Today my wife pointed me to an article on CNN.com announcing a new edition of Dungeons and Dragons. That’s right. A new edition, announced only four years after the last edition. I was just starting to get used to Fourth Edition — and starting to play it enough to actually want to buy some of the products.

Now that the news has sunk in for me, I welcome it. Fourth Edition has its advantages, but it is not without faults, as I have written before. Although I’m annoyed at yet another opportunity to throw out a stack of books and spend a hundred bucks on new ones, I’ve come to regard 4E as the Windows Vista of D&D. Once it’s gone, I think most people will be glad to forget about it.

There is not much information yet about what 5E is going to look like. It was only announced yesterday, for crying out loud. Probably the best source for news related to the new edition is EN World, specifically, their D&D Next page.

Partly out of professional interest as a semi-pro game designer, and partly because I have an active, regular game getting started, I expect I’ll follow the development of this edition more closely than I did for Fourth, and will probably buy and read the books a lot sooner this time around. For now, I’ll just start by reacting to some of the information we do have.

Hope Springs Eternal

I am still at the point where I greet news of a new D&D edition with optimism. I keep thinking, “great, another chance for Wizards of the Coast to finally get it right!” Some may consider that reaction uncharitable, but it’s better than what I bet many of WotC’s other customers are saying.

Some of the words coming out of WotC are encouraging. For example,

“The goal of this project is to develop a universal rules system that takes from the best of every edition and gets at the soul of what D&D is.”

–Mike Mearls, Wizards of the Coast

“Get[ting] at the soul of what D&D is” sounds to me like code for taking a step back from the World of Warcraft influence that’s so apparent in 4E. So that’s good.

I’m a bit more skeptical about the idea of a “universal rules system” — as a designer, I’ve come to believe that the rules of a role-playing game have to be designed to support the concepts and atmosphere the game wants to promote. That’s why Ars Magica has incredibly flexible and robust magic rules, but its combat system is pretty clunky and straightforward; why Call of Cthulhu has pages and pages of rules for how your character can go insane; and so on. A truly generic rules system can’t evoke the unique moods of those games. But that’s not what I think Wizards of the Coast means in this context. While no game system can be all things to everyone, I do think it’s possible for designers to get a grip on the essence of D&D and set down a rule system that captures that essence. It would be “universal” in the sense that, if done right, it should appeal to everyone who likes that essence of D&D.

The Strengths of Each Edition

Mr. Mearls’ stated goal is to “[take] the best from each edition.” I am actually old enough to have read and played each edition of D&D, so here I’ll offer my completely subjective opinion of what was best about each edition.

Fourth Edition: Tactical Options

The real strength of Fourth Edition is that every round, the players always have choices. This is a big deal, and having played Fourth Edition I do not think I would want to go back. Every class has powers it can use at will and every character has more than one of those powers. Having those choices makes the combat portion of the game a lot more fun.

I keep feeling the urge to qualify my praise of Fourth Edition by pointing out its faults, but I’ll resist. Giving players a choice of powers was a revolutionary improvement that drove my choice to adopt it as the edition for my game.

Fourth Edition does a great job of minimizing “down time” and getting the players back into the action. It threw away the concept of Vancian magic (based on the fantasy novels of Jack Vance, which I’ve never read) where wizards “forget” their spells after casting them, with great success. Instead of the spellcasters spending 10 or 20 minutes every couple of hours figuring out what spells to prepare for the day, everyone just heals up and gets going. This means, quite simply, more time for fun at the gaming table.

Another nice thing about Fourth Edition in my opinion is that as characters rise in level, they get better at everything: a character’s level figures into his Armor Class, skill checks, and so on. If D&D is to remain a level-based system, as I think practically everyone expects it should, it’s nice for the character’s level to mean something.

Third Edition: Character Options

Third Edition in my opinion had many strengths, the greatest of which was probably the many possible directions in which to develop a character. At every level, characters get new skill points to spend and usually a new feat or class feature. Multi-classing was available to any character and the rules for it were straightforward and logical. More so than other editions, in Third Edition it was easy to visualize your character’s concept and realize it in mechanical terms. If you wanted an armor-clad dwarf warrior who dabbles in magic and can cast spells in full plate, you could make it. A fighter specialized in the quarterstaff and expert at disarming foes? No problem. More so than other editions, Third Edition was a canvas for the players’ imaginations.

