A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Pleading the Fifth

If you're reading this blog, odds are you're aware of Wizards of the Coast's announcement that the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons is currently in development.

I have refrained from posting about it because I didn't want to take part in all the rampant speculation as to what this version will entail. But one thing does concern me: the above announcement has the subtitle "Your Voice, Your Game" and describes how they will "gather feedback" to create a game "that you want to run and play."

In other words, they're asking the public what they want in D&D. This, quite honestly, could backfire.

Picture this: gather 100 random people. Now ask each of them what kind of toppings they want on their pizza. Many of them will like similar things, and there is the possibility that certain toppings might count for a significant majority... But there are going to be those that want the "weird" stuff - like anchovies or pineapple (yeah, I said it!) - and will insist that their choices are the best and not care what people think. They may even scream it out loud for everyone to hear, try to convince others that their choice of toppings are the best by explicitly describing their reasons, and rail on those that think otherwise and suggest that pepperoni on a pizza is almost as bad as murdering kittens. And there are going to be several that don't care, want a list of options so they can choose, are vegetarian, are lactose intolerant, are allergic to tomatoes, would rather have a sub, want pizza slices cut in to squares, etc... etc...

And then there are those that might want something totally oddball. For example, I know of at least one person that tried to convince me that squid on a pizza was a good idea. Really? Squid?!?

I trust the team that WotC has chosen to develop the next edition, and I know that they will do their best to create a game I and many others will want to play. But I do not envy their job; it's going to be a hard road to travel, filled with landmines and potholes. I trust they will see their way through it.

Now, what do I want out of the next version of D&D... As far as game mechanics, I'm not going to make requests. I liked 3.5 and I liked 4E, so I see no reason to hate the next version regardless of how they decide to structure it. I would much rather leave the discussions of mechanics to people more qualified to do so: designers and players alike that have played the game consistantly since the day it was created.

What I *am* interested in is the licensing aspects of the new version, and what may happen to the extremely restrictive 4E GSL. But there's a problem with that: although Cook and Mearls are in charge of designing the new game mechanic,  they are not responsible for the licensing. The licensing is in the hands of lawyers, an anonymous group hiding in the dark corners of WotC (or New York, as the case may be), and they are not the type of folk to ask the masses for suggestions on how they should license their money maker. But there has been hints that the licensing will be different, and I think that many of the non-lawyers at WotC realize the inherent flaws in the GSL, so there's hope still.

So what does this mean for publishing? As a third party publisher, we're now in a difficult situation. We could continue to create content for 4E, but in light of the announcement there mauy be several fans out there that would rather not invest in 4E - or abandon it entirely - in anticipation of the new version. Now I know that 4E isn't "dead" - there are at least three hardcover books on the schedule in 2012, so I don't think WotC is going to go dark with 4E content until the next edition comes out - but you have to wonder what kind of impact the announcement will have on their 4E product line this year.

Currently I have a few products currently in development:

  • The Heart of Fire, a 4E adventure for a party of 10th level. This module is 95% done; it only needs a few remaining scenes written up and I need to commission some artwork (including a map of the island on which it takes place). This will continue as scheduled, and if all goes well should be released within the next 2-3 weeks.
  • The Coming Dark, was to be a 4E adventure for a party of 1st level. This module was created almost a year ago, and since then I have learned a great deal about campaign design in the D&D world. As a result, I see a lot of flaws in its design (my main issue being that it could be classified as being "on rails")... so I intend to rewrite most of the module from scratch. As a result, I have decided to hold off this campaign until it can be created and released under the next edition of D&D. This of course means that it will not see the light of day for at least another year, but if it means it'll be a better product and fill the need for new content once the new edition of D&D comes out, it'll work out for the best.
  • There are at least three different module concepts I have floating around in my head right now. If they end up being small delve-like campaigns, I might release them under the 4E GSL as well. But I might also hold off some of them until I can begin their development under the new edition. We'll see how things go between now and then.

The next couple of months are going to be an interesting time. It'll surely be a fun read on Twitter, at least.

NOTE: As you may have noticed in the above, I try to refrain from calling it the "fifth edition" or "D&D Next" (as it is being called on Twitter). Right now it has no name, so I don't want to start referring to it by something that it's not. Hopefully we'll know what to call it soon.

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  1. I agree with your thoughts. I can say given my “real career” as a software Product Manager that “design by committee” rarely yields the best results. That said, gathering user feedback and watching users play is incredibly valuable. What do you like? What do you not like? Why don’t you like it? But hopefully at the end they have a strong vision of what the game needs to be.

    The “version that brings together all the other versions” sounds too squishy to me. When I hear that, in my head I think frameworks (e.g. “GURPS” and the like.)

    As for naming (D&D Next, etc.), interestingly both Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook have used the following expression on their blogs to describe what they’re working on”…a project that will likely evolve into a new iteration of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset”. To you use that exact same expression by two different folks leads me to believe some Marketing folks are already involved ;^)

    PS: for my own published material, I’ve abandoned the 4E projects I had in the works to convert to the Goodman Games’ DCC RPG to be released in the spring… beta rules now available. I will look into re-converting to “the project that will likely evolve into a new iteration of Dungeons & Dragons ruleset” when said ruleset is made available to me 🙂

  2. Of course, there is another piece to the puzzle. The press releases have also stressed that this will be a modular game. The posts from the early playtesters indicate that the core of the game is already designed, at least in large part.

    So, instead of a pizza analogy, maybe it is a taco bar. The designers have already settled on a crunchy shell, and have a pretty kick-ass (in their opinion) beef mixture going.

    Playtest is going to settle a few questions. Is the beef too spicy, not spicy enough, etc.? That’s going to largely boil down to a majority vote. Some people will vote for chicken. Or tofu. Those people are going to be largely ignored, because we’re making beef tacos here. (I.e., we aren’t going to even entertain certain suggestions for core mechanics because they diverge too far from “D&D”.)

    More importantly, though, it’s going to tell WotC what toppings to put out on the bar. Do you want lettuce (aka highly tactical combat)? Do you want sour cream (aka Vancian magic)? Do you want pineapple (aka FATE-style aspects)? The team can then look at the feedback, and select (and tweak) the available toppings accordingly.

    Then, when each player/group steps up to the bar, they only have to worry about whether they like the base taco. Everything else gets added to taste.

    As a note, I think this is theoretically possible, but would be such a logistical, design, and PR nightmare that I have only a slim hope that they could pull it off.

    Also, to be frank, I don’t think that actual impact on the design is going to be the primary goal of the open playtest. Instead, it is going to be used to build community and goodwill. It is also going to be used to counter one of the major bugs people complain about in 4e: errata.

  3. I agree, design by committee is bad (also that pineapple on pizza is gross), but I think this open playtest is a good idea. I agree with Lugh, WOTC has learned from Paizo’s sucess that an open playtest is excellent PR and advertising. They will also probably go about it in the same way as Paizo – by presenting an already largely finished product rather than using the community to build it from scratch.