Escapist Editorials

Escapist Editorials
Speak Your Mind in the Next Version of Dungeons & Dragons

Greg Tito | 9 Jan 2012 09:20
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Wizards of the Coast confirms the design team is busy working on a new version of D&D.

To paraphrase Don Draper from Mad Men, when you don't like what people are saying about you or your product, you need to change the conversation. That's exactly what Wizards of the Coast did today by formally announcing work on a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons has begun. The new iteration of D&D doesn't yet have an official name and, until it does, it will most likely be referred to as 5th edition, but what it's called isn't really important. For the first time, the creators of D&D are setting out to create a role playing system that is compatible with - and takes inspiration from - every previous edition of the game.

"This project has one goal - to create a base set of rules that cover the entire breadth of D&D's history," said Mike Mearls, the head of Dungeons & Dragons development. "We want a game that anyone who has played any version of D&D can recognize as D&D and find the things that drew them into the hobby celebrated and supported."

Even though sales have been steady and the weekly Encounters program is attracting new players, the public reputation of the venerable RPG brand took severe hit point loss after the launch of 4th edition in 2008. "Every edition has in some ways met and in some ways missed my personal expectations for D&D," Mearls said, but he was quick to jump on the collective creative criticism from the gaming community 4th edition engendered as a net positive for the brand. "In every edition, D&D is a creative exercise, and as such it is a game that players and DMs are expected to bend, fold, and manipulate to their own needs. In some ways, that nagging desire to introduce a house rule or create a unique setting are what give the game its spark. With this new iteration of the game, we're focusing on the range of what D&D can support and has supported rather than picking one style of play and focusing on it."

The team at Wizards has turned over a bit since 2008 - promoting Mearls and rehiring one of the creative leads of 3rd edition in Monte Cook - and many D&D insiders guessed something new was in the works. When I was invited out to Seattle to visit the Wizards offices early in December, I thought I might get a glimpse of their plans. I learned that not only was the design team already hard at work re-forging the game many of us play around the table but there is a company-wide initiative to win back the confidence of Dungeons & Dragons gamers around the world. How? By integrating the opinions and criticisms collected from fans directly into the rules with a long open beta test.

"We want to release a great product, one that [fans] have helped develop," Mearls said. "Play testers provide a great sounding board for ideas and directions for the classes, spells, adventure building rules, and so on."

Previous editions of the game had play testing periods, but Wizards restricted access to freelancers or those connected to the company and those tests were ineffectual at best. I was in a play testing group for 4th edition back in 2007, and we submitted a 30 page annotated document of what we felt worked and what didn't work with the rules we played. Other than my name among the hundreds of play testers in the back of the 4th edition Player's Handbook, nothing I submitted made it into print. Our feedback was summarily ignored, and Mearls admitted that was essentially true of all the feedback Wizards received from the 4th edition play test.

This time it will be different. Starting in the next few months, Wizards of the Coast will open the new rules up to gamers and actively solicit feedback to shape the game. They plan to leverage the relative popularity of the Encounters program - an organized event in game stores where players across the country participate in the same adventure each week - to offer adventures written for the new iteration of D&D using the new rules. Wizards plans to set up a website survey to track players' feedback and get it quickly into the hands of Mearls and the team designing the rules.

"We want to give the community enough time to thoroughly digest each play test package," he said. "Then, we need to make sure we have time to integrate player feedback into each play test cycle so their needs and desires are captured in the final product. This will take time."

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