Wizards of the Coast had several announcements this year, including plans to release most of their back catalog in an electronic format. They haven't announced a vendor or format yet, but given the shoddy state of TSR's archives, it sounds like they have a lot of work ahead of them. During a demo for D&D Next, Mike Mearls, Senior Manager for the Dungeons & Dragons Research and Design Team, explained: TSR, the former owner of Dungeons & Dragons, threw out many of their original art resources. In order to digitize the game books, the Wizards of the Coast team first had to track down high-quality, used copies of the missing books.
On a more personal note, Mearls used the D&D Next demo as a chance to explain his design philosophy for the new edition. He wants the core game to be a stripped down, iconic experience that appeals to the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. The problem (and why the game has a projected two years of playtesting to go) is how widely gamers' definitions vary. One player may demand maps and miniatures, while the other only needs owlbears to be happy. Everything the design team determines to be outside the "core" D&D experience will become an optional rule, a supplement, or an add-on. It's a solid goal, but its success depends on how these options are presented. Once a game book leaves its publishers' hands, all rules in it become optional. Some groups treat the mechanics in the book as holy writ; others handle them more like guidelines. In order for D&D Next to succeed at its modular approach, it needs to point out early and often how important it is for each group to select rules supporting the type of stories they want to play.
Mearls provided an object lesson in mucking with the rules during the game demo. My party was composed of storytellers and improvisors rather than tacticians. We were having fun fleshing our pre-generated characters, their relationships to one another, and the city where the demo took place. The party's halfling rogue noticed she had a cooking skill, so within minutes we had all changed our alignments to assist her in operating a pawn shop/speakeasy with an unfortunate demon problem. Sometimes, play took on a story-game vibe. "OK," Mearls would ask. "What happens next?" or "You recognize that man. Why?" Combat, a common cornerstone of D&D, was similarly pushed the the background. We fought, but many of the rules I knew from earlier D&D Next playtests were ignored. Even at first level and 6 HP, our actions were powerful. When a roll failed, it wasn't because the characters were dunces and neophytes, but the enemies were that good.
As Mearls explains in the keynote speech, "For too long, the rules were the forefront of the game. [Now, it's] all about putting the rules behind us." This is a new direction for Wizards of the Coast, and a risky one. Where will the rules lawyers find respite? How will monthly book sales factor in? Most pressing, do the core D&D fans want a modular, rules-light experience?
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