Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one and everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks.
On January 9th, Wizards of the Coast announced the development of D&D 5th Edition. I find this a little alarming, considering that 4th edition was released less that 4 years ago, which to my understanding, makes it the shortest edition cycle to date – that is unless they are intending a 5+ year development cycle, which would put me more at ease if thats the case.
Being that I am like most of the nerds out there, and have developed a host of opinions that nobody will really listen to, I want to write down my thoughts and put them out there – seed them, if you will – in the hopes that my overall ideation on organization might penetrate into the depths of R&D over at Wizards. I’ll respond to what comments may come, but I’m not expecting many in my lonely little corner of the internet. I don’t have class or rule specific complaints or praise – I think the minutia of the game, where problematic, is symptomatic of root problems in marketing, organization, and framework as opposed to a specific difficulty with a feat or ability.
For what it’s worth, here it is:
Openly Embrace Crowdsource and OGL
I applaud the effort of posting a media release about ‘getting player feedback’ and creating a forum for it. However, it’s essentially an effort to mire yourself in home-brew errata and a litany of mechanical issues for the next decade. Feedback is one thing – productive involvement is entirely another.
The idea behind Open Source isn’t using an existing community fan-base as free Quality Assurance – if anything, that’s a corporately dickish move, and it will go badly for Hasbro’s Wizards of the Coast if that’s the case. Open Source is about taking the work, and putting it out there in a manner in which invested users, developers, players can pick it up, use it, play with it, and figure out how it could be implemented. In the crowdsourced world, a huge measure of control needs to be released.
The Open Gaming License was TSR’s version of Open Source is what brought D&D back to the table (pun intended) after floundering with 2nd Edition with a minor market share (the largest, but less than majority). OGL, and Open Source feedback systems is what Pazio is using to bring Pathfinder to the forefront as an aggressive competitor. So how can a company with the clout of Hasbro behind it utilize the Open Source Movement properly?
- Build a tool plugin repository
Automattic’s WordPress Plugin Repository is the best example I can think of. WordPress is a stellar CMS, and though far from being bare bones, it has a modular approach that allows for any interested third party to come up with free or paid (not endorsed) plugins to enhance or extend the capabilities of the WordPress framework. There are guidelines and rules on how to build, but beyond that, it’s an open playing field. By giving the D&D fan-base a place to tinker and play, Wizards only runs the risk of ending up with better and more diverse tools than they already have. It’s one of the best ways to get the open source idea to involve the community to help build their offerings for free, and keep them invested. As an example, there used to be places where one could compile a 3.5 spellbook based on character options. They only have take down notices from Wizards up there, and have politely complied. There is zero benefit to D&D by doing this.
- Make the framework transparent
Microsoft, much to everyone’s surprise, allowed everyone to access the guts of the Kinect. In that move, they created industries of people that were suddenly coming up with new ways to use the tools, fantastic ways to enhance performance. That level of involvement and interaction created huge opportunities for Microsoft, and did little to damage bottom lines. In fact, Sales of this device have gone beyond expectations. While no one is going to build functioning artificial intelligence off of the framework of D&D, opening up data in a standardized format might encourage some creativity that we can’t see right now. There’s a wealth of potential in what invested players with technical skills or other companies with creative skews might come up with in their own basement.
- When in doubt, Reward
Too many times I’ve followed a link from a D&D forum to some tool that would have made my life easier (i.e. an online spellbook generator) and found some kind of take down notice that cites a request from Wizards of the Coast, and compliance from a well-meaning fan. All of these individuals never intended to make a dime off of their little pet projects. Their interest was purely altruistic in the hope of augmenting their own gaming experience and then wanting to share it. Punishing these players is the absolute worst move in the world. It plays back to the two earlier points – Encourage initiative by giving fans a Developers Toolkit and letting them play like legomaniacs.
- Let them generate your content
When I want information about a specific game setting, I don’t go to the Wizards site. Why? Some of the most detailed sites are the independent fan-run Wiki’s out there. If the wiki software was on the D&D site, and Wizards encouraged the progenitors of those independent sites to become official world-wiki curators, there would be an astonishing amount of informative content that could explain what the heck is going on. I’m still in Eberron – what is the Scar thing?
The bottom line is, the D&D community is a resourceful and dedicated group. The amount of errata and home brew floating around out there is staggering evidence of the sheer ingenuity of players worldwide, and that should be encouraged.
Stop calling it a Core, Reinvent the Framework
Every time a new edition has come out, it has divided the community. I wasn’t into D&D when 3.5 arrived, and I actually played 4th first. I like both editions, but they each have their own merits. The difficulty here is, that 4th was built in a way that makes it easier to play for a younger and newer audience, and almost spits on the veteren players of the older editions. The play style is very different – and having played both, I can tell that one is geared for a video game generation. I think that was a smart move – in so far as attracting new players. But the failure, I feel is in the proverbial ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’.
Mechanical issues with gameplay are always going to arise – there are literally millions of ways to combine feats, weapons, race and class characteristics to help power up a character in one way or another. There are always players who will play to min/max (for those not versed in RPG play, that’s minimizing weaknesses and maximizing strengths), metagame, or seek out other avenues to ‘break the game’. In a sandbox environment, that’s a risk you run. And it’s not to say that makes the game glitchy. And frankly, I have yet to come across a so-called ‘game breaker’ that can just be chalked to a creative player out maneuvering a Dungeon Master. Conversely, you have a ton of people that will play to the flavour of the game, and even then may discover a perceived flaw in the game – which of course is a matter of perception of the flaw. Something that may seem limiting or too powerful in some circumstance is only as useable as the person running the game allows it to be.
