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A New Edition of D&D Designed to Unite D&D Players -- Can It Be Done?

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There's a lot of talk in some areas of the Net about the next official edition of D&D. Some people think that WOTC will try to create an edition of D&D that will bring back not only Pathfinder players but players who prefer even older editions while retaining the 4e fan base.

Personally, I do not believe that any new edition of D&D could appeal enough to all D&D players that it will be their "go to" edition of D&D. What people want and need out of a set of D&D rules varies so much that, in my opinion, it would be impossible to handle this in one set of rules. After all, many of the "must have features" of one group of D&D players directly contradict the "must have features" of other groups of D&D players. Here's a list of twelve examples of the type of "must have features" problems that would somehow have to be overcome to create this visionary edition that reunifies the D&D hobby.

  1. Some people want rules that are light in the crunch department, some people want lots of mechanical crunch in the rules. It would be hard to truly satisfy both in one game.
  2. Some people want the details of every likely action accounted for in the rules with official modifiers written by the game designers so all they have to do is find them in the rules and apply them. Others don't want that level of detail, they'd rather just assign the mods they feel fit the situation instead of "wasting time" looking them up. In theory, I guess you could satisfy both camps by supplying all the modifiers in a supplemental "Book of Modifiers" that only players and GMs who want "official mods for everything" needed to buy.
  3. Some people want fast combat (say 15 minutes real time max) and don't want a lot of tactical detail as combat isn't the core fun in their games -- and therefore they don't want it taking up a lot of play time. Others want detailed tactical combat that uses minis, battlemats, 3-D terrain, etc. (with rules for using all that) and want the combat rules to be very detailed -- and do not mind if combats take 45-90 minutes of play time each (and perhaps even longer for "boss" combats) because combat encounters are the core fun for the players in their games. Worse, more than the first two points I listed, this is a spectrum with many people wanting medium length combats somewhere in the middle. One could handle this like GURPs with a Basic (and fast) combat system for the people who want very fast and abstract and an an advanced (and somewhat slower) combat system for those who want more focus on combat (with lots of optional rules for those who want even more detail and don't mind the even longer battles). The game rules would have to include both from day one, however -- you could not pick one and add the other in a supplement next year as you'd lose the camp you put off to the supplement.
  4. Then there are two types of combat tactics to account for. Some people want combat tactics confined to "real world tactics" (i.e. attacking from the rear gives an advantage, defending from high ground is better, etc.) while others want what I call "rules manipulation tactics" where tactical advantage comes from knowing the mechanical combat rules and manipulating them for an advantage in combat (4e combat is an excellent example). People who want the former generally don't want the latter in their games while people who love the latter often don't even see the former as "tactics".
  5. Some people want character classes that are all equal in combat while others want variety so player interested in combat can take a class that is great in combat while those less interested than take a class whose abilities are mainly non-combat. The latter is easier to provide in a game with very fast, abstract combat as combats do not last long enough for those players playing mainly non-combat classes to get bored. Of course, that doesn't work well in games where combat takes a lot of time to play out. However, assuming everyone is interested in combat is a bad idea even in games where combat takes a long time. Players not interested in combat should not penalize the party's chances of success if all they want to do is roll to hit instead of getting involved in 4e style "character synergy combat" where all players need to be interested in combat and willing to learn to effectively use the rules-based tactics or the entire party suffers.
  6. Some people want high-powered spells in the game even if this means wizards are powerful and can dominate the game at higher levels. Other people want magic (and spell casters) limited -- but often can't agree on how it should be limited.
  7. Some people want a lot of mechanical customization of characters even if this leads to "character optimization" players dominating the game. Other people want some customization but want character optimization really reigned in. Other people don't want much mechanical customization because they want to be able to create characters very quickly -- either because they are causal players who don't want to be bothered or so they can have games with character death is relatively common. Then you have the people who want customization to be limited to just being better (a bonus to some action) at stuff anyone can do (with only stuff that truly requires a special ability to even try limited to only those characters who take a particular customization), while others don't mind limiting things that anyone should be able to try to do to those who have selected a particular customization -- if "knockback" is a feat, they want the rules to prohibit any character from pushing a target being back unless they have taken the feat, no matter how unrealistic this might be.
  8. Some people need monster descriptions to include lots of non-combat info about each monster as they use this to create their adventures and campaigns while others only want combat info on monsters as that's all they use monsters for.
  9. Some people want the game to be based on the player's skill while others want the game to be used on character skill. The two camps are often so divided that they don't even consider the way the other camp plays to be "roleplaying."
  10. Some want a game with lots of limits so they can play in tournaments or organized play with strangers and not have to worry about strange rules interpretations or rules abuse by the GM or other players. Others have no interest in tournaments or organized play on don't want the game designed around the needs of tournaments and organized play.
  11. Vancian magic: Some people hate it with a passion while others don't consider a game without it to really be D&D.
  12. Some people want the rules designed to somehow reign in those they consider to be "bad GMs", others don't want average or good GM limited in an attempt to stop bad GMs.

