Wednesday, January 25, 2012

D&D 5 : The Undiscovered Country

That's right, I just equated 4th Edition to "What does God need with a Starship?"

I am delighted and amused by the announcement of 5th Edition. The designer interviews and leaks for it thus far all scream "Oops, 4th Edition was a mistake. Our bad." Dungeons and Dragons was outsold for what I believe is the first time in the RPG market. Half the fans sticking with the previous edition, or its successor, Pathfinder. The designers threw out the baby, and kept the bathwater.

I was put in a position to defend 4th Edition the other day, which annoyed me, but I should be clear - it is decent at what it does. And what it does is gamist tactical grid-based combat. There is a certain visceral thrill in moving the DM's monster pieces into disadvantageous positions on the board and ultimately killing them. I'm in two 4th Edition games right now, and they're better than sitting around and watching television.

What 4th Edition lacks is a heart - the core of D&D, for me, is the roleplaying experience. And 4th Edition graciously allows you to do that. If you want. It's not combat, and therefore not important, so they didn't make any real rules for it, but you can.

It also lacks a soul - as gamist as previous editions have been, there were always simulationist elements to the game to make you feel as if it were self-consistent - not realistic in the traditional sense of the word, but that such a world, given these assumptions, could exist. It's a kind of plausibility that aids in suspension of disbelief, and therefore, aids in immersion. Which facilitates roleplaying.

An aside : My Monday night gaming group had a little Edition War - well, more like an edition skirmish - brought on by the DM's increasing frustration with 4E. He illustrated one of the problems thusly : "A bard gets up on stage and performs. Then she (indicating the party's PC bard) gets up on stage and performs. Who was better?" 4E has no mechanism that's truly appropriate for that. Charisma check, at best. I expanded on his example : "Then my Paladin gets on stage!" The DM nodded. "Because he says he can play an instrument! And he's a blacksmith now, too!" I agreed, "That's right, I forge my own instruments!"

Instead of a diverse array of options with unique flavor, we get vague, flavorless classes that really only differ from one another because of flavor text. Instead of realism, we get rigid balance and silly kludges to keep anything from detracting from the combat. It's a fantasy boardgame. I enjoy those from time to time, but it's not a substitute for a roleplaying game.

So now we have 5th Edition, putting 4th Edition on record as the shortest-lived incarnation of Dungeons and Dragons since the release of 1st Edition AD&D. And I'm a little bit excited for it. It sounds like they're making an honest effort to appeal to their entire fanbase, with a modular rules system that allows different players to essentially mimic whichever edition's playstyle they want in building their character, yet still play together. It sounds ambitious, but I can see how they could do it.

I'm hoping that we'll see a partially point-based system with the new edition - rather than getting a feat with your new level, you get a certain number of character points to spend, which would buy a feat, or maybe pool with other points to buy something cooler. You could make the system tiered - Basic, Middle, and Advanced - where the basic player has a handful of options, the middle player gets the points and can spend them more freely, and perhaps the advanced player doesn't even have a class - he gets a pool of points to buy abilities a la carte.

Whatever they come up with, the open playtest period (over a year's worth) is a good idea to get people looking at D&D again who may have migrated to other games, so I will give it a shot - I signed up to participate in the playtesting.

But I'm still going to laugh at each and every one of the people who mocked 3rd Edition diehards when we complained at the release of 4th Edition. 'You'll still have your books, they can't take those away from you!' 'What's the problem, you can still play the old game!' Justice at last. Of course, it only took five years, to maybe 'at last' is unnecessary.

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