Over at CBR.com, they have posted a sort of wish list of “5 things that fans want (and 5 that make people worried)“. I have thoughts.
First off, I take issue with the notion that this list really represents what “fans” (whatever that means) want. I always get edgy when people claim to speak for everyone, especially when it’s just some random list of stuff and not the result of any polling or survey. It’s far more likely that this is just Nicholas Howe’s personal list. Which doesn’t invalidate it as a point to start a discussion, but the implication that he speaks for many if not all D&D players is more than a little off-putting.
Now, I may be a little out of touch, since I’m apparently in the 11% of D&D players over the age of 45 (which number seems absurdly low to me, and is presented by Wizards of the Coast without source or explanation for how it was derived), and as an Old School player I’m much more comfortable with Old School ways of approaching the game, but a lot of these things on the list seem weird to me.
First I’ll go through the things Nicholas wants, and then I’ll go through the things that worry him.
Montagable Fights: Sounds like he thinks fights are just a time-sink that has no real purpose other than to keep the PCs from getting to what they really want to do. I humbly disagree, and I think that might be a function of the fact that he’s not playing a 1E or LBB-style game, where combat goes a LOT faster than it does in 5E (or heaven forbid 4E), specifically because there just aren’t that many options for players to get bogged down in. Move and hit, move and hit, just like we learned in the old AH and SPI wargames.
Differentiating Resource Models: This is very much a function of the movement away from the game as resource management, and more towards being plot plot plot driven. When the game focuses on exploration and resources, you don’t want to skip over the time needed to rest and heal. That’s time that other PCs could be stealing the treasure out from under your nose, or that the NPCs and monsters are spending moving their own plots forward and preparing. In short, it rewards reckless behavior by removing (or limiting) the downside to wasting hit points and other resources.
Official Monster Races from Go: Honestly, I never really understood the desire to play a goblin or bugbear. But remember that the earliest editions of the game allowed for it, and gave guidelines for the DM to do so in his campaign if he wished. One telling thing; Nicholas specifically mentions “official Dungeons and Dragons events”, which tells me that there’s entirely too much emphasis on such things. I don’t want to play a game where everyone plays only the same adventures in the same campaigns with the same characters. This is a function of the deterioration of homebrew campaign settings.
Well-Defined Skills: Unless you’re assuming everyone is playing in the same standardized campaign setting, I’m not sure how you’d create a definition for “history” (for instance) that wasn’t either overly vague (which is Nicholas’ complaint) or overly complex. 1E did two entire books about “survival” and they were so over-stuffed and complicated as to be of very limited utility. I think 5E actually comes at the problem very astutely; give more in-depth descriptions of skills that are more likely to be used, and more vague descriptions of the “niche” ones (to use his phrase). Let the DM sort it out (and as an aside, that seems to be a running theme in his list; he doesn’t seem to want or trust the DM to do anything creative, just run the game straight out of a pre-written module according to the letter of the rules).
Balanced Classes: No, no, and no again! Not because I’m against balanced classes, but Nicholas’ sense of what “balanced” means is counter to what it has traditionally meant. What he wants are classes that are completely balanced throughout their history, from 1st level to 30th. Everyone has comparable abilities across the board, everyone does the same amount of damage, everyone is a cookie-cutter copy of everyone else. It’s symmetry, not balance. In days of yore, there was balance between the classes as well, but it was asymmetrical. Magic-users were extremely under-powered at lower levels, which meant they had a much higher attrition rate. Add to that the fact that they had a slower level progression compared to fighters. But at higher levels, they outstripped their comrades in damage and other factors. That’s the balance; not between classes at any given point, but within the class across its lifespan. You want to be a powerful wizard? You pay for it by being a survivor and stepping over the bodies of a dozen other low-level mages with the same idea. You want to play it safe at low levels? Play a fighter, but be aware you’re going to be left behind at higher levels, at least in terms of damage done.
And that, I think, is the key to my criticism. Nicholas seems to think that the only things that matter about characters is their abilities and the damage they can do. He’s not alone, of course, and way too many gamers seem to be incapable of doing anything that’s not explicitly spelled out on their character sheet. If you think your first level magic-user is useless because you cast your only 1st level spell, you’re not playing the game correctly.
Now, on to the things that the author would not like to see. They “worry” him.
Not Being Playable by Just Anyone: It’s sort of hard to figure out what he means here, because compared to Holmes Basic, Swords & Wizardry, or a lot of other games (mostly in the OSR realm, but not exclusively), 5E is massively complex, with its conditions, and skills, and multi-tiered class ability structures, and monsters who all have multiple special abilities, and so forth. I’m going to assume he means here “not more complex than 5E.” Which… fine. But if he really wants to open up the game to a wider audience, then it should be more rules lite. Of course, that puts more onus on the DM, which seems to be a Bad Thing, as well as on the players, who might be forced to use their imaginations to do things that aren’t listed on their character sheets as special abilities.
Moving Away From Different Setup Styles: I don’t think he means what he says he means here. If he really was in favor of “different styles”, he would have praise for both ends of the spectrum; theater of the mind as well as tactical-heavy gridding and figures. But he only seems to want to move things in one direction, towards theater of the mind. Which… fine. But if that’s what he wants, just come out and say so, rather than doing this bait-and-switch.
Splitting the Players: No, not “splitting the party”, but possibly having it so that not everyone makes the leap from 5E to 6E together. Because people playing different versions of the game is bad, somehow (cough I still play 1E cough). Because they’re not the same. Not one of us. One of us… one of us… one of us…
Absorbing Popular Creations: This is a weird one. Speaking as someone who has himself published stuff on DM’s Guild, it’s very clearly spelled out that it’s a trade-off. You’re trading your right to not have Wizards of the Coast use your stuff against the ability to use their high-profile website to promote your stuff for their most popular game and settings. This seems to be a criticism not of the game itself, but of a business model that nobody is obliged to buy into in the first place. Want to keep your awesome new initiative system to yourself and not take the chance that Wizards of the Coast might include it in one of their official publications? Don’t publish it through DM’s Guild. Simple. But he misses one enormous thing; that’s the exact reason why people do publish there! They want Wizards of the Coast to use their stuff! That’s a feature, not a bug.
Being too Different: He’s afraid a new edition will change the game. Too much. A little change is okay (and needed), but if it changes too much then people might feel “excluded” (GASP!). Because if they did, then they would never be able to play again, because their 5E rulebooks will self-destruct. But seriously, isn’t changing the way the game plays the whole point of a new edition? If they just want to tweak some stuff, they could do that and call it 5.5, and vast hordes would shell out big bucks for new rulebooks. Like they did with 3.5 (and 2E, if I’m to be honest, which was much more a cleanup and expansion of 1E than it was a unique game unto itself, unlike 3.x, which was completely different in tone and mechanics).
I really think this guy’s mind would be blown if he played a really older edition of the game, and found out just how different it can be, and still be a Good Thing.