As has been widely reported, Wizards of the Coast has announced that it is embarking on a project to revise the current (5th) edition of D&D. The rules are being rewritten (but Wizards promises backwards compatibility) and a whole digital ecosphere is planned.
I have no doubt that this post will generate a host of smug comments to the effect that “I don’t care what Wizards of the Coast does, I’ve got my AD&D books.” Fine. This post is not for you. You can stop reading this one, and move on to some of my Armies of Greyhawk posts.
Personally, I like both 1st and 5th edition, and I play both, although my 5E play nowadays is generally done at conventions.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the proposed rule changes that are currently being playtested. By their nature, they’re going to be changing, and thus it doesn’t make a lot of sense to recap them. I will say that some of the proposed changes I think are good and will improve the game (such as combat interrupting a Long Rest), while others I think are terrible and will dilute settings by allowing (and even encouraging) the most outré combinations of race, class, and background so players can squeeze out the most combat advantages, while at the same time forcing changes on settings to accommodate these new “implied setting” characteristics.
Some will say, with some justification, that a DM can simply ignore these changes and not allow a half-halfling/half-troll character. But that brings us to the second half of the plan.
Wizards of the Coast, having acquired D&D Beyond and used the Unreal engine to create a digital playspace, is creating an entire digital ecosystem for D&D. Beyond will be used so players don’t need actual books, but will access the rules via a tablet or other device at the table. This will also allow Wizards to push updates to their rules, adventures, and setting material out to every player who didn’t also get a physical copy.
When they made wholesale changes to the Vistani in Ravenloft, Wizards of the Coast had to put together an entire boxed set at great expense. When they want to make the next major revision of material (possibly to suit a political or “social justice” agenda, as with the Vistani change), all they have to do is update a file and voilà! Furyondy has always been at war with Veluna.
I’m not saying changes will be forced on players for such reasons, but the potential certainly exists. And whatever the reason, once the change is made, it’s made. Unless you somehow made a copy of a previous version, or have the hard copy books, there’s not going to be any going back.
The other piece of the digital program is their playspace, which uses the Unreal engine to create an online version of the dungeon, encounter area, etc. This will doubtless greatly appeal to younger players, who are used to video games. It also fits in snugly with the explosion of online play, as opposed to face-to-face play. No longer will you have to cobble together three different online systems to be able to show a battle mat, roll dice, and voice chat with players. It’ll all be in one convenient place, and there will be more and more pressure for games to be run in that digital space.
The intersections of this move are obvious. When you’re playing in the WotC official digital play space, you’re going to be playing with the latest and greatest version of their rules, because that’s what will be programmed into it. Will you as a DM be able to pick and choose what rules (or updates) to use? Will there be provision for house rules, or playing older editions of the game? That’s not even counting the innate reduction in creativity that is involved in shifting from “theater of the mind” to online digital play. If players want to do something zany and completely off the wall to solve a problem, it’s easy to do with a DM, who can just make a ruling. If they want to do something that hasn’t been foreseen by the programmers of the digital space, it becomes much more problematic. Even with DM there, if you can’t change the environment in the game to suit changes the players might imagine, then they just can’t do it.
I think that part of the game has been largely misinterpreted, though. The move to an all-digital ecosphere is not an evolution of the game. It is, in essence, the creation of an entirely new game, precisely because it removes one of the innate pillars of the game that has been in place since its inception. When you remove the concept that “you can try to do anything you can imagine” and replace it with “you can try to do anything we’re anticipated you’ll imagine”, you have a new game. Certainly it’s not a standard face-to-face RPG which allows for theater of the mind, but neither is it a traditional online game, which lacks the agency of a DM. It’s a hybrid; whether that means a DM-assisted digital space, or a digitally-assisted DMing experience, remains to be seen.