This series of articles was published before D&D Next was announced in early 2012, telling the story of how the respected brand began with The Ghost of D&D Past and continued discussing the effect of 4th Edition in The State of D&D: Present before speculating on the future.
The Ghost of D&D Future
Daunted by the release of the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2008, the future of the roleplaying game industry is unclear. The core books of 4th edition sold well, and the game is still popular among a large section of players, but detractors used memes like Hitler's speech from Downfall to illustrate their rage , while game designers like Justin Alexander carefully examined why the dissociated mechanics of 4th edition didn't work for him. The nerd rage has dulled a bit in the three years since 4th edition, was released, but the tabletop RPG industry is still reeling.
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game.
"A divided D&D is a symptom," said Mike Mearls, the current head of Dungeons & Dragons development at WOTC. "I think the designers have lost faith in the core essence of the RPG."
Mearls came from the OGL [Open Gaming License] era of publishing, during which he was a highly prolific freelance designer. Critics and gamers alike regarded Mearls' Iron Heroes system (2005) as one of the highlights of creativity that the open system could produce. He was hired at WotC soon after, and delved deeply into designing 4th edition with the rest of the team under the direction of former head of development, Bill Slavicsek, and fellow designers Andy Collins and Rob Heinsoo. After their departure, Mearls took hold of the reins in 2011 to nudge 4th Edition a little closer to the D&D a lot of the older players wanted. Even though it was in development long before he took over, the 4th edition Red Box's homage to the art from TSR's original Red Box might be considered Mearls' olive branch. The purpose of the new Red Box was to remind the older generation that 4th edition may be a new direction, but it still shares a lineage with the game they fell in love with in the 80s.
"I have a theory about RPGs," Mearls said. "When 2nd edition really got focused on story [in 1989], we had what I call the first era of RPG decadence and it was based on story. The idea that the DM is going to tell you a story, and you go from point A to point B to point C. The narrative is linear and [the DM is a] storyteller going to tell you a static story, and you would just get to roll dice occasionally. 3rd edition came out and said 'To Hell with that,' it's all about players, we're going to give you some really cool options, it's all flexibility in the DM and for the players, there's this meaningful choice.
"I think we've hit the second era of RPG decadence, and it's gone the opposite way," he continued. "It's all about player power now - the DM is just the rules guy - and the DM can't contradict what the players say. [The game] is taking away from the DM, and that's where I worry because other types of games can do that better. I might as well play a board game, 'cause I'm just here enforcing the rules. Without the DM as the creative guy, what's the point?"
Mearls admits 4th edition might have gone too far in creating a perfectly balanced game. "We've lost faith of what makes an RPG an RPG," he said, admitting that in trying to please gamers with a limited imagination, 4th edition might have punished those with an active one. "There's this fear of the bad gaming group, where the game is so good that even playing with a bad gaming group, you'll still have fun."
The result of this philosophy is that, perhaps more than ever before, gamers are playing different games than the official D&D coming out of the Wizards of the Coast. "What D&D faces now with different editions and old school versus new school, and 3.5 versus 4th edition, it's like the comic book conundrum," Mearls said in reference to the differences between Silver Age Captain America versus the plot of the recent Captain America film. "How do we get all these guys back together, so we actually have real communities, not just a bunch of separate smaller communities, that don't really interact in any way?"