Soon, diehard players of the iconic “Dungeons and Dragons” role-playing game will be getting a new way to slash orcs and slay dragons.
Mike Mearls, lead designer for D&D at parent company Wizards of the Coast, announced Monday that it is developing a new version of Dungeons and Dragons.
While the details are still to be developed, Mearls said the latest iteration will aim to incorporate the best of its predecessors, along with the varying play styles and different approaches of the players who have loved them.
As such, Mearls said the company will be reaching out to its player base for suggestions.
“We could guess at those play styles, or use our own, but gathering a broad range of input makes sense to us,” he said. “We want to cast as wide a net as possible. We can only deliver on that promise if we give the varied audience of D&D players a chance to kick the tires and let us know if we’re on target.”
A long-running tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons was created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. - better know in the hobby world as TSR or TSR hobbies.
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast, creator of the popular “Magic: The Gathering” card game, bought TSR and has been publishing D&D ever since.
Over the years, there have been several different editions of the game. Wizards of the Coast currently produces materials only for whichever is the most current version, while third-party companies are allowed to publish materials for players still enjoying the older versions.
Fans differ on which updates over the years should be considered new versions. But most acknowledge six versions, with what’s referred to as 4th Edition being the most current.
This announcement, or “official acknowledgment,” of a new edition of the game is something that Wizards of the Coast has been laying the groundwork for for roughly a year.
Hints have appeared in the “Legend and Lore” column in the online magazine devoted to the game, “Dragon.” Speculation hit a fever pitch when former Wizards employee Monte Cook, one of the lead designers for D&D’s third edition, was rehired.
Mearls confirmed Monday that Cook is the new version’s lead designer.
“Monte Cook is one of the smartest, most creative game designers I know,” said Owen K.C. Stephens, a professional game designer who worked for Wizards of the Coast for 14 months. “Any chance to read his thoughts about game design in general, and what makes D&D popular and/or successful, is always good.”
Mearls said, after acknowledging the past year’s speculation, that Wizards of the Coast knows the announcement won’t be a shocker for many diehard D&D fans.
"We’re not trying to completely surprise or shock people with a change to the game,” he said. “In some ways, this is a natural time period to start looking at the next edition of the game.”
He said the update is, in part, geared toward reinvigorating the classic franchise at a time when many gamers are going online for their epic quests.
"I think there are also fears out there that tabletop RPGs are going away, that there are these external forces that are going to eventually squeeze the hobby into a continual twilight," Mearls said. "I think the hobby needs a jolt, something positive and exciting, to kick-start it into its next 40 years.”
One question on the minds of most D&D players is what the new edition is going to be called. D&D has had an edition number associated with it since the release of “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition” in 1989. Will this be called 5th Edition? “Most people will think of this as the fifth edition of D&D. In many ways, though, we want this to be a version of the game that embraces the entirety of D&D’s history," he said, "One that all D&D fans can turn to and use.
“I think that the actual naming of the game will come down to how the play-tests go and how people react to it. I’d love to just call it Dungeons & Dragons and leave the edition numbering behind.”
“Dungeons and Dragons - that brand is far stronger than worrying about version numbers or cute marketing terms like ‘30th anniversary edition,' ” said Mike Shea, who runs the D&D blog SlyFlourish.com and has written two books about the game. “However, for those already part of the community, they will likely want to call it ‘fifth edition’ just to separate it.
“Not heavily promoting a version name also gives them the option to market version-agnostic products like the Dungeon Tiles, Map Packs, miniatures and flavor-focused setting source books.”
In Monday’s announcement, Wizards of the Coast invited the D&D fan base to help shape the future of the game. But will content really be shaped by players outside the company?
“We are 100% committed to giving players and DMs (dungeon masters, who run the games) ample time to play-test and provide us with their feedback,” Mearls said.
Players will get their first chance to play-test the proposed changes this month at the Dungeons & Dragons Experience convention – running January 26-29 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Convention attendees will have early access to the initial draft of the design concepts they’ve been working on. In the spring, Wizards of the Coast will begin an open play-test of the game, available to anyone who wants to sign up at wizards/dndnext. In early December, I got a chance to play-test this new edition, and I can tell you that it was fun to play.
Mearls said the company has been doing internal play-testing for a few months. Most of the time, employees have been testing mechanics of the game to make sure it plays at the table the way they think it should.
Shea said he appreciated the thought that the “Dragon” column showed the new version’s creators are giving it.
“I like how both Cook and Mike Mearls went back and dissected the original concepts behind D&D and hunted down the core elements of the game,” he said. “I like how they both have discussed designing D&D as a modular game with a core set of rules that can be expanded to add levels of complexity as a gaming group desires.”
As with anything that is as deeply ingrained into the geek culture and community, the announcement of a new version of D&D will probably be met with a level of reaction that, to quote “Ghostbusters,” could reach “dogs and cats living together” levels of hysteria.
“It will be a re-creation of the scene from the movie ‘Airplane II,’ when the passengers were told the vessel was out of coffee,” Stephens said. “[That will be] followed by increasingly intense online debates about which edition of D&D is better, and what the chances are that the fifth edition will be the next best thing since sliced bread, or the end of Western civilization.”
“[Gamers] are a passionate bunch who are extremely vocal and ready to give our most blunt opinions about things at the drop of a hat,” said Jerry LeNeave, who runs the D&D blog DreadGazebo.net and is content director for D&D wiki Obsidian Portal, a free service for tracking all of your tabletop RPGs online.
“The thing about those opinions is we often double back to take a second look at things after we have cooled off. So if a new edition were to be launched, I think the community would need some time to regain its composure before forming truly fair opinions.”
Stephens said he’s hoping for strong support for players who want to develop abilities and skills outside of combat in the new edition.
Shea wants the combat part of the game – obviously a big part for any player – to run faster. He’d also like to see the game be consistently challenging for players (and their characters) at all levels.
Ultimately, it seems as though the kind of game that fans want the new D&D to be is up to them.