Thoughts on Fifth Edition, Four(?) Years In

Dungeons & Dragons is, hands down, the most successful role-playing game of all time. It’s synonymous with the genre to the uninitiated, like kleenex is to tissue or q-tips are to ear-prodding devices; the easiest way to describe any other table top role-playing game is to say, “It’s like Dungeons & Dragons, but…”. For many people, Dungeons & Dragons is role-playing, full stop.

So it’s no surprise to anyone, then, that the current version, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (or 5E) is a big success too, selling tons of copies. What is somewhat surprising to most of us old hands is to see the way it has dominated the scene, spawning or elevating a plethora of podcasts, live streamed games, and recorded actual play videos to create a new genre of entertainment (or, at least, a new take on a existing genre) and dragging in thousands and thousands of new players, returning players, and system converts through the success of these new media projects. While the 4th edition was seemingly tied to anxiety about the explosion of MMORPG video games in the early-mid 00s, the 5th has somehow become inextricably linked to services such as Twitch and YouTube. It’s a bona fide hit, and with its success we’ve also seen a huge rise in appreciation for, attention to, and markets surrounding almost all variety of tabletop role-playing game. It’s kind of impossible to be sure, but it certainly seems like more people are playing and discussing role-playing games than ever before. It’s wonderful to see. The old saying, “a rising tide lifts all ships”, appears to hold true with 5E, and it’s terrific news for our beloved hobby.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition does a lot of things right. It also does some things I’m not a big fan of. I’d like to talk about this, and probably Dungeons & Dragons in general. This comes about after I filled out the very long (and repetitive, thanks to seemingly endless repeat control questions) survey posted by Hasbro subsidiary and D&D producer Wizards of the Coast. The survey was intended to find out what we like and don’t like about 5E as a product and model, how we use the game, how we came to be role-playing game nerds to begin with, and so on. It covered a lot of ground. It also missed a lot of ground, which I’d like to address. As a result of this, it’s probably going to come off as a little bit negative. I don’t mean for that. I hope anyone reading this takes away a sense of genuinely constructive criticism from a fan who just wants to offer clear feedback with the goal of improving the product. Because of that, quibbles will seem heavier than praise, but the simple fact is that I very much enjoy 5E and I mean the compliments with much greater fervor than the detractions.

So, since this is the first distinctively 5E discussion on this blog, I’ll understand if OSR folks tune out now. But for those who stick around, let’s jump right in!

The Good

There’s a lot to like about 5E! It’s a good, solid system and WotC have done a good job of managing the game. Some high points:

  1. Good job on the core rules; 5E is mechanically sound and enjoyable to play.
  2. Good job curating production so as not to repeat the 3.5E situation and flood the market with dubious splatbooks.
  3. Good job on publicizing the game and marketing it to new players.
  4. Good job bringing back a box set; it’s an amazing value and it’s very popular in my experience.
  5. Good job on Lost Mines of Phandelver for that matter.
  6. Good job on Tomb of Annihilation.
  7. Good job on Curse of Strahd.
  8. Good job on Storm King’s Thunder.
  9. Good job being consistent in style, tone, and voice (excepting of course fictional voices like Volo).
  10. Good job being involved with the community and keeping engagement high.
  11. Good job on big projects like the Stream of Many Eyes, which was absolutely brilliant.
  12. Good job on the consistent production value and quality of the books.
  13. Good job hiring new people and getting some good consultants on the core set.
  14. Good jub supporting homebrew.
  15. Good job on the limited edition covers.*

The Bad

I prefer to be positive and supportive where I can; a lot of this hobby can turn negative really quickly and I think it’s nice to offset that where I can. I want to focus on things I like. But I like 5E, and so I want it to improve. Honest feedback enables that. It’s not unsolicited, either; I’m not just out here angry for the sake of it. Wizards of the Coast specifically requested feedback and responses so they can choose the best path forward. So I don’t want this section to be misconstrued as hateful nor as me saying I could do better if I were in charge – just that my tastes are what they are, and my experiences are what they are, and therefore this is just a look at what I’d prefer to see WotC work on.