Another of Third Edition’s great strengths was the Open Game License. I think the experiment with open-source roleplaying rules was a roaring success that helped to revitalize the industry. I also think that Wizards’ decision to turn its back on openness is a big factor in the failure of Fourth Edition (that’s right, I said “failure.”) Let’s hope they learn the right lessons from history.

Second Edition: Evolution, not Revolution

Second Edition made a lot of improvements over First Edition. The strength of the edition was that it took a lot of the great ideas from First Edition and made them more systematic and better balanced. A skill system made its first appearance, though it was called by the awkward moniker “nonweapon proficiencies” (a name that rather plainly illustrates the design bias toward combat that is integral to D&D’s legacy). Dragons became tough, instead of being the paper tigers they were in First Edition. In general, Second Edition was better balanced and a good deal easier to play — though it still showed lots of room for improvement.

Second Edition was also when the Forgotten Realms setting really took off. I have never gotten really excited about published game settings — my impulse to create my own is too strong — but a lot of gamers I know, some of whom have excellent taste, love the Realms. If I had to point to a major strength of Second Edition, I think it would be the setting more than the rules.

First Edition: Putting “Advanced” in Dungeons and Dragons!

First Edition AD&D had issues. The rules were complicated and totally arbitrary. At first I was a bit hesitant to name one thing that was really great about First Edition, but then I thought back on the experience of playing that edition. The choice became obvious: the Dungeon Master’s Guide. That book was awesome! Hundreds of pages of dense, small print, with rules and advice on all manner of idiosyncratic topics, it was an opus of amazing breadth. Gary Gygax’s authoritative and unabashedly geeky voice leapt from topic to topic with the energy of a hummingbird, covering subjects as quirky and arcane as the cost to install a new machicolations in your castle to what happens if you mix two magic potions together (the famous Potion Miscibility Table) to what creatures one would encounter in the Pleistocene Epoch to how likely a character is to contract parasites (the Parasitic Infestation Table: I remember it fondly). A lot of the material was, let’s say, “peripheral,” but it suggested so many possibilities. The book was both inspired and inspiring; it was a very far cry from the commercialized, color-illustrated, and basically vacuous content of all later editions of the DM’s Guide. Sure, Gygax’s prose impressed me a lot more when I was ten than it probably would now that I’m past forty (I don’t want to look back at it and spoil the memory). If a new edition of D&D can capture a quarter of the enthusiasm of that seminal work of role-playing, I will gladly embrace it and buy copies for my friends.

Basic, Expert, and All That

I never really played a lot of the non-Advanced version of D&D: I had the blue-book version of Basic D&D but moved on to Advanced long before the Expert boxed set was published. There is something to be said for Basic D&D (and the later Rules Cyclopedia), though: imagine a version of D&D where all the rules fit into one book, and you can get started playing for under $50. I think it would be great if the next version of D&D had a simple, low-cost way to get started with the basics. Given that tabletop gaming today faces fierce competition from video games and MMO’s as well as collectible-card games, it seems like a good idea to lower the amount of money, time, and commitment it takes to play D&D for the first time.

Original D&D: Classic Dungeon Crawling

In comparison to Third and Fourth Editions, the original tan books do not look like much. The mechanics were certainly a diamond in the rough, to put it politely. I think the original version of Dungeons and Dragons had a couple of things going for it, though, that the designers of the next edition would do well to consider. First, it was meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive set of rules to cover all possible situations. Dungeon Masters were expected to add their own monsters and treasures and to make up rules on the fly. A bit of that spirit would be a refreshing change from 4E in particular, where the publisher tries to spoon-feed every new idea to the players and the game seems engineered to discourage innovation. Related to this is the fact that in the early days, D&D encouraged at least a few third-party publishers. Judges’ Guild produced some high-quality supplements, including the famous City State of the Invincible Overlord.

In short, the strengths of the original tan booklets of D&D, aside from the fact that they basically pioneered role-playing games and revolutionized popular culture, were that they were simple, open, and extensible. It would be great if the next D&D could say the same.