It’s ironic. I was planning on writing an article about whether or not I thought 5th Edition D&D would be coming soon, and Wizards of the Coast announces they are beginning work on the next iteration of D&D. So there’s a big ol’ yes.
So instead, drawing on my experience with the game and my thoughts about how WotC has handled things with D&D of late, I thought instead I would share my thoughts on what 5th Edition will be like.
It Won’t Be Called 5th Edition
I know this sounds a bit odd, but I suspect that WotC won’t call it D&D 5th Edition. Whether it’ll be called Advanced D&D, or D&D Master Edition, or D&D Ultimate Edition, or what have you, 5th Edition is too much of a phrase with negative connotations for them to use. People were irritated with they called their revision of 3rd Edition 3.5. Then 4E pushed a lot of people away. WotC will want to minimize the potential bad feelings that a 5th Edition name will bring.
There’s precedence for it, of course. When D&D moved from the original 1974 chapbooks to the Advanced D&D/Basic D&D split, the changes in the game were significant, but they didn’t refer to it as a new edition, specifically. They acknowledged the differences with a new title, but they didn’t call it 2nd Edition. Likewise, when the game was re-released in the mid-90s, with the black book covers, it wasn’t touted as 2.5 or 3rd edition. In fact, they didn’t even call it 2nd Edition any morel they just called it Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
If I were WotC, I would follow this model, just bringing out new books and calling it Dungeons and Dragons. They’ve talked about wanting to get past edition wars and splintering groups, and just giving the game back its original name is one way to do that.
It Will Have Some Backwards Compatibility
When 3rd Edition came out, a conversion guide was available. I was playing in a 2nd Edition game at the time, and, by following that guide, we were able to keep playing with relatively little difficulty.
When 4E came out, the game designers basically said, “this game is really different than the last version. You’ll probably be better off either starting a new game, or just doing the best you can in terms of coming up with a race/class combo that will help you approximate your old character.” They cited as the reason for this the fact that the conversion process from 2nd edition to 3rd edition was kind of clunky.
I agree with this, but it really ticked off a lot of people. There could certainly have been some more attention paid to how this was handled. D&D 4E was a hard sell, and I think 5E is going to be even harder, as it feels much too soon for things to be changed. One way they can really assuage the feelings of people is to try and handhold through the process of conversion.
I’m not honestly sure how successfully they can do this. 3rd Edition and 4E are very different games, and people have really taken sides on which is better. As you know if you’ve been reading my columns, I love 4E, and my players love it, too. But I know not everyone does. This may be the greatest challenge WotC faces – how to please those on both sides of the edition war.
WotC Will Really Listen to Their Audience & Play Well with Others
Okay, this is an easy one, as they’ve already pretty much said half of this, but it bears mentioning. One of the criticisms leveled at WotC is that they basically ignored peoples’ feelings about what was important in the game. Obviously, this isn’t true, as their playtesters had tremendous say over what went into the game – playtesters always do, after all. But when people feel like their voice has been ignored and they’ve been marginalized, they turn away. Which, of course, is why Paizo now has so many former WotC customers buying their products.
One of the single biggest mistakes that *I* think WotC made was in letting folks who loved 3rd Edition slip through their fingers. If they had worked more closely with Paizo to make Pathfinder an official D&D product, think of how much stronger D&D would be right now. They could have Paizo putting out D&D Pathfinder for those who wanted to stay with 3rd edition rules (which they essentially are anyway) and they could be putting out 4E for people like me who felt that 3rd Edition had major flaws. It could’ve been a best of both worlds situation.
I feel that, by cutting back on the possibility of other companies putting out 4E products, they made people perceive them as arrogant. “We have D&D, and our D&D is the only official D&D, so you need our products.” Instead, people turned to a game they essentially already owned and enjoyed updates and changes to the system.
It’s really a shame, as Dragon and Dungeon are great magazines, and Paizo was doing a damned good job producing them. I still love what comes out for them now, and I think that DDI is a great investment, but I know many people don’t.
There Will Be a Much Bigger Emphasis on Role-playing…Somehow
I completely disagree with the idea that 4E had less emphasis on role-playing than earlier editions of D&D. The race section of the 4E PHB is about as long and as robust as the sections in earlier Player’s Handbooks, if not more so in some cases. Pull out any Player’s Handbook, from any edition, and they’re all essentially about the rules you need to play the game, with some notes on how you might role-play a particular race.
What is true is that the combat rules are much more strategy oriented, but I love that aspect. My players and I love describing what our monsters and characters are doing in combat to match the mechanics of what’s happening behind the scenes. And it’s no excuse to say that powers have a certain description and that limits you. The Warden in my game describes his character’s “Treacherous Ice” power as writhing undergrowth impeding his foes, and no one bats an eye.
Nevertheless, in an effort to put an end to those complaints, I suspect the next version of D&D will have much more emphasis on role-playing. It’s just a shame that 4E, which gave us ideas that reward RP vs. combat, like skill challenges, quest XPs, magic item like rewards that aren’t magic items (boons, favors, etc.) and more, still gets accused of being anti-RP. I just don’t get it, and I doubt I ever will.
In the End
Ultimately, whatever I predict now, and whatever the next iteration of D&D becomes, it just doesn’t matter.
There are people who will refuse to buy in, because they were alienated by 4E.
There are people who will refuse to buy in, because they love 4E, and they’ll feel betrayed.
And there are people like me, who’ll take a look, probably end up loving it, and wonder how they ever lived without it.
And in the end, if the new D&D comes, and we don’t like it, it doesn’t somehow invalidate the games and versions of D&D that we do choose to play. If I don’t like the direction 5E (or whatever it ends up being called) takes, I have plenty of 4E products to tell stories with. I couldn’t use every monster out there in a single campaign if I tried. There are more races, classes, feats, powers, and ideas than I could use up in 10 campaigns or more.
So if you love D&D 4E as I do, don’t despair. It’s not the end of the world. No WotC Police came to truncheon the players who chose to keep playing 3rd Edition, and none will be showing up for us.
I have hope that, whatever direction D&D takes, going into the future, it will be what Mike Mearls says they want to make it: “a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game…unmistakably D&D, but one that can easily become your D&D, the game you want to run and play.”
How’re you feeling about the news of 5E? Hopeful? Ambivalent? Betrayed? Is there anything you hope they’ll get rid of? Bring back? Preserve? Let us all know.