Wizards of the Coast held an elaborate keynote address at games convention Gen Con this year to promote the big changes they have planned for Dungeons & Dragons and the Forgotten Realms. An all-star line up of authors will be shaping the Realms, and everything old will be digital again while the public playtest marches on.
The D&D Keynote
The keynote was a new thing at Gen Con this year, and it was quite an affair. Held at a gorgeous theater outside the convention, the room was shrouded in fog machine effluvia, thrumming with classic metal songs, and ringed by life-size standups of warriors and halflings. After the CEOs of Gen Con and Wizards of the Coast spoke their pieces, Mike Mearls (D&D Senior Manager), Jon Schindehette (D&D Art Director), and Ed Greenwood (author and Forgotten Realms creator, actual wizard) took the stage for a semi-scripted presentation.
Everyone was eagerly awaiting news about D&D Next, also known as "5th Edition." Wizards opened a public playtest a few months ago, and they're very intent on incorporating player feedback into the development of the system. So intent that they plan to take a full two years of playtesting before they even think about releasing the new edition, pushing it back to 2014 at least. It's absolutely admirable that they are taking such care with the flagship RPG, but also kind of funny that their big announcement about the Future of D&D was: "Hang tight."
eD&D and the Drow
The most startling news out of the keynote was the stopgap that will keep gamers happy (and buying stuff) through 2013: Wizards plans to release every single D&D product from the game's historied past in digital form. Every edition, every sourcebook, every adventure. This is surprising not only because it's a very ambitious undertaking, but because Wizards shut down all ebooks three years ago. That's right: official, legal digital versions of D&D books have not existed since early 2009. This is quite a turnaround.
It looks like Wizards will also release a few hardcover books through 2013. These books, like the recent Menzoberranzan book, are focused entirely on world building and adventure hooks, with no new rules text to speak of. The books will be tied to ongoing stories that take place across a bunch of different media, including novels, Dungeons & Dragons Online, the Dungeon Command miniatures skirmish game, and in-store events like D&D encounters.
The Forgotten Realms
The Forgotten Realms might be the biggest, most beloved shared fantasy universe in the world (there are certainly bigger sci-fi shared worlds, but I can't think of a comparable fantasy world). It's been around in published form since the late 70s, when Ed Greenwood started sending articles about the Realms to Dragon Magazine. Since then, the world has been through the Time of Troubles, the Spellplague and other Big Terrible Events. It looks like more trouble is on the horizon, as Greenwood himself announced The Sundering.
What is being sundered specifically involves somewhat complex aspects of Forgotten Realms cosmology, but the end result should actually be a simplified world that harkens back to the earlier high-fantasy roots of the Forgotten Realms (at least according to Paul S. Kemp). The event will play out in six novels by six different authors. Each novel is technically a standalone with different characters, but they're all parts of the greater unfolding story. The novels include some of the most well-known authors to have worked in the Realms:
The Companions, by R.A. Salvatore
The Godborn, by Paul S. Kemp
The Adversary, by Erin M. Evans
The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers
The Sentinel, by Troy Denning
The Herald, by Ed Greenwood
It looks like the first few books in the series are set to come out in the second half of 2013.
How are the rules for the next D&D edition shaping up? I had a chance to try out the latest iteration at Gen Con with Mike Mearls as the Dungeon Master. Specific rules aren't really important, especially since they're likely to change anyway, but I did notice some blending of editions. At its core, D&D Next is a streamlined re-imagining of earlier editions of the game, but lots of different elements (including some of the powers of 4th Edition) are being woven into it.
I interviewed Mearls a few weeks before Gen Con, and what's clear is that they want to keep the core of the game as simple as possible. This leaves it open to interpretation by the players. If you want to add layers of complexity and detailed combat rules, you'll be able to do that. If you want to play without a map, focusing on story and character interaction, you can do that. The mandate seems to be: Wizards isn't here to tell you how to play D&D. They want the new edition to be a framework. You can build what you want with it.
If D&D were a sports franchise, it would be in a "rebuilding phase." While the team develops young talent (a new edition) they've signed some big-name free agents (the six Sundering authors) to keep fans in the seats. It's actually a good sign that Wizards is taking a long term view toward building a better game for D&D fans.
More Gen Con coverage at Robot Viking:
Demoing the 13th Age RPG with co-designer Rob Heinsoo.