Wizards of the Coast announced on Monday, January 9, 2012 that they are in the process of developing the next edition of what some might argue is the company’s crown jewel, Dungeons and Dragons. However, this is not simply a “the next edition of D&D will be released on X date” announcement, but rather a promulgation to the gaming community that the developers will be doing things differently this time around. Work has already begun in its most preliminary stages with internal playtest groups and exclusive consultants, with the eventual goal of involving the whole RPG gaming community in extensive crowd sourcing of their materials as they go.
A mere four years has passed since the ground-breaking release of Wizards of the Coast’s 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop role-playing game that started it all back in 1974. Fans of the game, as well as newcomers, had anticipated the release of 4th Edition with the usual gamer skepticism. Once released, new players found mechanics that they loved and while older players focused on the ways that they felt the game had been completely broken beyond repair. As with any new edition release, headstrong and hardcore fans of previous versions refused to move on and either stuck with their older rule sets or turned towards the plethora of other tabletop games available.
Some might argue that WotC is opening up the forums for more customer feedback and extensive play testing in the hopes to combat much of the backlash they received from the previous edition. Letting players talk about what they need and want from the game, versus what they don’t want to keep from 4E might prove useful. Others argue that the changes in the rules really don’t matter, as someone will always find something to complain about (as gamers are wont to do) and each unique group that gathers on a regular basis to trudge through the uncharted territories that have been laid out by their Dungeon Master is going to play their own way, regardless of the nuances of the edition they follow. Trying to take everyone into consideration with such a vastly complex and individualized game system may be more than the designers bargained for.
This new approach may be just what Wizards needs to revitalize the cult-classic, as the company has allegedly seen a drop in sales over recent years (some say especially since the 2009 release of Pathfinder by competing game publisher, Paizo). Arguably, there are several factors contributing to the speculated drop in sales with regards to D&D over the last eight or so years. The biggest finger can safely be pointed at the exponential growth in console and computer gaming. Why devote hours to the imagination when games like World of Warcraft and Skyrim do all the number crunching for you and reward you with shiny, digitally enhanced loot? But, there is a strong argument that no matter how many D&D rules-based video games are released, many gamers still desire the face-to-face interaction and creative aspects that tabletop games offer.
We asked Logan Bonner, a longtime game designer who worked on D&D 4th Edtion, for his opinion. He seemed quite hopeful that this was a move in the right direction after the negative response from the tabletop gaming community following 4E’s release.
“The announcement is as interesting from a PR standpoint as from a game design standpoint. It contrasts really strongly with the 4E rollout and is no doubt a reaction to how that went. The 4E announcement was bombastic, radical, and a little confusing. It was in a big room at Gen Con with giant statues and a stage. A lot of people left unsure whether the new edition would be a tabletop game or video game.
“It was a promise of a strong reinvention, but one that a lot of people didn’t really want,” commented Bonner. “The “new iteration” announcement is a complete about-face from that, and almost contrite. It’s saying, “We’re going to build this game slowly and carefully. It’s not ready yet. What you tell us will matter.”"
According to the release by Wizards on Monday, we should be seeing a completely open playtest beginning in the spring of 2012, following the special event they will be putting on at the D&D Experience in January 2012 for preliminary playtesting.
“The unspecified timeline [for release] suggests a dedication to ‘getting it right’ no matter how long it takes,” commented Bonner. “I don’t think anybody on either side wants to see the amount of errata 4E had. I’m sure the designers want to refine it to a razor edge; we’ll see how much time they can get as business realities rear their ugly head.”