Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Inevitable Post About 5e,

or, A Love Letter to Wizards of the Coast, 
or, Is it time for "WotC Next"?

It has to happen, so here goes.  Keep in mind that my opinions are not direct-from-source, because there is no way that getting the D&D Next playtest materials is worth agreeing to the terms of the NDA.

Overall, what I am hearing – even from those saying negative things – makes me cautiously optimistic about 5e.  It sounds as though the designers took my “Why System Matters” blog posts and then, point by point, made sure that 5e would work for sandbox gaming.  Understand that I am not saying that they did any such thing, but, if they did, kudos for them.  Also, it seems as though the Delve Format is dead!  That particular thorn in the arse of WotC adventure design couldn't have been removed soon enough!

5e has moved, for me, from “D&D Pass” to “D&D Maybe”.

This “Hit Dice” thing is needlessly confusing.  In RCFG, the almost-identical mechanic was called “Shaking it Off”, and, as that is OGC, I don’t see why Wizards wouldn’t use it.  It sounds a hell of a lot better than calling it “Hit Dice”, which has a completely different meaning.   Shaking it Off went through numerous incarnations while playtesting RCFG, and it worked very well there.

The idea of Themes and Backgrounds should make a character different, but make character creation easier.  Kudos on that.  Likewise on adopting a simple Advantage/Disadvantage system….although, for my money, the “Dice Chain” of Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is the best simple system for this that I have come across.

I am a bit dismayed by the continuation of disassociated mechanics, such as fighters doing damage on a miss, and the idea that wizards can endlessly magic missile.  Magic is cheap when there is no cost, and magic should not be so cheap in D&D.  May I recommend a “lesser missile” as a cantrip, that requires an attack roll and does less damage than a dagger?  The advantage of this lesser missile  is that you don’t need a dagger.  Moreover, each “cantrip” could be linked to an actual spell, which must be memorized in order to continue using the cantrip.  Use up your real magic missile, and you can no longer use your lesser missile, either.  Making these sorts of choices – dealing with real trade-offs – is a big part of the game.

(Not an original idea or observation, that, but a better plan than at-will free magic missiles.)

I have previously said that if D&D Next fails, it won’t be the fault of the fans.  That remains true, but it is also true that if D&D Next succeeds, it won’t be because of the fans, either.  It will only succeed if the product is good, the marketing is good, and Wizards creates goodwill with the fans.  Announcing the release of earlier edition materials was a good start on generating goodwill.  Now, if WotC can keep the lawyers from messing things up, there is a chance of a successful edition here.

The NDA was a bone-headed move that tells us “We’re going to keep doing business like we did with 4e”.

I don’t think D&D Next can survive that.

I have said previously that, for any new edition of D&D to be relevant to me, Wizards is going to have to reinstate the OGL.  As things stand, when 6e comes out, no one who signed that NDA can legally make a “derivative work” like OSRIC or Pathfinder for 5e.  And the people who signed the NDA are the hard core gamers who would most likely wish to see support continue for an edition they like.

Grab the bull by the horns, WotC, if you want to see this edition succeed.  You need to make us believe that the needs of the game – and the gamers! – are as important as the needs of the lawyers and the shareholders.  You need to tell us why there are some weird terms in the NDA (or better yet, get rid of the NDA altogether).  Likewise, you need to be upfront about what kind of licensing this edition is going to use.  The longer you wait, the more people you lose.

So far:

(1) The design of the new edition shows some promise.  You still have work to do (obviously) and you need to ditch disassociated mechanics from the core rules.  Add them as modules if you must.

(2) The marketing is certainly good enough to attract attention, and although there is a certain amount of “dancing around the elephant in the room” in the fan outreach, it is otherwise following a good course.  This is especially true when compared to 4e.

(3) You have a lot of work to do on goodwill.  Deal with licensing upfront, deal with the NDA.  Set some limits on where the concerns of the lawyers take precedence over the concerns of the fans.  You need us more than we need you.  Show us you understand that, and that you are willing to make us want you instead of need you.  Oh, and plan ahead so you don’t have to lay anyone off for the holidays.

You need to be “WotC Next” as much as this game needs to be “D&D Next”.  The Wizards that gave us the OGL is gone.  You cannot afford to be the Wizards that gave us the GSL, that gives folks the old heave-ho for the holidays, or that values protecting itself from the slightest risk over fan enjoyment of product.  That Wizards has to go.

Be WotC Next.  Embrace it.  IMHO, it’s your best chance for success.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest here.  You probably aren’t getting my “favourite go-to game” spot – Goodman Games already has that sewn up with a tidy little bow – but you could still end up with a version of D&D that I want to play.  As I had written you off some time ago, that’s actually pretty amazing. 


