NOTE: This was a very difficult article to write. Please pass the link for this article to as many people as you can. I would love to hear your comments, especially on what you thinks needs to happen to save our game. The article is the long so be warned.
Dungeons and Dragons has been a constant in my life since 1979. I have played every edition since the Red Basic Box and am currently playing 4th edition. Over the years I have played many different role-playing systems, from superhero (DC Heroes, Villains and Vigilantes, Champions and Marvel Super Heroes), science fiction (Traveller, Star Frontiers, Time Master and Star Trek), horror (Chill and Call of and even RPGs based on cartoons (Teenage Mutant Turtles and Robotech). I have only ever played one fantasy RPG, Dungeons and Dragons. I have never felt the need to stray from my first love, that is until now. This is where my dilemma begins...
From the first day I played Dungeons and Dragons the story has always been more important than the rules. The changes that came with different versions seemed to have a minimum impact on the adventures I was creating. My players transitioned seamless from First to Second to Third. Enter Fourth edition.
For the first time in over 30 years I barely recognize what Dungeons and Dragons has become. Sure some of the mechanics are the same and most of the creatures I have been tormenting my players with for years are still around, but one thing is different. The players have fewer choices for their characters. Characters in the first few editions would transform over time to be as unique and varied as the people who played them. The fourth edition choices for a player to take as his character progresses up in levels is very limited, turning what was once a game of limitless possibilities into something you would play on your Xbox or PS3. This change has made playing the game feel artificial. Players no longer have the connection to their characters they used to have. I have no problem with Xbox or PS3 games and play console RPGs on occasion. I rarely talk about the exploits of my characters from a console RPG. I can however relay 30 years of good stories about my favourite characters and NPCs. I might share one or two of them in upcoming posts.
I have really been trying to love this newest edition but Wizards of the Coast is making it so difficult. Wizards has not been providing its community with much in the way of support. Wizards has published a few excellent supplements for fourth edition such as Open Grave and The Shadowfell but these are few and far between. In fact before the newly released Madness at Gardmore Abbey (a review is on its way) the previous module was released over a year ago. The only way to get monthly content from Wizards is if you are a Dungeons and Dragons Insider member. With membership as an Insider, you will get a handful of articles and a handful of adventures every month. In total, the insider content is about 120-130 pages every month. The cost of an Insider membership is very reasonable and you get some very useful tools such as character builder and the compendium. Unfortunately, I find the format of the articles hinders their usefulness. The articles come in single pdf files and usually consist of 3-10 pages. After a few months you will have trouble keeping track of your articles. The adventures are often too short to be useful and the maps for the most part are just plain tiny.
As many of you know, I just published a glowing review on the Pathfinder Beginner Box. I have always loved the core mechanics Pathfinder is based on, and if the truth be known, it is closer to the Dungeons and Dragons I played for most of my life. Paizo publishes many different, and quite frankly useful, supplements, adventures and GM aids every month. Pathfinder materials are fun, colourful and add volumes to the experience of the players and GM alike. Everything I have read has both entertained me and provided me with dozens of ideas for my own campaign. The people at Paizo have clearly spent time and effort on making their game better with each book they publish. The have a standard world in which to play in and are fleshing it out with new supplements coming out every month.
Third party support is another place where Pathfinder is beating Dungeons and Dragons. On the DriveThruRPG site, fourth edition has 327 products to the staggering 1261 for Pathfinder. Pathfinder will also work with the tonnes of material published for both the third edition and 3.5 edition.
I am struggling with my loyalty to 30 years of memories. So many of the best memories I have are tied up in this game. Dungeons and Dragons has feed my imagination like nothing else. It has become so difficult for me to watch as Wizards continues to stumble and trip over its own feet. Quite frankly, they seem to be lost. Can Dungeons and Dragons be saved. I think so.
The first thing Wizards needs to do it to relax its tight control over third party designers. There has been numerous cases of Wizards telling small independent designers that they can't continue to develop and sell their products. I won't go into details but if you search it you will find some great examples. Dungeons and Dragons is a game of the imagination and third party developers must be free to add to the game. Many great supplements and adventures are created by people outside Wizards, often spun from their own homebrew campaigns. This talent needs to be nurtured and not squashed.
Secondly, Wizards needs to stop supporting Ebberon, Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms and the Generic world. Four worlds given partial support can not compete with the single world given full support. My suggestion would be to focus on the Forgotten Realms. It is highly recognizable and next year it will celebrate its 25th year as the campaign setting of choice for many DMs. The other campaign settings can either be turned over to the community, similar to how the Chaos Scar is handled, or the rights sold to a third party developer who can devote the proper time and resources that these settings deserves.
The third thing Wizards needs to do is to start creating more useful content. Its not ok to publish a bunch of short articles and small adventures every month and a handful of supplements. In 2011, Wizards has released a DM Screen, 3 sets of Dungeon Tiles, 5 supplements including 2 new books for players, one Adventure and one Creature book. Pathfinder gets a minimum of 36 new products over the course of a year. The Pathfinder release schedule is just that, a schedule. As a Pathfinder GM or Player you can be sure that you will get new and useful information each and every month, and their handy subscription model must generate a tonne of revenue for them. Monthly Pathfinder releases are usually softcover and range from 32 pages to 96 pages. Core Pathfinder books are hard cover and contain many more pages. Wizards can learn from this. Instead of the Insider coming out with small articles and tiny adventures, why not give us two 30 page articles and two 30 page adventures. Every single Pathfinder release I own provides some crunchy bits about the world. The Adventures and Adventure Path (see the Pathfinder website to learn what an Adventure Path is) provides details about the only campaign setting Pathfinder has, Golarion. This makes almost every Pathfinder release useful to every GM.
Fourthly, players must be given more choices. Choices do not make the game more complicated, choices make the game more enjoyable. I will admit, I like all the options the Fighter class has been given but it seems to have come at the cost of options for the other classes. By using the method I suggested in the previous paragraph, character classes could slowly be expanded and the choices restored.
The last thing Wizards must do is to stop rehashing old ideas. After 30 years of playing Dungeons and Dragons I have amassed a large collection of adventures. I do not want to see the same adventure recreated edition after edition. I can modify them myself, or failing that I can find someone on the Internet who has already done it for me. I understand the nostalgic feeling of playing The Tomb of Horrors or the newest season of Encounters, Beyond the Crystal Cave, but its just plain lazy to rehash and repackage old ideas. Dungeons and Dragons needs to capture the imagination, it doesn't need to be a stroll down memory lane.
There are plenty of rumours of what the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons might look like. Anywhere from having the dice replaced with collectable cards to taking a step back towards 3rd edition combining the best from both editions. I don't know how true either of these rumours are, and to be honest it doesn't really matter. The game I have been playing for over 30 years is in real danger of disappearing and might not survive to the 5th edition. For the first time, Pathfinder has surpassed Dungeons and Dragons in sales. I am afraid that as Pathfinder gains a bigger share of the market, Wizards will be forced to scale back the release schedule of Dungeons and Dragons products even further.
The point of this article isn't to start an argument over which edition is the best, but rather its the observations of a man who cares deeply about the greatest game on the planet. I have written this article with the hope that somehow I can reach the people who determine the future of our game and let them know that Dungeons and Dragons is in serious trouble. Many of the first players, myself included, have taught the game of our childhood to our children. I only hope my son and daughter will be able to pass the game on to their children.