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Wizards of the Coast confirms the design team is busy working on a new version of D&D.

To paraphrase Don Draper from Mad Men, when you don’t like what people are saying about you or your product, you need to change the conversation. That’s exactly what Wizards of the Coast did today by formally announcing work on a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons has begun. The new iteration of D&D doesn’t yet have an official name and, until it does, it will most likely be referred to as 5th edition, but what it’s called isn’t really important. For the first time, the creators of D&D are setting out to create a role playing system that is compatible with – and takes inspiration from – every previous edition of the game.

“This project has one goal – to create a base set of rules that cover the entire breadth of D&D‘s history,” said Mike Mearls, the head of Dungeons & Dragons development. “We want a game that anyone who has played any version of D&D can recognize as D&D and find the things that drew them into the hobby celebrated and supported.”

Even though sales have been steady and the weekly Encounters program is attracting new players, the public reputation of the venerable RPG brand took severe hit point loss after the launch of 4th edition in 2008. “Every edition has in some ways met and in some ways missed my personal expectations for D&D,” Mearls said, but he was quick to jump on the collective creative criticism from the gaming community 4th edition engendered as a net positive for the brand. “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 team at Wizards has turned over a bit since 2008 – promoting Mearls and rehiring one of the creative leads of 3rd edition in Monte Cook – and many D&D insiders guessed something new was in the works. When I was invited out to Seattle to visit the Wizards offices early in December, I thought I might get a glimpse of their plans. I learned that not only was the design team already hard at work re-forging the game many of us play around the table but there is a company-wide initiative to win back the confidence of Dungeons & Dragons gamers around the world. How? By integrating the opinions and criticisms collected from fans directly into the rules with a long open beta test.

“We want to release a great product, one that [fans] have helped develop,” Mearls said. “Play testers provide a great sounding board for ideas and directions for the classes, spells, adventure building rules, and so on.”

Previous editions of the game had play testing periods, but Wizards restricted access to freelancers or those connected to the company and those tests were ineffectual at best. I was in a play testing group for 4th edition back in 2007, and we submitted a 30 page annotated document of what we felt worked and what didn’t work with the rules we played. Other than my name among the hundreds of play testers in the back of the 4th edition Player’s Handbook, nothing I submitted made it into print. Our feedback was summarily ignored, and Mearls admitted that was essentially true of all the feedback Wizards received from the 4th edition play test.

This time it will be different. Starting in the next few months, Wizards of the Coast will open the new rules up to gamers and actively solicit feedback to shape the game. They plan to leverage the relative popularity of the Encounters program – an organized event in game stores where players across the country participate in the same adventure each week – to offer adventures written for the new iteration of D&D using the new rules. Wizards plans to set up a website survey to track players’ feedback and get it quickly into the hands of Mearls and the team designing the rules.

“We want to give the community enough time to thoroughly digest each play test package,” he said. “Then, we need to make sure we have time to integrate player feedback into each play test cycle so their needs and desires are captured in the final product. This will take time.”

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As part of my visit to Wizards’ offices, I played the new game in a group of other journalists and gaming experts with Mike Mearls serving as DM. We were asked not to reveal any of the specifics of the rules because they are still in flux and the team – understandably, considering the backlash from 4th – wants to handle how the changes are revealed very carefully. I can say that many fans will be happy and surprised at some returning rules. Many things are now in the game that were missing from 4th, while newer concepts have been reworked to feel like they’ve been there all along.

Mike quickly got the party investigating a lost relic, and after three hours of adventuring we quickly discussed what we liked and didn’t like about what we played. It’s a compliment to the new rules that I was rarely aware of them. It might have been Mike’s expertise as a DM, but the new D&D does feel like a pleasant amalgam of every edition and the elegance of the rules allowed us to concentrate on the adventure’s plot.

“We hope to create a system that allows players to use much of their existing content, regardless of the edition. Our goal is to make sure we are on course for a game that hits the broad spectrum of D&D,” Mearls said.

Story is going to be a focus of D&D going forward. Many of us fell in love with the game through the adventure modules released by TSR in the early days of the game. Gygax’s Against the Giants modules are still regarded as a crowning achievement in how they planted plot details in the dungeon along with exciting combat, and Mearls said he wants to get back to that level of story-telling through new published adventures.

The announcement of a new D&D doesn’t mean that 4th edition is now a lame duck. Wizards recognizes that the game still has a very loyal following, and pledges to continue supporting 4th edition during the testing cycle of the new edition and beyond. “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,” Mearls said. “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.” In other words, Wizards vows it’s not replacing 4th edition, but merely adding another layer of rules that will cater to the people unhappy with the latest edition’s changes.

What is less clear is whether the new iteration of D&D will operate with a more open license for its rules than the Game System License was for 4th edition. The OGL – Open Gaming License – associated with the launch of 3rd edition in 2000 had a profound impact on the tabletop gaming industry, but Wizards backpedaling and holding onto its trademarks more closely in 4th pleased no one. The decision has not yet been made on the level of openness the new edition will have.

“We’ll have more information on the GSL as it relates to the next edition in the near future. Personally, I have a copy of ‘The Cathedral & the Bazaar’ on the shelf at work,” Mearls said, admitting the landmark essay regarding open source software systems impacts his views on the subject. “From my days as a programmer and as a freelance RPG designer, the bulk of my work involved open platforms which did a lot for a game that relies so much on individual creativity.”

If you read my recent series of articles – The State of D&D: Past Present and Future – then you’ll be a bit closer to understanding the mountain Mike Mearls and Wizards must climb for the new edition to be a success. The rise of Paizo’s Pathfinder and the retro-clones of the Old School Renaissance in the wake of unhappiness many gamers felt with 4th edition is unprecedented in the nearly 40 year history of role playing games. Something drastic had to be done to change the conversation, and the new iteration of D&D might be it.

Being in the Wizards offices and hearing excitement from each member of the staff about the new rules – from Mearls himself down to the Magic folks – was infectious and I’m now cautiously optimistic about the future of D&D. Having an extended open test of the rules will go a long way to bringing disenchanted gamers back into the fold. Even if I disagree with individual rules or concepts in the new iteration of D&D, I’ll have the opportunity to tell the designers my concerns. The first time I see something I or my fellow play testers recommend make it into the game, I’ll know my Dungeons & Dragons is back.

Greg Tito rolls dice to break orc skulls, but he also wields a keyboard to discuss and create all kinds of games. He has had game design material published by Wizards of the Coast, Goodman Games, Gun Metal Games and now Autarch. He is currently working on the Adventurer Conqueror King System, which refines first edition D&D and adds endgame play for all classes. His wife and daughter still love him.

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