Well, as you heard recently, D&D 5e (or “D&D Next,” as they are styling it) has been announced. There were hints about how it would be some kind of “includes every version everywhere RPG toolkit!” and Monte Cook confirms both that he’s been working on 5e and that that’s their intent.
The thing is, there’s ways in which I think that’s possible and ways in which I think it’s not. On the one hand, if they return to publishing real content in setting books and adventures, that is somewhat “cross editions” – one of the main weaknesses of the 4e products was that they were useless for anyone not playing 4e, whereas editions 1-3 tend to freely exchange adventures, setting info books, etc.
It is also possible to have different levels of complexity of the same rules. I actually played around with a game system with three levels of granularity called “The Third Degree” a while back, it was inspired actually by the action movie RPG Feng Shui. There you had cascaded stats – like you might have Body 5, but below that Str, Con, Mov, and Tgh of varying amounts. For mooks their stat blocks would just say “Bod 5,” and you would use 5 for any sub-stats that came up. I realized you could maybe please everyone if you had three degrees of complexity of each mechanic. Where it fell down is that you essentially needed technology to be able to print a custom RPG book for each player in the game so that they’d know what level of everything a given campaign was using!
I mean, earlier D&Ds had all kinds of optional rules and also rules not marked as optional but that were so fiddly everyone ignored them (weapon speeds, weapon types vs. armor, declaring actions, and other such lameness). So that sounds difficult but not impossible.
What is impossible is actually unifying 1e, 2e, 3e, PF, and 4e as they stand into a single rules framework. It just won’t work. There’s too much crufty little crap that is not just “levels of complexity” but “different.” And I think they know this; in Monte’s article he uses circumlocutions like “your 3E-style game”. In fact, he says a 1e-loving player can play in your 3e-style game and ignore the options they don’t like – I think that’s probably overreaching; just having the level of granularity be the campaign is probably about as much that’s achievable. And the GM is going to have to have control. “You are all starving!” “I ignore the starvation rules, they don’t come in till 3e!” But the real question is, will this really bring the players back in? “Here, you can play at this level that’s 1e…ish?”
I also worry that their attempt to pander to all versions will make them not really innovate with this game. If all they do is try to glue all the old versions together in some demented Multiverser kind of way, in the end is that compelling? Shouldn’t such a game include a new “5e” as well which is an actual improvement on the game?
Here’s a secret. We grognards don’t love Pathfinder, and 2e, and 1e (in my preferred order) because they are perfect. There’s a lot of BS and cruft in them. Except for the total nostalgia whores who demand everything be as Gygax originally spit it out because they are into that, the reason we like those old games is the level of hassle they give or don’t give us and the mode of gameplay they promote.
Here’s what I like and dislike about all the editions, let’s see if they can include all the good and remove all the bad.
- Basic D&D – low hassle, low rules, low character customization (side note – comparing this new toolkit plan to BECMI is largely incorrect; in BECMI you got newer higher levels added on and a couple rules, but the ruleset didn’t transform or anything.) Lightly handled all styles of play really. I just lump 0e into here because I can’t understand how anyone actually does still like 0e. Very rules light and dungeon/exploration focused.
I love this edition because it gives you the basics and then gets out of your way and lets you go adventuring.
I hate this edition because once you’ve played it a while you tend to “want more” though.
- 1e AD&D – somewhat crufty and arcane, but usually not during combat itself. Low powered, you had to fight hard to stay alive, no level appropriate kid gloves. Exploration focus still. Not much character customization supported by the rules, mainly by personality plus whatever mutation White Plume Mountain inflicted on you. The golden age of the adventure module.
I love this edition because it is very easy to write a diverse set of adventures for and to house rule.
I hate this edition because there’s a charming level of wonkiness to the rules, but it’s underlaid by a not charming at all level of cruftiness you need to house rule away.
- 2e AD&D – not all that different, more of a streamlined 1e (I like it better than 1e), but the supplements and adventures that came out for it promoted more of a storytelling and roleplaying experience. Not as much focus on the dungeon, but kinda like Basic had nods to wilderness, dungeon, city, planar, etc. You were a fraction tougher than in 1e but still weren’t a superhero. Lots more character customization via kits etc. (Those who say kits were unbalanced haven’t played subsequent games – “Oh lordy he gets a +1 to something!” was a big deal back then, but nowadays they all seem like short bus prestige classes.) NWPs provide a very, very loose skill system. (I actually added Perception and Luck stats to my 2e games.) The golden age of the boxed set. TSR adventures were not that good and were often retreads.
I love this edition because it hits a great midpoint of rules complexity – it has the more rules content of 1e but via THAC0 and other streamlining, makes it less work than 1e to play, but more satisfying over a long time than Basic.
I hate this edition – well, mainly for historical reasons. Death of TSR, Lorraine Williams, giant space hamsters, Castle Greyhawk, bad adventures.
