A few months ago, I wrote about my experience with the D&D public playtest. There have been two updates to the rules since then, and they look to be heading in approximately the right direction again. The designers have dropped the concept of skill dice and they’ve straightened out the design of the rogue that gave us so much trouble back in January.

At the same time, I am not getting a sense that the design team has a clear agenda. They seem to be muddling along from survey to survey. Two weeks ago, Mike Mearls (lead designer) wrote a column pondering what the concept of hit points should mean. Mr. Mearls did take a reasonable stance on the question, but the fact that he’s still devoting his column to such a basic design question makes me wonder when and whether we are going to see the design team really commit to anything.

That is why I’m dropping out of the playtest process. When I’ve playtested in the past, it was for the Ars Magica system. Their playtest process is conceptually very different from the way the D&D playtest process is unfolding. An Ars Magica playtest is like an editorial review process: the author commits to a design and the playtesters try it out and report back with how they liked it, what worked, and what didn’t. The author then revises based on the diverse feedback from the different playtesters. The D&D playtest appears to work differently: it seems to be more of a focus group (my cynical side would call it a “popularity contest”) where the designers throw out a different, competing idea each iteration and run a survey to see which one caught on.

That leaves me cold for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, I think designers should have their own vision and try to adapt it to the market based on feedback, rather than expecting the market to make all the major decisions for them. Imagine if George R.R. Martin tried to write the next Game of Thrones novel by sending around a couple of different versions of each chapter and running a survey to see which one was most popular. That would be ridiculous — the reason people read Mr. Martin’s books is that he has his own style and his own master plan for the plot. People value that (even if, like me, they don’t like every creative decision the author makes). So, I think the design-by-committee approach lacks integrity and will ultimately be a disservice to the customer by producing a mediocre product. It’s an understandable over-reaction the the “edition wars.” The designers seem to be bending over backward to please everyone, without realizing that in so doing, they’ve lost track of the designer’s role.

On a more practical level, it also means that each iteration of the playtest is going to be different from the last, and will not necessarily bear much resemblance to the final product. To stay in the playtest, my group would have to re-learn the rules every time we sit down to play. Now that I know that’s the expectation, I’m not interested in paying that cost. I can’t get a group together as often as I’d like to. To spend a lot of time learning each version of the playtest rules, only to have them change in extensive and arbitrary ways next time around, does not appeal to me.

So, now that I’ve figured out what Wizards of the Coast actually wants from the playtesters, they can count me out. I no longer believe the game is necessarily going to be bad. I have no idea what the final game is going to be like. The playtest drafts don’t really tell me: anything could change at any time. Maybe the next edition of D&D will be as great as my first playtest experience, or maybe it will be as lousy as my second. I’ll take a look at it when the design team have finally made up their minds.