectations (at least when people actually follow the rules as written…).   If the simpler version relies more on GM judgment calls, it also means the ways in which a new player will experience and interact with D&D will be pretty varied as well.

The ability for folks to coordinate in finding groups doing what they want is the second step to this.

What is success?

The longstanding problem of a lot of RPG publishing has been varied and weird definitions of success – there’s been many companies that have measured success in putting out a lot of product, but going out of business, or not paying their writers or artists.  There’s companies that measure success in still actively publishing decades later, even if it’s primarily reprints.  There’s companies that measure success by return on investment, etc. etc.

D&D, being part of WOTC, being part of Hasbro, has a very different metric of success than any other publisher probably has.  We can talk about raw cash, though possibly the real measure of success isn’t the game itself, but how well it turns into selling D&D novels, or videogames, or other media.  In this regard, it then mirrors how the big two American comic companies churn out comics as a side business to the real industry of other merchandise.

With all this in mind, D&D doesn’t have to be a great game, it doesn’t even have to be the most popular game.  It just has to be “good enough” to meet other goals.  And while I’m sure the design team wants it to be the best, most popular, etc. the fact is that the metric that it gets measured by, by the folks higher up in the chain, might be very different than what you or I as roleplayers might consider.  …after all, the previous iterations of D&D and D20 as a system are turning out to be rather popular in the gaming community, though it’s not much of a success for WOTC/Hasbro in terms of direct sales.

My view

Personally, my two measurements of success to overlay are primarily: how does it function as a game in teaching people to play it and how well is it designed? Second, how well does it work in terms of outreach to previous non-roleplayers?  The latter is specifically this has been a general goal for D&D overall, as the game with the largest outreach in bookstores, shops, etc.


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