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D&D’s next iteration needs to keep things simple, too

How fan feedback is helping build the new Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide

A silver minivan with a bumper sticker that reads: My other car is a multi-class wizard warlock. Photo illustration: Will Joel, Charlie Hall/Polygon | Source photo: Shutterstock
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

One of the main reasons that players stick with Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is because publisher Wizards of the Coast is always trying new things — new locations and new kinds of adventures, to be sure, but also new character classes, spells, and magical items. Along with that evolution comes a natural growth in the game’s complexity. Characters of the Artificer class, for instance, released in 2019, can craft their own magic items pretty much overnight. In addition to being able to hold their own in combat, they can also cast spells, make magical hand grenades, and design small mechanical creatures to do their bidding. That makes the Artificer a lot more challenging to run than the stock Fighter in the original Player’s Handbook (2014).

As the wildly popular tabletop role-playing game eases into its 50th anniversary next year, game design architect Jeremy Crawford and his team are neck-deep in a revised version of the 5th edition rules. Part of the challenge, he told Polygon, is knowing when to lean into that complexity. But it’s equally important to know when to hold back.

A Steel Defender stands tall, a magical hammer on their shoulder and a metal dog at their side. Next to them in the illustration is an Artillerist with a 10-gallon hat, duster, and some explosive looking wands.
A Steel Defender and an Artillerist, both subclasses of the Artificer class in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Image: Paul Scott Canavan/Wizards of the Coast

“I love intricate character options when I’m playing,” said Crawford in an interview with Polygon at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis. “But sometimes when I play, I’m like, You know what, I just want to swing a sword today. One of the beauties of D&D — going all the way back to the 1970s — is that it provides not only different narrative options through its various character classes, but different gameplay options.”

That mixture of simple and complex options is important to maintain, Crawford said, especially when creating Player’s Handbook (2024), which will become the single most widely read entry point into the wider world of D&D for its next generation of devoted fans. And to get that fuel-air mixture just right to maintain the game’s explosive growth, Crawford is using the best tool at his disposal: hard data.

The 5th edition of D&D was unique when it launched in 2014 because of how it was created — through a yearslong set of user playtests called D&D Next that the company ran with its most devoted fans. Some 120,000 of them returned surveys back to Wizards, and their feedback was instrumental, Crawford said, in making D&D what it is today. Now he’s doubling down on the model, and he says the results are astonishing.

Wizards has published a series of robust playtest packets called Unearthed Arcana. Crawford uses these UA publications to demo things like new and revised character classes, special abilities, and changes to combat. To date, his team has received more than 500,000 surveys from players based on their time spent with the UA, and employees at Wizards have been poring over every single word.

“10 years ago, I had one designer working full time going through all of the feedback,” Crawford said. “This time, because of the volume, we have three.”

Of course, fans can say whatever they want in those written surveys. This has included some elaborate trolling. Survey responses have so far included long sections of books now in the public domain — including the works of Edgar Allan Poe, for instance — which definitely gave Crawford’s team a chuckle. Not even the most sincere responses should be taken at face value every time, though. That data must be validated with other bits of evidence as well.

“When I was a web developer [...], one of the things that was always critical for us was to know there is a difference between what people say about their behavior and what are they actually doing,” Crawford said. “Anyone in any industry who has done focus group testing, surveying, [and] observational analysis knows that all of us as humans will often perceive what we want in one way and say we do X, but often we actually do Y. And so it is critical, any time you are analyzing [what you think a large group of people] want, to validate what they’re saying with what they’re doing.”

Case in point is the Champion subclass for D&D’s Fighter template. It’s among the least appreciated classes in survey responses, but data validation tells a different story.

When D&D Beyond, D&D’s digital toolset, launched in 2017, one of the deals that Wizards cut with its creators was to have visibility into how people used it. Even before Wizards bought the software company in 2022, it was drinking from a firehose of data — including what kinds of characters people actually like to build and play.

“The Champion — in terms of actual use — is one of the most used Fighter subclasses, because many people — and we learn this anecdotally, whether it’s from discussions we read online, or people telling us at events like [Gen Con] — they love playing the Champion because of how simple it is.

“For us, it’s always important to make sure we are looking at all of this [information] so that we can appeal to as much of our vast audience as possible,” Crawford said. “Part of our commitment in our [revision] of 5th edition was to have this big tent where a heavily invested person who’s been with D&D for decades, and who loves really crunchy options — we want to make sure we have things for them. But we also want to make sure that the person who’s never played before has a welcoming foyer to walk into when they get to D&D. And we also want to make sure that those of us who have been playing this game for a long time also have simple options for when we just want to kick back and do something simple.”

That simplicity, Crawford said, may be a pet peeve of the kind of highly motivated, highly engaged players who fill out surveys for Wizards of the Coast. But new players and casual players love it, and so it’s just as important to keep the Champion subclass around as it is to create the next Artificer.

Revised versions of the three Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks — including the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual — are said to be rolling out throughout 2024. You can read more about what’s expected inside each of them in our feature story. Expect more from our conversation with Jeremy Crawford throughout the week as we continue to celebrate Gen Con.

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