Now that all the “next” (it’s 5th edition, whatever they call it) playtest packets are all done, I’m reading whatever responses I can about the system. So far, it looks like many of the same issues that plagued 4th, and to a large extent 3rd, are hanging around. Perhaps asking your audience what they want is a terrible way to go about making a thing; from the perspective of the artist or musician, 99% of the time it is.
But since I haven’t had a chance to actually play with the packets, here’s some reflection of my own D&D experiences.
I started playing around the middle of 2nd edition. Compared to more recent iterations, it was somewhat less structured. Messier, actually: there was Thac0 for hitting and magic items were individual items rather than having a structured tier (i.e. Flametongue rather than “flaming weapon”- and yes, I know Flametongue stuck around). The books seemed less dry and enjoyable to actually read rather than plain rulebooks. The artwork itself was varied, both by artists and by particular takes on monsters and settings. This also seemed to be the heyday for D&D novels, notably the original Dragonlance trilogy and Forgotten Realms series. Grid-and-mini combat was more a suggestion than an assumption (although we capitalized on that), and there was much more emphasis on non-combat situations in both the core books and the supplements. My favorite book was actually a take on early Sears and Roebucks catalogues called “Aurora’s Whole Realms”, which had detailed descriptions of magical and mundane items and a bare minimum of game data. The first campaign I played was during 2nd; the very first adventure I threw turnips at trolls, because as a first level ranger I didn’t have many options. It was an absolute blast. There was plenty of imbalance, especially if you used the Skills and Powers book (as we called it, 2.5), but because different aspects of the game weren’t always using the same scaling, it was very easy to houserule a thing without it threatening to impact anything else.
A few years later we regrouped and had a long 3.5 campaign. I never played the initial 3rd, so I don’t know how it differed, but 3.5 was fine by me. I preferred some of the looseness of the 2nd ed. rules, but I didn’t mind the tailored-for-minis aspect, and it did speed up both combat and leveling immensely. The biggest issue I had was that by the time we started, players had already figured out the most effective builds. Combined with our DMs generally strict observance of the rules, that meant that those of us with less than encyclopedic knowledge of the game (plus the montly splatbooks and addendums) were nearly always at a disadvantage. That’s the only serious pet peeve I had about 3.5, that in part to correct some basic flaws in 3rd and level off some of the “powergamer advantage” they amped everything else a bit. I could be wrong, but that’s always what it felt like. Our group had one player who was fairly new, one old-school player who was frankly just terrible at the game, one player who studied the damn game like a passion (our powergamer, or “the guy that carried us through dungeons”, and me, who hadn’t played since second and only really knew his character. So while it was definitely my favorite campaign, I really developed a sense of every roll being sort of a last-ditch action that probably wouldn’t work.
The last couple of years have been a foray into 4th edition: different DM and group, and vastly different system. It actually worked fine for me in early levels. A handful of powers, some streamlined rules, and theoretically more room for storytelling. Sadly, the more everyone leveled, the more complex combat became. Where 3rd edition fights would take an hour because everything not “attack with my +2 axe” needed looking up, 4th edition took an hour because “do we burn our dailies now, or is the actual big fight in the next room?”. Your choices were always either hoard your good actions or burn them fast, and it often seemed like a crapshoot. Not only that, but even by epic tier we basically gained a level every session, which meant having to reprint your character every game. You’d get new powers so fast you never really got a chance to learn how best to use them. It was both simplified and convoluted, and by the time we hit epic tier we weren’t always even bothering with a story or dialogue- it became a flimsy lead-in for a two hour fight. What I did like were the ease of access (well, because everyone else had a subscription) to every published option through the website. Two sheets and your power cards could get you by, and PHB if you needed to reference grappling or something. The few mechanics for non-combat situations (skill checks, “helping” rolls, the idea that a +2 or a -2 was a sufficient modifier for most checks) were brilliant, although looking back that’s not the aspect that needed speeding up. Having 1hp minions was a good DM tool for fleshing out battles.
Ideally, here’s what I’d like to see
- 3.5 combat rules with a sidebar of simplified rule options: grids and tiles and minis are great if you have the resources and the space for it, but there should be a way to run combat on a sheet of paper. Having a less-tactical focused ruleset alongside a normal one would serve both camps.
- Keeping D&D insider, although I think a few months free with a book purchase wouldn’t be out of the realm
- I like seperate PHB/DMG/MM books. 3rd was rampant with largely dull and unecessary splatbooks. there seemed to be fewer in 4th, but spreading out classic races and classes over 3 different PHB volumes is a ludicrous money grab.
- Along that line, novelty-focused extra books. Stuff the core material in the main books and charge a little more if you have to, but the splatbooks should be more world-building, idea inspiring, entertaining material. Maps and pictures. Maybe even a short story or two. I think quality is what we’re looking for, not quantity.
- Some version of the Monster Compendium. Basically a late-released, slightly condensed Monster Manual; it came with a shitload of illustrated cardboard tokens of monsters. Not quite as cool as minis, but for thirty bucks that’s a lot of mileage (and a space-saver as well).