Friday, December 18, 2020

The Critters are the Future of D&D

One of the most popular sports in the OSR recently has been speculating what Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition will look like. It's always an interesting exercise, but I often find that many of the OSR types miss a couple of key points when they're having their discussion. So, I'm going to make some suggestions about how 6th edition will look, but more importantly, I'm going to suggest that the people who will be the engines of D&D's change will be very different from what people expect.

I do not believe that the OSR leans particularly right, whatever my buddy Venger might say . It tends to be a very centrist movement  But, one thing remains true of it: most of the people in it remember the Satanic Panic pretty well. And Dungeons & Dragons and heavy metal fandom used to come hand in hand. That means that almost every older member of the OSR knows full well that censorius members of the government and watchdog groups that claim to protect children from bad influences usually don't know what the fuck they're talking about. They tend to run on vapid, unexamined and dogmatic ideologies that they hardly understand. 

Given this experience, it's pretty understandable that the OSR is suspicious of Critical Race Theory Intersectionality, and Third Wave Feminism. They are often used as a bludgeon to justify things that they don't rationally justify, and anyone who actually has done some serious reading from the original progressive sources (like I have) realizes that the dominant voices in the discourse right now barely understand the ideology that they are touting. And that much of their vision of the world is deeply flawed. 

Accordingly, the OSR tends to have a lot of concern about the influence of woke scolds and crybullies especially from the twitterati on Dungeons & Dragons. And, the unfortunately homogenizing options presented in Tasha's Cauldron of Everything seems to confirm their worries. It's moving towards a D&D singularity where every character is essentially the same: a furry, battle-ready spellcaster that can do almost everything that has little or no flavor beyond the eight-page backstory that its players bring to the table. However, I think that speculating what sixth edition will look like based on "Tasha's Hideous Cauldron" and assuming it will be particularly woke misses the mark. It isn't the scolds that will shape the future of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the Critters.

I might lose my OSR card for saying this, but I actually enjoy Critical Role a great deal. I find the story entertaining, the miniature presentation elegant, Matt Mercer's knack for descriptive improvisation aspirational. I also, as a voiceover actor and producer, I truly appreciate their stage craft. Some of the members of that cast, like Taleisn Jaffe in particular astound me with their skills. They inspired me to take my experience in community theater and take it to audiobook production. And in the process managed to help me find a career that suited me very well until cthe onset of severe allergies to pretty much every living thing on this planet crippled my voice a couple of years ago.

I am certainly not surprised at the incredibly big and influential following they have amassed. It can't be understated how important Critical Role is to the modern D&D experience. Thanks to shows like it and acquisitions incorporated, more new school role players who began in 5th edition than any other by an order of magnitude. D&D 5e players outnumber players that started in any older edition, and especially OSR grognards by a staggering amount. And they are hungry to invest.

Thanks to streaming programs like Critical Role, Dungeons & Dragons has become a trend: It is fashionable, and Hasbro has risen to the occasion by working hard convert D&D into more of a lifestyle brand than a game. New merchandise, like art books, clothing, etc. has the potential to make far more money than game books ever will. It is no coincidence that teen-oriented comedy film and a TV series are incoming. And no wonder Jeremy Crawford has said that you don't need to play D&D to be a part of the "D&D Comunity."

Wizards of the Coast will shape Dungeons & Dragons 6th edition to be as marketable as possible to ride this current fashion. That is, if a sixth edition will be released at all. The original plan upon the release of 5th edition was to attempt to make it the longest-running edition of D&D created. They wanted it to it last at least a decade before they had to revamp the rules. That allowed for a very different product release schedule and a slow trickle of modified rules similar to the BECMI development cycle. After all, much of what we are seeing in Tasha's is the reintroduction of psionics as well as rules for henchman and retainers. I would not be surprised if expanded rules on strongholds and possibly an expanded set of rules on Epic play or even Immortality might eventually emerge pictures on a much slower schedule than they had done in 3rd Edition for earlier Editions.

