Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Exploring why Wildemount makes sense with D&D 5th edition's design philosophy

Dungeons and Dragons 5e has just launched a prerelease for The Explorer's Guide to Wildemount, a setting book that covers the world of Critical Role campaign two. I've been mulling over for a while about what the design goals of 5e were, particularly after I wrote about 4e being a daring triumph of design last month. The news of the Wildemount book, a setting based on an insanely popular streaming series with dedicated fans and hard-line haters, quite sums up what I think Wizards are doing with 5e design-wise, and I don't think it's the philosophy they started with.

Let's first travel back to the heady days of 2013 when Wizards put out D&D Next, the public playtest of what would become 5e. Through interviews and running the game (set in an updated version of Caves of Chaos) it was understood that Next would be making some specific and drastic design choices from 4e. The watchword was modular. Next would have an old school feel familiar to OSR fans, but allow those who wanted a more modern game to bolt on rules. This build-an-edition mindset was , as I understood it, to be the bedrock of 5e design. A D&D for all seasons.

" I want to do for DMs is create a flexible core of rules that they can apply and modify as they wish," Mike Mearls told Wired before the playtest. 

What fans got when 5e released wasn't really the modular OSR-tinged game that Next was shaping up to be. Sure, you can have feats if you like, but I don't think they really ended up with a truly modular edition. Of course, that was a possibility due to the nature of playtesting and feedback.

I stoked some conversation on Twitter about what people thought 5e's design philosophy was and broadly received the following answers:
- System simplification
- Decrease new player barrier to entry
- Taking elements of previous editions
- Keep PCs alive longer
- Get more money

There was a clear consensus that 5e was designed to get new people playing and that was the primary focus. Likely that and winning back those who didn't like 4e, and bringing backed lapsed players from the AD&D days. Whereas the design of 4e was about refining mechanics, customisation, mechanical transparency and a modular approach to adventure design, all what I would deem 'in-game design elements', 5e was looking at the 'meta-game design elements', those principles that weren't necessarily concerned with primarily how the game worked, but how the game could have the widest cut-through. This is why it ended up as a grab-bag of design inspiration from Basic through to 4e, picking the elements that made the most sense to attract the most players. In essence 3e would look to do something similar, refining and streamlining certain mechanics, but ultimately it would still be made for the core D&D player.

Mearls also stated early on that he wanted to put the power in the DM's hands. By this he was talking about allowing the DM to make rulings, which meant intentionally not including certain rules that perhaps 3.5 may have included in order to keep some ambiguity. While this was designed to help the DM get on with the job of being a DM, it took the spotlight away from the encounter and adventure creation philosophy that 4e had, which was arguably much more DM friendly than 5e. However, for players brand new to the roleplaying game genre the streamlined system lifted a barrier to entry. An in-game design innovation had been usurped by a meta-game philosophy.

Which brings me to Wildemount and Critical Role's, er, role, in 5e, and what the core of that design philosophy came to be. Wizards knew that to be popular, the game design wasn't just about the players at the table anymore. It became about how those players could influence others to play. The game became the perfect design for streaming play, which was part of Wizards' marketing strategy. The company specifically said:

"It was the Acquisitions Inc. live game at PAX Prime in 2010 that first suggested the potential for livestreaming D&D. The popularity of that game and its followup games in 2011 and 2012 made it an easy decision for the Dungeons & Dragons team to start streaming D&D games online back in July of 2013, debuting Against the Slave Lords as part of the D&D Next playtest process."

Critical Role would become the most popular D&D stream ever, influencing hundreds, if not thousands of people to pick up the dice and play. They could see that the barrier to entry was low.
Making a setting based on a stream is exactly in line with 5e's meta design philosophy, moreso than re-imagining Planescape. It's a culmination of the exact tactics they were going for - game design that seeps outside of the game itself and into its marketing activity.

Look, this is obviously my opinion on the matter based on what I've read and Wizards' actions starting in 2013. But it's interesting to delve into either way.