The Alphastream Game Design Blog
5E is a fantastic edition for many reasons. One of those is how well the WotC team ran the D&D Next playtest, harnessing fan feedback to create the best version of the game possible.
D&D Next, the name for the playtest version of 5E, was the first open playtest for a D&D edition. It was a vast improvement over 4E’s closed playtest (of which I was a part) and brought more than 175,000 fans together to improve the game.
One D&D is building on that foundation, but so far isn’t breaking much new ground. I would argue it should be. Much of the approach resembles the feedback fans have been providing on Unearthed Arcana documents for years. It even calls these Unearthed Arcana – a misnomer.
Here are several D&D Next innovations from which One D&D can learn.
D&D Next could have provided us a packet containing solely class material. But in most iterations, a playtest packet provided what we needed to run a game. Often included was an exciting adventure, whether a new one like Reclaiming Blingdenstone, or an updated classic such as Isle of Dread or Caves of Chaos. This did several things.
It created excitement. When WotC brought the Caves of Chaos to the Winter Fantasy convention, it created a tangible buzz. Everyone was excited to get their first look at a new game and to be part of making it better.
It encouraged focused play. With One D&D, I can read the rules for a cleric class or ardling species. To play one? I have to either set up a new game with new DM/players (we all know how hard that is) or dump my current character in a campaign to playtest. With rules changing often, playtesting can disrupt a campaign.
Imagine if the next One D&D came with a short scenario for one to two play sessions, pregens, and a short survey. To make it easier on the team? The team could use part of an existing Adventurers League (AL) scenario, updating it for the current rules glossary.
One of the challenges One D&D faces is the echo chamber. When I traveled around the US I would drop in on stores. Sometimes I would offer to run games and start a program. Sometimes I joined an existing program. In both cases, these players were almost never tied into D&D’s presence online, or any of their marketing. Unearthed Arcana articles? They never saw them. What they knew was the store shelf, plus any organized play (such as running Tomb of Annihilation as part of the AL program).
As I mentioned above, WotC staff brought the D&D Next playtest to large conventions. They also encouraged running playtest packets in stores. The D&D Encounters store program allowed running adventures with D&D Next, and events such as Vault of the Dracolich were D&D Next events. And, of course, you could run the packet at home. Free adventure? Why not run it?
It’s clear that One D&D wanted to provide some playtest tables at their online Yawning Portal games. The WotC team hasn’t been able to put together how that would work. I get it. It is hard to coordinate this. But it is essential to cast a wide net and bring in diverse players. In particular, for WotC staff and trusted DMs to run new and very casual players through these rules and see their true reactions.
Imagine if One D&D offered you free Yawning Portal tables playing a fun 1-2 hour scenario with the latest content, and at the end you filled out a five minute focused survey? Imagine if at the next con, Jeremy Crawford ran a table for you, and you saw Dan Dillon or Makenzie De Armas playtesting a not-yet-public class at another table? That would be awesome.
D&D Next wore its heart on its sleeve. It made bold experiments, some of which failed (remember how there were supposed to be rules modules supporting all kinds of play?). Any given packet tried out wild experiments. Abilities without skills one moment, Expertise Dice the next. The game tried bold changes and dutifully learned from the failures.
One D&D plays it safe and acts like it already knows the answers. We hear on a video phrases like, ‘we knew fans wouldn’t be too wild about this.’ Why ask us if you already knew? What if you tried changes for which you don’t know if it will work, and you say so?
One D&D adds feats at first level and act like this is being playtested, but Spelljammer and Dragonlance add first level feats like it is a foregone conclusion. If it is a mistake, it feels like one the team isn’t willing to reverse – regardless of what we say. A better process is for the team to genuinely examine what gaming groups of all experience levels do and don’t like about first level feats. Maybe they should all be extremely simple feats. Maybe they should move to second level. Maybe characters should get two feats at first level. We won’t know if the team isn’t willing to learn from mistaken assumptions.
One D&D styles itself as polishing and refining 5E, but most groups can agree on aspects of the edition that need major rework (CR and Encounter Design are two common requests). Imagine if the team tried out some bold innovations to solve those problems?
The One D&D videos are good. I like them. But D&D Next went beyond sharing information. D&D Next’s blogs were conversations written in such a way as to bring us in. Goals were shared as aspirations, and the emotional resonance behind them was clear. It was a team sharing what they loved about the game, the problems they wanted to resolve, and their big dreams.
It’s taken D&D’s most ardent fans several months to even figure out what this edition of the game is. And, perhaps, we even still have different interpretations. I think D&D is trying to create 5.5E, in the way that 3E made a 3.5. An edition that feels like the same game, but you will end up wanting to buy all the new books and even ask them to remake 5E adventures and sourcebooks in 5.5 format. Maybe I’m wrong. How would we know, when WotC isn’t being clear?
For sure, WotC has reasons to hold back. They don’t want us to stop buying current product, and anything they say could turn off some percentage of the gamer base. But without expressing their passion, they can’t really get us on board. Is this a set of revisions that are arbitrary? Or will they actually make our game better? Imagine if D&D passionately made the case for why we want this edition, and what they aspire to create.
Interested in hearing more? On the Mastering Dungeons podcast, we are reviewing the One D&D packets. We also are revisiting the 5E Player’s Handbook, thinking through which aspects should stay or change in a new edition. Listen to the podcast here, or watch it on YouTube.