D&D 5e: What Do We Know So Far?

Now that we’ve all succeeded on our save vs. shocking news, let’s examine today’s Big Announcement and study what we know. We’ll learn a lot more in the coming days and weeks, but let’s make a first stop of many and roll Perception to see if there’s any hints at what to expect. Until the playtest phase rolls around (and we’ve been assured it will), we’ll have to make do with gossip and terrible, wonderful speculation.

The future of D&D?

First off, we don’t even know what it’s going to be called. The Internet has erupted in 5th Edition fever, but if you look at the WotC press releases, they carefully call it the next iteration of D&D, or the future of the game, or the new rules. The closest you might find to an “official” name so far is “D&D Next.” Press who visited WotC in December learned the code name used by WotC R&D for the rules document, but have been asked not to reveal it. (It begins with an “I,” though. 4th Edition was codenamed Orcus during development, so maybe Iggwilv? Ioun? Imix? Io? My money’s on Iuz.)

In fact, Mike Mearls pretty much put it down when he said “Most people will think of this as the fifth edition of D&D. In many ways, though, we want this to be a version of the game that embraces the entirety of D&D’s history, one that all D&D fans can turn to and use. I think that the actual naming of the game will come down to how the play-tests go and how people react to it. I’d love to just call it Dungeons & Dragons and leave the edition numbering behind” (CNN).

A sigh of relief can be followed by a *huh?* of confusion at the news that Mearls hopes “to create a system that allows players to use much of their existing content, regardless of the edition” (The Escapist). Whatever that means, he seems to be saying that the game will accommodate content from throughout D&D history, at least in part. But how? What does it mean? A magic formula for turning 2e monsters into 5e statblocks? Unlikely. An extremely stripped-down ruleset that doesn’t use most of the rules trappings that each edition of D&D has employed? Undesirable. A pipe dream that cannot be followed through upon? Unknowable.

The Big Reveal

We learned that a few members of the press and RPG bloggers who were invited to WotC headquarters in December for a secret unveiling. Although it was initially presented as an “organized play conference,” the attendees apparently played a playtest game DMed by Mike Mearls. The invitees include (with links to their articles): NewbieDM (who did not attend), Dave “The Game” ChalkerChristopher HacklerEthan Gilsdorf for the New York TimesGreg Tito for The Escapist, David Ewalt for ForbesTopher Kohan for CNN, and Sarah Darkmagic.

Two things are consistent through everyone’s account: Wizards wants players to playtest the game and give feedback, and they perceive the pre-release marketing of 4th Edition as a botched attempt which will be corrected this time around. I want to believe the sincerity of these sentiments, but it’s too early to tell how effectively they will act on them. At this point it’s not much more than talking points, but Mike Mearls and his team seem determined to win us over, saying “Even if you haven’t played in 20 years, we want you to be able to sit down and say, ‘this is D&D'” (The Escapist). So far, compared to the announcement of 4th Edition, we’re seeing less sacred hamburger and more reverence for the past. To be honest, I want some of both in the game and I have had enough fun playing 4th Edition that I don’t want the developers to treat it like a bad dream.

There’s a word I learned during the Great Edition War, soon to be known as Edition War I, and that word is wrongbadfun. Simply put, people felt (right or wrong) that 4th Edition was suited only to a very specific style of play, and that it neglected or marginalized other aspects. It seems like the team at Wizards of the Coast is being very careful to emphasize that they aren’t doing that this time around: “In some ways, it was like we told people, ‘The right way to play guitar is to play thrash metal,’ but there’s other ways to play guitar” (Forbes).

In fact, the designers seem to suggest that you’ll be able to play characters who, if not actually being built from different editions of the game, will at least be able to be customized in order to resemble your preferred ruleset. Robert Schwalb writes:

Imagine a game where you can play the version of D&D you love best. And then imagine everyone plays at the same table, in the same adventure. We aim to make a universal game system that lets you play the game in whatever way, whatever style, with whatever focus you want, whether you want to kick down doors and kill monsters, engage in high intrigue, intense roleplaying, or simply to immerse yourself in a shared world. We’re creating a game where the mechanics can be as complex or as light as you want them. (“Dungeons and Dragons… Next“)

Similarly, Mike Mearls talks about the attitude of the new D&D on houseruling:

In every edition, D&D is a creative exercise, and as such it is a game that players and DMs are expected to bend, fold, and manipulate to their own needs. In some ways, that nagging desire to introduce a house rule or create a unique setting are what give the game its spark. With this new iteration of the game, we’re focusing on the range of what D&D can support and has supported rather than picking one style of play and focusing on it. (The Escapist)

