Tobold's Blog
Friday, December 13, 2013
D&D Multi-Edition Adventures

Dungeons & Dragons lost the Edition Wars: At the end of the public beta test of D&D Next it has become rather obvious that the fifth edition is not going to heal the rift between the fans of the different editions; it is more likely to just create yet another sub-group of fans who love that edition and violently hate all the others. Imagine you could still play World of Warcraft at any state of the game you liked, from vanilla to patch 5.4: People already disagree today at which point in time WoW was best, and if it was actually possible to play all those versions the player base would be hopelessly split as well.

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is already on life-support. The D&D Insider tools are still working, but no new material is coming out. And role-playing games stores are winding down their inventory of 4E products. So when Wizards of the Coast released two new adventures, Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard, that supposedly still support 4th edition, I bought them. But these aren't 4E adventures; these are multi-edition adventures that supposedly run in 3.5, 4, or D&D Next. So how does that work?

In short, it works by removing pretty much every technical detail from the adventures. If you actually need technical details, like the powers of monsters in 4th edition, you need to download them from the website. They aren't provided with the printed product. Which also means you don't get any of the useful stuff, like battle maps. If you have a combat, the DM will need to improvise everything. On the one side that makes the adventures pretty much universal, they could be perfectly well run in Pathfinder or even any fantasy RPG system. On the other side, if you bought a pre-made adventure to avoid having to do everything yourself, you're out of luck.

Especially the Murder in Baldur's Gate adventure could not only be played with any fantasy pen & paper system, it could also be played at any level you want. In fact the level it is officially is probably the worst possible choice: Would you make a world-shattering adventure about murdering gods a level 1 adventure? If you are involved in big city intrigues, it is hard to explain why all of your adversaries and their henchmen are so low level. Apart from the fact that at high levels most editions of D&D break down, the adventure could perfectly well be played at a higher level.

The good news is that once you get around all the complications of editions and levels, the adventures by themselves are rather good. Or rather, the material provided gives you a very nice sandbox to play in. There is more "adventure" in Murder in Baldur's Gate, but the Legacy of the Crystal Shard pretty much only provides that sandbox. There are a lot of nice touches, like each adventure coming with its own DM screen with useful adventure-specific maps on it. And the production value is high. Actually too high for some, because the nice quality comes with a hefty $35 price tag, a fact which many people complained about.

Now 4th edition was kicked off with Keep on the Shadowfell, a rather flawed adventure that contributed much to the negative image of 4E. Somebody who starts playing D&D Next with Murder in Baldur's Gate is likely to get a much more positive impression of 5E, provided he has a good DM. But there are two things wrong with that: First of all the multi-edition adventures only show that you can run the same good adventure in any edition or system you like, so it isn't really an advertisement for D&D Next. And second this nice material would be very much wasted if put it in the hands of really new players; if you tried to DM your very first game of Dungeons & Dragons using any of these multi-edition adventures, you would most probably flounder and fail miserably.

As somebody with an ongoing 4E D&D campaign, the two adventures have a rather different problem: They are very specifically involved with The Sundering, a major cataclysm of the Forgotten Realms world. I'm not sure I want to use The Sundering now, because it would very much change my campaign world and make much of the material I have about the Forgotten Realms useless. It is as if Wizards of the Coast was deliberately breaking the Forgotten Realms to then sell you new source material. And I can't even be sure the future source material will be any good, or compatible with 4E.

From a marketing point of view, all this makes perfect sense. Of course WotC makes products that work well for experienced players who are willing to throw all their old material and campaigns overboard to plunge headlong into D&D Next. But I sure hope this isn't supposed to be the only starting point for D&D Next: Not making an adventure that would be suitable for new players and DMs is a rather defeatist move. They already had to correct their strategy for 4th edition, releasing the more new player friendly "Essentials" two years after the initial release of 4E. I would have hoped they would have learned from that, and started D&D Next with material that would be playable right out of the box for new players. But the multi-edition adventures aren't that, and reveal a regrettable focus on the impossible task of getting old players back instead of winning new ones.

These modules are definitely aimed at the existing flock, as well as those who've jumped ship but might return to a D&D which support a FR setting that looks like they remember it; most FR fans felt that the way 4E dealt with the Realms was exactly as you describe: a deliberate break of the setting to force everyone to adopt the new material and system.

Given that the only people who will use these modules with 5E are those involved in the playtest, and I've never met anyone who was new to D&D and in the 5E playtest without the support of the vet who got them into it, I don't think there was any easy way at this stage, with the rules still in development, for them to release a beginner's module. They're doing the best they can to keep some new content out there, dial back the setting changes that made so many FR fans mad (I'm not one of them, I liked the 4E approach to FR), and try to get buy-in from those who jumped ship but haven't demonized WotC so much that they can't see straight about the fact that the company is doing a surprisingly good job of trying to juggle its entire fan base over the decades, rather than force one-true-wayism down everyone's throat.

In fact...I'll bet that when we see the actual 5E modules in print (probably late next year) they will still be multi-edition compatible, even with Pathfinder.
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