Wizards of the Coast has stated that the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons will appeal to fans of all four previous editions. I am of the opinion that this claim is absolutely ridiculous on its face. The shift from second edition to third was so violent that my gaming group rejected it for several years, and never had cause to throw the old edition away entirely. The shift from third to fourth was even moreso, causing Wizards to lose a lot of their market when a competitor popped up with a brand new game which was, essentially, third edition in all but name. The games are so different that reconciling them under one playable umbrella seems totally impossible. I can’t imagine anyone looking at this new fifth edition Frankengame and saying anything but, “I recognize parts of this, but the rest of it is dumb. Why should I switch?”
What amuses me most is, while fourth edition alienated a lot of established D&D players, it seems to have lapped up a huge new section of the market, filled with a new generation of gamers weaned on tabletop wargames and MMORPGs. Shedding some percentage of this new market to go chasing after the old one strikes me as counterproductive. But then, that’s why Wizards is a huge game-publishing company and I’m just some shmoe with a somewhat-lapsed blog.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if the best thing for Wizards is to just continue supporting their fourth edition line, cultivating their new gamers with a stream of new source and setting books, the way second edition worked way back in the day. There’s no reason they can’t do this and print a new line of books for us oldschool peeps who long for CRs and THAC0s. Hell, I bet there would even be a lot of cross-pollenation! I’m sure there are lots of groups like mine out there who like different rules for different games, and would play both from time to time.
But okay, they’re not going to do that. Fourth edition is in the can and fifth edition is on the way. And it’s going to be a Frankengame designed with input from outdated game systems and internet polls. That doesn’t sound very nice to me, but it got me thinking what my ideal version of D&D would look like. The knee-jerk answer there is “a reprint of second edition!”, but that’s a bad answer. For one, it isn’t material enough for a blog post. And for another, though second is forever my favorite, our gaming communities have learned a lot about how to design and play roleplaying games since that mess came out.
The base core of D&D is the three sourcebooks: the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual. So that’s how I’ll be attacking the problem.
1) The PHB
The Player’s Handbook (PHB) is the book with all the races and classes and magic spells and equipment lists. Typically, rolling up a new character for a D&D game means flipping through this book and picking out the stuff that looks cool. It is my opinion that the second and fourth editions do an excellent job of facilitating this.
One thing I would try to do with the PHB is keep it very clinical in regards to setting information. To that end, I would eliminate all the fluff fantasy races that have crept in over the years and stick to the generic demihumans everyone already knows. This would leave us with the spread of races in the second edition PHB (humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, halflings and, only very grudgingly, half-elves). To that I would add orcs and dragonborn. Dragonborn are fluff-fantasy, sure, and pretty stupid-looking besides, but hey. It says “Dragons” right there in the title. Let a dude play one, if he wants.
Next is the eternal question of: which playable classes make the cut? And this is where I think my idealized version of D&D would differ most. It would look absolutely nothing like any of the four existing editions. In truth, character creation would have more in common with oldschool 7th Sea (a swashbuckling pirate agme) than D&D. The basic idea is players would pick a broad archetype they would like to play (warrior, rogue, cleric, or magic-user) and then use character creation points (CCPs) to purchase modules full of class abilities, utility skills, spells, and so on.
A module would be a collection of individual skills or abilities that are related. For example, the module “Fire Magic Lv. 1” would contain three or four low-level fire-based spells. The module “Swordsmanship” would confer proficiency with different types of swords and a few combat maneuvers. “Linguistics” would come with a set of the most common languages spoken in the game world. There would still be individual spells, proficiencies, skills and languages, of course — and rules to purchase them individually — but for the most part you would plug your modules in and that would determine what your character can do.
Modules could contain any combination of combat and non-combat abilties. A “Thieving Skills” module would give you access to the skills “Pick Pockets”, “Disable Device”, “Weapon Proficiency: Daggers” and “Backstab”. Also, individual skills could appear in more than one module; there are lots of places you could put an “Athletics” skill, and have it make sense. If a player buys more than one module with the same skill, there would be a bonus involved. Modules would also have reasonable prerequisites, so you couldn’t purchase “Fire Magic Lv. 2” without first getting Lv. 1.
