Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Identity crisis

A reader provided me with a link to Wizard of the Coast talking about the optional rule models of D&D Next in brief. Basically the message is that they got the feedback from the D&D Next playtest that the fighters without powers were too boring, and the combat without flanking and opportunity attacks not tactical enough; and they say: "Don't worry, all of that will be in optional rules modules". Now on the one side I think this is good news. I'd much prefer a game in which all character classes have lots of options in combat without having to ask the DM for permission for every move; and I much prefer tactical combat over a combat style in which positioning doesn't matter. But I more and more wonder how different a game can be on two tables and still be called the same game.

I am not at all interested in the rather unpractical question of what version of the game is the "true" Dungeons & Dragons. I very much recognize that 4th edition changed Dungeons & Dragons significantly. If you gave somebody who played D&D from 1st edition to 3.5 the rulebooks of both 4E and Pathfinder with the labels removed and asked him to say which of the two was "D&D", he'd most likely point to the Pathfinder rules. But the only inconvenience of that is that if somebody tells you he plays "D&D", you need to ask which edition to find out what game he is actually playing. Two groups playing 3.5 will play pretty much the same game, and so will two groups playing 4th edition. Of course there are always differences in style between different players, and different DMs. And there are house rules. But if you ever played 4th edition, you would have no problem to go into any game store that runs D&D Encounters on Wednesday night and feel right at home.

Now imagine you have a D&D Next fighter rolled with the optional fighter powers and tactical combat options module. And somebody tells you they are playing D&D Next. You arrive, and the DM tells you that you can't use your character, because their group isn't using those optional modules. Or imagine two players with two fighters wanting to play together, one with the optional modules and the other without. The difference between the two is so fundamental, that they could never play together on the same table, yet both would state that they were playing "D&D Next".

I don't know how many optional rules modules Wizards of the Coast are planning. But unless you always play with the same people, this could easily become very messy. If there are just 5 rules modules we will have 32 different variants of D&D Next. If there are 10 optional modules we have over a thousand possible combinations. I can already see the D&D roleplaying conventions with each table marked "modules 1, 4, 5, and 8 used at this table" and the like.

Dungeons & Dragons has gone from something you play without anybody noticing with friends in your basement to something which is a lot more connected via the internet. YouTube has videos of the Penny Arcade guys playing D&D in front of a camera at PAX. People play D&D with strangers on game forums or virtual tables. D&D Insider and the WotC website provide everybody with a baseline of what Dungeons & Dragons is. But all that depends on the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons at least being compatible with itself. That does not seem to be the case for D&D Next any more. By trying to please everybody at once, WotC is about to create a game without any identity at all.

I'd offer that almost every table plays wit a set of house rules, and that conventions are the only place in my gaming history where strict versioning has been present.
This has happened before. "Player's Options" for AD&D. When I started playing with my second group, I discovered that they were using them (which I didn't even know they existed).

And didn't care that these rules were different. Mind you, we were used to rotate masters and systems quite often. In my opinion, the rules are not the game (at least in role playing).
From my readings the rule modules shall by incoporated in the main rulebooks (player handbook or DM Guide).

But what about supplements and adventures, how shall it be handled?

I fear that rule modules shall create alot of confusion just like Heroes of Shadow, Heroes of the Feywild, etc. created when people wanted to combine these Essentials PC classes supplements with vanilla 4th.
I think this system also assumes you are proficient in designing and creating table top RPG systems, just to make your own game. Maybe there are a lot of games with house rules already, but I cannot imagine someone new to D&D having any idea what modules to pick.

How can this system possibly work for new players?
Looking through the core books a few months back to compare, I was actually a little startled at how many rules in 2nd Edition AD&D were quite clearly flagged as optional. Crit bonuses (other than just hitting)? Proficiencies? Rules for bypassing racial level maximums? Several ways of granting XP?

It may or may not be as radical as D&D Next, but you could end up with some very different games using those.
I'm sticking with 4E. THAT was a step forward.

How you handle the actual RP? Always up to DM.

But having all classes interesting to play was what won me over to 4E in the first place. Just as streamlining things and high rolls always being better won me over to 3E. Consistency folks.
All I can say is that this business approach to gaming sounds awfully familiar, and with likely the same eventual outcome as the computer and console gaming industries. Lots of new players, none with much commitment.

Niche games will always exist, but I suspect a large increase in popularity the more homogenized the mainstream market becomes. Is something still niche when lots of people play it?

All in all, it sounds depressing.
They've said that they will have a set of rules for public play that will be standard across the board. While this may only cover games such as Encounters and other prebuilt convention games, it does reduce the problem presented. Also, with what has been said, any set of PLAYER options can be played at the same table, so you don't have to worry about incompatible parties. Player modules are more about character creation than character play, from the sound of it.
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