System Fatigue: Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition
Now, admittedly, I’m not a “heavy user” of Dungeons and Dragons. I prefer more storytelling-oriented rules systems, like Fate, HeroQuest, etc; and for my more crunchy kick I tend to go with variants on the d100 system made famous by games like RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. But I used to play a heck of a lot of D&D – right from when I first started RPGs back in 1980, right through till about 10 years ago. So what’s changed?
One of the key plus points for an RPG rules set for me is its stability. That is, once I’ve learned the rules, I can reasonably rely on them remaining the same for an extended period of time, so that I can just pick up a game and play with relatively little prep. Now that I’m no longer fifteen years old, I don’t have weeks on end to spend meticulously prepping for gaming sessions: I like to pick up a game, quickly read the scenario, and play.
Obviously, in addition to being stable, this also means the rules set of a good RPG for me also has to be relatively simple. There are some great games out there whose setting I love and whose game play I like, but which I don’t play because I have to spend a month re-reading the rules before I can play a game again.
Finally, for me, a game system has to be reasonably elegant. This is a tricky one. For me, that means it doesn’t just focus on smashing up monsters or spaceships or whatever; it has to be able to model social interactions, heroic exploits, godlike or superhuman powers, whatever. In other words: to do a whole lot more than a simple tabletop skirmish game could. Don’t get me wrong: I *like* tabletop skirmish games, but I don’t use their rules for roleplaying.
Many people say 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons fell down on the “elegant” score: it was basically a very combat-heavy ruleset focussed almost entirely on skirmishing, with not much scope for roleplaying per se. In my humble opinion there’s some truth in that, but personally I was impressed with the “Skill Challenges” rules in D&D 4e – an attempt to codify “playing against the story” into the rules, and which kind of worked. I’ve been able to use a lot of the theory of Skill Challenges when writing and playing the Hazards and Challenges rules in Legends of Anglerre and the upcoming Starblazer 2nd edition, and the “story obstacle” structure of scenario writing in HeroQuest 2. 4th ed D&D may have been combat heavy, but it was innovative in non-combat areas, too.
For me, the first 4th ed D&D books lost out on the simplicity score: I found myself studying the 4th ed Players Handbook trying to fathom the rules, and to be honest rapidly gave up and went back to my usual games – I couldn’t see any good reason to persevere – there was nothing in the 4th ed PHB that made me sit up and say “Wow – I really want to play this game!”.
However, D&D Essentials – that worked for me. I played the Red Box thoroughly, and bought the Essentials books, and found them well-written, well-targeted, and accessible. The rules there were presented much more simply, and were memorable.
But – and here, for me, is the crux of the entire Dungeons and Dragons problem, these days – I always had this niggling feeling that my time investment in learning the 4th edition rules was going to be a ultimately a waste, as sooner or later Wizards were going to release a new edition, and render all my attempts to learn the 4th edition rules a bit of a joke. I love roleplaying games, and I’m passionately loyal to systems I like and which I think play well. But, most of all, I play for the long term: if I learn a rules set, I want to know that it’s going to be either a.) pretty quick and easy to learn, or b.) something I’m going to be able to play for a decade or more, in the case of a relatively complex RPG.
Now, if I was *only* playing 4th edition D&D, then there probably wouldn’t have been a problem. But I don’t: I play several other games regularly, including Starblazer Adventures, Legends of Anglerre, HeroQuest 2, Unknown Armies, Call of Cthulhu, and even Exalted (I say “even” as in my book that’s a complex game requiring quite a time investment). D&D 4th ed shares my brainspace, and has to stack up against those other games.
So, 4th ed came out in – when? 2008? I bought the 3 core books, and did nothing with them for a year or two – too complex, too much time required. Then I got into Essentials with the Red Box in 2010, and I’ve played it maybe ten times. I bought the new Gamma World, which I thought was a great match with the 4th edition rules, and played it loads. I’ve recently been toying with getting the Neverwinter campaign books and giving them a whirl.
But today put my 4th edition purchase plans on hold, probably indefinitely. Today – 5th edition D&D is announced. In prospect: another couple of years getting used to a whole new rules set, again with the nagging feeling that once I’ve learned the rules, the carpet will be pulled out from under my feet and we’ll be onto the 6th edition (then the 7th, then the 8th, every few years or so). And the same niggling suspicion that the only reason we’re being given yet another edition is to force fans to re-purchase everything they’ve already got, only in new format. And the D&D core don’t come cheap…
I bought almost everything published for D&D and AD&D back in the day. I bought less for 2nd edition, less still for 3rd edition, and maybe 10 titles total for 4th edition. I’ll probably buy the core books for 5th edition, mostly out of interest – just because I’d like to read the latest rules for the grand-daddy of all RPGs. But the publication pattern D&D is falling into is less and less the way I want to “consume” my RPGs. I have so many DMGs and PHBs the mind boggles, and although they’re quaint artefacts, they’re all out of date and useless as games. Why would I want to continue doing that?
I must of course say a word about Pathfinder. Although I’ve found the Pathfinder core book to be a complex read, and as a result haven’t played it yet (although I played tons of D&D 3e), I’ve found the Golarion setting and scenarios to be superb quality, and easy to grasp. As a result, I’ll shortly be buying the Pathfinder beginners’ box set to finally play my updated “Halls of Tizun Thane” scenario as an old school D&D monster bash fest. Why? Because Pathfinder is showing commitment to the stability of its rules set; it may be incrementally tweaking and improving those rules, but with Paizo I have the faith that, even if they do one day produce a Pathfinder 2nd edition, it’ll be essentially the same game as Pathfinder 1st ed, and I won’t have an entirely new learning curve to climb. I’m happy to give Paizo my money, as I trust them as a long-term investment for my D&D-style adventuring. They’re using a ruleset that’s now 13 years old, and still plays well. Hell, I still play d100 – and that’s 35 years old, so Pathfinder’s got a way to go yet before I’ll consider it “old”!
So, those are my thoughts on yet another edition of D&D. Naturally I’ll be watching with interest, but doubtless reserving judgment for now. I wonder how many other people will be doing the same?