  1. The core books have some issues with information availability and editing/presentation. Spellcasting, in particular, is very hard for new players to grasp completely because elements of it are spread out between classes and the magic section and so on.
  2. With all due respect to artists I cannot begin to outdo, and apologies because there’s not really a nice way to phrase this besides being blunt and honest: the art in 5E is largely bland, flat, uninspiring, and lacks charm. It also lacks any sort of cogent style or aesthetic. There’s not many pieces that evoke a response in me. A lot of it is that “mushy” sort of digital art that comes off as perfunctory, somehow. I am, of course, biased – I’m still in love with the art from early editions, even the amateur pieces – but the point stands on its own merits and even 3.5E had a distinctive look. I wasn’t fond of it, but it was there!
  3. The layout is boring. Other companies are doing a better job of this. I’m not saying to go all experimental arthaus or whatever, but WotC is arguably the wealthiest and most prestigious company in the market, so surely you can hire the people you need to become a leader in this regard.
  4. The tan page style thing you have going on is kind of bad. I’m sorry to whoever came up with it. I’d probably have tried to come up with the same thing, and done a much worse job. I get what you were going for. It was even pretty cool the first time I saw it. But four years and more than a dozen books later, it’s clear that it was an unfortunate way to go, in my apologetic opinion. Page readability suffers drastically, it’s distracting at times, and it wears on the eyes.
  5. While I love how you’ve metered release schedules to avoid overdoing it and maintain interest and quality, I do not like that you’ve tucked a tiny bit of valuable gameable stuff (especially and specifically character options) as tiny appendices and such in every single book to make us buy things we don’t otherwise care about in order to get our hands on it. I would have preferred a yearly collection of classes and races or something. I know what your model is here, and I don’t like it. It’s one thing to put out a setting sourcebook and have all that setting’s stuff in there including a lot of classes and such that we’d like to have, so we buy it (once). It’s another thing altogether to slice that sourcebook up into ten bits and stick those bits into ten adventures. Kind of cynical, leaves a bad taste. Probably good for business, though!
  6. After 4E finally doing so much to popularize the idea of everyone contributing equally for a change, you went back to certain classes being much better than others. Some of the subclasses lag way behind. In old-school games this wouldn’t matter so much; in new D&D it absolutely does. It’s a disappointment. I wish more of that design balance carried over.
  7. Enough Forgotten Realms. With all the love in the world for Ed Greenwood and his world, it’s just so very… Done. There’s so much media surrounding it – video games, a million books, comics, etc – that there’s a lifetime of it out already. I get why you were shy about creating something new, after the nerd rage created by change in 4E; sticking to a beloved property is safe. For the safe, core sort of D&D fantasy milieu, Mystara would have been preferable to me, and the sort-of-non-setting Points of Light would have been even better. Both of these are more interesting and less well-tread. Somehow even Greyhawk seems less walked-all-over than Faerun at this point; I would have been happier seeing it again than more Forgotten Realms.
  8. I have no interest in Magic: the Gathering. I didn’t have interest in it as a card game, and I don’t have interest in it as a role-playing game. You didn’t sway me with the planeshift documents, so I doubt a new book will either. I get the dollars and cents of the equation, but I haven’t met a single Magic player who says they’re gonna try D&D because of this announcement and I haven’t met a single D&D player who says they’re gonna try Magic because of this announcement. This is energy that could have been spent in something fans are actually asking for: Dark Sun, Greyhawk, Spelljammer, something entirely new. Anything else, basically.
  9. The model you’re using for the Eberron release is questionable at best and feels kind of gross. Paying cover price for a beta test document in digital format only, with rehashed artwork and very little new information, riding on the possibility that it will get a print run maybe if it is popular and the possible revisions stick – whereupon the customer has to buy it again – is a garbage model. That’s really beneath you guys. I don’t want to play in Eberron so it would seem like it doesn’t matter to me, but it very much does: I am left here looking at a precedent you’re setting for products, unhappily hoping you don’t do the same for the settings I do want to play. Please stop this before it goes too far.
  10. Relying on the DM’s Guild to fill in gaps you’re leaving in books is not a great feeling for the customer. Waterdeep, Eberron, etc. Waterdeep is an adventure book, but also a sourcebook, and there’s no reason it should be on the skinny side for a 5E book while we go separately purchase personally-produced PDFs of city tools that should have been in the book from one of the contributing authors. This blatantly should have been something someone should have written into the book. Related: you go and detail one neighborhood and then hope we have some 2E books around to give more detail? Come on, Wizards, you’re better than that.
  11. You’re gonna have to officially, honestly, no-joke, for real address the ranger (and others, but it’s an iconic example) sooner or later. Long ago you said the revised ranger would get tested and go into a book eventually, and you’ve waffled on it since. Piggybacking on the prior point about how you’re splitting up mechanical content to get us to buy more books we might otherwise skip, you’re going to reach a point where you’ve painted yourselves into a corner with that, and stuff like this that needs to be addressed will end up shoehorned awkwardly into a product it doesn’t match. That’ll be a bad look. Just give us a proper book of refined and expanded class and race options or something; no one will begrudge you this after four years.
  12. *The limited edition covers should have been the covers all along. Period. Look at the covers you went with and then look at those; compare both to old editions of D&D. The red Mentzer cover is iconic for a reason. The black covers were iconic for a reason. The 5E covers lack the charm and wonder of the big fancy later-1E-all-of-2E full-art covers, and they lack the timelessness and sharp design of the red and black covers I mentioned. Those limited edition covers outdo them hands down every day of the week. Better luck next time, I guess?
  13. The D&D Beyond model works for streamers and other online groups, but it doesn’t work for me or other in-person gamers I know. D&D Insider was a better model for this. It’s super, super bad optics and super, super bad customer experience that you want me to pay full price for rules I already own in hard copy on every service known to man (Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, Beyond) if I want to play online. You should have had the foresight to include a one-time code with each book and figured out what to do with those codes later when Beyond coalesced, but you didn’t, so now I’m sitting here frustrated at this situation you’ve put us in. It’s lame, and of all my criticisms, this is the one I think you really screwed up on. Sorry, guys. It’s a bad system. Buying the book should unlock the rules on Beyond which you sub to, and as long as you’re subbed you should have access to basic compendium and chargen stuff and it should generate voucher codes for the rules on Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Period. Unsub, lose access to that online stuff; resub, it comes back. Online gamers will stay subbed. In-person gamers may too, because of the convenience. Add all the other stuff (combat tracker, etc) as tiered sub options, I don’t care, I’m cool with that. But the basic system you have today is flawed.

