#DNDNext: My Thoughts

Most everyone who cares by now knows that Wizards of the Coast has announced the next “iteration” of Dungeons & Dragons. A smaller segment have noticed that in its coverage of the announcement, CNN’s Geek Out blog interviewed and quoted me about D&D in general, and 4th and “5th” edition in particular. As a result of that, a lot of people have been asking about my involvement with the design of the next iteration of D&D, my opinion of its announcement, and how I feel about the idea. Rather than write a lot of piecemeal replies, I’ll cover all that here. But first, a bit of background for context.

I am a D&D geek. I began playing D&D as an adolescent with 1st edition AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). And my career as a game designed is rooted in that same moment, as we only had the AD&D DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide), which had no rules for characters. My uncle ran the game (which he does not remember), and I came up with some quick rules for our characters, including weapons (one of which was a space axe, from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series – my geek roots run deep).

I took to AD&D very quickly, but at first had very few options for players. My parents responded by getting me Flying Buffalo’s Tunnels & Trolls solo modules, and I played through all of them. (Yes, all of them. Every one that I am aware of that was published by 1984.) But during the early 1980s, I also found other RPG fans (several of which I still play with today, 30 years later), and I expanded into new realms of gaming in addition to D&D and T&T.

The other TSR options came first. I tried Boot Hill, gave Top Secret and Gangbusters a try, and fell in love with Gamma World. Then I moved beyond TSR and Flying Buffalo. I grabbed on to Champions, and Rolemaster, and slid sideways into Star Fleet Battles and Car Wars. From there I did a little of everything, and I loved most of it.

But I always came back to D&D. D&D was the basis of my early social life. I made most of my friends through a common interest in D&D. I came to know the girl who became my wife through a D&D campaign. Birthday parties, social calendars, even vacations were often planned around the opportunity to play D&D. D&D became one of the defining factors of my life. I know D&D players are often seem as anti-social, but I had no real friends until D&D gave me something with which to break the ice. After that when other social groups got drunk, went dancing, or watched sports, mine played D&D.

For years I was a huge fan, and played D&D (and to be honest Champions – D&D just didn’t handle the X-Men or Justice League well) whenever I had a chance. I played 1st ed D&D, 2nd ed D&D, basic D&D, and D&D games cobbled together by friends from six different books never meant to be used at once. Over time, D&D helped me grow as a person. D&D encouraged me to read more, to write more, and to delve into things such as history, economics, sociology, metallurgy, tactics, mythology, geography, geology, and theology. It inspired me, and was my main creative outlet. Eventually my wife convinced me to submit my writing for publication, and I started getting articles printed in Dragon and Pyramid magazines. I was thrilled. My good friend, D&D, was paying me.

My freelance career grew through the late 1990s, and in 2000 I was flown out to Seattle, to interview for a job as a game designer at Wizards of the Coast. I was asked to rate my preferences regarding working on core D&D, Forgotten Realms, licensed games, or Star Wars d20 specifically. I rated core D&D the highest, and Star Wars the lowest.

I was, of course, hired to work on the Star Wars RPG.

Not that I complained, then or now. I got to work with JD Wiker, Brian Campbell, Andy Collins and Cory Herndon under the guidance of first Thomas M. Reid and later Chris Perkins. While I didn’t work on any D&D print products during that time (though I would later), I got to write a Star Wars book with Jeff Grubb, talk game design with Jonathan Tweet and Monte Cook, and meet a slew of folks I’m still proud to call friends. And I got to hang out with my friend D&D a lot more than ever before.

I got laid off from WotC in 2001, and sad as that made me, I still loved D&D. I did a lot of work for “d20” games that weren’t quite D&D, including a huge number of licensed adaptations (Black Company, EverQuest, Gamma World, Star Wars for two more editions of the game, Thieves World) and the spin-off two modern game from WotC itself. I also finally wrote some material for D&D print books, which was a thrill, and I managed to maintain a full-time freelance RPG-writing career.

When 4th Ed D&D was announced, I was one of a few dozen freelancers who got a special meeting with WotC designers at Gen Con to talk about the place of freelancers in the new edition of the game. We were given a lovely spread of fresh fruit and other snacks, and assured we would be critical to the long-term success of D&D 4th ed, even if we couldn’t begin work on any projects just yet.

And I did do a few 4th Ed projects, from doing conversion work for Goodman Games adventures written for 3.5 D&D to writing material for several official 4th ed D&D books. I even got an adventure into Dungeon magazine, albeit the web-site version of that magazine. But slowly the gap between how I wanted to write material, and how WotC wanted it to be presented seemed to take its toll. Originally, I had a regular flow of work offers from WotC. Over a few short years, they dried up.

