As we get closer to GENCON, the annual D&D convention in August, and the obvious – and only – place to launch the next chapter in the world’s biggest RPG, and perhaps one of the most important franchises in all gaming, tabletop and computer, more and more information is slipping out as to what they have planned.

Let me begin by running down what seems to be the fundamental products, and what we know of their release dates.

First, there’s the D&D STARTER SET, releasing July 15th for $19.99.

Following that, the D&D PLAYERS HANDBOOK is released Tue 19 Aug (Directly after GENCON – editions will also be available directly, at the Con, of course) for $49.99.

The D&D DUNGEON MASTER’S GUIDE is then set for November, also at $49.99.

All products will come under the simple title D&D, which seems like a smart move. One of the aims of NEXT was to seek to unify the various editions and versions of D&D, and going with the clear, simple branding of just ‘D&D’ makes a lot of sense, particularly if you want to attract casual gamers and neophytes into the hobby. It should also have the added benefit of making it harder to argue about editions, when it isn’t clearly labeled as another version; of course, those who really care will always find a way, but language has a funny way of affecting thought, and this may well help clear up these muddied waters.

Notably, I’m quite sure the only book you’d need from this list is the Players Handbook. Making the Dungeon Master’s guide a ‘nice-to-have’ but by no means necessary book will help accessibility massively. You may also note, there is no Monstrous Manual there. I have no idea what the plan may be, but I’m betting the idea is to keep you busy with published adventures, and have stated monsters in those. There may well also be a section covering all the mainstays in the PHB; Goblins, Orcs, Basic Animals, the odd Dragon, etc. That makes some sense, even if it does make it harder to surprise players with monster abilities (as if they weren’t all already looking them up for themselves anyway…)

It also intimates that they may yet be able to pull off their biggest promise, of creating a system with something like ‘backwards compatibility’. Through the playtest, and even some other materials I’ve happened to have a look at, I can say that this version is close to the 2nd Edition rules, which (to me) always felt like the paradigm of what D&D is. That’s not to say it’s a backward step, though. It is completely informed by all the versions, with aspects from each of them in the mix. Personally, what I’ve found to be most engaging is that different character classes really feel and play differently again. The second biggest issue I had with 4e, which I enjoyed quite a bit, was that ultimately, all the character types boiled down to the four archetypes, and that wielding divine or arcane power became commensurate with clever fighting styles; there just wasn’t that much mechanically different between the characters; everyone could daze, stun, push, pull, grab, immobilize and so on, and so forth, depending on what powers or actions were taken and in the end only the fluff distinguished them much, and that went out the door as the system pushed the role-playing to the fringes, as everyone moved from encounter to encounter.

I don’t want to labor the point. 4e has a lot going for it, but ultimately it feels like a cul-de-sac in the overall history of D&D. A clever system that enhanced the play, but cost the game its soul. More than once I’ve heard players say “Okay, we need to convince the king to help us; I roll Diplomacy – 23!” and immediately ten minutes of valuable, vital even, roleplay was distilled into a dice roll, so that we can move to the next fight. 4e left players walking through a story, without ever having to influence it much, because the structure itself simply discouraged it. Even if you were keen to run with the roleplay, and could make it work without devolving into dice rolling, it was still hard to get off the ‘on-rails’ sense of each adventure. You simply HAD to move through to each encounter, finally reaching the big bad, and having another scrap.

And whilst it was an excellent RPG combat system, there’s something to be said for having the ability to run a swift combat, without even needing mini’s, just one of the elements that this latest version of D&D is bringing back to the game.

Personally, I think that this is the big one, this is going to be a must-have for anyone even a little interested in the game, and I hope they get it right and pitch it to new players, too. I’ve noticed a big expansion in tabletop and roleplay games in the last few years, partly with the explosion in platforms such as Kickstarter, which puts creators even closer to their fans, but also enables smaller ideas to get off the ground when they otherwise might have struggled to balance funding against risk. It seems to me, at least, the time and landscape is ripe for D&D to come back big and hard and get a whole new set of gamers in.

If you’ve been keeping your eye out, you may have noticed that there’s more available than just the basic books. I’ve also seen several new miniature sets lined up; WizKids are releasing a new line of D&D Miniatures around August, with at least 50 mini’s in the line. Hopefully, the very good and sadly undersold DUNGEON COMMAND series will get a sprucing up – if you haven’t played it, I can strongly recommend it. the biggest flaw there was its dual nature. The original sets serving as both a straight set of miniatures to enhance table play, but also as factions in a very good tactical combat game – but you needed at least two sets to play. Too hardcore for the casual, and too casual a game for the hardcore, I think it fell between the floorboards a bit; but it is a very good game in its own right, and the miniatures are good quality, with decent paint jobs.

There are two other elements to this release that I think need to be there, for it to really take off. One of them looks solid. The Living Forgotten Realms enduring world and adventure system is very necessary, I think, to getting this going. Using the established network of gaming shops, it gives people a casual way in to the game, and it helps people who don’t have, or can’t commit to, a regular group an outlet. It’s also a great way to keep a sense of the whole D&D world, or at least its primary setting of Faerun, as a living world, with events impacting everyone. They’ve done a pretty solid job so far with The Sundering event that’s been going on for the last year. I hope this is a blue print for years going forwards.

Tying the book series to the published adventures creates the kind of accessible depth that Marvel have achieved with their films. You don’t need to see all of it, to feel the effects in the bits you do care about. And the adventures as well have been very good, with a genuinely open ended feel to them, and the possibility to make them your own. It definitely highlighted the primary issue with 4e, that player agency was simply constrained by the nature of the system, and its needs. More over, the unstated books have proven the concept. You really can play the version of D&D you want, and the support materials should be there to, well, support you, as you do so.

The other element that I’m really hoping they’ve nailed down – I’ve heard nothing about it – is the online and digital support. The D&DI project was big, blue sky thinking that crashed to earth. It promised so much, and looked brilliant on paper, that it is disappointing that it became merely a character creator and resource center. I really hope they’ve put the work into getting a good digital system in place for the launch – I reiterate, I’ve got no knowledge that they have any such thing at all – because so much can be done with them now. We’ve all seen systems like Roll20 begin to get better and smarter, and the success of Obsidian Portal should be indicative of what can be achieved with a dedicated to purpose wiki. If Wizards of the Coast – and they’re corporate overlords, Hasbro – can pin that down, can combine all these elements into a dedicated suite of online and offline tools for character creation, world building wiki’s, communications and digital dungeons and more, then they’ll have at least one dedicated user, over here. I hope they are on it, I really do. iPad support is vital, as well; I already DM almost exclusively from my iPad. If they can make that easier for me, I’ll be in to the hilt.

It’s a great time to be a gamer, and it’s looking like a great time to be a dedicated D&D fan, too. Personally, I can’t wait to get into this latest version of D&D, and I really hope I can bring some more people in with me.

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  • Werepanda

    I tried the playtest stuff and was ultimately disappointed. I’ll probably give it another shot though.

    • CaptDan

      In fairness to the playtest, that is exactly what it was – a mass playtest, for Wizards to experiment with various elements and mechanics on a large scale. I’ve been playing the last version of it for a while now, and I really like it, but the unbalanced elements are very prominent, once you’re completely familiar with it. I would never advise anyone to get something, sight unseen; in the end, you have to read the reviews and look at the books to see if it’s the system for you, but I have to say, I think they’ve done a really great job of getting back to the soul of DnD, after the grand experiment of 4e – a system I still like, but which I think is badly flawed for having a true DnD style adventure with. Besides, the starter set is only $20, and will almost certainly be enough to decide whether you want the whole thing or not…