The Conclusion

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is a good system. It’s probably fair to say that it’s a great system. It’s certainly, overall, my favorite system since the AD&D days. To be honest, I think if we’re all honest with ourselves it is a more coherent mechanical design than any other version of D&D (the quality of some of the modern design principles and style of play, of course, remain wildly up for debate – the OSR exists to ensure that!) I have enjoyed my time playing D&D across the many versions, even though I enjoyed some more than others (that’s gonna be an article all by itself, I bet), and 5E is no exception. It’s very fun. With some hiccups here and there, it’s quite easy to pick up for new players, and the Starter Set is a great way to get people into the game. The best parts of 5E are some of the brightest spots the franchise has ever had. Playing it is fun, running it is fun, and overall I think it’s worth the price of admission for the core three rulebooks (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, for those somehow unaware of that phrase yet managing to make it this far into the article). It’s very easily worth the cost of the Starter Set or the Starter Set and PHB for literally everyone who is into or may be into D&D. It’s a great game.

But there’s always room to improve, and Wizards of the Coast know this. That’s why they want our feedback; they want to bolster their efforts in the directions that statistically mean the most to us as a market, so that we’re more likely to spend money on their product. Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition has some issues, and a lot of them stem from the models that WotC are using to drive the product line. I’m not a business executive or some kind of marketing wunderkind, so I am not sure I can come up with alternatives for them – but that’s not the point of feedback. I just have to voice my concerns and, on the million-to-one off-chance WotC reads this, they’ll figure out what to do about it. So the above is my feedback – nothing more, nothing less.

As I near the closing of this article, I want to stress, one more time, that I mean no ill will with any of this article – even the stinging words about Beyond or the art. I like 5E. I play 5E. I am excited to play more 5E. I enjoy the WotC team as personalities and design staff. I look forward to what they cook up next and I will probably buy it. If you’re on the fence about 5E, I strongly recommend it – it’s a great system and the goods outweigh the bads by a huge volume in nearly every respect. You will get far more than you’re money’s worth out of this edition in terms of gameplay, and that’s what it’s all about. The only reason this post criticisms and all, exists, is that Wizards of the Coast asked for feedback. I believe the only way to give feedback is honestly and sincerely, explaining your reasoning in the process, and without mincing your words. I hope it comes across that way. Let me know what you think over on Twitter @dungeonspossums or on G+ where I post as +Dungeons and Possums.

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9 comments on “Thoughts on Fifth Edition, Four(?) Years In

  1. Luka

    This is a great article and a very good summary. Well done, Possum!

  2. Cross Planes

    When it comes to mixing D&D with M:tG, here are some things to consider:

    1) For the first time I'm seeing Magic players drop it for D&D. Magic has lost 2 million players in the last few years. The Magic group is worried. They want the D&D group to help them get players back.

    2) Many people have wanted the Magic setting for D&D since WotC bought the game. The Magic group didn't want to "weaken" the brands (D&D needed them more than they they needed D&D), but the tables have turned.

  3. ruemere

    Note: grey (font color) on white (background) does not contribute to an enjoyable read.

  4. Every Comment A Poem

    Basic old school plus own world because the story is more fun than technical bollocks.
    And really you are arguing about layout design with light grey text on a bright white screen?

  5. Trickster61

    I don't agree with most of your negatives – for eg we played Tomb of Annihilation in Ixalan (a MtG world) because it was a better fit for us and more interesting than Chult – but it's certainly made me think differently about things I've taken for granted. I'm interested in how you would redress some of the criticisms you've mentioned but didn't give details – for eg the layout. What's wrong with it and what would you like to see? Great read.

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