…and it might just save the brand from a slow and ignoble death.
First, before I start editorializing, some quotes from the horse’s mouth, lifted from the ENWorld 5E Info Page.
“The new edition is being conceived of as a modular, flexible system, easily customized to individual preferences. Just like a player makes his character, the Dungeon Master can make his ruleset. He might say ‘I’m going to run a military campaign, it’s going to be a lot of fighting’… so he’d use the combat chapter, drop in miniatures rules, and include the martial arts optional rules.”–Mike Mearls
This tells me that while the new edition’s ruleset may START very basic and simple, there will be a lot of rules additions as the years (hopefully more than 4) of D&D Next’s life-cycle progress.
“Now imagine that the game offered you modular, optional add-ons that allow you to create the character you want to play while letting the Dungeon Master create the game he or she wants to run. Like simple rules for your story-driven game? You’re good to go. Like tactical combats and complex encounters? You can have that too. Like ultra-customized character creation? It’s all there.”–Monte Cook
Again– modular rules, MORE rules, and optional additions that can be added to your game with possible ease.
“”Players can pick their own style and complexity within a class. Think of it kind of like having a $10 budget to spend on lunch. Some people will go to a restaurant and buy a $10 lunch special. Someone else might spend that $10 by ordering a few different things off the menu, rather than a special. Someone else might take that $10 and go to the grocery store to buy all the ingredients for a recipe they like. The idea is to put everyone on the same scale, but then allow people to burrow into the level of detail they want. DMs have a similar process they can go through, adding optional rules to flesh out their campaigns. Those options can range from creating a unique list of races or classes for a setting, to adding in special rules for things like managing a kingdom or waging a war.”–Mike Mearls
And again, reinforcing my point that the rules are going to start out simple and focused–likely with a box set or starter package–and then as time goes on, more and more…and MORE rules are going to be added. And how do we get the rules content for D&D?
BOOKS. Lots, and lots and LOTS of books.
What This Means For Your Game
In a very literal way, the core design of 5E seems to be intentionally designed additions to the ruleset. To put it another way, they are putting “rules bloat” in a different package and re-marketing it as a good thing. And by saying in the playtest, design-and-change phase and saying it as loudly and as up-front as possible, they have the marketing of saying “Hey, all these other rulebooks are Modules. They’re completely optional. Don’t buy them, don’t use them if you don’t want to.”
What does this mean? It means that we are going to see a MASSIVE amount of books put out for this edition over a long, LONG period of time. Each discrete addition to the rules– which I’ll call a Module– can be its own book, and have its own place in the release schedule. We joked in 4th Edition about how nobody would buy the “Complete Fighter” anymore, but you know what? If you include more RULES for the fighter in that book, we will, because the player who wants the fighter rules will buy the fighter book–and the GM then wants to keep up with the player of the fighter.
From a marketing and profit standpoint, this is pure freaking genius. By specifically saying that all the Modules are optional and allowing PLAYERS to customize their characters regardless of what the GM’s preferred complexity may be, SUDDENLY PLAYERS ARE BUYING LOTS OF GAME BOOKS. Typically, the vast majority of people buying game books are the guys running the game– a lot of groups only have one or two sets of core books that the GM has been the one to pony up for.
If modular rules means that suddenly a player can pick the rules he wants his character to play by, that puts the onus of responsibility for his “rules happiness” on the player, not the GM who might have the rulebook and allow/disallow stuff in it. As far as sales goes, this is an unbelievably smart idea, because then the GM wants to have that same book to make sure he knows the rules that his player wants to use. That’s TWO copies of the same book, likely in the same gaming group. Profit for sure.
Then multiply that concept and let it get exponential.
Elemental Power? Module.
Complete Fighter (2E title)? Module.
Heroes of Battle (war rules, 3.x title)? Module.
Story-based rules in the Vein of FATE or Mouse Guard? Module.
Adventures? Not a module in the rules-sense, but still a viable profit source. And if they are smart, they’ll produce rules-compatible versions of all the old materials from previous editions, too. Not as books, but as .pdfs.
Heroes of Shadow, Adventurer’s Vault, Complete (Race, Class, Villain, etc), Spell Compendium, Arms & Equipment Guide, Martial Power, Ghostwalk, Magic of Incarnum… the list of Modules for previous editions goes on an on. But instead of just putting out rules and letting the books “float”, I think we’ll see bits and pieces of rules in all these books, thus putting incentive on the player to buy the rules he wants to use for his character, and also on the GM to buy the books to keep up with his players.
In a very real way, it might bring back the days of 3.X when a player buys a splatbook from a 3PP and brought it to his GM saying, “I just bought this book and now I want to use it in your game.”– which was the one thing (other than taking 3hrs and a calculus degree to build high level characters and monsters) that I absolutely, positively, DESPISED about 3.X. Suddenly the GM feels pressured by the player to allow these rules that he may not like or want in his game, just because the player bought the book.
However, by building the game from the ground up as a series of optional, modular rules, the GM can feel vastly less pressure that he MUST use the rules because the player bought them. I like both aspects of that– I can use as much complexity as I want, the players can do so as well with my approval, and I’m not being guilted into doing something I don’t want to for my game because the players have the EXPLICIT declaration that all rules modules are 100% Optional and must be approved by GM before use.
What This Means For Your Wallet
I foresee a LOT of books coming out for D&D Next. I see smaller, individual books for each niche ruleset that they decide they want to support. And people are going to buy them, for lots of reasons… and I will likely buy nearly all of them because I’m a hardcore geek and a collector (like a lot of you reading this right now).
In fact, I can see so many products coming out that WotC devises a Subscription system in emulation of Paizo. That means an ensured, sustainable flow of incoming cash– both from the modules and DDI in whatever format that get implemented as. In addition, I’m sure that Wizards will continue making tiles, maps, miniatures and other sale-able items. They’re profit centers, and the company wants to make money, period.
I also think that this means WotC is setting up D&D Next to be “the” edition for at least the next decade. Think about it– WotC did the same thing with the 4E, with the basic books coming out first and all the expansions after that. THIS IS THE EXACT SAME THING WITH DIFFERENT MARKETING. But this time I think it’s going to work far, far better because it appears that they have learned from their competitors and from the 4E marketing debacle. If they produce a solid, likeable Core ruleset that appeals to lots of people, they can continue to pump out Modules (which we used to call splatbooks) at the rate of one a month ad infinitum, because not everybody will be buying everything, but by making the Modules explicitly optional, it ensures that lots of people will be buying just about everything they put out, because they can tap a different niche market for the rules with every Module put out. And some idiots like me will buy pretty much everything simply because it’s D&D, and I love the game and want to support my hobby.
All in all, my prediction is that D&D Next will hit our wallets harder than previous editions. However, I think that the investment will take place over a long period of time– hopefully a decade or more. If WotC does this right, they will have a cash cow that they can put out Modules for and keep milking that cow for a long, long time. And to me, that means that my favorite hobby and one of the things I love to do most in the world will ALSO be a living, breathing, viable game for a long, long time.