As I’m sure you know, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, branded as “D&D Next,” is in open playtest. I brought you stunning coverage of the 4e debacle and resulting edition wars, so surely I need to chime in here! Here’s my take on Next.
I liked and have played Basic, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder in their turn. I hate 4e and eschew it. I said earlier what I’d like to see in 5e – moving back to a really stripped down core more at 2e levels of complexity. And it sounds like they’re doing that.
The D&D Next rules seem fine to me. I welcome a more light approach and removing a lot of the minmax frenzy from 3e+. When 3e came out I was really excited and migrated from 2e but now in retrospect the rule bloat, christmas tree syndrome, legalism, and min-maxing made me sad and I like what I see in the D&D Next rules per se. Not everything is how I’d design it, but it’s well within the scope of “rules that will work for D&D.”
However, they are committing the cardinal sin of game design – it’s boring.
I can barely make myself read through the playtest packets. I think they’ve miscalculated badly in having no art, no layout, no fluff in there. I’m sure they’d say that’s by design (ignoring how much of a positive impact that had with the Pathfinder playtest – to this day Paizo makes sure to put all playtest docs through layout). But even without that, the text just has no voice. It could – Savage Worlds, for example, presents a ruleset about the same size with some flair and savoir faire – but reading the Next playtests is like reading a really boring car manual.
Maybe that’ll all be in there when it launches – maybe. Maybe Aleena the cleric gets whacked by Bargle again and gives us a hate hard-on for him and pulls us into the action. Maybe the art will be inspired and not just aping Pathfinder or using the current “I airbrushed this on my van” art style they seem to like. But even just the writing style does not say “Adventure!” to me, it says “Technical manual!”
Part of a playtest should be to whip up enthusiasm, but like many of my friends, I downloaded and eagerly read packet #1, I downloaded and skimmed #2, I downloaded and didn’t bother opening #3, I didn’t bother downloading #4 at all… It’s not the rules’ fault, and I’m sure if I playtested it my group of good roleplayers would have a grand old time. We know how to add “zazz” on top of any system you put before us. But if I gave it to some 12 year olds who haven’t played an RPG before? Are they going to bother to finish reading even the reasonable and short page count? Will their imaginations be fired up by what they read – because mine’s not being?
Guys – lean doesn’t have to mean boring. Someone at WotC, please force the Next design team into a room at gunpoint and tell them they can’t come out until they can tell you the most badass D&D story ever, and then make them write the rules around that story.