t the Origins Game Fair in early June, we talked about the concept of a living rule set for D&D and what it means for players and DMs. Though several websites have reported what was said there, I thought it would be a good idea to recap the basics behind the system. What does it mean to say that D&D is a living set of rules?
The biggest change affects how we make updates to the game going forward. In the past, we relied on forums, summaries of issues from customer service, and our own experiences with the game to guide the changes we made. Though this approach uncovers parts of the game that people are having issues with, it does a poor job of assessing the magnitude of those issues. The public playtest showed us that we need to cast a much wider net to create a clear picture of what’s going on.
To that end, you can expect to see annual surveys that work much like the ones we used to guide the development of fifth edition D&D. These surveys will not only allow us to identify trouble spots in the game, but we can use them to look at how attitudes change over time. By comparing one year’s results to the next, we can gain a sense of how the game is changing.
If we do identify a problem area, the next step depends on the magnitude of the change. Some alterations are simple and easy. If a rule is unclear, we can include an update in a FAQ or similar resource. If a number is wrong or a rule is missing a keyword, we can update future printings of the relevant books and compile a list of errata. For changes of this magnitude, we’ll aim to provide annual updates. We’ll make actual rules changes (as opposed to updating a FAQ) only when absolutely necessary. If players and DMs feel they need to replace their books because of these changes, we’ve gone too far.
Many problems are not as simple to change, however. One class might lag behind others, a magic item might be too powerful, and so forth. The first step in the process of dealing with issues of that nature requires much more time and energy.
To start with, we’ll assess the issue’s impact on the game. Let’s say a number of players complain that a class is too weak and refuse to play it. But at the same time, people who play that class enjoy it and give it high marks. In this case, we won’t change anything. But if no one is playing the class even though they want to, then we need to look at different options.
A similar process applies to elements of the game that might be too good. Are too many players choosing a particular option? Do people who choose that option like it and find it balanced? Do DMs hate some particular rule or game element even as players love it? We’re likely to change something only if players report that it’s too good, if it’s a popular option with players, and if DMs have issues with it.
If we know something is an issue, we’ll let you know that we plan to address it. When we have some ideas, we’ll put those in front of the community and playtest them before making any changes. If a change is well liked and solves problems, we’ll implement it as an option for DMs to use.
We don’t plan on rushing things. It might be a year from when we raise an issue to when we have a fix. But as soon as we can, we’ll share that solution as an option for DMs and players to use as they wish. Groups that never felt the effect of the issue in the first place can ignore it, while those looking for a solution will have a well tested, proven response.
Some players might see the specter of a new edition always hanging over this sort of process. However, we see the fifth edition rules as a game that we want to stick with for the long haul. A revision significant enough to require serious changes to printed books should offer multiple obvious improvements to the game. If you’re buying new books, it should be because you want to—not because we’re twisting your arm. In an ideal world, updates to our printed products should simply capture the incremental updates and revisions that have proven widely popular.
In many ways, this approach increases the longevity of this version of the rules. In the long run, allowing problems to pile up increases player and DM frustration and creates more demand for a new edition. By easing change into the game and making it freely available, we make it easier for groups to stick with the fifth edition D&D rules for years.
Finally, the living rule set approach gives R&D the space to offer up suggested improvements and alterations to D&D. If we have an idea for improving the game, we can present it as an option for DMs, gather feedback, and make informed decisions for future products and potential changes to the core game. Those options can remain exactly that—options you can take or leave as you see fit. Only if the community embraces a new option to the point that it becomes the effective default will we look to make a change to the game.
Starter Set Preview: Pregenerated Characters
With the D&D Starter Set just around the corner, it’s time to take a look at the design behind the set. This week, the pregenerated characters are in the spotlight.
The Starter Set comes with five characters that players can choose from. Remember that you can also download Basic D&D if you want to create your own characters. The characters are:
- Human fighter, armed with heavy armor and a big axe
- Human fighter, equipped with light armor and a bow
- Dwarf cleric
- Elf wizard
- Halfling rogue
The characters were created using the options from Basic D&D, making it easy to use them alongside other characters that the players opt to create.
With these characters, we decided to do more than simply give players a sheet of numbers and rules. Using our system of traits, flaws, and bonds, we gave each character a background that ties directly into the adventure. For instance, the human fighter with the bow is a native of the region covered by the adventure, born in the town of Thundertree. That town was overrun by monsters and its inhabitants were scattered years ago, so the character has come home in part to drive those monsters away.
As you play through the adventure using the pregenerated characters, elements of their backstories help drive the action forward. NPCs connected to the adventurers’ backgrounds can appear to help or harm the party. Locations and people the characters want to seek out become key parts of the adventure. Roleplaying a character in this way can lead to more adventures and more action than simply treating the character as a collection of stats.
We took this approach because we wanted to impress upon new and returning players the importance of roleplaying in D&D. Giving these characters personality traits shows new players where to begin. More importantly, the element of a character’s background that ties into the adventure gives each player a clear sense of purpose, direction, and autonomy in playing through the adventure. Rather than relying on a chain of linear events to drive the action, the adventure expects the players to take an active role in deciding what to do next.
As a DM, even if you have players creating characters using Basic D&D for the Starter Set adventure, you should consider sharing the pregenerated character backgrounds and bonds with the players. Those options can allow newly created characters to integrate more closely into the adventure, giving the players a sense of purpose and the ability to make active, informed decisions that shape the action.
Join the R&D team at 4 PM (Pacific) today in a livestream unboxing of the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. We’ll discuss how to prepare to run the Starter Set if you’re a Dungeon Master and answer questions about the adventure’s contents.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.