It’s been several weeks, so probably everyone knows that there’s a new edition of D&D in the works. It’s not a huge shock—it was coming eventually, that’s how these things work—but what is surprising is how soon it’s arriving in the lifetime of 4th edition, more or less proving the various 3.5/Pathfinder conspiracy theorists right (much as it pains me) that 4e didn’t have enough market dominance.
The big thing Wizards is pushing is to try to bring back all the various factions of D&D players. Which I think is where the open-beta will collapse: the finished product will undoubtedly please some fans but not everyone, particularly the groups who divorced themselves from D&D with 4th Ed.
The big two groups are pro-4e and pro-Pathfinder, the louder, more relevant part of the Edition Wars. I read someplace that “3.5 was designed to be the best version of D&D. 4th Ed was designed to be the best tactical roleplaying game.” I think it’s 100% right from a metagame standpoint, and reveals the cause of the gap between fan-bases: from a D&D perspective, 4th Ed is a major shift mechanically from what’s came before. (Of course, if you’ve only played other games, I have to imagine looking at the Edition Wars is like watching two identical twins in different clothes having a slapfight in the back of mom’s station wagon.)
Bringing them together is no easy feat: Pathfinder fans are often generalized as knee-jerk reactionaries so resistant to change that they’re willing to shell out for, and then gulp down, a barely-modified version of the SRD and questionable new content (the Ultimates), while 4e fans are painted as elitist pricks buying into a soulless board game version of World of Warcraft, devoid of roleplaying merit and written for (slow) grade-school students, just because it’s new and shiny. (Or that they’re dumbed down like all the vidya games kids today play, depending on how old your source is.) As with all generalizations, lots of hyperbole and personal bias surrounding small kernels of truth. (Except that last part in parenthesis, which is just asinine.)
Sadly, I think those two groups would be the easiest to gap to bridge, which is a shame, given how polarized the camps are. (Moreso because Wizards, as the preeminent gaming company, needs to continue market dominance to remain profitable for Hasbro, and apparently has to rectify the Pathfinder-4e gap: otherwise, all these 5e press releases are lying.)
Our third faction is OSR: Old School Roleplaying/Revival/Renaissance, depending on the week. I have to say, I don’t really understand OSR because I wasn’t gaming in the ’70s, and spent most of my gaming life with 3.x and World of Darkness. But the one thing that’s come across through all the new OSR games? Straightforward dungeon crawling adventure, random charts, a return to the glory of combat matrixes and everything you meet trying to kill you. A cross between nostalgic charm and the old-school itch that was scratched in 3.x with Dungeon Crawl Classics and Necromancer Games.
You’d think that 4e’s old-school “points of light” setting, akin to Judge’s Guild or Greyhawk, would be a draw, but no: I’ve seen OSR gamers complain that post-Advanced D&D games have too much “roleplaying,” have mechanics based too much on video games, or that everything not left to random chance (e.g., Chartmaster) is storygame swine bullshit. (Of course, these were also old grognards who lurk in the backs of gaming stores near the Warhammer tables and design their own OSR rules based on the Gor novels, so I think it’s safe to say they’re ignorable.)
Lastly, there’s a large faction—er, factions—built up around 3.5. Why not switch to Pathfinder, FantasyCraft, True20? A number of reasons. The aforementioned “it’s just the SRD reprinted with nicer art,” or “I don’t want to pay for rules I already own,” or the stolid “the power-level borders on wish-fulfillment.” Several of the pro-3.5 groups just boil down to “I can’t build character I wanted/optimize how I used to outside of 3.5.” One of my friends got an earful about how Artificers are the most powerful class because they can shit wands and solo dungeons; that’s not exactly the kind of example I’d use to promote a system, but it fits a lot of the remaining 3.5 optimization groups.
I’ve seen many, many people with the delusion that Wizards is going to just reprint 3.5 material for 5e, and go back to that system, in order to “beat” Paizo. I know a lot of people who have this opinion, or wish, and while I agree with them on many other things, that’s… never going to happen, no.
Contrary to popular belief, 3.5 had about run its course—look at MM4 and MM5 and tell me it’s not slammed with filler, monsters with class levels and all that. Yes, they could have done Completes ’till the cows came home… and now Paizo’s worked hard to distance themselves from Pres-Class bloat, rather successfully, making it into a Pathfinder strength. Yes, I would have loved some more “It’s ____ Outside” books to go with Stormwrack and Sandstorm, but look at how well Dungeonscape and Cityscape sold before 3.5 ended. Otherwise, I can point to both the library of 3.x compatible books from respected third-parties, or the rotten quality control with the Pathfinder Ultimates
Wizards only had about a year or two of 3.5 material left, and going back to the system isn’t going to change anything; what’s propelling Pathfinder isn’t its new content—it has hardcover sourcebooks, what, three per year?—but its subscription-based lines focused on their own world of Golarion. Moreso: even if Wizards went back to 3.5, I’d hope that they do a lot of major tweaking there, not just crapping out the books they’ve already printed. And I’m talking FantasyCraft tweaking, not True20 tweaking, rebuilding the system from the ground up to make it new, edgy, and competitive.
In any event, the reason I don’t see a fifth edition pleasing everyone is that each niche wants something radically different from the others. Wizards isn’t going to win back the OSR or 3.5 crowds without reprinting older material; even if that happened, it isn’t going to appeal to either current 4e fans, or the Pathfinder fans Wizards is trying to win back. And Wizards has a tough first stretch: convincing the diaspora factions to return, and collaborate with current fans, after many have proclaimed they’ll never buy from Wizards again. (Of course, those were angry words on the internet: it means jack shit.)
A camel, so my father says far too often, is a horse designed by committee; I foresee that this one—with an already entrenched sense of party politics, squabbling after varying goals—isn’t going to come out like an Arabian stallion. I am curious, of course; I’d like to hope that it’ll end unifying the various factions under a superior game system, the best Dungeons & Dragons edition yet. But I foresee one of three things will happen:
- It’ll be left up to the Balkanized fans, ending up with a version skewed towards one faction, resulting in no change to the Edition Wars status quo and not expanding Wizards’ market like they wanted.
- It’ll try to be all-inclusive, and attempt to match all the groups’ goals—or at least keep the 4e fans and draw back some 3.5/Pathfinder gamers—and end up being a muddled mess that doesn’t please everyone.
- Most of the divergent fan goals will be ignored and we’ll get whatever Wizards’ designers were going to do in the first place. Which, for all I know, might not be such a bad thing.
We shall see. Hoping I’m wrong on this.
(Of course, to make the superior version I’d buy, they’d have to kill too many sacred cows, and would fall into Pitfall One above. Like the antiquated class/level system that, regardless of edition, craps out in the upper-mid-level experience. Either ditch it and revolutionize the brand, or play into the reason people like it—to customize/optimize character builds—and make an edition with a near-constant stream of minor upgrades and enhancements, if not levels, like every encounter or something.)