At the same time, I played less and less 4e D&D (though even now I’m in a regular 4e campaign I very much enjoy). Some of that was because I was writing more material for Paizo, who didn’t (and don’t) use 4e, and I wanted to play the games I was writing for. Some of it was because many of my friends didn’t like how 4e had turned out (including many who had enjoyed the game when I ran playtests of it). And some of it was because I felt the style of play I most appreciated, a style that focused on being able to represent all the skills and aspects of a character with game rules (a style 3rd Ed support far more than any that had come before), wasn’t well supported in 4th edition D&D.

So D&D and I stopped seeing so much of each other. We still said hi and got together occasionally on a weekend, but the life-long friendship had cooled. Instead I was spending most of my time with Pathfinder. The Pathfinder RPG grew out of D&D 3.5, but was a new game now published by Paizo. It had even more of the things I liked about 3.5 D&D, matched my play style well, and Paizo was very interested in having me write material for it. Both socially and economically, Pathfinder was meeting more of my needs. I even became the Lead Developer of a small game company, Super Genius Games, to produce our own support of the Pathfinder RPG.

So, the fate of D&D is no longer particularly relevant to my social life or my career. To be clear, I was not contacted in advance about the next iteration. I didn’t know it was coming (though like many gamers I had my suspicions when Monte Cook was hired back by WotC). I haven’t gotten to see the “friends and family” playtest material, and I have no reason to think I’ll be looked at for any freelance projects when the game rolls out. There’s no word yet whether it’ll be possible for Super Genius Games to produce material to support DNDNext, and certainly no hint that it would make economic sense for us to do so.

So, how do I feel about the news?


There are lots of reasons for this. First, I am a major fan of the design team. I love the work of Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell. I’ve written with Mike Mearls (d20 Spectaculars… it never saw print). I’ve written with, been developed by, and games with both Rodney Thompson and Rob Schwalb. I’ve played oodles of games with Miranda Horner. (And been edited by her. And hung out in her game room. She’s good folks.) The point is these are smart, creative people. I would be excited about ANY game they were designing, because they are good designers.

Also, I believe WotC would only be taking this step if they believe it will lead to a stronger D&D brand, and I’m still pretty impressed by what WotC has done with the brand. Certainly nothing I do is going to get covered by the New York Times, CNN, and Forbes. And I believe a stronger D&D is good for all roleplaying games. So even if I was never going to play D&D in any form again, I’d be a fan of it continuing to grow and evolve.

But on top of all that, I’m excited about the design goals listed for this D&D. I want them to work. I want for D&D to be my #1 choice of RPG again. I want, more than anything, to see another explosion of creativity, fun, and enthusiasm take over the roleplaying field. I want a game that creates its own successful spin offs (as we can thank 3.0 D&D for Mutants and Masterminds, Fantasy Craft, Pathfinder, and many more). I want D&D to be the spearhead of a new thrust of tabletop RPGs that become increasingly mainstream. I want another shot at getting my tribe out of the basement.

I know the New Edition Wars have already begun. I don’t care. I see this announcement as a good thing. My love of D&D in no way means I’m giving up Pathfinder. The new game won’t be 3.5 D&D rehashed. You don’t need the line-up of designers they have to rehash something. It’s going to be another effort to create a great D&D, and I’m excited as heck to see what it looks like. I know I’ll play it when it comes out. I believe I’ll play it years later, and write at least Dragon articles for it. I hope it’ll be another big chapter of my relationship with D&D.

I have no interest in throwing my favorite games into a bloody pit and demanding only one come out. I don’t want my favorite writers, bloggers, or players to act like that’s our only choice, either. All Roleplaying Games are supposed to be about having fun. If your blood pressure rises just thinking about one, don’t think about it. If you feel the need to be snarky about a company’s efforts to create a great game, find something more positive to do. If someone else is snarky at you, keep in mind it’s not worth the effort to reply in kind. If you just can’t stand a game, group, or company, ignore it. We don’t need to fight about this.

My tribe is everyone who plays RPGs. There aren’t that many of us. One subset, the creators of D&D, are having a big day today. I wish them nothing but the best. I look forward to their results.

About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on January 9, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thanx for the great blog post, Owen. I hope we don’t disappoint 🙂


  2. Jonatha McAnulty

    Well said.

  3. What Owen said,

    Steve Russell
    Rite Publishing

  4. I hope that the design team makes themselves HALF as available to the fans as Paizo people do. It will go a long way to improving the public (or at least my) perception of them if we can get to know the people who craft the game as well as we do the Paizo people. Customer relations is a massive perk with Paizo, one that any company would do well to emulate.

  5. “My tribe is everyone who plays RPGs.” Quote of the day. Well said sir.

  6. There was a huge amount of playtesting for 3rd Edition in the run-up to completely relaunching D&D (aka 3rd edition recovering from the disaster that was TSR’s downfall). I believe that made all the difference between successful editions by Wizards of the Coast and otherwise.

  1. Pingback: Link Roundup: #dndnext « Stormin' Da Castle

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