There are of course many more design points in D&D where you not only cannot please everyone but are likely to actually drive away those who want the "opposite" of the decision the designer made. However, I think that just these points show that would be almost impossible for a single edition of D&D to satisfy all D&D players.

Note for edition warriors: Please understand that none of the incompatible "options" I mention above are objectively right or wrong, they are just "right" to the players who want them and "wrong" to those who would not play in game with them unless forced at gunpoint. What you need from a D&D rules set to be willing to play is just as valid as what I need from a D&D rules set to be willing to play -- even if they are completely incompatible with each other. Where D&D is concerned, there is no one true way. That's a huge problem for anyone who wants to design a new edition of D&D that most (let alone "almost all") players of previous editions are likely to switch to.

13 comments:
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Rainforest Giant said...
August 27, 2011 at 11:28 AM  

Official D&D whether run by WOTC or whomever comes after, will not be able to satisfy everyone. With OGL and the proliferation of better presented, better written, and free or semi-free games out there the WOTC's job just keeps getting tougher.

Whatever they do it will be whistling past the graveyard as far as I am concerned. They have lost me as a customer before I even became interested in the game again (I stopped playing in the early 80s). They will probably be able to remain propped up by other offerings, nostalgia, name recognition, and just plain laziness for a long time to come. I just won't be doing the propping.

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Jeff Rients said...
August 27, 2011 at 11:30 AM  

All these problems can be overcome by reconceiving of D&D as coreless. No core rules, only a panoply of options that can be clicked into or out of existence for individual tables. All previous editions become accessible under this scheme. Basically reimagine D&D as a wiki you select options from to construct your own personalized rulebook.

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James said...
August 27, 2011 at 11:44 AM  

What Jeff said.

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JB said...
August 27, 2011 at 12:55 PM  

Personally, I think an attempt at an edition that woos everyone (Old Schoolers, Pathfinders, 4th Ed'rs) is a fools' errand. You're only likely to alienate everyone (though possibly creating a new fan base).

Randall, I think your post does a good job of highlighting how different players want different things from their games (they have different objectives of game play) even as they all want to play a fantasy game called "Dungeons & Dragons." What's wrong with a game company simply publishing different versions of the same game? TSR published AD&D and (BECMI) D&D at the same time, WotC published 3rd Edition and a boardgamey "Chainmail" at the same time...and in the oldest of days there was OD&D, B/X, and AD&D all being offered by the same company at the same time!

Why only one system? Is it just an attempt to monopolize marketshare? Is it just an attempt to maximize profits (by junking an entire edition and making everyone pony up a couple hundred bucks for a new set of "core" books)?

Actually, I don't really have a dog in this fight, because I've already decided to NEVER PURCHASE A HASBRO/WOTC PRODUCT EVER AGAIN. But I can't help shake my head when I think of people considering methods of unifying a fractured fanbase. I think the "D&D Community" was probably shattered irreparably from the first moment an "advanced" version of the game was published.

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DuBeers said...
August 27, 2011 at 2:23 PM  

I'm thinking a unification of the fan-base is a fine, if lofty, ideal. Unfortunately, it is an ideal I cannot envision ever being achieved.

With OD&D you have the TLBB only crowd, the TLBB + GH guys, the All the Supplements guys.

With BD&D you have Holmes versus Moldvay versus Mentzer versus Cyclopedia factions.

With AD&D you have the pre-UA crowd and the "anything before 2e" crowd.

With 2nd Edition AD&D it is the core books versus the splat books.

And that is just the edition warfare I know; I'm pretty sure similar dust-up occur in 3e (core versus splat versus Pathfinder) and 4e (book versus box). A reasonable person would think that within each of those broad categories (at least) there would be a degree of support and unity. Such is not the case.

