Thoughts on “One D&D”

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.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on “One D&D”

  1. Well, I agree that it’s a different game. The videogame bells and whistles have been settling in for a while, but the programming restrictions can only become more severe. It’s *almost* playing Skyrim or Baldur’s Gate, except with a live participant reading the narration.
    But for me the most important point you make is the fluidity of the game itself, when as you say the corporation just pushes changes through and the prior versions get written over and disappear.
    Will the current bread-and-butter consumers have a problem with any of this? From the conversations I’ve been privy too, no.
    As you say, I’ll be using my 1st ed books until I pass away, but what “D&D” becomes over the future decades will grow less and less recognizable to those of us who knew it in its beginnings.

    1. The video game stuff… I have played on Roll20 and Foundry VTT… I’d prefer to play in person, but my group is scattered across the nation, and virtual table tops have been the difference between not playing very often and several fun campaigns with dear friends. So I certainly have no issues with the technology, but since switching to a more rules lite OSR system from crunchy Pathfinder I’ve found I use the tech less and our imagination more. I don’t play 5e often, but I don’t think it will be as bad as you do: a DM who wants to add a rule can just do the old-school “roll percentile dice!” and have her/his own tables for the results. I’m sure the ability to just roll some dice will always be present. Yes, there will be the psychological tendency toward “if it’s not provided in the tools, you can’t do it”, but I doubt good DMs will let that stop them.
      I definitely find the possibility of seamless revisionism to be the creepiest aspect, personally. Like when someone says something controversial on social media then deletes it and their account and tries to pretend it never happened, the potential exists for Orwellian results, as you allude. It matters less to me as I am one of the guys who will pay AD&D or ADD or DCC or something, but what does it mean for my daughters, who might be playing some day? Will they get why it was such a creative game if most of the social dynamics are reduced to Persuasion/Intimidation vs Perception checks instead of actual interactions…? That’s always been a danger with rules-heavy systems… will it be worse when VTTs are the norm instead of a decent compromise?
      Not a fan, but I have come to the conclusion that I’m not really the target audience any more.

    2. Well said. I started with basic D&D and moved on to 2e in the mid 90s. I I have been play a modified 3.5 sense it rolled off the presses. Far from being enticed to 5e, I am tempted to go back to my 2e books.

  2. It’s the authoritarian, technocratic edition of D&D from our dystopian fears. By the end of 2024, actual play won’t be recognizable or even compatible with old-school D&D.

    1. Indeed, WotB (Wizards of the Borg) has made it pretty plain what their goals are. You kind of have to read between the lines, but they’re not really disguising it – they don’t have to. Because most non-old-school D&D players say and think they want what they get fed from the Borg. WotB has made it clear they consider the open license, old DnD, and indie/OSR/NSR/etc as competition, and this is part of the strategy to crush it.

    2. Venger speaks the truth here. I quit going to local conventions and games at the LGS, because, of how authoritarian the D&D games had already become.

  3. One big problem with D&D is the need for trained DMs. I suspect a big part of the VTT will be to have a stable of online open-tables available hoping to increase the number of players by providing those DMs.

  4. This sounds very similar to what I have heard happened in 4e. The online tools were constantly updated, not just with errata, but what can only be described as “patch notes”, actual changes to the game to “rebalance” some aspect or another. The online tools were pretty much mandatory, as they were the only way to really keep up with the changes.

    On the one hand, one of the big changes I’ve heard coming out of One D&D is that the rules are getting more combat-focused, as that is easier to computerize. On the other hand, D&D Beyond does allow users to add homebrew/3rd party content, so it’s not quite as “authoritarian” as some might fear.

  5. As much as Gygax wanted to standardize games with AD&D (though that may have been more a marketing effort than to control gamers), WOTC really wants to you to play THEIR game THEIR way. This constant need to use the updated rules is too much like Warhammer 40k. Need I remark on the costs associated with playing that game?

    This also includes socio-political elements that have nothing to do with how the game is actually played. How long before the VTT demands diversity in game group characters? Did you watch the trailer? Wanting to see characters that looked like themselves was the first thing mentioned.

  6. The fact that 5e is now being affected by the “woke” society is appalling to me. Everything must be equal, we are all winners. The latest news today about Hadozee infuriates me. (Dungeons & Dragons Apologizes for Hadozee Lore, Issues Errata for Spelljammer Books). I’m fed up with “woke” and will avoid 5e, 6e, 7e, until this disease has run it’s course.

  7. Lots of fearmongering here. D&D always has been and always will be a set of rules that people can choose to use how they like. The digital space is a new area that wizards needs to capitalize on. It is a revenue generator. People have been clamoring for an official VTT space ever since Beyond came out. Why? because it is easy to host an online game in one space with everything you have paid for. There is nothing wrong with that. D&D One will not remove your ability to do “theatre of the mind”. All it will do is allow those that prefer or can only use the digital gamespace, to do it on an official site.
    Now, lets talk about the “woke” ruleset. What is wrong with that? if you want to be racist or a bigot in your game, feel free to do so. But as a public company that strives to appeal to everyone, they have every right to make it more accessible. Seriously, there is nothing wrong with you saying “no black elves”. Your world, your game, nothing wrong with that. Or you can say, “elves get +2 dex and +1 int…” again, your game, modify it how you want. But wizards has every right to make a baseline system that appeals to all types. This is not YOUR game. It never has been YOUR game. YOU didn’t write it. I’ve been playing since the 70’s. Do I like every change that they suggest? No. But it doesn’t spell doom for the company nor make them bad. I don’t think there has ever been one edition of D&D that we didn’t have house rules for. So unless Wizards figures out how to take away your ability to imagine, I think you are safe. And also, if you are so offended about them not trying to offend people…that actually sounds like a serious personal problem that you should look into. But also, feel free not to support the company and go play something else.

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