10 January 2012

D&D Next

Today, Wizards of the Coast announced that the next edition of the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons is being developed, two and a half years after the release of the fanbase-splitting 4th Edition. The New York Times has also ran a piece on the announcement, which mentions the ongoing "Edition Wars" that have been waged throughout the gaming community, musing that this new edition - referred to as "D&D Next" and "5E" - may result in an armistice, if not a total peace treaty, by bringing players together to actively shape the game's development.

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) have mentioned in their announcement that there will be great emphasis placed on player feedback during the production of D&D Next, and that they are "conducting ongoing open playtests with the gaming community" that give the players some measure of determining how the game will eventually be played; however, they haven't said much about what forms of feedback they'll be taking other than (assumedly) the raw data from playtesting sessions, which is at least something. While iterative design and reliance on prototyping will not come as a surprise to veteran game developers, those unfamiliar with the recent history of Dungeons and Dragons may be unaware that 4th Edition (4E) resulted in a gulf opening up between players who favoured certain editions, principally those of 4E and its predecessor, dubbed "3.5E", partly due to what many felt was WotC interpreting what they thought players wanted rather than actually soliciting feedback from them.

4E's changes to the game included the introduction of "Powers", which represent single, discrete actions that your character can take - not unlike Abilities from World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XI, or Skills from Guild Wars. Some of these powers had time limits on them, such that certain ones could only be used once a day or once a battle (with another set you could use whenever you wanted), and the vast majority of them would involve dealing a certain amount of damage and applying a status condition like being Dazed or some other restriction like taking additional damage if the target attempted certain actions. Almost all of these Powers were developed with a view towards being used in battle, with only a handful of "Utility Powers" that could be used in different ways, such as teleportation, the ability to sneak better, or healing powers. To me, the principle of "Powers" was one of the main problems with the game - they had been designed to encapsulate certain actions that characters of that class would most likely want to do, but because most of them fell into the camp of "Deal x damage, apply y effect/deal z additional damage if w action is performed", they robbed players of the chance to create, design and describe their character's moves in battle the way they wanted. It was a frequent point of discussion in my groups as to whether players without a "Deal x damage and trip the opponent" Power were actually capable of tripping their opponent - perhaps using the Acrobatics skill? The arbitrary restrictions on when the powers could be used also sometimes led to problems; there didn't seem to be any in-game reason for why their characters could "expertly navigate through difficult terrain" only once a day (the Rogue power "Undaunted Stride") - meaning that if they successfully crossed difficult terrain at some point in the day using the Power, then came back to the same terrain, they would suddenly find it difficult. And for players who tended to favour other forms of conflict resolution over combat (stealth and subterfuge or negotiation, for example), these Powers offered very little roleplaying opportunity whatsoever.

4E was also intended to streamline the rules of 3.5E, which often required players to look up charts and tables of seemingly arbitrary numbers throughout several different rulebooks. However, 4E itself quickly began to suffer the same problem, to the extent that a new even-more-streamlined version of the game - named "D&D Essentials" - was recently released, intended to help new players understand the rules of the game better. Even this was flawed - the material in D&D Essentials books were often incompatible with "mainstream" D&D 4E, and the so-called Rules Compendium - intended to be the definitive source of rules - was missing blocks of rules, some of which were actually referred to and in use by other Essentials products. By now, the sheer amount of books was overwhelming -  at least one new rulebook was being released every month that introduced new options for players - that comparisons were drawn between WotC's business model and the idea of "monthly fees" in MMOs.

In essence, 4E's gameplay bears heavy similarities to that of MMOs - to the extent that it seems as though WotC may have deliberately shaped 4E to model and emulate the strong points of multiplayer online games to capture the interest of that market. Unfortunately, for the reasons listed above, the translation from videogame to tabletop game does not always work.

However, if WotC are recruiting players as playtesters for the next iteration of the game, this could be a step towards a far better gameplay structure - the announcement effectively states that WotC are aware that 4E has caused some degree of strife, that the edition badly needs improvement, and that they have to listen to their core demographic rather than interpreting their desires by what they enjoy in mediums which, while similar, are vastly different from their own game. After all, one of the reasons I enjoy playing D&D is that it allows me to break away from the restrictions on creativity inherent in fantasy worlds entirely designed by the development team, where my actions are described for me, and where I pick from a predetermined set of ways to interact with the world rather than invent my own.

No doubt over the next few months, we'll be hearing more about this new venture - ENWorld has a thread collecting information about the game, and there's a group for D&D Next on the Wizards Community site as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment