Dungeons & Dragons is a consumer product, and like every other consumer product it requires good data in order to ... well, better appeal to its players. The reality of getting that kind of feedback does, however, create some unintentionally hilarious situations. Case in point is a survey, launched this past weekend, that asks for player feedback on the game’s iconic — and entirely fictional — list of spells.
“How satisfied are you with these spells, as presented in the Player’s Handbook?” asks the survey, before proceeding to detail dozens upon dozens of iconic spells from 5th edition. Fireball is on there, right alongside Finger of Death. Prismatic Spray makes an appearance on the same page as Protection From Evil and Good. Would you say you are very dissatisfied, dissatisfied, or only slightly dissatisfied with Stone Skin and Stone Shape? With Tasha’s Hideous Laughter? With Tenser’s Floating Disk? How was your last trip with Transport via Plants? Did you enjoy the Vicious Mockery?
There’s nothing revolutionary about these surveys. It’s the kind of player engagement that publisher Wizards of the Coast has been going after since it spent all that time creating 5th edition, gathering feedback from hundreds of thousands of eager playtesters. Through its Unearthed Arcana series, it regularly publishes mock-ups of new content, including character races and classes, before asking for direct feedback on how they work at the table. Heck, there’s even a QR code published inside the flyleaf of most new books (right next to the now-traditional Easter egg) that directs you to surveys that are even more specific to a given product.
But asking for feedback on individual spells, as if they were toasters or functions on a universal remote control, actually cuts right to the core of the D&D experience. For magic users, choosing the right spells is a painstaking process in character creation. That mix of offensive, defensive, and cantrip actions reflects not only the character’s lived experience but their viability in combat. It’s a very personal and intimate choice.
Nevertheless, it’s an amusing read. I imagine the survey being delivered by a gnome or a satyr, patrolling the market stalls like they’re running for local office in Waterdeep, peering over tiny spectacles and making elaborate marks on a clipboard.
But, in addition to being a great goof, it’s actually a promising sign of what’s to come for the world’s most popular role-playing game (and one of its corporate owner’s largest profit centers).
In September, during the annual D&D Celebration, executive producer Ray Winninger said that the “next evolution” of the game was in the works, set to be published in 2024. The stated goal is to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of D&D, but also to move the current game — which came out way back in 2014 — forward.
Note that Winninger very specifically does not say that his team is working on the next “edition” of D&D. The ur-RPG has gone through many fractious reboots over the years, all of which tend to splinter the playerbase and scatter the community. The most recent round of histrionics gave rise to Pathfinder, but also the poorly received 4th edition of D&D and its even more poorly received reboot, a flailing, forgettable series of books known as Dungeons & Dragons Essentials. No one wants to see that happen again. Not the fans, not Wizards, and certainly not owner Hasbro.
Surveys, like the one released over the weekend, show that plainly. Wizards isn’t looking to reinvent the spell-casting wheel here. They just want to buff out the surface a little bit — maybe change the bearings. Winninger and the creatives tinkering behind the scenes of D&D want a smooth transition in 2024. They want to shave off the rough edges of the game, spruce up the spellbook if they can, and more or less bring the whole franchise into alignment (no pun intended) with modern societal morays. Taken in that regard, the spell survey is actually a fairly conservative document.
Doesn’t make it any less funny to read through, though.