Lean, Mean RPGing Machines

DnD_PotAWhen WotC announced their lineup for D&D in 2015, the tent-pole was a series of linked adventures similar in format to the Tiamat collection of adventures. The new adventures made more than a passing nod to the classic Gygax mega-adventure “The Temple of Elemental Evil.”

What wasn’t announced was the rumored Adventurer’s Handbook. The original plan appeared to be a supplement to the Player’s Handbook that would include new powers, spells, backgrounds and similar that tied directly into the Elemental Evil adventures. That content, or, at least, parts of it, will now be available for free on the ‘net.

Why the change? According to Mike Mearls, head of Research & Design for D&D, “it’s a huge, open question on what support for the RPG should look like… we do a lot of stuff that may or may not end up as a released product. For instance, we now know that the high volume release schedule for 3e and 4e turned out to be bad for D&D. It wasn’t too many settings that hurt TSR, but too many D&D books of any kind.”

What’s Mearls talking about? In part, a problem Paizo is wrestling with right now. Mike Brock, Pathfinder’s Global Organized Play Coordinator, recently wrote that “players have expressed increasing concerns about the availability of replay, new players being overwhelmed or overshadowed by over-optimized characters, Chronicle sheet rewards not having much meaning, and other concerns related to the sheer amount of information and options available to PFS players.”

In short, in spite of Paizo’s slow-release schedule for Pathfinder, the game is starting to get overburdened by options, rules, and stuff. For new players, all the classes with all their options and how those interact with the feat trees, spell lists, skills, and gear is a daunting mountain to master. But if you don’t master it, you risk putting together a sub-optimal character overshadowed by the carefully honed masterpieces of the experienced players. Old adventures, finely tuned to challenge characters designed with fewer options, also fall apart in the new environment.

PZO1110_180Paizo’s solution is the Core Campaign. Core Campaign adventures will run parallel to the usual Organized Play adventures. However, in the Core Campaign, “only the Core Rulebook, Character Traits Web Enhancement, and Guide to Pathfinder Society Organized Play may be utilized for character creation.”

This is great news if you’ve been thinking about getting involved in Pathfinder but were daunted by the massive amount of reading needed to comprehend all the available options just in character creation. For experienced players, it means more opportunities to play; not only can veterans replay the classics with new players and receive full credit, but it doubles the chances to play from two new scenarios every month to four.

New options for loved games get everyone excited and keep old games fresh. However, eventually, those additions add up like barnacles on a hull to make what was once sleek and fast-paced now cumbersome and lumbering. The traditional solution is to release a new edition. However, this annoys a game’s core fans, confuses the casually interested, and, once a new edition is announced, dissuades the curious from getting involved until the new edition is released (and who knows if they’ll still be interested at that point). Yes, publishing new core books is a temporary shot-in-the-arm, but it’s not one without risks. After all, what happens if people don’t like the new edition?

Both Pathfinder and D&D are tackling this issue from opposite ends: Pathfinder as a game that’s acquired years of new options, rules, and tweaks, and D&D as a sleek new game, still unencumbered but with the challenge of keeping things fresh and exciting without getting bogged down. What does the future hold? Mike Mearls is playing things close to the vest, but has promised, “lots of experiments ahead…” It’ll be interesting to watch as both companies tackle this issue from opposite ends and with different ideas.