By now the gaming Internet is effectively slavering with anticipation for the first widely available look at the next edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Although the open playtest is starting…well, now, a few of us have had the opportunity to playtest the new game already: I’ve been a player and a DM, and so far I like it. I really like it.
Unfortunately, as you’ve probably already heard (or at least gathered), participation in the previous iteration of the playtest required us to sign a fairly detailed NDA that essentially prevented us from discussing the rules of the game on the Internet (or in person, really) until now. It’s pretty likely that the version(s) of the game that I encountered won’t be exactly like the one sent out for public playtest today, but I would imagine our experiences would be at least somewhat representative.
As you may recall, our stance on the new game — colloquially referred to as DnDnext — is generally pro. Admittedly, our position was set well before we had seen any of the actual rules. Regardless, having since spent some time with a couple of different alpha-versions of the new game, we’ve only confirmed our original position: we like it! It feels a heck of a lot like D&D. And that’s great!
Or is it?
A D&D for All Seasons
It’s clear from the design goals that have already been made public that the new edition of D&D is meant to be a D&D for all fans: a kind of “best of” compilation that can unite the feral (and deeply territorial) tribes of D&D players out there. Even leaving aside the inherent difficulties in attempting such a thing, there’s a real danger that a game with such a deeply inward-looking design goal can become too much about, well, itself.
Quite frankly, the new edition of the game is unlikely be described as revolutionary. That’s actually okay, but I have to admit that I was a little concerned that it would become so self-obsessed that it started to seem like that in-joke you have with your friends that loses all the humor whenever you have to explain it to someone else.
While I can certainly understand the business motive behind trying to ensure that you can sell books (or subscriptions, or whatever) to the people who already like your game, for the longterm health of the hobby, games (and I think specifically D&D) also need to be accessible to people who have never played a previous edition. D&D needs to be something a curious adult — or an enterprising 12 or 13 year old kid — can pick up, show to his or her friends, and then get to the adventuring without the assistance of somebody who’s spent the last 15 or 20 (or 30+) years in the hobby, or at least something that an experienced player can bring to interested outsiders. At it’s core, the question is this: If DnDnext is going to be a lot about “DnDpast,” can it still be accessible to the noobs?
Breathe a sigh of relief. It seems to be.
Feels Like the First Time
I’ve had the opportunity to introduce several new people to the hobby over the last few months. As it so happened, everybody I knew who wanted to give gaming a shot was primarily interested in the fantasy angle, so D&D (and/or D&D like games) were clearly the way to go. As a somewhat conscious experiment, I used Paizo’s Pathfinder RPG to introduce one group, and one of the alpha versions of “DnDnext” to introduce the other.* In what I think is a genuinely positive sign for the hobby, both introductions were successful. About half of both intro groups have expressed interest in continuing adventure, which I think speaks well to the accessibility and familiarity of the general tropes of D&D. D&D’s essential D&Dness (even when it’s Pathfinder) has not been a hindrance to introducing folks who might not already know Undermountain, Vecna, or Castle Ravenloft. I suppose this might be a bummer for those who prefer to live their gaming lives on the bleeding edge of innovation, but both games are (relatively) tight and functional even if they’re not bringing whole new universes of new game mechanics to the world.
Fortunately, for a jaded veteran like me, both games seem pleasantly familiar (and that’s not just because Pathfinder has been available for several years at this point). There’s a clear love of D&D’s history in both games that make them easy for someone who’s been behind the screen before (in my case, mostly with the various shades of 3rd edition and a brief stint with 4e) to just pick up and run., I think experienced players and GMs would find that the changes to their favorite game were evolutionary. As for new players? Well, in what I am sure will shock and appall some of you, both versions were most frequently compared to videogames when translation from geek to non-geek was required. This is not because either game played very much like a video-game, I think, but rather because D&D’s DNA is still so clearly painted on most fantasy games that are easily accessible to the average consumer.
The Next D&D is Good D&D
All that being said, perhaps because we were dealing with playtest documents (which, by their nature, are a little less complex than a finished game), DnDnext seemed to be very slightly easier for noobs to grasp. The new game is stripped down, definitely introspective…but still self-aware enough that it doesn’t become inaccessible. It offers a less codified experience than Pathfinder (so far there’s a lot more space for DM fiat and interpretation), and certainly a lot less of the sense of “the game is on your character sheet” that you might get when playing 4e. And that less codified experience is perhaps a valuable thing. The thing that kept coming up when we were introducing the new game to noobs wasn’t ever about how many orcs they killed, or how far they moved (or didn’t) during combat. They never mentioned whether the terrain was interesting or challenging, or whether the dungeon ecology was internally consistent. They were drawn to the freedom. They wanted to tell their own stories, to be other people. I think DnDnext is going to be a great game for that, but here’s the thing: any edition of D&D is a great game for that. It’s just a good game.
So that’s it. A brief sense of how the rules felt when I introduced them to some new folks, contrasted with one of the other big games on the block. I haven’t quite figured out a way to do a comparison for a true “blind” introduction like the one I mentioned above…maybe I’ll just tie a copy of each game to a brick and throw it through the window of a local high school?**
But rest easy: one way or another, the next D&D is capable of bringing in new blood. And that’s great, because I hear they need some at Castle Ravenloft.***
*I know you’re wondering: why not 4e? Honestly, because I didn’t have the books with me when the opportunity arose.
**I am not actually going to do this. Be sure to tell the police that if they ask.
***Ha! A vampire joke! Because Strahd von Zahrovich lives at Castle Ravenloft! And he’s a vampire! And vampires drink blood! …oh never mind.