Thursday, 23 February 2012

Some Thoughts on the Relevance (to me) of 5e

Information about 5e has been slowly....oh so slowly....trickling in.  

Or “D&D Next” as WotC is calling it, presumably hoping that we will be playing it next, and also to minimize that this is yet another edition in a line following from 3e, 3.5e, 4e, 4e Essentials, and now 5e.  There is are thriving communities devoted to “D&D Previous”, be they Rules Compendium, Basic, White Box, Little Brown Books, 1e, 2e, or 3e…all in the form of the original prints or in the form of simulacrums.   The aspiration to make a “Rosetta Stone” edition is understandable.  That’s a lot of lost market share to tap into.

But, especially in light of the time (now years) spent working my own system into a presentable game, this all begs the question:  Will 5e be relevant to me?

There are a couple of questions that need to be answered in order to know:

First, is this going to be an OGL game?

Second, is this game going to offer a significant improvement over what I am playing?

As to the first question, 5e is not WotC’s first attempt to make a “lingua franca” of role-playing.  When 3e was announced, one of its important building blocks was the OGL.  The OGL made it possible for other designers, and other game companies, to feed into the same system, thus presumably driving sales of the D&D core books and other WotC products.

Sadly, in this writer’s opinion, WotC didn’t learn the lesson of the OGL.  IMHO, the OGL did its job initially, and, as long as WotC followed that initial plan, the OGL drove folks to buy their products.  I mean, there might be (for example) some really cool competing psionics systems, but unless they were Open Gaming Content, you were limited in how you used them.  So, the WotC psionics system predominated.  But, if you hated WotC psionics, there were other systems you could use without abandoning 3e altogether.  3e was, one might easily argue, the most commercially successful D&D edition since 1e.  Perhaps of all time.

The OGL also allowed WotC to build an edition of D&D that took advantage of the best OGC available.  Rather than coming up with what they did for 4e – and, let’s face it, design decisions should not be made on the basis of trying to limit applicability of the OGL in favour of a restrictive GSL – streamlining 3e’s clunky bits, making combat go faster, and divorcing the system from the necessity of the grid.  But as we all know, that’s not what happened.

Paizo has, IMHO, learned the lesson of the OGL that WotC first promoted, and later failed to retain.  Paizo, like many smaller OSR companies, has been extremely generous with its OGC, and, partially as a result, levered itself into a real contender for the 800 lb. gorilla in the room.  You don’t have to play Pathfinder as written; you can publish your house rules on the web for easy access for your home group, or so that you can play via forums or Skype with people across the globe.

Can “D&D Next” really act as a “Rosetta Stone” without this same flexibility?  I think not.  And I don’t think a generous “fan policy” is enough – that a company can make you pull your documentation (possibly effectively ending your campaign) in order to sell “D&D Next.5” or “D&D Nexter” simply will not cut it.  You are far better off playing Pathfinder, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, or any of a number of generously licensed (and often free) games.

Which brings us to the second question:  Is 5e going to be a significant improvement over what I’m playing now?

Based on what I’m reading thus far, the Magic Eightball reads “Outlook Doubtful”.  But there is no real way to know.  Most of what we have is hype backed by no substance at all, and a lot of questions from the designers.  The WotC playtesting is very different, in terms of transparency, than that done by other companies, such as Goodman Games and Paizo.

Yet, many folks in the Internet gaming community seem to believe relevancy, or interest, is a default position.  Let me be clear where I stand here:  My default position on any product, whether a television or a personal computing device, or a game system is “Not Interested”.  If a gaming company wants my money, they must make me change my position by actual information. 

Simply saying “Trust us; we know what’s fun!” isn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough with 4e.  It is not enough with 5e.  We need to not only know what you hope to do, but also how you hope to do it.

In conclusion, WotC deserves real kudos for re-releasing the core 1e books, and I hope to see more early era D&D released by them.  Some of the earlier modules, at the very least, would be very relevant to me.  The good words I am hearing about Barrowmaze are relevant to me.  The chance to playtest the Beta version of Goodman Games’ DCC RPG without signing away all rights to any comment I might make is relevant to me.

The relative Cone of Silence around 5e makes it less relevant.  The Cone of Silence around what the licensing structure will be makes it even less so.  It is hard not to be cautiously optimistic – and I am – but, right now, this is something that I’ll wait to read reviews on from those whose judgement I trust.

How about you?


  1. I'm amazed WotC is talking about 5e at all, given the extreme time frame involved (middle of next year? 18 months?). There's no way I could think anything WotC says about 5e at this point is even moderately reliable. I'm not accusing them of deceit; there's simply too much time for things to change. And I have no idea what they're going to sell for the next 18 months (although I'm starting to think board games).

    I don't know if WotC will learn from Paizo. Offhand, I doubt it. Mearls will, and Cook might, but the suits won't.

  2. Got too long for a comment, so I posted here.


  3. Thanks for your replies. Mike, I enjoyed your essay.

  4. My friend Steve in Rhode Island sent me an email, and asked me to post it here. So, here it is:

    If you would like, please post this on your site in reply to your blog about the 5th edition game.
    I couldn't easily add this, so I will lean on you.

    I understand that your default position for 5th edition is "Not interested", but at the same time, talking about the new version is stirring up interest. Sure, I'll take a look at the book at the bookstore, but like you, won't buy into it unless it is better than what we play now, which is a modified 2nd edition game heavy with house rules and new character kits. For me, 3rd edition had potential, but it was too easy to break the system at higher levels. There would be too much disparity between the powers of a fighter compared to the powers of a druid, etc. to the point that the monsters would need to be pumped up to be on par with the fighter, and if the fighter was taken out, the druid (et al) was automatically overwhelmed. 4th edition turned into a military board game instead of a role-playing game. So, it was back to 2nd edition for us.
    WotC will continue to put out new editions for the rest of our lives, just as Microsoft will continue to put out new operating systems for our computer. It is a simple matter that they are in business to make money, not make a product that will last forever. Where's the money in that? But, let's just hope that at some point, a new version is an improvement; not merely a change.

    Steve in Rhode Island

    1. Yes, the goal of WotC is to make money. My goal, as a consumer, is to hold onto my money...or, at the very least, to spend it wisely.

      Spending it wisely, in this case, is very dependent upon (1) what the produce IS (in this case, a very big question mark) and (2) the lifetime of the product (in this case, very dependent upon its licensing).

      Liking the product does not mean that you want to be dependent upon the pusher.

      I am looking for significant improvements, yes, but those improvements need not come from WotC. There are many game publishers who have made use of the OGL to create games (many free!) that are very generous with their Open Gaming Content.

      WotC started this ball rolling (and I am glad they did!), but they took themselves out of the picture when they decided they would rather take their ball and go home.

      They can come back and play in the OGL Courtyard whenever they like. And, when they do, I will be interested in seeing what they produce.