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Nearly four decades later, the D&D story has a new chapter in the form of “D&D Next,” a thorough re-envisioning of the way that the game is played. Announced in January 2012, this upcoming edition is scheduled for release next year, and is currently undergoing the second phase of open playtesting.
Wizards of the Coast, the game’s publisher, plans to use the playtesting to spread the word, make essential tweaks to the mechanics, and most of all to get feedback from a wide range of D&D players and DMs. From the purists, WotC wants to firmly establish a connection with D&D’s enduring themes and fundamentals; from the newer, more casual players, the developers hope to get an idea how to make the game intuitive and fun with a minimum of needless complexity.
According to Mike Mearls, D&D’s project manager at WotC, “The game has the open-ended nature of AD&D, the character flexibility of 3e, and the clarity and ease of DMing of 4e.”
This is far more than an evolution, however; for the company and many players, this is a final chance to salvage D&D from the downhill course that the game has been on for decades. A few doubters have already taken to referring to the new edition as “D&D Last,” reflecting just how fragile a position the game is in. D&D Next needs to succeed in a big way.
There are any number of reasons for declining sales and interest in D&D. In the big picture, it was perhaps inevitable that many potential pen-and-paper players turned instead toward PC and console RPGs, an option that was unavailable during the first two decades of D&D’s existence.
Ironically, part of D&D’s dire situation is the result of D&D’s successes. As more people became interested in RPGs, other RPGs appeared; and the better ones began to lure players away from the game that had essentially started it all. Subsequent editions of D&D altered the rule set enough to give longtime players reason to criticize the direction that the franchise was taking, especially after D&D was acquired from TSR in 1997 by Wizards of the Coast.
A large number of critics point toward shortcomings of the 4th Edition, in use since 2008. Many players even dismissed the revision and stayed with the 3.5 version, developing and balancing its rule set into various “forks” of the game. The most popular of these, Pathfinder, is considered by a large number of former and new D&D players to be a superior game; in no small part to the open playtesting that informed its development. At the time, the playtest was the largest of its kind ever, and Wizards of the Coast is obviously hoping to reap some of the same results with the series of D&D Next playtests.
Because of the “as long as it takes” approach of the development, many details have changed (both from one playtest to another, and even during a single phase) and many major “big picture” elements are as yet unaddressed. We know that WotC plans to give DMs more leeway for creative adaptations to the rules, to the extent that they’ll be able to take or leave anything that ends up in the final version. Perhaps all of this will allow D&D to recapture some of the reputation and prominence that the game once had, or perhaps it truly will be “D&D Last”.
Stephanie Caldwell is a writer from Salt Lake City and loves to watch TV and play video games.