The New Dungeons & Dragons: Mistakes and Masterstrokes


With the advent of the new Dungeons & Dragons nigh, and more details than ever available, there’s a lot to debate about the particulars of the latest edition’s release plan. From a cool $150 for the game’s core books to a staggered release schedule, some gamers are up in arms, while others are welcoming their new fantasy roleplaying overlord. Some, in fact, are doing both. One person’s opinion won’t quite suffice here, so I’ve recruited writer and D&D veteran Ed Grabianowski to engage with me in spirited debate about the big questions relevant to the new Dungeons & Dragons. Say hi, Ed.

Ed Grabianowski: Hello, and thanks for inviting me. I have to say I’ve been skeptical about this new edition all along, especially in light of the long gap since the last edition officially died. But seeing the covers of these new books has stirred my inner Gollum. I’ve only played a little bit of the playtest versions, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Wizards of the Coast has done with the game. For what it’s worth, I started with 2nd Edition and played lengthy campaigns with 3, 3.5, and 4E. There’s something to love and something to hate with each one.

Jon: That’s quite different from me. I played a smattering of 2nd Edition and a lot of 3.0, 3.5, and variants – like Iron Heroes and Pathfinder. I didn’t play more than a couple campaigns of 4E. Instead, I stepped back in time and played a lot of 1981 Basic D&D before then moving on to multiple very long campaigns old school remakes like Adventurer, Conqueror, King. Moving into the new edition during the playtest period felt very natural to me – it had streamlined down the overtly game-like elements of Fourth Edition but kept the best of the clear, rules-oriented writing that came out of that period.

Will the Staggered Release Schedule Work?

Ed: I don’t have a problem with the release schedule itself, because it does offer a lot of benefits — Mike Mearls explained that it’s simply very difficult to release three books at once and keep the quality high, and it also spreads the cost out over several months, easing the sting of those $50 books a bit. But I think it’s very important for Wizards to explain how the whole process is going to work, and how players will be able to play the game right away, despite not having all the core books for several months. The loudest outcry (other than people complaining about the price) was from people who looked at the release schedule and thought, “That’s lame, I won’t even be able to play until November.” Mike Mearls tried to address this by saying you’ll be able to play and create characters even without all the books, but that didn’t seem to assuage everyone.They’re going to have to map it out very clearly: “Here’s how you’ll play with the starter set, here’s how the adventures will run with just the PHB, here’s why you won’t need the DM’s Guide right away.” And they’re going to have to say it a lot more loudly than a few Tweets.

Jon: The whole release of information about the products has been a maddening drip-drop. Now, when we’ve finally gotten what we’d call a reasonable response from Wizards, they’re being stingy with information about what it realistically means. I can’t agree enough that it’s not clear to me right now why I’d own these particular products in the order they’re selling them – though I do see why I’d own them overall. If I’m getting a Player’s Handbook and Adventure in August, why buy a starter box in July? It sounds like – given the description of a PHB + Adventure – that I won’t need that starter box unless I just want to play a taste of the game a month early. What am I getting that’s unique in the starter set? Will one naturally segue into another? If they don’t naturally fit together and are truly separate products, well, it sounds like the starter set is completely unnecessary for veteran players.

Ed: In some ways it’s a given that the Starter Set isn’t aimed at veteran players, although it can still be very useful for introducing new players to the game. Ideally, Hoard of the Dragon Queen which comes out at the same time as the PHB, will give everyone a taste of everything D&D has to offer: exciting battles, interesting puzzles, intrigue and mystery, fanciful characters, all that good stuff. Plus a helping hand for DMs, since they won’t have the DMG yet. So I suspect it’s going to be a matter of, “These adventures hold your hand through the process a bit, and once you’ve got those under your belt, the DMG and Monster Manual will be there so you can start creating things on your own.” If you want to teach someone to ride a bike, you don’t start off by throwing a pile of bike parts and a wrench at them.

Why Three Books?

Jon: Three books – Monster Manual, D&D, and Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s not only traditional, it’s a smart structure for a game. Let’s look at the entire release schedule as it has been announced. With the first of those products, the PHB, you can play a basic version of the game. With the Monster Manual, you get access to a tool that lets you make your own basic adventures. With the Dungeon Master’s Guide, you get a suite of optional rules for expanding the game. Sounds like perfect modularity to me – especially if it’s as-advertised and the players really can play the game from the D&D

Ed: I don’t entirely understand why Wizards of the Coast is so married to the three-book concept. I know it spreads the revenue around a little bit while increasing the overall cost of the system, but purely from a gamer’s standpoint, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pathfinder proved that you can cram rules, spells, magic items, and everything except monsters into a single volume. How awesome would it be for D&D to have a single iconic book that encapsulates the entire game? One instantly recognizable cover, one straightforward on-ramp for new players interested in trying the game. Admittedly, the PHB, DMG, and Monster Manual are infinitely more clear than the bizarrely titled Essentials books from Fourth Edition, but a single tome would be so much better. Plus, fitting it all into a single book would force them to streamline rules and keep the core of the game relatively simple, leaving more advanced elements for splatbooks and other add-ons (the modular approach Mike Mearls espoused early on in the development process).

I’m fine with a separate Monster Manual, by the way, because the world needs books full of monsters.

Jon: What about usability, here? You have to admit that a single nearly 800 page, 8.5 x 11′ hardback book is basically useless at a table, while a 360 page book would be way more useable at a table. Think of my poor wrists here. Why do I want to pick up a book with the optional mass combat and miniatures rules in it every time I want to reference the equipment chapter?

Ed: Something I would love to see is a cheap softcover player’s book. Black and white art, lower production values, everything you can do to keep it cheap. Someone in the group is going to buy the deluxe editions, but you can put a more limited subset of rules in every player’s hands.