The class you chose at creation has no bearing whatsoever over what modules you can buy, only how many CCPs it takes to buy them. This would encourage players to develop their characters within the basic boundaries of the tried-and-true D&D classes, while also giving them the freedom to branch out if they feel their backstory justifies it. The module “Illusion Magic Lv. 1” would cost, say, 15 CCPs for magic-users, but 25 for thieves and 35 for everyone else. That way, if you want to play a specialist mage you will be able to pack your spellbook with illusion magic early on. But if you want to play a thief who uses some small measure of magical misdirection in his pickpocketing, it’s going to be a little more expensive.
Racial restrictions are emulated by giving CCP discounts or premiums. The “Archery” module would be ten CCPs cheaper for elves, regardless of class, and ten CCPs more expensive for dwarves. In fact, you could alter CCP prices using any metric you wish; “Thieving Skills” is cheaper for Chaotic characters, “Necromancy Lv. 1” is more expensive for Good ones. If the game launches with an established fantasy setting, get the character’s birth region involved as well. Raised in a cold, wooded area? Congratulations! You get “Woodlands Survival” for half price!
Rolling up characters in this system would boil down to selecting race and class, then buying the three or four modules you think best defines your character. Later on, you’d use your experience points to purchase more modules, or rank up the individual abilities you already have.
For players who prefered the old “have a dozen individual classes” method, well, we have them covered too. The book could give eight or ten examples of near-completed characters that resemble more esoteric classes like ranger or bard that we’re all used to. A bard would be a rogue with modules for social skills, cantrips and musical instruments already purchased. Leave maybe 10 or 15 CCPs so the player can fill in around the edges, and novice or nostalgic players can jump right in.
More advanced players who are really comfortable with the system could forego a character class entirely, buy all their modules at a baseline price, or forego modules entirely and hand-pick each skill and power. The important thing here is that players would choose a character creation method that they’re most comfortable with. If the system is sufficiently tested, it would be able to support totally green newbies and hardheaded old grognards even at the same table.
The rest of the book would be just as it always was: lists of equipment, skills and magic spells. (And I mean real magic spells, not rituals or whatever. I want to see floating discs here, people!)
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) has traditionally been off-limits to players, and is full of material to help the gamemaster run the game. It’s often filled with minor rules and tables, the likes of which are required to run the game smoothly but which aren’t related to creating and playing characters. This material includes things like how quickly characters can move, how much they can carry, how far they can fall before taking damage, how dark it can get before they can’t see anymore, et cetera.
Obviously the DMG needs all that stuff. In addition, though, I would like to see a much stronger focus on the types of games that D&D can be used to play. Too much of the fourth edition DMG focuses on the “dungeon/monsters/loot” game, and I think a lot of players who discovered the game in the past few years think that’s all it’s good for. Really really, I about cried when I read that Penny Arcade news post a few years ago where one of the cartoon guys mentioned his group enjoying a roleplay-heavy session with limited combat. This was in a game he’d been running for over a year at that point.
The primary focus needs to remain on killing monsters and stacking up loot, but the DM at least needs to be clued in that other types of campaigns are not only possible, but encouraged. I would do this by having a “sample campaigns” chapter towards the back of the book, detailing the broad strokes of four long-form D&D campaigns.
The first is a campaign based around the concept of mass combat. Two warring kingdoms, the vast armies they are crashing together, huge fields of battle and of course the people and creatures caught in between. The combat focus would be less on the PCs versus whatever flavor monster is in style this week, and more on controlling and commanding large contingents of soldiers interspersed with smaller, more surgical strikes.
The second is an entirely urban campaign, complete with a huge town map and short descriptions of dozens of NPCs. Each has his or her place in a huge tangle of nefarious secrets, criminal ties, political leanings and lofty ambitions. The focus should be on a web of plots and political intrigue which would gobble the PCs up and even pit them against each other. A DM should be able to look at this section and come up with multiple sessions’ worth of engaging material without introducing a single monster.
