Where’s D&D Going?

Posted on February 28, 2011 by


I never really do posts like this, but I thought it would be fun to throw my speculative hat into the ring along with every other blogger out there making claims about D&D and what the future holds not only for 4e, but for the brand.

This is all speculation and wild theory, just for fun.  I’m not an insider, nor have I ever claimed to be.  That said, I do follow with interest a lot of D&D stuff on the web, forums, and twitter.  So where do I think D&D is headed?

My gut tells me we are headed towards another edition of the game.  An edition very different from 4e, and in fact, much closer to old school D&D.  I think we may see this edition in 2014.  Let me try to briefly explain why I think this to be the case.

First, a few points:

  • Mike Mearls is now in charge of the D&D brand.  Mike is an old school D&D lover.  He plays AD&D, a lot.  He has a lot of respect for the old game.
  • D&D will turn 40 years old in 2014.  An anniversary is a great time to launch a new edition, don’t you think?
  • There is a lot of AD&D being played at the WOTC offices.  If you don’t believe me, follow the developers on twitter.  They’re always talking about it.
  • D&D Minis have been canceled.  Say what you will, but those minis and the design of the game probably were made to go hand in hand.
  • 4e releases has slowed down for the year.  Does that mean a slow down in 4e (non digital) materials for the rest of the edition’s life?  We don’t know.

So let me try to make an argument here, using the above points.   Mike Mearls plays a lot of AD&D, you just have to read his old personal blog to see this.  This doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t play 4e.  Of course he does, he’s in charge of it.  But his love for the older D&D will eventually cross pollinate his design decisions as leader of the brand.  Why wouldn’t they?

D&D turns 40 years old in 3 years.  Why is that significant?  Well, D&D 4e was announced in 2007, and released in 2008.  But there was work being done as far back as 2005 on it, based on the 4e preview books that were released before 4e debuted.  If an “Ultimate Dungeons & Dragons” edition were to be released just in time for the anniversary, now would be the time to start work on it.  “Ultimate” edition, you ask?  I’ll get to that in a bit.

AD&D being played in the office can be a very subjective thing, but I’m going to place my bets on that being part of the whole “researching” a new edition thing.  Why?  Well, if you are going to take D&D back to its roots, you need to understand those roots and have experience with them.  Playing D&D on a morning at 9am-10am isn’t being done for fun, that’s work.  Of course, again, this is all my opinion and I can be waaayyyyy off base.

The cancellation of D&D Minis is interesting to me.  First and foremost, I’m of the believer that the shift in 3.5 to a more minis focused play over 3.0 was to have synergy with the minis line.  You can say no till you’re blue in the face, but corporate America loves synergies and profits.  And D&D is very much a part of corporate America, no matter how nice and approachable the designers are.  They have corporate heads over them just like everyone else.   It is what it is.  So why keep spending money on minis if they aren’t profitable, and your next edition of the game won’t require them?  It makes little sense.

4e releases slowing down leads me to believe that we’re finally witnessing the transition of 4e to an online product, rather than physical media.  The errata silliness, the constant rules updates, and the steady stream of DDI cash flow make digital a better model.  Plain and simple.  Perhaps they think that they can hold players over with board games, organized play and DDI articles in the meantime.  If 4e is slowing down, is it to get their best and brightest working on the next D&D?  What I call “Ultimate”?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s fun to speculate.

So what do I expect this “Ultimate 40th Anniversary D&D” to look like?  I’m seeing a game that combines both old school mechanics, with newer game design theories.  I’m seeing a game that can be both grid based, or gridless, depending on your style.  I’m seeing less focus on encounters, and more focus on roleplaying and story, while still easily enabling a heavy tactical nature to it for those players that enjoy it.  I’m seeing conversion documents for easily translating older AD&D adventures to the “Ultimate” format.  Adventures that, of course, will be available for purchase on their site as pdf’s.

WOTC can’t be blind to the fact that there are a large number of people playing old school games, and a large number of people that have left D&D altogether because of the direction that the game has taken in the past few years.  The version of D&D I’m speculating on may just be what brings these people back to the fold.

Then there were the two following “Legends and Lore” articles by Mike Mearls:

In an article called “Miniature Madness” Mike wrote about the use of minis through the years, then wrote the following:

The argument in favor of the 3.5/4th Edition approach (4th Edition uses the same design philosophy) is that everyone at the table easily and clearly understands how cover and similar rules work. A player doesn’t need to ask the DM if a creature has cover. He draws the imaginary lines and fires away with the appropriate modifier. This makes things easier for the DM, because he doesn’t have to learn as many rules.

The counter is that the rule is more complex than it needs to be, because it has to create a foolproof method for determining cover without the use of common sense or description. When players can control rules, there’s a natural tendency to find ways to break them. In contrast, with the DM serving as impartial referee, you can write a simple rule that’s easy to learn and easy to apply. You don’t have to worry about strange corner cases because the DM—as part of making the judgment call required to determine cover—can simple cast aside absurd results.

I definitely fall into the second camp as both DM and player. As a player, I’m lazy. I’d rather just ask the DM if there’s cover and be done with it. As a DM, I’d rather learn a simple method that doesn’t require me to draw lines, mess with the grid, or otherwise break out of the action’s flow. Ironically, I like using miniatures, but I much prefer rules as tools rather than rules as arbiters.

So is what Mike saying here is that he prefers the old school approach?  That’s how I’m reading it.  That’s telling, coming from the guy in charge of the game moving forward.  But even more importantly, they added a poll at the end, asking people for their opinion on the grid and minis:

Your Turn to Weigh In

Now we’ve come to the part of the column where I turn things over to you. At the end of the day, do you want the grid to answer questions or do you want the DM to make a call based on the rules? Does the 3.0 or 3.5/4 approach work better for you? Does my opinion paint me as an idiot or a genius, or something in the middle?

The 3rd Edition of D&D had rules for cover that required the DM to apply a rule to a situation using his or her judgment and common sense. The 3.5 update (and 4th Edition) created a hard and fast rule for determining cover that removed the DM’s judgment.

I don’t think you take polls if you intend to do nothing with the data.  Just my opinion.  I may be off base here, but I get the feeling that Mike is looking at old school D&D a lot more today than in 2005-06.  Why?  Well, again, my opinion is that it’s a new edition being worked on.

The other article I want to point to was Mike’s recent love letter to players of all editions of D&D:

When we look at the past, we see how we played the game and learn where it started. As we move forward from D&D’s beginning, we see how the game changed, why it changed, and how we changed in response. When we understand the sum of those 38 years of changes, we can understand the present. We can see the big picture, the tale that extends from 1973 (the year Gary signed the foreword to the Original Edition) to today. A cycle emerges, as each version of the game represents a shift from one gaming generation to the next. What I’d like to do in this column is inspect that cycle, take it apart, and use it to look to the future.

What I got out of the article was basically an olive branch being extended to all D&D players, regardless of what version of the game they play, and regardless of what company makes it.  Would WOTC want these players back?  You bet your butt they would.

So to close this out, I’ll restate my prediction:  Dungeons & Dragons Ultimate Edition, released in 2014.  It will incorporate rules for both abstract, and tactical combat, it will be heavily influenced by early D&D, and it will be made to hopefully appeal to old school players, as well as current players of the game.  It will be announced in 2013, and is currently in development.  It will bring back the sale of older pdf’s to the market, as it will be made to easily use that material with some easy conversion work by the players.

Am I completely off base?  Probably, yeah.  But it’s fun to speculate.  I can’t wait to read your comments.


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Posted in: 4e D&D, Gaming