It pays to keep in mind that 5th edition does not try very hard to add anything new to the Dungeons & Dragons Canon aside from its Magic: the Gathering crossover settings like Ravinica. 5th edition has been primarily trading on making old D&D products new again by putting them in his new context or re-presenting them.

If, however, we were. To see the emergence of a 6th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, you're pretty much guaranteed. Its goal will be to exploit the suddenly huge market for the game as a fashionable lifestyle brand.

Firstly, we will see a further simplification of the rules. We will never see the disappearance of the 20-sided die, because it is iconic. However, the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, simplified as they are in 5th edition, are not yet a simple as they could be. And likewise, we will see that combat will continue to become less lethal and less the focus of the game.

Characters will become more superheroic. We will likely see that background plays a larger part of the game. It is likely that Stat bonuses and abilities will derive from backstory rather than class or race.

Your character will become something of a focal point for marketing. Customized character art, miniatures, and even build advice are marketable services that Hasbro would be foolish not to take advantage of. Especially with websites like Hero Forge raking in the dough from players who have a deep connection to the characters. In fact, characters will be conceptualized more as a personal expression of the player than as a playing piece and a game. 

Accordingly, the game's lethality will go way down and returning to life will become far easier. Mind control spells will likely be removed, made the domain of evil characters, or severely weakened in order to prevent Dungeon Masters from being able to compromise character agency.

If every player character becomes a means for players to explore their own psychology or express their own identity the illusion of character design choice will be important, but to avoid falling into the traps that Third Edition did, designers will likely make characters more mechanically simple and abilities gained from customisation mechanically insignificant. One option might be a more robust inspiration mechanic that lets players bank several opportunities to give themselves a advantage by role playing a number of traits selected during generation. 

I definitely suspect that Theatre of the Mind will become a thing of the past, as both expensive custom and affordable generic Miniatures will become cheaper and more widely distributed. The game will likely include a lot of ways to easily use Miniatures in it, or even be structured to make Miniatures feel more like a requirement the same way 3rd Edition did with its D&D Minis offshoot.

Giving players a chance to make their characters feel like a superstar also has a certain potential. That could be done through time Dungeons & Dragons into Esports with some kind of streamed version of Adventurers' League or tournament play, and keeping Adventurers' League characters in a database where they can quickly be ported to something like tournament play, D&D Beyond, or a video game like Baldur's Gate 3 so that the character could move seamlessly from one medium to another and carry their accomplishments across multiple platforms.

Just like in the 70s, your character will be able to simply be picked up and ported from game to game using a phone app and a little bookkeeping from your GM. You will likely play that one character across MMOs, video games, home games, and organized play without much difficulty.

Making your character so portable probably would be facilitated  by a subscription service.

If a sixth edition comes along it will likely come along as part of a blitz of different media in the same way that Star Wars is, with a scattershot of different forms of entertainment being released simultaneously.

I also think we might see more custom D&D editions built on other intellectual properties in the future much as we saw with Diablo, Rick and Morty, and Stranger Things.

I definitely expect accordingly we will see another D&D MMO in the near future, although one that is not likely going to be set in Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms..

In fact, we will most likely see a push to reach family friendly markets again like we saw in 2nd edition. And that means taking a step away from the Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk in favour of a new default setting more akin to Matt Mercer's Tal'dorei (let the record show that Google Voice to Text recognizes the word Tal'dorei) and spells it correctly. Among other things, at this point Tal'dorei has greater recognition. I imagine that Vex'halia has more fans than Drizzt Do'urden (also recognized by Google),. We might also see the introduction of another setting that allows for a much broader sampling of possible character types, like a sanitized Planescape setting that feels rather like Ravinica.

Whatever the setting, however, its "wokeness" will be incidental. The more inclusive a setting, i. e. :the fewer incidence of racism, genocide, or slavery in it, the more options players have for custom playable races that will not give them some kind of disadvantage. And, I expect that while most Critters are not much more woke then anyone else, certainly Matt Mercer and Sam Riegel have repeatedly used their platform to push Progressive ideas. Insofar as Hasbro will attempt to make their game worlds look like Matthew Mercer's ideas, he will see his progressivism shining through on this hypothetical 6th edition setting. But only as far as necessary. This is, after all, a business. 

