The next iteration of D&D should keep it simple – but it’s complicated

0One of the main reasons players stick with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is that publisher Wizards of the Coast is always trying new things – new locations and new types of adventures, sure, but also new character classes, spells and magic items. . Along with this evolution comes a natural growth in game complexity. Artificer class characters, for example, released in 2019, can craft their own magic items virtually overnight. In addition to being able to defend themselves in battle, they can also cast spells, craft magic hand grenades, and design small mechanical creatures to suit their purposes. This makes the Artificer much harder to execute than the original Fighter in the original Player’s Handbook (2014).

As the hugely popular tabletop role-playing game celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, game design architect Jeremy Crawford and his team are immersed in a revised version of the 5th edition rules. Part of the challenge, he told Polygon, is knowing when to lean into that complexity. But it’s just as important to know when to hold back.

A Steel Defender stands upright, a magic hammer on his shoulder and a metal dog by his side.  Next to them in the illustration is a gunner with a 10-gallon hat, feather duster, and explosive rods.

A Steel Defender and an Artillerist, two subclasses of the Artificer class in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
Image: Paul Scott Canavan/Wizards of the Coast

“I love the complex character options when playing,” Crawford said in an interview with Polygon at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis. “But sometimes when I play, I think to myself, You know what, I just wanna swing a sword today. One of the beauties of D&D – dating back to the 1970s – is that it not only offers different narrative options through its different character classes, but also different gameplay options.

This mix of simple and complex options is important to maintain, Crawford said, especially when creating Player’s Handbook (2024), which would become the most widely read entry point into the larger world of D&D for its next generation of devoted fans. And to get that fuel-air mix just right to keep the game growing explosively, Crawford is using the best tool at his disposal: hard data.

D&D 5th Edition was unique when it launched in 2014 because of the way it was created – thanks to a series of user tests called D&D Next that the company ran with its most dedicated fans. Some 120,000 of them have returned surveys to Wizards, and their feedback was instrumental, Crawford said, in making D&D what it is today. Now he’s doubling down on the model, and he says the results are amazing.

Wizards released a series of robust game test packages called Unearthed Arcana. Crawford uses these UA posts to demonstrate things like new and revised character classes, special abilities, and combat changes. To date, his team has received more than 500,000 player surveys based on their time with UA, and Wizards employees have pounded on every word.

“10 years ago I had a designer working full time going through all the comments,” Crawford said. “This time, because of the volume, we have three.”

Of course, fans can say whatever they want in these written polls. This included elaborate trolling. Survey responses so far have included lengthy sections of books now in the public domain – including the works of Edgar Allan Poe, for example – which definitely got Crawford’s team laughing. However, even the most sincere answers should not be taken at face value every time. This data also needs to be validated with other evidence.

“When I was a web developer […], one of the things that’s always been key for us has been knowing that there’s a difference between what people say about their behavior and what they actually do,” Crawford said. “Anyone in any industry who has done focus group testing, surveys, [and] observational analysis knows that all of us as humans will often perceive what we want in a way and say we’re doing X, but often we’re actually doing Y. And so it’s essential, whenever you analyze [what you think a large group of people] want, to validate what they say with what they do.

For example, the Champion subclass for D&D’s Fighter model. It’s one of the least popular classes in survey responses, but data validation tells a different story.

When D&D Beyond, D&D’s digital toolset, launched in 2017, one of the deals Wizards made with its creators was to have visibility into how people were using it. Even before Wizards bought the software company in 2022, it was drinking from a firehose of data — including the kinds of characters people actually love to create and play.

“The Champion – in terms of actual usage – is one of the most used fighter subclasses, because a lot of people – and we learn that anecdotally, whether it’s from discussions we read in line or people telling us at events like [Gen Con] – they love playing Champion because of its simplicity.

“For us, it’s always important to make sure that we look at all of this [information] so that we can appeal to as many of our vast audience as possible,” Crawford said. “Part of our commitment in our [revision] of 5th Edition was having this big tent where a very invested person who’s been working with D&D for decades and loves really crunchy options – we want to make sure we have things for them. But we also want to make sure that the person who has never played before has a welcoming lobby to walk into when they come to D&D. And we also want to make sure that those of us who have been playing this game for a long time also have simple options when we just want to relax and do something simple.

That simplicity, Crawford said, can be a pet peeve of the kind of highly motivated, highly committed players filling out surveys for Wizards of the Coast. But new and casual players love it, so keeping the Champion subclass is just as important as creating the next Artificer.

Revised versions of all three core Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks – including the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s GuideAnd Monster Manual – set to roll out throughout 2024. You can read more about what’s expected inside each of them in our feature article. Expect more from our conversation with Jeremy Crawford throughout the week as we continue to celebrate Gen Con.

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