I was really excited about 4e before it came out. I’d been running variations of 3e for most of a decade, and was keenly aware of the flaws in the system. Games were time consuming to prep and, at mid to high level, to run. I was eagerly following all the Legends and Lore articles in the lead up and started incorporating mechanics into my 3e game in preparation for switching when the time came. But somehow, when it came out, it wasn’t what I had hoped. Increased speed in prep-time came by sacrificing a ton of simulationism. Playing the game eventually felt very samey: powers became, for me, an MMO-style optimal attack sequence that I’d use in nearly every situation. Most damning, GMing at mid to high levels, I didn’t actually seem to save any time during combats, and the preponderance of interrupts and weird specials made enemies annoying to track.
I’d been getting the Pathfinder modules for a while, and switched to that. Running primarily from modules helps a lot with 3e’s prep time issues. Combats still take a while, but, after over a decade, we can often run completely book free except when unusual spells happen, and that does make things faster. It’s like living in a run down house with an inconvenient floorplan: after you’ve lived in it long enough, it turns out with a little renovation you’re able to live there comfortably, and kinda prefer it to moving into a new house that you worry has hidden flaws.
All that’s to say: the D&D I’m playing still has a lot of the flaws it had before 4e, but I’m just not nearly as excited about 5e. It looks fine, it’s doing some neat things, and it’s trying to fix some major issues of mine. I’m just skeptical: 4e looked cool too, until I played it for a while and realized it was the wrong fit. I’m interested to see more stuff, but I’m not sold yet.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the whole process is just the ever-escalating brand cycle of D&D. Other supplement-heavy RPGs have received revised editions more frequently, but generally not to the same scale. For example, if I want to run Mage: the Ascension’s 3rd edition, I can still find useful resources in 1st edition supplements that are fully compatible with the rules or demand only minimal changes. But it seems impossible to update D&D without completely invalidating the utility of previous resources. Even Pathfinder, with the core goal of compatibility with 3.5 (so it can still be used to run the first several module series), made enough changes to things like combat maneuvers and available powers that it’s often worthwhile to do the work and update stat blocks in the modules. Maybe it’s how thoroughly integral and fiddly the math is throughout the system?
There seems to be buzz that the design goal of 5e is to end this cycle: one simple core of rules with systems to easily and modularly enact house rules. I think it would be awesome if that proves true, but it seems naive to rely on it. Most, if not all, of the systems that were able to create a continuity of rules through editions were games owned by a consistent creative team. You might disagree with their vision, but you would have a hard time denying that it was theirs. D&D is (has been for a long time) bereft of a core vision that’s guided it through editions. Its only consistent creative team is effectively “everyone that has ever played.” And it’s hard to get a consistent vision when you’re trying to get so many people to verbalize what they think they want, much less be right about it.
So if 5e is extremely lucky, it will be the D&D edition to end D&D editions. More likely, it will appeal to some fraction of the players, and everyone else will keep on playing whatever of all the many past editions they’re happiest with.
It’s doing some really cool things. It’s just hard to get excited.