I also expect the current community trends to push GM's to use official Hasbro or partnered material  (think DM's Guild) will become part of the philosophy of Dungeons & Dragons in order to guarantee that even home games will offer that broad and inclusive philosophy towards character design. Homebrew will become increasingly unfashionable. If Hasbro really wanted to see that happen, it would be very easy to set up a Dungeon Masters' League where players at homr games are offered opportunity to track their characters just like Adventurers' League, so that they might be included in all the other multimedia Dungeons & Dragons experiences. Which will put pressure on Dungeon Masters to use material supported by the league rather than homebrew or third-party material.

The funny thing is, as we move towards a game where characters are more customizable because those decisions much less impact the rules, the more I suspect Dungeons & Dragons will look like Knave with an added on skill and inspiration mechanic that uses multiple conditions for gaining Advantage. But nowhere near as cool. 

Whatever the case, Dungeons & Dragons will not be changing itself just to meet the taste of Twitter slacktivists, but rather to respond to the fact that D&D is fashionable with a new audience that considers progressivism also fashionable, whether or not they actually believe it's tenets. And and audience that is very interested in a game that allows them to indulge fantasies of morphological freedom and treats role-playing as a form of self-exploration, rather than as a game.

Ultimately, it's not a game I would want to play, but that is the great irony: if Hasbro wants to exploit the current fashionability of Dungeons & Dragons and milk this intellectual property for all that it's worth at this high point of its value, they have to do so by jettisoning a great deal of what D&D historically has been and create a version of it that is built for a new and different market.

Of course, losing the original player cohort  might be a long-term bad decision. After all, if Dungeons & Dragons were to fall back out of fashion again,  it is hard to know how much of the new fan base made up of Critters and other newcomers brought in by streaming it would stay. That is why it is most likely that they will stay the course with 5th edition for a while yet: to see whether or not the new player base has staying power before they make huge changes to accommodate them. Tasha's Cauldron of Everything is an experiment to see how many people they stznd to lock in versus how many of the Old Guard players they stand to lose by making significant changes to the structure of the game.

I sometimes wonder if the prudent course of action for Wizards of the Coast might be to once again fork the game, selling both a Classic Dungeons & Dragons that focuses on perilous dungeon crawling built on an OSR philosophy, and a Heroic Dungeons & Dragons that focuses on character and story that is both looser in rules and plugged into other multimedia experiences.

In the end remodeling Dungeons & Dragons to suit the character focused, hyper-diverse, and story oriented fan base makes the most sense. Especially if you can integrate a more multimedia and brand-focused approach to the game using the technology and organizations already in place. 


  1. Yeah when I saw the pearl clutchers going after D&D, it was total deja vu. Every generation gets its own set of moral preeners I guess. It confuses me that the 'woke' are not seen as the same exact thing as the old 'moral majority'. I guess if you switch team colors, it makes you different somehow.


    1. At least no one's trying to burn my Red Box this time around.

      True facts, my mom got sucked into the satanic panic and threw away my He-Men. I'm not sure many remember just how pervasive the hysteria was.

    2. I had my AD&D DMG stolen by some kids from the local Bible study group. They tore it to shreds, burned most of it, and kept just enough to prove to me that they did it. Taunted me for weeks...

      ... And that's when I stopped calling myself a Christian.

    3. Ah what a bunch of loveless idiots. Sorry to hear that. I'm an Orthodox Christian who loves playing D&D. I can't blame you but I'd say that was their wrongdoing. Orthodoxy is not of this world, mystical and beautiful, I recommend everyone at lest checking out a Vespers or Divine Liturgy sometime in their life...complete opposite of strict fundamental Christianity.

    4. That really sucks they did that too you. So much for thu shall not steal.

    5. I may drop into one of my local Orthodox churches and do just that. The decision to abandon Christianity was made after a year of violent abuse and hardship. That was just the straw that broke the camel's back. But, I do not hold any ill will the people of the faith who hold it deeply rather than as a fashion statement.