D&D is largely a data game. It’s numbers. X vs Y. A vs B. STR vs AC, INT vs REF, etc etc. I feel like there’s a smarter approach to the foundation of the game that can inform multiple aspects of the game without creating huge mechanical issues. Google has an ever evolving search algorithm – a secret bit of code that they are able to refine from time to time that is the basic structure for every search.
I think if Dungeons & Dragons took the same approach with their game framework, you can create a fantastic Open Source foundation that could possibly do a series of things:
- Create tiered play styles
As I’ve said before, the abandonment of 3.5 play was a bit of a spit in the face of vetern players. I can tell you from my play experience, 3.5 style play is a fantastic version of the game that I feel has a ton of room for creativity in role play.
D&D 4th is ‘Basic D&D’ – or cynically, ‘Beginners D&D’. The play style is easier, simpler and genrally faster than that of 3.5. In the 2nd Edition era, the dropping of regular D&D and maintaining an ‘Advanced D&D’ became a semantical problem that became a huge barrier for beginner players. The idea that there was an easier version out there to start with led a lot of people away from D&D.
I’d bring that back, and using an algorithm in the basics foundations, show how to calculate race/class stats between ‘Basic’ (4th) and ‘Advanced’ (3.5). Because if you can establish that in a set of core game books, you can essentially create two levels of play in one stroke.
- Calculate Balance instead of Min/Max
This is where the idea of the framework algorithm goes a little further. What impressed me about D&D is the effort putting into placing value and worth over race abilities and using that to guess at the characters balance. I think there’s opportunity in there to study the mechanical structure of character building and build a law of averages into the character building system to even out how the players fill their roles in a party. In attempting to find a way to ensure players are balanced by calculating positive effects vs consequences, there’s the possibility that you can create a framework for spells, feats and bonuses that might make the ability to create a game with less perceived ‘game breaking’ possible. I’m no mathematician, but I’m betting there’s a way to structure the bonus system to ensure that the overall power variance of individual characters is all within a marginal difference of the party average.
- Generate More Content, not Errata
I think the problem recognition that led to the creation of D&D Encounters was sound thinking and observation, but the solution itself leaves much to be desired in my mind. The idea that older players had less time to devote to play shouldn’t have meant that there was an entirely different version of the game created – it just means that adventure arcs needed to be broken down into smaller chunks. I know a few vetern players that were interested in the idea of Encounters – the ability to play a few encounters on a weekly basis without a huge commitment of time every time you go to play. But that shouldn’t have excluded people who wanted to continue to play 3.5, and people who wanted to play 4th.
Generate Content Systematically
One of the greatest features of Dungeons and Dragons, and at the same time it’s most overwhelming feature is for the vast amount of Playable content is generated for the template of the game. Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dark Sun, Ravenloft etc, etc. For a new player, or one who is used to playing in a particular realm, moving into new content can be intimidating. Especially given how difficult it can be to find definitive information about a particular campaign setting. The main website seems to almost dismiss other campaign settings as soon as they’ve begun focusing on a new setting.
This is where all of the previous suggestions start to come together. If you’ve built a framework, with an algorithmic guideline for structuring races, classes, feats, bonuses and spells, created an area where users can provide open sourced tools for the community to use at large, then all you have left is content. And now that content has a template structure that could be manipulated and built upon in a variety of ways.
Combine that need for content with wiki and content areas specific for each campaign setting available, and you can essentially create an engine that could churn out new campaign settings on a near annual basis, while simultaneously supporting and creating new content for existing campaign settings ad infinitum.
Does that make sense? No?
One other feature of the Open Source ideas that I haven’t touched on yet is the idea of ‘DLC’ content, or the E-books model of Amazon.com. The idea of ‘if you build it, they will come’ exists in full force in the idea of self-publishing. There’s complete opportunity for D&D to constantly be generating new adventures and campaigns for older settings by simply providing a licensing and editorial curating services.
There are probably more than a few enthused fans out there capable of generating fascinating campaign material for existing settings, and would do so for little more than the approval and a few royalty bucks off of purchase and download. No need to print adventure guides – pdfs or application specific documentation that is capable of being downloaded on the fly at a fractional cost would mean millions more in revenue, less risk in stock, and might reveal a few geniuses that just needed the right venue in which to build their little adventures or test out their ideas.
Without having to put a ton of R&D effort into designing a few polished campaign paths (which I would encourage the continued practice of), D&D could literally sit back and enjoy while their fans generated extra content for them, while D&D focuses on creating exciting new campaign settings and temptable support material.
All in all, I love the D&D experience. I play regularly with a set of veterns of 3.5, and enjoy the variety of homebrew content that we play on that system immensely. I’m also in the midst of trying to maintain a game of 4th edition players, and as a new DM, I find the structure of 4th edition way less intimidating to attempt to run. I think they key to finding success in any edition, in any campaign setting is keeping in mind it’s a game, and the point of the game is to have fun with people you enjoy spending time with.