Saturday, August 25, 2012

More Thoughts on D&D Next

Wizards of the Coast (WotC) released the second installment of their new iteration of the rules for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), currently called D&D Next.  I wrote a little about this when WotC released the first installment of the Next rules, but seeing as how that was back in June, and we now have a new update to talk about, I figured it was time to finally update my thoughts on the new system here.


D&D Next is actually the fifth full ruleset in the game's history.  Insurance adjuster Gary Gygax invented D&D based largely on his work with insurance actuarial tables.  Actuarial tables use probability to enable insurance companies to gauge the risks of various events against which the companies provide financial guarantees.  Gygax took this idea--that in any given situation, there is a certain percentage chance that something will happen (X%) and a certain percentage chance that it won't happen (1-X%)--and used it to develop a basic combat simulator.  So, for example, if I am a barbarian battling an evil wizard with a sword, and I swing that sword in an attack, there is a chance that I'll hit (X%) and a chance I'll miss (1-X%).  I use dice to simulate the influence of random probability, and then add a random damage component in the event of a hit based on the size of the sword, i.e. it hurts more if the sword is bigger, so to model damage for a small sword, I roll a small die.  To model damage for a large sword, I roll a large die.  Again, this is an idea that comes straight out of the insurance industry--a given event will produce losses of a given size within a specific range of possibility.  Gygax simply used different size dice and different numerical modifiers to set the range and scope of the potential events in question, and then he defined the events in terms of combat simulator applications.
The classic cover to the original
Dungeon Master's Guide.

It's worth noting, by the way, that Gygax's company was not originally focused so completely on fantasy roleplay.  Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) actually published a variety of different tabletop combat strategy games.  D&D is simply the one that caught the public's attention.

So far, so good.

Over time, D&D developed into a whole thing.  In fact, Gygax's system of rules is not only the foundation of tabletop roleplaying games, it's also in large part the foundation of the computer game industry.  Gygax's ruleset is easily coded into computer languages, and folks have used his basic ideas as the engine that powers nearly all computer games that involve an element of random chance.  TSR meanwhile got big before struggling financially, and eventually it sold out to WotC, which is itself now a division on Hasbro.  Along the way D&D evolved, though its ruleset changes were much more evolutionary than revolutionary until WotC released the 3rd Edition of the game in 2000.  Then 2007's 4th Edition was an even more radical departure, so much so that lots of fans revolted, adopting either the Pathfinder system, which is itself basically just D&D 3.5, or giving up on the game altogether.

With that said, like any good re-boot D&D 4th Edition also found a lot of new fans, of which I was one.  I played a lot of D&D as a kid, but I let it go when I left middle school.  However, after I let Proletariat Comics, LLC go, I got back into D&D--played online via Internet forum--basically as an outlet for my creative writing.

A drow in the Underdark.
All of this art comes from the WotC fansite material.
So.  First and foremost, it seems to me that D&D Next is an attempt to return the game to its basic roots, the stuff that made Gary Gygax famous and which was largely done away with via the revolutionary changes of 2000 and 2007.  The brilliance of the 4th Edition was that you could build very specific types of characters in a huge variety of ways, and in combat, they would have a lot of different cool things that they could do.  From that standpoint, I'd say 4e was a huge success.  But it made combat encounters much longer, which in turn necessarily focused the game more on combat than on roleplaying, and that was a problem because, bottom line, D&D is supposed to be a lot more than a mere combat simulator, though to be sure, that part of the game is important.  

The new edition allows for the possibility of much more stripped-down combat encounters, and it also seems to have a built in bias towards shortening the basic adventuring day.  Which is to say that 4e worked best when you laid out four or five combat encounters in a row, all in the same game "day".  But that became problematic because encounters themselves could easily last an hour or an hour and a half of real time, meaning that if you did a game session with a combat encounter, that was pretty much all you were going to have time for in that session.  And that sucked.  And more to the point, that puts a give "day" of game time at four or even five actual sessions of D&D.  So your game "day" might easily last a month or more!  Argh.  It's way hard to build any sense of evolution in a game like that, which is again problematic because it's that sense of character evolution--of leveling up--that makes D&D addictive.

The other thing I really like about D&D Next is that it looks like it'll be simple enough that I'll be able to teach it to my kids.  With 4e, there were so many options that trying to explain them all and how they worked to a novice was really not an easy task.  Even getting the basics across was hard just based of the sheer complexity of even an entry-level character.  Complexity like that was fine for guys like me, engineers who grew up playing D&D as pre-teens, which maybe explains why my long-running game, The Sellswords Of Luskan, had a professional engineer, a computer technician, and TWO professional physicists in the gaming group.  But for my 7- and 9-year-old daughters, it was a non-starter.  We've played The Legend of Drizzt together and some of the other D&D board games, and the girls like those and understand the concepts easily enough, but those are decidedly stripped down versions of D&D.  Teaching them the full version of the game was... well, I'd been noodling for weeks on an approach to take with them when WotC announced the Next ruleset.  Having read through the basics, I'm content now to wait for the full version to come out before I try and get the girls started.  At this point, D&D Next is looking like our next big snow-day activity.
The girls and I like to play The Legend of Drizzt and some
of the other D&D board games.
From what I've seen so far, D&D Next is very similar to the 2nd Edition version of the game that used the Class-and-Kit system.  Back in 2e, you chose a class--for example, Fighter if you wanted to fight with a sword, Magic-User if you wanted to use magic--and then you further specialized your character by adding on "kits".  So maybe you were a Great Weapon Fighter.  Or maybe you were a Magic User specializing in Necromancy.  The new system is like that, and conceptually, it's something I think I can teach.  That makes me excited.


Final Thoughts

I wasn't real excited when WotC announced the Next ruleset.  But having read through some of the changes and the rationale for them, I can see what it is that they're trying to accomplish here.  In fact, I think that a lot of what they're doing is not only good, it's necessary.

For my gaming group, our game basically broke down because running the game got too complicated.  Just going through a round's worth of DM actions got to the point that it took me an hour or so at a sitting, and I just don't have that kind of time.  Plus, it was Hell trying to go through all the different status effects and modifiers and whatnot.  If the new system resolves some of that and makes it so that I can teach my kids to play the game, I'll be entirely happy.

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