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Can Wizards of the Coast Reclaim the Tabletop Crown with D&D Next?

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By Nelson Schneider - 06/22/14 at 03:20 PM CT

Not too long ago, tabletop gaming was completely dominated by the game that essentially started the RPG genre way back in 1977: Dungeons & Dragons. While there have been alternative tabletop rules systems for decades, D&D was so synonymous with tabletop gaming that its name became the default for the activity, much like “playing Nintendo” was 1980’s vernacular for anything videogame related.

Sadly, TSR, the original company started by D&D creator, Gary Gygax, went out of business in 1997, selling its assets and tabletop gaming intellectual properties to competitor, Wizards of the Coast. At the time, Wizards of the Coast and TSR were very different companies, each serving as a rallying flag to one side of a tabletop gaming civil war. On one side, the Dice Chuckers liked their RPGs, with character customization, storytelling, cooperation, adventure and loot. On the other side, the Card Floppers liked the gambling-esque thrill of getting a rare pull from a booster pack, the strategic aspect of deck building, and the ferocity of one-on-one competition. Dice Chuckers had zero faith that Wizards of the Coast and its Card Flopping ways really cared at all about D&D, but rather would prefer to mismanage the hell out of the game in order to convert D&D Dice Chuckers into Magic: The Gathering Card Floppers, boosting the profits of their own game while grinding the competition out of existence.

Everyone was taken by surprise when Wizards of the Coast release D&D 3rd Edition in the year 2000. Not only did it eliminate many of the nonsensical quirks that Gygax had designed into the system from the outset, but it introduced more customization, more flexibility, and generally just more of everything that Dice Chuckers wanted out of their tabletop games. Wizards of the Coast even went so far as to create the Open Game License, which allowed full, unfettered access to the D&D 3rd Edition rules-set to any third-party that might want to create custom content for the game. It was an amazing victory for both tabletop gamers and intellectual property rights in general.

Unfortunately, a mere three years later, Wizards of the Coast began to show their true colors yet again. D&D 3rd Edition was discovered to be riddled with errors and balance issues. To correct this issue (specifically, the issue of not having enough money in their coffers), Wizards of the Coast released D&D 3.5 Edition with collected errata and modification, then proceeded to sell these slightly modified books for full price. In our modern era of digital publishing and easily-updated e-books, such behavior could only be perceived as a cash-grab, but at the time, players were forced to either eat the cost or do without.

The timing between the release of 3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition in 2000 and 2003 respectively seemed completely out of whack when compared to the older editions of the game. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition released over the course of 1977-1979. AD&D 2nd Edition didn’t see the light of day until 1987 – an entire decade later. With its corrections, inclusions, extra options, and backward compatibility, 2nd Edition was good enough to keep players chucking dice all the way until Wizards of the Coast’s 3rd Edition – 13 years! Yes, 3.5 Edition’s appearance after only 3 years seemed pointless. However, if the combined duration of 3.0 and 3.5 could be as long as the 1977-2000 reign of AD&D, everything would still work out in the end.

Of course, Wizards of the Coast had other ideas (or perhaps it was the dark influence of their overlord, Hasbro), and instead of supporting 3.5 Edition to the best of their ability, thus creating a tabletop RPG utopia, they neutered it. The Open Gaming License was gradually phased out, with more and more first-party manuals featuring closed-source material. The excellent campaign settings that made 2nd Edition so diverse were either ignored, outsourced, or just handled poorly. But the blow that struck mortal wound at the heart of the D&D franchise was the release of D&D 4th Edition.

4th Edition was released in 2008 – a mere 5 years after 3.5! Tabletop gaming can be a long, slow burn, and many adventure arcs can last 5 years of real time. Not even giving the combined 3.0 and 3.5 Editions a full decade to thrive was simply reckless, especially considering that 4th Edition, once again, broke backwards compatibility. Having 23 years to enjoy AD&D 1st and 2nd Editions, then breaking compatibility for 3rd Edition was acceptable, especially because 3rd Edition offered so many improvements. 4th Edition didn’t so much “improve” the world’s oldest tabletop RPG, but changed everything about it. Excessive balancing between the character races and classes, the divvying-up of information across even more sourcebooks than previous editions (which already had plenty), and a laser focus on combat to the detriment of non-combat activities caused the Dice Chucking public to declare 4th Edition an attempt at copying “World of Warcraft” in a non-digital medium.

