Tuesday, June 5, 2012

D&D Next: Only Slightly on My Radar

The internet is abuzz with lots of speculation, expectations, opinion, judgment, and other dialogue about the next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, currently called D&D Next or D&D 5th edition. I’d say it’s only slightly on my radar as much as any other big news event in the adventure gaming hobby. Sure, as a longtime gamer who got his start with Basic D&D back in 1982 I’m interested in where it’s going, but whatever it becomes I doubt I’ll take much notice beyond some of the system mechanics and play rationales it might introduce or develop.

Since Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR and the D&D brand in 1997 it has tried to revive the game and, in doing so -- in the economic cycle that demands regular updates to core product to produce sales -- has ignited “edition wars” among the numerous fans of the game. While I think a fifth edition of the game makes sense from a corporate standpoint, trying to create something based on an iconic past with modern innovations to please fans from all epochs of the game seems like an exercise doomed to failure. The current spate of opinionated activity focuses on the “open” playtest materials Wizards of the Coast recently released, offering fans a glimpse of the next iteration of the D&D rules with playable pre-generated characters and an adventure; a limited but practical view into what the final game might look like.

I’m casually watching the developments surrounding D&D Next because I came to the hobby through D&D long ago during the “Golden Age of Roleplaying” (the early 1980s) and because I’m interested in any new developments it brings to the mechanics of the roleplaying game experience. Beyond that, however, I doubt I’d purchase the new rules set myself, let alone play it.

My D&D Edition History

Dungeons & Dragons is the iconic title of the adventure gaming hobby, one that, in whatever version, most everyone seems to have played, in many cases as their introduction to roleplaying games (at least for the earlier generations of gamers). I started back in 1982 with a copy of the Modvay-edited D&D Basic boxed set. I enjoyed playing that and the Expert Set materials while simultaneously exploring (and gradually transitioning to) the standard Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game with the three core books, adding to that numerous adventure modules and supplements available at the time. Through the years I explored other roleplaying games in genres that interested me more, and thus didn’t really invest too much in AD&D second edition. When I started working professionally in the adventure gaming hobby for West End Games in 1993 I had more interaction with folks from TSR and the material they were publishing, and picked up a few second edition AD&D items that caught my interest (including the Deck of Encounters, City Sites, Castle Sites, and The City of Greyhawk boxed set), some through GenCon trades, many in gaming shop bargain bins and sales. At one point I even had a second-hand set of the core rulebooks, though I’ve since sold them off as I never really played the game but used the materials as sourcebooks as reference for other endeavors.

My interest, like the game line, languished until Wizards of the Coast bought TSR in 1997 and set about revising the brand into what would become D&D 3 and 3.5. My interest in the game at this time was more mercenary; given the open gaming license (OGL) that enabled third party publishers to produce compatible material, opportunities to freelance for the game abounded. I bought the core rulebooks for D&D 3rd edition and familiarized myself with the system so I could write for its various iterations under d20 and OGL. I got some freelance writing work out of it, too, and most of the supplements I own for 3rd edition are authors copies of books to which I contributed. I even ran some games at the local gaming store where I lived at the time and enjoyed playing one of my stereotypical dwarf characters in a friend’s game for a few adventures. After the d20/OGL bubble burst -- with too many publishers producing a deluge of product with varying degrees of quality to a saturated market -- freelancing opportunities dried up; no doubt my own interests moved off to other realms (the “revival” of the D6 System under a new West End Games, as well as other personal projects like Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga).

I can’t recall when D&D 4th edition released. I certainly didn’t follow news of its development, and I didn’t bother buying into it or even checking out its supplements. Sure, I’ve heard about it here and there, mostly vague impressions from blogs and other online sources; my general, no doubt misinformed impression leads me to believe it’s more a tactical miniatures game with some roleplaying game trappings than an actual roleplaying game (not something I’d really want to play).

Although my genre tastes have wandered throughout my gaming experiences -- branching off into science fiction, Star Wars, Victorian steampunk, cyberpunk, and finally pulp -- my tendencies in medieval fantasy hack-and-slash currently reside in two camps: games adapted to use the D6 System (with which I’m extremely familiar), and those originating from the old school renaissance of D&D retro-clones, the most notable of which being the innovative and original Old School Hack. Even so, these endeavors remain secondary to my own gaming endeavors, both for playing and designing. I’m developing my own fantasy roleplaying game system attuned to my own tastes, with an eye to merging some elements of the old school renaissance with an approach to appeal more to younger players and their parents.

Curiosity about D&D Next

I’ve not downloaded the D&D Next public playtest materials Wizards of the Coast recently released; from the online buzz I’ve heard it’s far too much hassle to register, navigate the Byzantine website, and download necessary playtest files. I’m always interested in the look of new product and the technical approaches in presenting playtest materials, but my curiosity in D&D overall has waned since my professional interest in third edition.

I’m watching developments on the D&D Next front with more of a professional eye than that of someone considering playing the game and contributing their playtest observations and suggestions. Wizards of the Coast faces the daunting (and arguably impossible) task of trying to please everyone familiar with the D&D brand, from the earliest editions to the latest ones, with wide-ranging play styles and expectations for specific game mechanics. The company efforts to produce a new iteration of D&D with all the corporate-customer interaction available in the Internet Age may serve as a lesson in how to use the internet to solicit input for game development, introduce and promote a major new game, and influence customer perceptions of the game as a whole and its individual parts.

Right now my primary information about general opinions on D&D Next come from various gaming blogs whose authors feel the need to weigh in on the game’s development, regardless of the degree their blogs regularly focus on D&D. Most have what’s commonly called the “obligatory opinion of D&D Next.” Like gamers following the D&D brand from various points in its history, these blog perspectives vary across the entire range opinions about play styles and rules mechanics. The ultimate impression is one frequently generated by a superficial scanning of internet insight on any subject: no even remotely conclusive consensus.

Only one blog garners more than casual interest to better inform my opinion of the game’s development and reception; Rich Redman at Diary of a Grognard is the only blogger I find who with any degree of regularity discusses D&D Next and has an interesting perspective on the game. Redman worked on developing D&D 3 and 3.5 while at Wizards of the Coast, and has since written for numerous other game publishing endeavors (in addition to other active and entertaining blogs). He was involved in the “closed” D&D Next playtest, an experience that informs his current and future observations about the game’s development (without violating any non-disclosure agreements…). His perspective enables him not simply to comment on the playtest rules’ current incarnation, but the changes from the earlier “closed” playtest materials, often providing insight into the design rationale we might expect to see in greater detail as portions of the game release to the public.

I’ll always have some interest in the D&D brand even if I no longer play it (nor have any interest in playing its current incarnation). I’m keeping a casual eye on D&D Next, not because I’m looking to buy into it and play it as a fan returning to a beloved brand, but because it has already provided some interesting experience from which we can learn.