That's right. Not 5e.
I found myself in a pretty unusual position when I discovered the announcement of D&D 5th edition only a few days after I opened up my first blog. Truth is, I didn’t know what to make of it, though much of my possible speculation has already been covered by other areas of the blog-o-sphere. In short, I’m not sure this is going to be a new edition. My suspicions are strongly, at the moment, in the court of ‘4.5’ (note that much of the material fromWotC says ‘next iteration’). But I really support much of what I’m hearing about modularity and allowing older editions to be sold on .pdf and whatnot. I want to talk about something I haven’t really heard much about—what to do with 4th edition?
People have talked ad nauseum about the problems of 4th edition, and I’m still not sure that all of my issues with the system have been satisfied. I feel like there is still some problem at the heart of the game that makes it a fundamentally less enjoyable game for me. I have no issue with playing the game, with people who like the game, etc., but for myself there is a need to discover more about my own gaming needs by studying those games that do not answer them. These criticisms are not malicious, though it’s hard not to feel that way about a critical analysis of anything that doesn’t live up to your standards of what it ‘should’ be. Godard famously said that the only way to really criticize a film is to make another one. So I’m going to walk through a little exercise to see what kind of game I think the 4e system could become. The hypothetical scenario begins with the question: what if Wizards handed the 4e system to someone to continue modifying, like they did with 3.5?
I think that one of 4e’s greatest problems was that the game was branded as D&D. If it had been released as, I don’t know, Minis and Minotaurs, or something, I think it is very likely that the game would have developed a strong following, and even been cited by players of 3e as a means by which to ‘fix’ some of the problems in the d20 system. Instead, it started a furor over ‘violating’ the core principles of its namesake. 4e was never truly given the chance to stand up on its own two feet, instead always being judged in comparison to its forbears. In addition, I always got the impression that 4e was developed in order to solve some of the issues of 3e, and again, it never really became its own game.
So, let’s imagine that Wizards gave 4e to some company (Tactical Minis Systems? I can’t help it…) and said, ‘Do whatever.’ Here is a new vision of the game, and maybe even a kind of appreciation for the possibilities of the system.
First of all, the company releases three books, each about the size and thickness of the ‘essentials’ line. The first is a core rulebook, very similar to the essentials ‘Core Rules’, and containing all the rules necessary for playing and DMing. The next book is player class information, but with several differences. First, classes are abolished. Instead, each power source and party role has an expanded list of powers, enabling full customizability. You select a power source, role, and secondary role, and then construct everything from the ground up. There might even be more At-Will powers permitted at different levels. This prevents the ‘martial striker’ from being judged against the ‘Rogue’ of D&D, and enables a more flexible and expansive set of class possibilities. The initial book will contain the Primal, Arcane, Martial and Divine power sources, subdivided into groups for the four roles—striker, defender, controller and leader. The second major change is a new set of races. Each race needs to be distinct from the races of D&D (think ‘Arcana Evolved’) and have abilities that take advantage of the powers system, like the Shardlings and Wilden. Thus the game looks very different from traditional D&D. The third book details monsters. Each book should be produced with line and ink drawings, both for expense and in order to stimulate the imagination (line and ink drawings really do it for me J). Ideally, each book should cost $20 or less.
From there, each new book is a modular supplement that introduces more of the same (more powers, monsters, treasure, etc) or expands options (character themes, backgrounds, new power sources, etc). The ‘points of light’ is a great idea for a setting, but 4e needs its own unique setting to explore in that vein. The idea here is modularity of approach with cheap books and close-to-classless character generation. This is akin to what 4e has already, but liberates the system (I think) from the D&D mythology to find its own way. 4e will never look very much like older editions of D&D, but I think that that can become a strength of the system. Instead, the more Wizards attempts to ‘close the gap’ between 4e and older editions (redesigns of older modules, for instance) the more the ‘uncanny valley’ becomes apparent.
I don’t know what 5e, or 4.5 will look like. But I hope 4e doesn’t die forever, since I don’t think it was ever really given its own life to live.