The early playtest information from January’s D&D Experience shows that the next version of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) will be very different to the previous incarnations.  Deciphering the details that have filtered out seems to make D&D Next a game that wants the simplicity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with the clarity of modern game design.

There was a time when D&D and the role-playing game industry were pretty much interchangeable terms.  D&D commanded a huge amount of the industry until the arrival of Vampire and the World of Darkness.  D&D was still the 800lb. gorilla though.  Then came D&D 3rd Edition and the Open Game License (OGL).  Effectively D&D was open sourced in the early aughts because the OGL allowed verbatim copying of sizeable parts of D&D 3rd Edition.  Originally meant to allow third parties to make new crunch and rules for the then new version of D&D, it wasn’t long before a fully fledge D&D clone was released. (BTW, It was Everquest by WWGS’ d20 imprint Sword & Sorcery that was the first complete OGL based game.)  When Wizards of the Coast (WotC) abandoned the OGL and 3rd Edition in favour of a new set of rules and a new very restrictive third-party license, it had a problem.  The OGL was a perpetual open license that didn’t end just because WotC wanted it to.

While Everquest may have been the first complete game using the OGL, it wasn’t the only one.  Castles & Crusades (C&C) was one of the first commercial retro-clones, a game that used open game content from the OGL to recreate an earlier version of the game.  C&C is not strictly a retro-clone, but it did try to match the simplicity of pre-3rd Edition rules to modern post-3rd Edition unified rules.  The result was a game that was simple and flexible, but unified and easy to understand.  In many ways D&D Next sounds a lot like what C&C is already doing.  But C&C didn’t cause a massive shift in players.  It found a niche for people who wanted to use old adventures and books with a modern in print game.

When 4th Edition came out a schism happened in D&D.  All new editions have minor splits as people tend to go with what they like, but 4th edition was very different because the old ruleset would still be available to anyone who wanted it.  It wasn’t long before a company that was heavily invested in 3rd Edition and worried about 4th Edition’s very restrictive license effectively cloned the previous edition of D&D and rebranded it as Pathfinder.  Paizo who had been running the Dungeon and Dragon magazines for most of 3rd Edition made their money by publishing adventure paths for D&D.  Basically a campaign’s worth of adventures in six parts.  WotC had no financial skill in marketing adventures and was quite happy to let third parties make adventures for their game.  Making adventures was actually what the OGL was meant to stimulate.  When WotC threatened Paizo’s business Paizo took the latest open source rules and wrote their own rule book so they could continue to make adventures.

Four years after WotC went one way and Paizo continued down the old path, the unthinkable happened.  According to ICv2, Paizo’s Pathfinder outsells D&D.  This is probably one of the main reasons D&D Next is being worked on.  Even in its heyday Vampire and the World of Darkness never threatened D&D’s crown.  Even more worrisome is that Green Ronin’s Dragon Age RPG (DARPG) based on the best-selling computer game is current in the top five games being sold.  DARPG’s AGE system is exactly what D&D Next is trying to be, a simple and easy to understand system with crunch and modern coherent rules design.  Even worse is that in WotC’s attempt to lure Pathfinder, C&C and DARPG players back to the mothership, it risks alienating its current players who see nothing wrong with 4th Edition.

WotC has a tough route ahead of it.  It gave away the code to clone previous versions of itself and then changed the rules dramatically.  In order to get back to the top as the undisputed RPG king, it has to deal with a pretender it created.  It has to fend of other games that are already doing what it wants to without the baggage and sacred cows.  And it must do all of this without losing the significant people who currently like and play the game now.  No one cares about a 400lb. gorilla, when there is a 600lb. and two 200lb. ones in the same cage.

Iain McGregorTabletop GamesCastles & Crusades,D&D,D&D Next,Dragon Age RPG,OGL,Pathfinder
The early playtest information from January's D&D Experience shows that the next version of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) will be very different to the previous incarnations.  Deciphering the details that have filtered out seems to make D&D Next a game that wants the simplicity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons...