WotC is working on a new edition of D&D. I spent the last couple of weeks, since the announce, thinking about what I like about D&D and why I play, or why I stop. I’m not currently as burned out with 4E as I was with 3E during the last edition change. But I am tired of it and ready to stop. I don’t consider this a problem. I played 3E for years until I got sick of it. I consider that time and money well spent. Ditto 4E. Even though in both cases, I got to a point where I was ready to stop.
There’s no reason to think 5E will be some kind of magic bullet where I love it and play it forever. Maybe I won’t play it at all. Maybe I’ll just stop playing D&D. Nothing wrong with that. If I get a few years of fun and enjoyment out of it, that’ll be great. If not, that’s ok.
But it does prompt me to think about what I like about D&D. What I want in a D&D. Absent the rules. I’m talking about the experience of play. My ideal D&D.
I like the idea that the wilderness is dangerous. Travelling through it, exploring it, is a life-or-death proposition for starting characters.
I like the idea of Random Encounters. This ties into the previous Like. If we go off the beaten track we may meet something dangerous. Something that threatens us, might kill us. Life & Death. I like the idea that resting in a dungeon is dangerous, because of what might come along while we sleep. I like the idea of taking watch, of building tension as we hope no one finds us.
I like the idea that time has meaning. Leaving the dungeon to rest, going back to town, has an impact on the dungeon. When we come back, the bad guys will be ready for us. Will be nastier. I like the idea that exploring the dungeon is a kind of race against time in a Stealth Actioner. Can we make it through before we run out of resources, can we avoid alerting the entire place?
I like magic items that are awesome, and weird, and random. I like the idea that you’re collecting a trove, souvenirs of all the awesome shit you’ve done. The items are memorable (sometimes because of how useless, weird, or quirky they are) and when you look at the list of items on your sheet, you remember all the crazy shit you did to get them. I like the idea that your 7th level fighter and my 7th level fighter will be really different…because we went on different adventures. I like the idea that you might look at someone else’s sheet and exclaim “where did you GET that!?”
I like magic items players covet. They read about them in the DMG and think “Holy crap I WANT that!” They hear rumors of various adventures and the treasure within and that is what motivates them to go adventuring.
I like the idea that money is important. It’s power. It lets you do things. Therefore players want it, and want to keep track of it.
I like the idea that there are things to do outside of combat. Outside the dungeon. Things to spend money on, things I *want* to spend money on. And I like the idea that these things have mechanics. They don’t have to be as robust as combat–combat is the star of the show–but I want more than just the GM making up a bunch of shit.
I like the idea that my character can have ambition. My fighter wants to build a Keep and attract Followers. My Wizard wants to build a Tower, or start a Wizard’s Order, research new spells, explore the wilderness clairvoyantly from his spire. There is a world to influence, and rules for doing so. My priest wants to start a church. My character can become a Count and raise an army. My character wants to influence the world. If yours doesn’t, that’s fine. It’s not a requirement, it’s an option.
I like the idea that everyone has cool shit they can do in combat. No one is stuck with the shit job. No one has only One Thing They Do. Maybe at first level, you have One Thing You Can Do, but as you level you get more options.
But I also like the idea that, at some point in the combat, if it goes long enough, if it’s nasty enough, if things go bad, you will run out of shit to do and be forced to IMPROVISE. Think outside the box. Consider the terrain, environment, surroundings. The enemy. Change the conditions of the test, stop looking at your character sheet and start thinking. Or, look at your character sheet, and think “how can I use this otherwise useless thing?”
I like tactical combat. Been playing with lead minis on a battlemat for 25 years. It’s good. Don’t mind if the game can be played without it, but that’s not for me.
I like a game that’s simple enough that once you’ve played a couple of times, you get it. I know that Slowed means you have 2 movement. Immobile means you can’t leave your square. Simple, straightforward, easy to remember. I don’t want 1,600 words for Grapple. I want lots of simple options and effects. I don’t want any rules that require a lot of looking shit up.
I like the idea that when you’re asked to make choices during character creation, the choices are all good ones. You never choose between Rope Trick and Magic Missile.
But I like the idea that spells do weird and highly specialized things and that there can be points where the Wizard player is thinking outside the box and using something he never thought he’d use.
I like the idea that if you show up with a new character, and tell us what it is, we have some idea what you can do…even if we’ve never read the rules. I have certain expectations about an Elf or a Wizard. I have no fucking idea what a Shardmind is, and I didn’t come to the table to find out. I don’t want to have to teach new players that a Wizard is really a Controller, and then teach them what a Controller is.
I like it when players worry about XP. I don’t really know why, but I’ve played in games where players judiciously tally XP, and games where they didn’t care because they knew they were all going to level up at a regular rate, and the former were always more fun. I like the idea that leveling up feels like something the players achieved through their actions, rather than being rewarded by the GM with because they spent enough time adventuring and it didn’t really matter what they did.
I like the idea that surviving is a big deal. That makes the XP rewards more meaningful. “Holy crap we made it!” should be a regular refrain. This means…often you don’t make it!
I like the idea that there are sites to explore and maybe bad guys to kill. But there aren’t ‘quests’ and you don’t get XP for ‘completing a quest.’ If you want to stop the Giants from attacking the Farmlands, the reward is…the Giants stop attacking the Farmlands. You got XP for killing the Giants. Maybe the farmers are now more Loyal toward you, you attract more Followers, you gain fame and influence. Those are mechanically valuable things.
I like the idea that being 1st level means worrying about things like your Gear. You’re not a Hero yet, you have to rely on mundane Gear. I don’t really give a shit about encumbrance, but maybe worrying about how much you can carry for the first couple of levels is fun. After that, I’m a Hero, I got bigger fish to fry.
I like the idea that surviving to, say, 5th level is a big deal and means you’re probably going to be OK. But until then, it’s a dicey proposition. I’ve played Bildungsroman games and game where you start competent and bad-ass and I think I prefer the former. I think you can go too far in either direction. I generally think that death should be the result of getting In Over Your Head and not knowing when to retreat, rather than some kobold got a lucky roll and your 1 hp wizard is dead. That’s just bad design.
I like the idea that the dungeon is a dangerous environment full of traps and secret doors and glowing, magical pools. Things to do besides fight monsters. Things to worry about.
I like the idea that your group and my group will go through the same adventure and have different experiences, maybe REALLY different experiences. You found a secret door, we discovered the secret to that magic mirror. We talk about these experiences, how different they were, and we both want to go through the adventure again!
I like the idea that there are only a handful of adventures. They’re famous and we tell stories about going through them and our difference experiences and we like going through them more than once. Not over and over, but more than once.
I like mechanically robust combat that’s easy to set up and run. Improvise. Running the game, on the fly, using the Monster Builder and Combat Manager is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in D&D. Monsters had tons of cool shit they could do, and it was fun running them.
I like mapping. I like having to map the dungeon. I like the players feeling like they have to map the dungeon and that the map is valuable.
I like bad guys who are smart and work together. This Goblin is going to run out of the room and go alert his Goblin Brethren in the other room and I didn’t just break the game by taking what was supposed to be 3 different encounters with rests between them and turn them into one big encounter, I just made the game more challenging.
I think that’s about it. There’s a lot of stuff not on this list because by and large it’s stuff I don’t give a shit about!
Every edition of D&D has had stuff in it I loved. No edition has had it all. Maybe none will. I don’t expect anyone to cater to me.