Jon: Monte Cook Games’ Numenera just did this last year, and it was both a great book and very useful. I can’t agree enough.

Ed: Silver Age Sentinels did it a few years ago as well, with their “Stingy Gamer Edition,” which is where I got the idea, actually.

monster manual

What about the Basic Set and Adventures?

Jon: I actually think it’s clear that the basic set and adventures are going to be the strongest part of this release, you think?

Ed: Agreed. I can’t wait to get my hands on the Starter Set, because I’ve been a huge proponent of exactly this kind of intro product. I don’t want to keep comparing D&D to Pathfinder, but it’s inevitable, and Paizo’s Beginner Box did a really excellent job of it. A bare minimum rules set, an adventure, pre-generated characters, and dice — it’s all right there. I do wish they could throw in a few minis, but keeping the price down is more important. One really important detail is what retail outlets the Starter Set will be sold through. If they can get this on the shelves in the toy section at Target and WalMart, that would be huge.

Jon: No, please, make Pathfinder comparisons. It’s smart and there’s a reason they’ve been leading the market. I think the design – big, prominent, visual – is definitely designed to appeal to new players. That will get people to pick the thing up – plus, it’s a cute callback to the old basic set for veterans. The price is definitely exactly perfect, too, at $19.99 it’s well situated as a decent impulse buy for new players. Younger players, I think, than D&D has had an easy time attracting in a long while.

Ed: I’m excited about these first adventures, too. Tying it to Tiamat is great — she’s such an immediately recognizable and iconic villain, even if all you have are vague memories of the 80s D&D cartoon. And even if you’ve never heard of Tiamat before, a massive five-headed dragon is pretty damn impressive.

Beyond that, it’s great to see who’s responsible for these adventures: Wolfgang Baur and Steve Winter, working through Baur’s Kobold Press as a design studio. Their game and adventure design resumes are among the best in the industry, they’ve worked on so many successful projects I can’t even begin to list them. So I’m really confident that the adventures themselves are really going to sing. The fact that Wizards is hiring out adventure design also helps counteract some of the “brain drain” they’ve been suffering over the last several years. There’ve been a lot of layoffs and a lot of people leaving because Wizards claims ownership over anything they design while employed there. That’s not to say that the people currently working there aren’t talented, but a lot of talent has walked out the door. If we set aside the shady corporate shenanigans of laying someone off and then hiring them as a contract worker, it’s at least good to see that Wizards is willing to pursue the talent needed to create great games.

Jon: I hadn’t considered that bringing in an outside studio would counteract any brain drain, but I do worry that Baur and Winter’s adventure design is going to be too inside baseball for new players. The first adventures for a new system tend to actually be some of the weakest – consider how much errata Keep on the Shadowfell for Fourth Edition D&D needed by the time essentials rolled around. With that in mind, Kobold Press is an excellent studio to design them. They make really good work, but I worry that their episodic structure for these adventures is going to leave new players without a good idea of how to make their own adventures. The bar will simply be set too high. Without an incomparably written Dungeon Master’s Guide that tells people how to make and run this game, I think a lot of interest will stall out after these adventures.

Ed: Not having seen the adventures, I’m willing to give Winter and Baur the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure there was a mandate from Wizards that these adventures be as newbie-friendly as possible.

Is $50 Per Book Totally Insane or Just Slightly Insane?

Ed: There’s obviously some sticker shock when you see the price per book, and even more when you consider the three core books adding up to $150. I understand that and agree to some extent. It’s a commitment. It’s out of reach for younger gamers or gamers with limited budgets, which is a damn shame. The books will undoubtedly be far less expensive on Amazon, which is fine, but it’s going to take the legs out from under local game stores. Luckily, the average FLGS isn’t as tied to the success or failure of D&D these days. There’s a healthy diversity in the RPG market. But it’s still a problem.

Jon: I think it’s a perfect price. Yeah, lots of people are going to buy them online from big retailers, but that’s only going to be new players. People who love their local game stores are going to buy from those. You have to think of D&D more like a console than a single game. This is an engine for lots of different stories over years, not just single sessions or even short-term play. $150 feels like a paltry investment, and sitting at $240 for every announced printed product feels perfectly fine. Sure, it’s going to be expensive, and sure, that’s going to delay purchase for some people, but many will buy in eventually. Plus, it’s not Wizards’ job to keep the local game store open – but they’ve tried. Getting people into those stores, where they’ll decide to buy future books out of convenience, is going to be the job of broadening the D&D Encounters organized play program.

Ed: I think if we look at the big picture, you’re right. I wonder how many of the people complaining the loudest have $300 gaming systems in their living rooms. I wish it was a little cheaper, but considering an entire group only needs one copy of the DMG and Monster Manual, and can share a few PHBs between them, it’s really not that terrible of a price. It’s not that I don’t think the game is worth the investment, but making D&D cheaper makes D&D more accessible. You know what would be really cool? If Wizards played up the educational aspects of social gaming and donated some books to school gaming clubs or after-school recreational programs.

Jon: That would be very cool. I think Wizards is going to be fighting a bit of an uphill battle to get their fans back in the game. There are a lot of reasons to stay with Pathfinder or another, older game.

Ed Grabianowski is a freelance writer who has covered everything from professional wrestling to the stock market — you’ll find him at io9, HowStuffWorks, and many other places. He’s a lifelong tabletop gamer, currently running a Pathfinder campaign while avoiding Friday Night Magic because [mtg_card=Damnation] isn’t Standard-legal.

Jonathan Bolding is The Escapist‘s Senior Editor for Tabletop Games. You can follow him on Twitter.

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