      I underwent a long spiritual journey after that. I've read the text and attended ceremonies of a dozen religions. Studied philosophy, mysticism, and history trying to figure out what I really believe. Made me a better and Kinder person for it.

    6. I am new to DnD, and what he talks about is very true. It turned me completly off from DnD, I have no desire to give this game another chance. I moved on to Warhammer roleplay now, and Im happier here.

  2. Bro this was so true i felt it in my chest. spot. on.

  3. If the version of 6e comes to pass as you describe, I see it being a disaster that eclipse the back lash that 4e faced.

    1. Well, they would definitely get a lot of blast back. But then, right now the company can't make any decision without getting a lot of screeching. The real question is who has more money, and who is going to devote more energy to their product. Not to mention which will bring them more pats on the head and think pieces.

    2. I couldn't agree more!

      I remember clearly of the D&D Next days, where the promise was that 5e would be the definitive edition, to unite them all.

      I hold to this promise dearly.

  4. I believe you have hit the nail on the head, Brian.
    And I say, more power to them. Let Hasbro crank and tweak and twist the game into whatever sells and sells and sells. I don't particularly care.
    I have my original AD&D books, and a bunch of really cool OSR-re-imaginings of the original game. I have the internet and the ability to find people that want to play the style I enjoy.

  5. I agree with Stephen's point above but I get this melancholy feeling I am one of a dying breed of gamer clinging to my dice and OSR games where WotC is waiting for us to fade away.

    1. There are days I feel that way, too. But then I look at my long list of pending reviews, overstuffed bookshelves, and realize that this is an incredibly vital community. It needs to find a way to Marshall itself a little more and they could easily bring this version of the hobby to a new generation.

      I play straight out of my beat up old Rules Cyclopaedia with my oldest kid.

  6. Interesting take. Not sure what I'd be hoping for... if there was a 6th edition.

  7. Kudos for the well-thought out and well-written post.

    I say, let Hasbro, the woke, the critters, et al. have DnD. The OSR will provide.

  8. This article is, I think, very much correct in every particular. Excellent analysis.
    That said, I really don't see any of this being a problem other than myself and others losing that warm feeling of the current edition being to our taste.
    When 2nd ed. got crappy with players' options and unfolding, derivate stats, I kinda retrocloned my oun books and played for years and years and it was just fine. When 3rd ed. became too wonky, I made my own home brewed 3,x and played some more, and it was also just fine. I never spent a single dollar in 4th ed. even if I did try it on both sides of the screen, but I never cared for it and instead went back to 2nd ed. and eventually OSR... And it was more than fine.
    And then 5th ed. came along and I was happy and bought books from Wizards' once again. For now, they seem to be doing OK... Tasha's was, let's say dubious, and the company's and their material's bow to wokeness is irking me something fierce. They are on the very brink of me deciding to keep my money and once again do my own thing. I have a well curated library and redundant backed up hard drives, so I can do that tomorrow, no problem.
    The point is: I not alone in that. Not by a long shot.
    If Hasbro/Wizards screws up the current edition, or the next turns out to be crap (woke or otherwise), the only losers will be those companies. The game we all enjoy in one way or another, the "lifestyle" as it were, will continue just fine.
    There's no need for Wizards to unfold the game in to catering to different tastes and sensibilities. That happens on its own, and it tends to backfire when the "pros" try to pigeonhole interest groups in this or that version.
    Ultimately, I've always homebrewed and reflavored a lot and IMHO the best editions of the game are those robust enough to take and accommodate those seamlessly. That's why I recoil from things like Adventurer's League. No amount of "free-form" customization can cover all, so here's hoping the designers don't mess up trying for the mentioned singularity.
    Woke progressivism seems to taint all media these days, but already there's noticeable pushback, so I'm hopeful the money will speak clearly as to in which direction the game moves.
    In any case, even if we don't end up liking its current form, there can't be wrong in the game keeping itself alive and thriving, and spawning more material, and "new" OSRs, and whatever else.
    Cheers folk.