The Now 400 Pound Gorilla Has Awoken

…and he’s looking to put on a few hundred pounds.

Today, Wizards of the Coasts announced that they are working on the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  They are going to be conducting ongoing open playtests for the next iteration.

“The goals we have set for ourselves are by no means trivial or easy. By involving you in this process, we can build a set of D&D rules that incorporate the wants and desires of D&D gamers around the world. We want to create a flexible game, rich with options for players and DMs to embrace or reject as they see fit, a game that brings D&D fans together rather than serves as one more category to splinter us apart.” — Mike Mearls

Superficially, this mirrors Paizos’ open playtest for their Pathfinder RPG.  The Pathfinder RPG exists, in part, as a response to 4th Edition’s bungled third-party licensing process.  The Pathfinder RPG is solidly rooted in the 3rd Edition of D&D — Thank you Open Gaming License (OGL).  It was further developed, and modified, through an extensive open playtest.  And by some accounts, Pathfinder sales were tied in 2010 and eventually outstripped D&D sales in 2011.

D&D was once the 800 pound gorilla shed much of it’s weight by not providing a clear path from 3rd Edition to 4th Edition, both for players and for vendors.

So today, D&D is again the nerdy kid looking in at the cool kids with their open playtesting, dreaming what every geek dreams…to be invited to the game table.

I have abandoned 4E, because frankly, it doesn’t do it for me.  The classes are far too similar.  The game is so very well balanced that it is boring.  Every combat had so much going on and was so meaningful, which, ultimately reminds me of one of the great lines in the Incredibles:

Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

Personally, I want to see D&D succeed.  D&D is more than a game, it is an icon.  I can say to people “I play role-playing games” and they give me a blank stare.  I can say “I play games like D&D” and they understand.

If this new design direction works to incorporate all flavors of the game…Great.  If it also aids in translating older adventures to the newer format…Great.  If it truly is a modular game that allows me to drop in sub-systems I’m interested in…Great.

And most importantly if it is not released via the OGL or comparable license…It can wither on the vine…because the OGL is what brings everyone to the table.  It is, in my opinion, why Pathfinder and 3E are and were wildly successful.  Having forsaken the OGL, it is why the once 800 pound gorilla has been on starvation rations and looks hungry as hell.

V is for Versions

I’ve been playing and collecting role-playing games since 1987.  And during that time I’ve been part of:

  1. Two versions of Star Frontiers
  2. Three versions of ShadowRun
  3. Three versions of Rolemaster
  4. Three, four or five versions, depending on how you count them, of Dungeons and Dragons
  5. Two versions of Monte Cook‘s Arcana Unearthed
  6. Three versions of Star Wars

Typically, I have embraced these version changes for a variety of reasons.  The first, and probably the most common reason, is that a new version holds the promise of improvements over the previous version.  After all, if the game companies continue to play their own games a better understanding of the system model should emerge.  And if they listen to their customers, an even better understanding can emerge.

Another reason for embracing these versions is that when a new version is released the previous version is commercially put out to pasture.  Any commercial support and future developments are done on the latest version of the game; No new source books, no new adventures, no “sanctioned tweaking” of the rules.

Inevitably, transitioning versions will always leave some people at the curb. Look at the number of computer users still running Windows XP, 98 or, god forbid, Windows ME.  Transition is hard, especially when, from most people’s perspective, things still work.  A new role-playing version doesn’t invalidate the previous version; The dice will still roll for the older version and the hard-copy books remain intact.

In cases of large change Edition Wars erupt; The hold-outs and the adopters bicker over the merits and failings of the editions.  This has been evident the transition from 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons to 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, where the changes between the rules set were quite noticeable.

The Dungeons and Dragons community fragmented with the introduction of the 4th Edition.  I believe the primary reason is that Wizards of the Coast did not release the game under the Open Gaming License, instead using their much more limiting 4th Edition Game System License.  The result was that all 3rd party publishers had to evaluate whether they wanted to play by these new and very limiting rules?  The market spoke, and the 3rd party support for 4th Edition is almost nil, especially when compared to the vast, and continuing, 3rd party support for 3rd Edition. As a result of the Open Gaming License, the core elements of the 3rd Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is very much alive in the successful Pathfinder RPGBased on interviews with retailers, distributors, and manufactures, it appears that Pathfinder RPG is holding it’s own against 4th Edition.

Dungeons and Dragons is the 800 pound gorilla, and in 3rd Edition, the 800 pound gorilla had a tribe of many smaller gorillas.  Now, the once 800 pound gorilla has shed a few pounds, and must share the forest with a 600 pound gorilla.

Ultimately, I believe the game changers for this whole version mess has been the Internet and the Open Gaming License.  Prior to the Internet, information concerning games was rather difficult to get (especially if you were 15 years old).  Now gamers can get lots of information about changes, as well as vent about version fatigue.  More importantly, they can establish communities around their “favorite system.” These communities, morning the loss of support for their favorite editions, can take on the mantle of support, often times in a limited manner, of the system they hold dear (Birthright.net, Alternity.net, StarFrontiersMan.com, and Fight On Magazine! just to name a few) .

Couple the Internet with the Open Gaming License, and suddenly a version of the game need not die. A handful or legion, not quite sure, of intrepid souls have, from the Standard Reference Document and Open Gaming License, managed to rebuild much of the 1st Edition and 2nd Edition (list of Retro Clones) of the Dungeons and Dragons rules-set.  They can’t call it Dungeons and Dragons, as that is the proprietary name.  However, there are Fighters, Illusionists, Dwarves, Elves, Armor Class, Hit Points, 1st level Spells, Saving Throws, etc.