Hints and Glimpses

Now that we can all step down from the ledge, safe in the knowledge that our home game and everything we like about it will probably have a place in the new order, we can try to glean a little bit of an idea of what the game will come to look like. Unfortunately, there’s not much to go on. I heard one of the attendees at WotC’s secret conference snapped a photo of his cleric’s character sheet, but can’t share it due to a NDA. For now, we mostly know what it isn’t going to look like. For one, those expecting the Legends & Lore articles by Mike Mearls and Monte Cook to be a preview of 5th Edition are probably off the mark: “Those columns aren’t previews of what they’re doing; they’re a way of floating concepts out there and seeing what you think. Some are popular; others less so, and this is important” (Christopher “Gaming Tonic” Hackler, ENWorld).

The ENWorld writeup also reports that the game’s presentation won’t change much: “[We are] extremely committed to tabletop gaming and the face to face experiences that D&D brings. There is clear recognition that although digital tools can enhance and supplement a game, the company has not lost sight of the fact that D&D is a tabletop roleplaying game, and not a digital experience.” In fact, it looks like the game’s content is being engineered to stay as familiar as possible, and it’s only the presentation that will change. Says Mearls: “We’re not trying to completely surprise or shock people with a change to the game. In some ways, this is a natural time period to start looking at the next edition of the game” (CNN). Mearls also has already satisfied one common 5e request: that 4e not be abandoned: “We plan to continue offering people access to tools like the D&D Character Builder and the D&D Monster Builder to support 4th edition. We’re also exploring ideas for conversion tools so that some of the 4th edition characters and content will be playable with the next edition” (The Escapist). WotC will continue to support 4e, promising that they are “not closing the door on that sort of play” (Forbes).

I know I’m not alone in wanting to know more about the crunch of the game. How will those moving parts, drawn from disparate worlds stretching across the ages of our game, fit together under one unified game engine? Mike Mearls confirms what we all pretty much guessed, that the game will present itself as modules for nearly every aspect of play: “Just like a player makes his character, the Dungeon Master can make his ruleset. He might say ‘I’m going to run a military campaign, it’s going to be a lot of fighting’… so he’d use the combat chapter, drop in miniatures rules, and include the martial arts optional rules” (Forbes). Wait a minute… was that just an example, or did Mearls just confirm that the new edition will support play without minis? So far, the insiders who have seen the combat rules paint a glowing picture:

Wizards is on the right track [with the rules as shown to press in December. … S]o far, the fifth edition rules show promise. They’re simple without being stupid, and efficient without being shallow. Combat was quick and satisfying; we got through most of an adventure in just a few hours. And I get the sense that fifth edition will bring back some of the good complexity of previous versions, allowing players to create unique characters and new worlds. (Forbes)

A First Look Inside

Those who are attending the D&D Experience (January 26-29) might have the opportunity to join a playtest, if they can fight through the crowds. The game will feature 1st-level pregens exploring the infamous Caves of Chaos (Baldman Games). Until then, we can try to discern some hint of what is to come from the descriptions of the D&DXP seminar lineup.

  • Charting the Course: An Edition for all Editions (Thursday) – Join Mike Mearls, Monte Cook, and Jeremy Crawford as they discuss the origin for the idea to create an edition of Dungeons & Dragons that encompasses all previous editions. The designers discuss the challenges in creating compatibility and balance, as well as the exciting possibilities such a system creates. Seminar to be followed by a Q&A session.
  • Class Design: From Assassins to Wizards (Friday) – Designers Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Schwalb discuss their approach to class design, including the difficulties in creating iconic versions of the classes that speak to players of all editions. Should the cleric be more martial or more healer? Does the default ranger have an animal companion? What level of complexity should the fighter have? Seminar to be followed by a Q&A session.
  • Future Products and Q&A (Saturday) – Mike Mearls presents upcoming D&D products for 2012, as well as a vision for the future of Dungeons & Dragons. Seminar is followed by a Q&A session. Other members of R&D on hand to answer questions as well.
  • Reimagining Skills and Ability Scores (Sunday) – The role of skills has fluctuated throughout the life ofDungeons & Dragons, and ability scores have been of varying importance in each edition. Find out what the design team has done to reimagine these aspects of the game, and how they arrived at a system to marry the two concepts more closely together. Seminar includes Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell, and Robert Schwalb, and will be followed by a Q&A session.
This spring, a series of open beta tests will be made available for fans to try out first-hand. Get excited, take a look at our news post here, join the community group here, read the official announcement here, and sign up for the playtest at the bottom of the page.