And with what I've witnessed on-line I'm sad to say I believe that "One Edition to Rule Them All" will never happen.

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anarchist said...
August 27, 2011 at 2:48 PM  

13 Some people want their characters to be at risk of dying, some don't, and some want to feel like their characters could die but don't want it to actually happen.

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Rainforest Giant said...
August 27, 2011 at 3:44 PM  

Pen and pencil games are a sideshow. Really a sideshow of a sideshow. The console games rule them all with rpgs a small subset of console games. Pen and pencil rpgs are an afterthought behind everything electronic.

While I love tabletop rpgs (I wouldn't be here otherwise) I know that there is no renaissance in sight. Is it possible for D&D to appeal to all pencil and paper folks? I give that a qualified, slim, unlikely shading to impossible.

Simple marketing and game politics alone have created people who will never purchase anything from WOTC (two at least on this thread alone). With the hard feelings left over from the OGL adoption/abandonment some would be wary for business reasons.

A wiki type of set up might work but you cannot sell a wiki. You might be able to let people pick and play but you'd make no money. Let's not forget Hasbro isn't interested in a good game, a hobby, or rpgs for their own sake. If they cannot make them metric ass-loads of money Hasbro wants nothing to do with the D&D.

Sure they might want to keep movie, toy, tie-in rights and they'd jump on rpgs if they thought there was money involved but but that is it.

D&D as a major pop phenomenon had its day. Just like garage bands, tie-dyes or afros, they might make a small niche/nostalgia comeback but we will never see D&D played by even half of its former percentage of the population again. It certainly won't command the same fraction of leisure dollars that it used to. Population changes, different interests, culture change, and other options have taken D&D out of the mainstream for good.

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Icarus said...
August 27, 2011 at 6:45 PM  

@Rainforest Giant
The times, they're a changin man..

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Timeshadows said...
August 28, 2011 at 5:12 AM  

@Jeff Rients: How would the IP owner make a profit in that 'version'?

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Randall said...
August 28, 2011 at 1:02 PM  

@JB: I agree with you: the best solution is to sell multiple versions of D&D. Given that WOTC already has most of their pre-4e material converted to PDF, there's really no reason not to sell it. Even at only 4 or 5 bucks an item, that material could be generating profit with little or no upfront cost (since places like DriveThruGames take a cut of the sale price). They would not even have to produce any new material for the old games, just let people who like edition X and its products buy it instead of losing all the business of people who like D&D but don't like their current edition.

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Randall said...
August 28, 2011 at 1:06 PM  

@JB: I agree, selling multiple editions is probably the only way to satisfy almost everyone who likes D&D. As WOTC has almost all the D&D product prior to 4e in PDF form, they really have no reason not to sell it there would be little to no upfront costs associated with doing so -- and they have already seen that they can't force everyone to go to their latest edition by removing the material from the market.

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Robert Fisher said...
August 29, 2011 at 2:04 PM  

You could certainly craft a game that could be all things to all gamers, but there is little point. What is gained by pretending two groups that are really playing completely different games are playing the same game? That just breeds and exacerbates the sort of confusion we already have from (at least) three very different games calling themselves D&D over the years. And people like me will readily stick to games we have rather than deal with the info overload of such a grand unified system. One of the reasons I prefer the games I do is their concision.

As for making money, that is a (relatively) simple thing. There are three ways: 1. Size your investment in a property according to what the market will bear. Trying to trick the market into spending more will only come back to bite you in the long run. (Though, if you work for some companies, no one stays around long enough to be worried about the long run.) 2. Diversify. Betting the company on one property is foolish, which is why early TSR or Wizards since they bought TSR has never done that. 3. If you have a valuable brand, license it.

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Savagist said...
December 20, 2011 at 7:29 AM  

systems are irrelevant at this point. all you need is a base system of guidelines (D&D, AD&D, 2E), a decent improvisational storyteller, and players who are willing to Weird Out together. thats the recipe

game mechanics has gotten so overly convoluted that it just reeks of calculator brained people who want to crush abstractions-as-numbers more than they want to use their imagination (its similar to the MMO-ist who is just figuring out the most economic way to reduce numbers to 0 while raiding). the "problem-solving" becomes accounting instead of creating an imaginative scaffolding with friends where you creatively solve problems through exploration, questions, improvisation, etc. old school gaming is an artistry more than it is a rigid mathematical exercise.

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