Given the rise of knee-jerk reactionary bloggers in recent years, it serves as no surprise that a swell of criticism has arisen passing premature judgment on the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Coupled with this has been a marked rise in extremist opinions with few voices balancing the median. Even amongst my circle, I have friends that will swear on a stack of carpet samples that this new edition is the best thing to come from WOTC in ten years, while others believe it D&D’s final requiem.
It’s no longer worth concealing my involvement with the “friends & family playtest”—the version released before the open rules everyone has been talking about. With the prior version, I had brought to light a serious issue involving spells, a mechanic I’m happy to see has been addressed, confirming that feedback is being taken into account. My only remaining worry is that the pillars of this new system will never be changed even if fan response proves them unpopular. One of these ideological foundations is the apparent obsession in recreating the perfect storm churned up by 3rd Edition, effectively disregarding the contributions of 4th Edition. The common complaint I’ve been reading recently is the similarity between this new edition with 3rd Edition and the lack of any carryover from 4th, peculiar considering the apparent assumed consensus that 4th Edition was a disaster on the same scale of New Coke and Highlander 2.
We’ve been told repeatedly that these new rules are in flux and will most certainly undergo several revisions before the end, so going on a Diablo 3 Error 37-type rant would be foolish to the say the least. However, we can already see some of the huge overarching concepts the designers are hoping will win over old and new fans alike. Some I believe may work, while others may require a quantum of additional definition, which is intrinsically my ultimate issue with these new rules. Yes, I know the designers intend simplicity, but I fear that the end goal of simplicity may sacrifice clarity. Defining something does not add complexity, especially when involving murky rules players will argue over during a game. One of these involves the lack of move and minor actions. You can have an action and you can move, but a move is not a move action; it’s just a move. You can recover hit points via a short rest, but you employ a bizarre mechanic involving your hit dice, an attempt to avoid the inclusion of healing surges. Definitions allow homebrew DMs to redefine them. Definitions remove doubt, which is why I appreciated the inclusion of conditions.
I’ll admit having conflicting opinions regarding this new system. As a DM, I could care less how my players make their characters; all I desire is an effortless combat system and monsters which can be played with little prep. 4th Edition addressed these, but in this new version, one monster can cast spells—because nothing says speedy combat like a DM having to flip through a Player’s Handbook. On the other hand, I liked the idea of players having a wide range options available, something I fear this new edition limits, but the side effect of that was 4th Edition being convoluted. In retrospect, power-cards probably weren’t the best course of action, but the release of Essentials rectified that. In fact, if I was a game developer at WOTC, I would have held Essentials back and started this new approach with Essentials as my model for 5th edition, with the one additional stipulation of doing away with “encounters”. Alas, this did not occur, and Essentials was brushed under the rug like a disobedient puppy’s mistake.
Addressing these new rules, there are various mechanics I’m happy to find, like backgrounds and themes. Like bringing back Medium armor. Like the novel approach to Disadvantage and Advantage. Like replacing saving throws with ability checks. Like incorporating rituals into spells instead of them being a separate set of rules. These are great ideas, slightly tarnished by the bizarre return of dice rolling your hit points per level, monsters casting spells, the absence of defined skills, regaining all your hit points after a long rest, and the bizarre lack of move and minor actions. How far will the designers take this apparent obsession to capture the feel of an old edition while simultaneously trying to convince the gamers that the rules are an evolution rather than a retro-novelty? Only time will tell. One thing is certain, WOTC cannot expect to win over Paizo fans or those still holding onto their old 2nd Edition books. People who like the car they drive cannot be convinced to buy a new car that looks exactly like their old one. If that economics model could be proven to work, Ford wouldn’t have lost their shirt with the embarrassing last-generation Thunderbird.
At least we won’t see THACO again.