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System Fatigue: Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition

January 9, 2012

Part of the D&D Rules Corpus

This game needs more rules...

Today at last Wizards of the Coast announced their plans to release a new, 5th edition of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game, the grand-daddy of all RPGs. My first two thoughts were: well, so they’re now going to expect all the fans to buy all those supplements all over again, but for a new system; and, second, you know, I really can’t be bothered learning an entire new system over again – heck, I’ve only just got used to the 4th edition game.

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?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. NUNYA permalink
    July 15, 2014 2:04 pm

    “…they’re quaint artefacts, they’re all out of date and useless as games.”



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  3. adam permalink
    May 12, 2012 4:50 pm

    Hi any chance you would share your updated halls of tizun thane adventure or point to where you got it?

  4. January 10, 2012 10:13 am

    That would be wonderful (as would a shake up of the way Chaosium portrays the Mythos – the Laundry and Trail of Cthulhu have been very strong in that regard) as long as they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater White Wolf style.

  5. January 9, 2012 8:29 pm

    Interesting to read your criteria for using rules-systems! I’ve many of the same interests / concerns when thinking about game science.

    With D&D, I am much more interested in their settings than the game itself.

    • January 10, 2012 6:23 pm

      I do still love my Judges Guild Wilderness campaign setting, and would love to play it again. I’ve actually been toying with just using the old AD&D rules to do so – although Pathfinder beginners might be a candidate (although I’m also keen to play Golarion…). The only other D&D settings I’d be inclined to try again are Blackmoor, Greyhawk, and Arduin Bloody Arduin!) – and again, with OD&D / AD&D flavoured rules 😀

  6. Corone permalink
    January 9, 2012 6:37 pm

    It’ll be interesting to see how this all goes.
    The plan to ask the fans what they want and take their time is a good one, and I suspect this 5th edition is borne of desperation rather than greed. After all, WotC is losing customers by the bucket to pathfinder.

    Given how different 4th edition was, I really liked it. It made me want to play the game again. It may have been what got me running Dragonlance at last, which I’d have happily run in 4th if I had the time to convert it. But its possibly more telling that I didn’t. While I like 4th edition a lot, and it made me sit up and notice D&D again, I’ve still only played it once.

    I’d like to see them make 5th edition the game all the 3rd edition fans wanted, but maintain 4th edition. We used to have Basic and Advanced D&D, and maybe its time to return to that model. 4th edition was a great gateway for people used to World of Warcraft, and it would easily fit together with a new edition closer to 3rd. In trying to get back their old customers, lets hope WotC don’t alienate the new customers they gained with 4th edition.

    • January 10, 2012 6:17 pm

      Hi Andy! 😀

      I think my main beef with 4e is the amount of time combat takes. It’s a nice and tactical skirmish system, but takes *forever* to resolve. Even with 4e Gamma World, which was kinda streamlined, we used to get through maybe one combat encounter per session. That made the rest of the session just feel like build-up to ‘The Combat’ as the main feature. As a result, I’ve never really felt I could realistically run a meaningful campaign with it – it’d more or less be just a string of combat encounters with connecting fluff. It’s also telling that with 4e it would take as many as 10 sessions to finish a scenario, as opposed to 2-3 sessions in my other games. I always felt it kind of ironic that in a combat-heavy game, I couldn’t afford to put too many combats into a scenario if we ever wanted to finish it!

  7. January 9, 2012 4:13 pm

    This is an issue I have with gaming as a whole, my heart sinks when I see a new edition of any game being announced because, unless its an old warhorse like Call of Cthulhu where the tweaks aren’t really earthshaking and the new edition will fit more or less seemlessly with the old one. Frankly it feels like gouging in a major way.

    • January 9, 2012 5:32 pm

      Absolutely – you can almost hear the boardroom decision to give the game a 5-year edition lifecycle. 2013 is new edition year according to the lifecycle, therefore there has to be a new edition – and it has to be significantly different enough to get buy-in to the new product line.

      I can see the sense of this from the business end – from the side of the producer – but not from the point of view of the consumer / customer. Personally I’d much rather see a longer period of evolutionary innovation and development on a specific rules base, with no automatic cut-off for that rules base (although a “refreshed” set of core books could be made available). Of course, trying to make *money* out of that on the scale D&D needs to is probably impractical – although Pathfinder seems to be making a go of it. I love the fact that I can pick up Pathfinder with my D&D 3rd edition head on and pretty much play it, and simply bring in the new additions and options as I feel like it. Much more in keeping with how I play RPGs.

      Regarding Cthulhu (etc), I think they may have gone too far the other way. IMHO, the d100 engine is *crying out* for some innovation – RuneQuest was absolutely revolutionary back in 1978, still great in 1988, starting to age by 1998, and definitely Old School by 2008. I’d love to see a d100 game incorporating some of the developments in RPGs over the past 10 years or so.

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