  1. The play test materials I downloaded a week or so ago did not seem to have any onerous NDA. Basically, it just said that you couldn't excerpt the text or play the game over recordable channels. Talking about the details of the game was fine. May I ask what you object to? I think the earlier closed play test had a more stringent agreement. Personally, I think the ban on web gaming is silly, but it's not a deal breaker for me as this is still an early play test.

  2. I think you need to be careful what you sign.

    Did you agree that a so-called "open" playtest is also "highly confidential to Wizards"? Did you not, in fact, therefore agree that Wizards has a real monetary claim against you if Fred, your 2nd Fighter from the left, ends up playing in your test, but didn't really download his own stuff, and has now posted to EN World?

    Did you agree "not to copy, excerpt, distribute (either in physical or digital format), publish, display, disseminate, release and/or transmit, in whole or in part, or create derivative materials from any of the Playtest Materials provided to you"?

    Did you notice an expiration date on that? Who decides what is derivative? If you create a Fantasy Heartbreaker that competes with D&D Next, can this NDA be used as legal leverage against you? If WotC is done with 5e and moves on to 6e, can you retro-clone the game? Can you create materials for a retro-clone that someone else makes?

    Did you agree in the NDA not to play online? If not, why is it in the FAQ that you cannot? Is recording your session distribution? Is playing your session online distribution?

    You can say, "I liked it" or "I liked it not", but can you say WHY and remain in compliance with the NDA? The best things I have heard about 5e shouldn't have been published, AFAICT, because you cannot discuss the rules.

    Unless you violate the NDA.

    Which is boneheaded, again, because all the feel-goody talk in the world is worthless without some meat to gnaw on. It throttles the ability of people to talk about your product. Contrast with Paizo, Goodman Games, and all those other folks whose NDAs you signed for closed materials, as opposed to the so-called "open" phase of the playtest.

    "Additionally, any and all Feedback submitted by you to Wizards via any medium is deemed a work-­‐made-­‐for hire as defined in the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. §201) and owned by Wizards."

    If I had signed the NDA, technically, Wizards could claim they owned this blog post. 'Cause, gee, this is feedback, right?

    "To the extent necessary, you hereby convey, transfer and assign all rights in and to the same and disclaim any and all proprietary and moral rights in and to the same."

    And I'd have given up the right to complain about the same.

    "You agree to execute any further documents and take any further actions requested by Wizards to assist it in validating, effectuating, maintaining, protecting, enforcing, perfecting, recording, patenting or registering any of its right, title and interest in or to the above."

    That's a little open-ended, isn't it?

    "If you are unavailable, or fail to execute such documents when requested to do so for any reason, Wizards may execute the aforementioned documents as your attorney in fact, which appointment will be irrevocable for this sole purpose."

    I mean, should I sign the NDA, and then actually believe Wizards took ownership of materials I didn't intend to give them ownership of, the NDA makes Wizards irrevocably my lawyer in dealing with the same.

    Huh. Maybe I'm misreading that. I was a Legal Specialist for the US Army, which is kinda like a paralegal, but I'm no lawyer, so maybe I'm misreading that, but it sure sounds like a bad idea to me.

    I didn't sign the rather similar agreement to post on their forum; I won't sign it to look at their game.

    Epic fail.

  3. Hey, thanks for the detailed reply! I realize it's best to be cautious about such things, but I did not interpret the agreement in quite the same way. For example, your blog post is not submitted by you to them. Also, there is lots of prior art out there, so any kind of derivation would be very hard to establish. Something for me to consider again for their next round of play tests though.

    From their FAQ:

    Can I blog/post/talk about my playtest experiences with others who may not be in the playtest?

    Yes. You may publicly discuss your thoughts about the D&D Next playtest materials and your experiences while playtesting.

    1. You may say my blog post is not submitted by me to them, and I may say that, but they may say "It is addressed to us, right there in the title", and that NDA effectively signs away my ability to argue about it.

      And, yes, you can talk about your thoughts, but not about the actual rules. You can say, "I liked my dwarf fighter, and it felt like D&D to me", but it is impossible to discuss what you thought needed improvement without discussing the rules...suggesting specific changes ("I would like X better if Y") can be read as creating derivative material, etc.

      And they may not have to establish derivation the way I read it. The way I read it, if they claim derivation, you have to provide proof of the same if they request it, and, if not (for any reason, recall, even should that reason be that you are contesting them), they have power of attorney to provide it themselves on your behalf.

      This is a bad agreement.

    2. Sorry, just to clarify, the feedback in the agreement is "by any medium", so any medium that could constitute feedback counts. It doesn't matter if you intended it as feedback; all that matters is what Wizards decides it is.

      And, as there is no time limit to the agreement, it doesn't matter if you think the current Wizards crew are wonderful human beings who would never think to step over that line. You have to also consider any future Wizards that might exist, or anyone who might buy those rights from Wizards....because they belong to Wizards, and are an asset that can be sold.

  4. UPDATE: You can now play online in some formats, although you cannot post transcripts of your games (which is better, but still not good).