The third is a purely wilderness campaign. The PCs trek through huge amounts of uncivilized, uninhabited terrain. No dungeons and no loot — and no villages to kick their feet up in. They scrape by with what they find and take their relief where they can. This chapter would have information on how PCs might survive in harsh environments (jungle, tundra, deserts, what have you) and have a strong focus on personal relationships and resource management.
The last one is an evil-only game. Every edition of D&D I’m familiar with takes great pains to cast the PCs as heroic figures, even to the point of outright disallowing evil alignments. I think this probably leaves a lot of players thinking “what if?”, and a lot of DMs at a loss for how to handle such a game anyway. Some examples and guidelines for keeping evil parties together, and what they might get up to, would go a long way to point these players in the right direction. (And be really fun to play, to boot.)
The goal of these alternate campaign settings isn’t to give the DM something solid to run, understand. They’re meant to present alternate directions for a more traditional campaign to take. A DM who takes this whole chapter to heart will come away with towns as more than just a place to rest between dungeons, and the wilderness as more interesting than “hit the random encounter table a few times”. And it would give them ideas on how to integrate the moral dilemmas of alignment into the game more satisfyingly.
The Monster Manual
…should be shit-canned. A 300-page book full of every monster the heroes will ever chance to meet is an outdated concept that died with the advent of the internet. Monsters should be delivered to players in inexpensive themed books, released frequently and made available as .pdf. Make several of these available at launch with labels like “Low-level Monsters”, “The Book of Dragons”, “Legions of the Undead” and “Underwater Encounters” and let individual DMs decide which ones they need. Oh, and maintain an online database of well-tested monsters for people to download individually. Make designing new monsters easy and efficient. Set up the “D&D 5e Monster Wiki” before some upstart fan gets a chance to.
As for the individual entries, I can’t decide whether I like the second or fourth edition monster books better. Second edition goes into great detail about the ecology and society of each individual monster, but is a little vague on their combat abilities. In fourth edition every monster’s combat tactics are hard-wired and codified unto the point of being foolproof, but their description as living entities in the game world is limited to a short blurb for the DM to read on a successful Knowledge check.
I really think my ideal D&D would have the best of both worlds. This might mean each monster needs a two-page spread; one for the general ecology of the monster, and one for its combat variants. This does mean fewer monsters overall for a DM who is just starting out, but no DM in the universe has ever needed 300 pages of monsters right at the beginning of his campaign anyway.
Finally, my ideal D&D would be compatible with or without a game grid. By which I mean, the rules should be written without mentioning one, but one should be available with a small (10-20 pages) book on how to use it. One of the things I really disliked about fourth edition is that the entire game was written from the perspective of moving characters around a game board like chess men. Everything is contained within and defined by little five-foot-square blocks. It’s possible to play out fourth edition combat without a board, but not without a lot of experimentation, interpretation, and experience. I’m not convinced a group brand new to fourth edition could make it work right out of the box.
What I’m picturing is a D&D-brand vinyl mat with squares on one side, hexes on the other, a short book detailing how to move and measure distance, determine line of sight, calculate cover, and all those other little fiddly details that take up too much space in the DMG. Maybe sell a deluxe edition that comes with five plastic minis and two colored pens. Put an ad for it in the back of the DMG so players know it exists. And finally, make that little book available for free on the website for groups who want to make the jump directly from fourth edition but already own a mat.
Obviously I am not a professional game designer, and it would take a long time to hammer all that down into something playable. Most of the rest of the game I would leave in tact: the d20+mod dice system, the six core statistics, and hell, I’ll even throw in the passive defenses from fourth edition. (I think vs. Will and vs. Reflex works better than the old-style system of saving throws.) Awkwardness like feats and skill challenges would be gone because, presumably, all that would be folded in with modules at character creation. New players can be eased into the game with mostly-finished characters, and experts have an endless variety of tweaks and twists to explore. The DM has a lot of options outside of “throw a bigger monster at them”. And absolutely nobody is saddled with sixty pages of shitty monsters that aren’t applicable to the campaign they’re running, or really, anyone’s campaign anywhere.
The next step, of course, is to adapt Planescape to this totally new and exciting D&D game, and support it forever and ever. But I won’t hold my breath.