But Wizards of the Coast had inadvertently left open a back door. Paizo, a once-small publishing company that Wizards used to publish their “Dungeon” and “Dragon” magazines, took up the abandoned standard of the Open Game License, rallied the scattered remnants of the Dice Chuckers’ legions, and released the Pathfinder RPG system in 2009. Pathfinder turned out to be an unofficial D&D 3.75 Edition, with more minor tweaks and balance changes. And while D&D fans’ wallets were still sore from the purchase of 3.5 manuals in 2003, the 100% Open Game License content and constant stream of support provided by Paizo moved many to support this young upstart that dared to face-off against an intellectual property-wielding titan using that titan’s own weapons against it.

D&D 4th Edition faltered while Pathfinder thrived. As of today, when people talk about “playing D&D,” there is a higher likelihood that they are talking about Pathfinder (or one of the 2nd Edition-inspired old school clones) than they are 4th Edition. Wizards of the Coast is not blind to this situation – they see that 4th Edition is an unequivocal flop. What are they going to do about it? Unsurprisingly, their solution is to release yet another new edition of the game! D&D 5th Edition (code named “D&D Next”) has been in public playtesting for a couple years now. While I haven’t participated in the testing (due in large part to only having so much time to dedicate to tabletop games, which was all taken up by an epic, four-year long (real time) 3.5/Pathfinder campaign), I did manage to… acquire… a copy of the final set of playtesting rules, released in September, 2013.

What I can say about D&D Next is that I do like what I see. Whereas 4th Edition had me scratching my head and facepalming the entire time I spend perusing the PDFs of the core books that I… acquired… D&D Next actually feels like D&D again. Specifically, D&D Next is like an attempt to smash-together a lot of the concepts and flavor of 1st and 2nd Editions with the more sensible mechanics and player options of 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder. Indeed, if D&D Next had been released in 2000 instead of 3.0, I think the transition would have been incredibly smooth for 2nd Edition players, as the ways in which skills/proficiencies and combat are handled feel very streamlined and old school. In fact, after four years of actively running 3.5/Pathfinder, the stat blocks and amount of information presented in D&D Next feels refreshingly minimalist.

Unfortunately, D&D Next wasn’t released in 2000. It will be released over the course of the next few months in 2014, with the Player’s Handbook dropping in August, the Monster Manual in September, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in November. While I don’t know what exact content will actually be included in these three iconic manuals, if it is anything like the playtest materials I read, it will be very good… but will it be better than Pathfinder?

Sure, the core rules will be solid, but will the options be there? While it is true that “Feat Bloat” and the preponderance of Prestige Classes overwhelmed 3.5 Edition, will scrapping all of that and starting at square one really solve anything? Won’t Wizards of the Coast feel compelled to release a steady stream of manuals adding the bloat back in? And since the Open Game License is dead and has nothing to do with D&D Next, how can players be sure that Wizards of the Coast, as the sole proprietor of all things D&D, will actually provide a stream of new content, ranging from published adventure modules to fleshed-out campaign settings? Some of these things have been mentioned by Wizards of the Coast staffers, but there’s no way to know if the company will actually deliver. Moreover, with the company’s established reputation, how many potential D&D Next converts will opt to “wait a couple years” for the inevitable “D&D Next Point Five” release?

Ultimately, Wizards of the Coast has squandered any feelings of nostalgia and love that D&D fans had for the old TSR. Whatever remained of TSR after Wizards of the Coast devoured it has long since been digested and pooped-out upon some long-forgotten dungeon floor. Paizo has inherited the love that Wizards of the Coast lost, and it will be an ugly battle to see who wins out over the course of the next few years. For my part, I’m heavily invested in Pathfinder. My tabletop gaming shelf consists of 2.5 shelves of 1st & 2nd Edition materials and 1.5 shelves of 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder materials. I really don’t know if it would be worth my time and money to buy D&D Next and suffer through the arduous process of mentally converting many of my favorite bits and pieces from older editions into a new format. All I can say definitively, though, is that I do have a slot on my shelf big enough to hold three more manuals, provided that three is the total number of manuals and that the number of new manuals remains at three.

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Wrote on 06/26/14 at 02:24 AM CT

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