- 3e AD&D – you start off a Billy Badass. 3.5e and Pathfinder cranked that up even more. Lots of character customization, arguably too much. Lots of helpful slash painful rules for everything. 3.0 core I actually really love, but am more ambivalent when you say 3.5 or PF with all the splatbooks. You stopped being able to house rule as much in this version because of how many rules they were and how much they interacted – you kinda had to just allow/disallow things and maybe if you spent a lot of time balancing it, introduce a new prestige class or whatever. Balance became a lot more of a concern in this edition, mainly because with the customization you could have wildly varying power levels at the same character level. More of a combat focus than 2e, especially with all the minis-requiring flanking/AoO/etc rules. The golden age of the adventure module come again, but from all those third party OGL folks. WotC adventures were not that good and often retreads.
I love this edition because it lets you craft much more detailed and realistic characters, with the multiclassing and feats and all.
I hate this edition because there are all these damn rules, and your players think it’s their place to grouse when you don’t use them or change them.
- 4e AD&D – purely tactical combat. Less character customization choice but highly balanced. “I just like moving minis around and playing a board game.” There are actual good changes to the core ruleset in there, but then they layer goofy stuff all over it so that combats are a four hour long exercise in marking tokens with other tokens.
I hate this edition because it removes nearly everything I enjoy in roleplaying.
I love this edition because its flat reception has caused Wizards to pull their heads out of their asses and reassess what it is people liked out of D&D in the first place.
I’m very, very, very interested to see how they want to implement this ascending complexity modularity thing. I mean, these guys are in the know about the game… maybe I want my scepticism to be wrong…
The point is, they *aren’t* in the know. They are actually asking the players for direction, and there have been a lot of generations of players over the past thirty years. I talked with David Sutherland III about this very thing in the late 1990s when they fired him. He was of the opinion that there were no actual gamers at the helm of the company anymore, and the ones that remained were given very little say in what the company produced. This was in 1997 – you can imagine the downward slide since then.
What have you got left to consult out there? I posit two groups – the grognards still playing the game in their 50s, who have one set of expectations, and the youngsters who have never lived in a world without personal computers.
As far as 4E moving to pure tactical combat, that brings the game full circle, back to its roots as a wargame. Didn’t they come out with Chainmail and get the ball rolling in order to get *away* from that in 1974?
To be fair, if you go on the WotC website, there are several different people who are running on-going campaigns that involve a number of the high-up people at WotC. Chris Perkins is always writing about his game and Shelly Mazzanoble writes about DMing for the first time and her exploits as a fairly new player (she was originally hired into WotC as HR or something like that). So gaming IS actually done at WotC.
I’m wondering if the point in this whole “play at whatever level of proficiency you like” design is partly to bring in new players (good luck) since you could start everyone in a group at the basic level then start adding complexity when people actually start perusing the rules and getting the gist of the system. In term of marketing, it might work out well for them since in 4E (and to a degree in 3.X) a lot of groups just let the DM buy the books and sit back and let them figure out character sheets (since poorly done math by the player rarely disadvantaged the player only the monsters they were slaying) and they would occasionally (every level or so) would look through the book to pick some new thing. With differing complexities (and likely some minor imbalancing due to that), the players might let the DM buy the core books, but if one person also buys the books and starts to pick some neat options, the rest of the player base might actually buy some books to see what they can add on to make their character more interesting. Note that this may not mean “more KICKASS!!!!”, but actually more interesting. Think kits in 2E only with a better level of consistency around balance. People starting picking kits to get extra proficiencies, but the good ones also had interesting background positives and negatives (while the bad ones only had 5 extra non-weapon proficiencies and a social negative that only applied in, say, Dark Sun).
I don’t know how well things will be structured to allow the different editions to be worked together (messy is an understatement), but I like to think that you could throw something together that is workable. The only question is if you can make it workable without having a subscription to an over-rated piece-of-crap character builder to do all the math for you…
And I thought I was the only one who had ever heard of Multiverser.
I’m cautiously pessimistic about 5e—which is exactly the opposite of cautiously optimistic. I expect it’ll not be a game I like, since the core principles of design that we can glean from Wizards’ overall work on D&D aren’t anything that interests me. But I could be wrong—I’m cautiously pessimistic.
I do so very much hope this “levels of complexity” system is done and done well. I think there are many kids—adults too—who want to get involved but do not want to feel like they are doing a tax return for Exxon Mobil just to get up and running. learning when playing is the best way to do it but if you are 7-10 a simple system could ease you in and once interested and playing the next tier could be explored once the first tier of complexity becomes boring. The hard core gamers could just skip all the simple aspects and layer it all on thick like a huge onion a million layers deep. This could also be accomplished with different books. Even my 5 year old son is asking about playing. The simple way I explained D&D to him is pretty much how it should be written. Adventure stories, choices, roll the dice to see how it happens. Almost like those choose your own adventure books for kids. WotC would be gaining access to a vast market as all the 40sometings kids come of age to play and we decide to jump on board with them for the nostalgia ride into the castle once again.