Tuesday, June 12, 2012

5e feels familiar

I've had the 5th Edition (or D&D Next! or New D&D, or whatever they're calling it) playtest docs in my hands for about as long as anyone else.  Haven't actually played with it yet, but a few scattered impressions:

  • Reminds me a lot of second edition AD&D.  This is very nostalgic for me, personally, because 2nd ed. AD&D was what was out and what I was playing when I got into roleplaying games.
  • The OSR seems to have won the day.  Wizards is still claiming that the final version of the game will support styles of play that accommodate people who like the 4e style of play, but what they're giving people as their first taste of the game looks as little like 4e as 4e looked like 3rd edition.  Instead, we get something that looks like the style of game TSR published 20 years ago, with a few modernish tweaks.
  • That being said, I know that AD&D 2nd Edition is where things really "went wrong" in the minds of some OSR purists (growth of tons of player options that unbalanced the game, endless supplements and official settings, added "realism", novel tie-ins, the Dragonlance "game is story" railroad, etc.).
  • Based on looking over the book and the character sheet, I can see teaching someone 5e who was new to gaming.  It seems like a single character sheet actually contains enough information to give a newbie a reasonable idea of how to run their character.  I don't feel like I can say the same about 3e or 4e.  4e seemed to cater to kids who grew up with the Magic-style "cards are powers" paradigm, but not everyone who comes to an RPG is going to know collectible card games.
  • Waiting for character creation rules to see how far back we're going on the race/class/level restriction stuff- will Dwarf Wizards and Elf Paladins get the heave-ho again?  Will we see the return of limited progression in non-favored classes?  Personally I hope not- I always found those things to be a pointless barrier to playing the sort of character that you want to play.
  • Waiting with anxiety to see what indignity is going to be inflicted on my beloved gnomes by this new edition.  Current guess: left out of the core races for the 5e equivalent of the PBH, gain bug eyes and rock crystals instead of hair, favored class continues to be Bard, some obscure interaction between a STR penalty, size levels, and encumbrance renders them incapable of carrying both a missile weapon and sufficient ammunition for it.  You heard it here first.
  • Backgrounds and themes/schemes look interesting.  Backgrounds look like an attempt to merge the old 2e Secondary Skills with the skill/proficiency system,  and Themes/Schemes hopefully prevent infinite class proliferation.  The difference between Themes and Schemes looks a bit unclear at the moment.
Read on for my take on the game as a whole and thoughts for the future.

Current Verdict:  I'm really pleased to see the game looking more like it did in 1st-3rd editions, and less like 4e.  It seems that WotC realized that they erred in breaking continuity so drastically with the previous editions of the game in 4e.  It wasn't that 4e was necessarily a bad game, it just wasn't really D&D as anyone had experienced it for the last forty-ish years.

Wizards has clearly taken notice of the steam that the OSR and retro-gaming movements have gathered during the 4e revolt, and they're trying to steal a little bit of that momentum.  There aren't enough concessions to what some of the old school crowd seem to love about those games to gut that movement (and there is too much high quality free and nearly-free materials that people can already use and see no need to move on from), but it will draw some heads and maybe change the conversation a little bit about Wizards among some of these older gamers.  Certainly, it will pull some attention from people who said they would "never" buy another official WotC product after 4e came out.

The fate of 4e and the style of game that it brought to its logical conclusion- tons of player options, powers and cards, character 'builds' that function similarly to video game character builds that can be theorycrafted and heavily optimized, low-lethality, rules dense with player options directly tied to mechanical choices- is the real mystery that lingers around 5e.  Wizards says that type of game is still going to be supported in the new system- that the 4e style Paladin, with his at-will/encounter/daily powers and his reliance on the battle grid for tactical maneuvers and constant supply of healing surges, will live alongside the 2/3e style paladin with his non-predetermined combat options, free-form play, alignment restrictions, limited hit points.  And both characters will be viable, no matter what type of opposition they are facing and what the players around them are doing.  This seems dubious to me.  D&D Essentials was supposed to be the same sort of beast- but it was still 4e under the hood, just with a lot of the knobs and levers and choices abstracted away to make it 'accessible' (though there were still builds that were or weren't mechanically 'viable' according to theorycrafters based on the combination of choices you selected, something that drove me nuts personally).  I don't really understand how that is going to work, but I guess we'll all be reserving judgement until the next round of testing materials are released.

So I'm pleased at the developments that I've seen, but here's the little niggle that I still have: lets say that WotC publishes something that looks more-or-less like what they have currently published as the play test rules.  It will be very similar in flavor, mechanics, and options to the older editions that we've had for years, and the current crop of retro-clones.  So what's the incentive to pick up 5e and play, rather than just digging out my (large, already paid for) collection of 1e/2e/3e/freebie retro gameing materials and just using that?

That's the dilemma: Wizards has to 'look to the past' to draw in older gamers and retro fans.  But what can it give them that they don't already have, without undermining what attracts people to those older games?  The premise of each succeeding version of D&D has essentially been more structure and more player options- but the overgrowth of those two areas has been exactly what turned many people away from 3.5 and 4e.  The whole premise of old school gaming seems to have been 'less structure from the designers, more creativity from the players'; what can Wizards offer to add to that?

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