5E: Learning to Expand

One of the things that 5E has done that’s really helped to convince me that Wizards have turned a corner with their management of Dungeons & Dragons is to slow down the pace at which products are churned out for the tabletop game. To keep up with 3.X and 4E often required matching pace with a rapid release schedule; even if you wanted to go “core only”, in 4E you kind of had to pay attention to the regularly released errata, particularly if you were using D&D Insider to produce characters (and many cite DDI as an essential component of the 4E era), because of course the errata would be applied to the online character generator in turn. By easing off on the pace of releases, Wizards have been able to make sure the barrier to entry isn’t allowed to escalate and provide a stable platform for the development of videogames like Sword Coast Adventures.

At the same time, if Wizards never bring out new material for 5E, they pretty much lose our custom after we’ve bought the core books, particularly if we are not interested in the published adventures put out for the game. So far they’ve come up with three distinct channels for expanding the game, only one of which is not available for free.

The Website

Expansion material on the Wizards website has taken two forms, both of which are inspired by the game’s long history. Sage Advice started out decades ago as the system questions-and-answers section in Dragon magazine, and has been brought back on the website to provide helpful guidance on areas of the rules people are confused about. Helpfully, Wizards have been compiling the columns in a regularly-updated PDF, so those that find the Sage’s advice reassuring can have it in one convenient, searchable file. Personally, I have few qualms about making rulings about such things on the spot and pressing on, but I can see how such clarifications can be necessary in an organised play context or be helpful to new players, and the 5E incarnation of the Sage shows an admirably light touch and a willingness to say “Hey, it’s your game, the rule is intended to work like X but if you prefer to work it like Y you won’t wreck anything”.

The other component of the website offerings is Unearthed Arcana. The original UA consisted of a hardback of updates and new rules for 1E, rushed out by Gary Gygax in a bid to put TSR’s fortunes back on track. The 5E incarnation riffs on the original’s reputation for incorporating material that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, or which hadn’t been rigorously playtested; it offers up snippets of rules that are currently undergoing development but which are explicitly not ready for prime time and aren’t necessarily suitable for all campaigns. These have included treats like the much-requested nonmagical ranger variant, early drafts at converting some Eberron material to 5E, and a first pass at putting together a psionics system for 5E – this last having already been cited as a necessary prerequisite for putting out a 5E take on Dark Sun. These Unearthed Arcana articles are exactly the sort of mixed bag you would expect from the concept, but they are clearly and loudly labelled as such and it’s nice to see that the development team are still keen on doing wide playtesting of new ideas and working on interesting stuff in the background.

Player’s Companion

This expansion – including a bunch of elemental-themed options and spells (including honest to goodness aarakocra stats) – is explicitly branded to tie into the Elemental Evil storyline, right down to including the Elemental Evil name on the front cover and using art that has also heavily featured in the website material promoting the storyline. The idea seems to be to provide material that thematically ties in neatly with Princes of the Apocalypse – the published home campaign for the Elemental Evil storyline – as well as the relevant Adventurer’s League adventures, but without tying it so closely to that story that you can’t use the stuff in here in your average home campaign.

At the same time, it’s very much a Player’s Companion. There’s not much setting material or DM-side stuff here, and it’s also so tightly themed that it’s quite brief – you can download it as a free PDF or get a hardcopy printed through DriveThruRPG for a nominal cost. It’s a nice present to the fanbase, but it’s not really something that can actually boost the game line’s revenue.

Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

This is basically the core 5E setting book for the Forgotten Realms, offering up a general overview of the continent of Faerun and a really complete guide to the gods of the Realms, along with a brief history. Still, as the title implies it’s the Sword Coast that gets the most attention here, from Icewind Dale in the north all the way down to Baldur’s Gate.

This, frankly, is just plain smart. The Sword Coast is the setting of all the adventures released officially for 5E so far, so those who have been keeping up with that in their home campaigns or through organised play will already have fond memories of it, and it’s also where the most fondly-remembered Forgotten Realms videogames took place – Icewind Dale and Baldur’s Gate, obviously, but also Neverwinter Nights, Eye of the Beholder, and Curse of the Azure Bonds. Putting all of the Realms under a similarly detailed microscope would result in a fat and expensive book, but this way Wizards are able to give a detailed overview of the part of the Realms which is arguably the most famous and popular whilst giving enough details about other lands that even if they never put out another regional sourcebook you’ll still be able o run games in them.

The regional details are given as in-character travelogues rather than OOC statements of fact, because unlike previous presentations of the setting this is meant to be a player-facing book and the DM is explicitly encouraged to dream up their own answers to mysteries in the text. On top of that, much of the book is system-neutral, making it useful for fans of prior editions who want to stay current with the setting lore but don’t want to use 5E.

Perhaps the most welcome surprise of all is how little mention there is of the more overpowered and overused NPCs of the setting; though Drizzt and Elminster are mentioned in the introduction, they’re almost entirely absent from the rest of the text. A lot has been made of how the changes to the setting made in the Guide seem mostly intended to roll back the unpopular changes made during the 4E era, but in terms of the book’s philosophy the writers seem to have gone back way further to try and recapture the “this is your Forgotten Realms, canon be damned!” approach that fans prize in the setting’s earliest products. This is despite the fact that Wizards have continued to knock out Drizzt and Elminster novels from RA Salvatore and Ed Greenwood at a merry pace. To be honest, I don’t mind Drizzt and Elminster as characters in books, because it isn’t really reasonable to expect Wizards to publish Realms novels with INSERT YOUR PC HERE written whenever the protagonist’s name is mentioned; by definition, any novels set in a game line must present protagonists who end up solving problems that PCs in a tabletop game ought to be solving themselves, and evidently Drizzt and Elminster still have fanbases enthusiastic enough to justify making them the characters in question; at the same time, Wizards seem to have realised that the less their presence is felt in the tabletop product, the better you undermine the old perception that Forgotten Realms is overly dominated by superpowered NPCs and the more space you leave for people to hang their own ideas off the adventure hooks proffered.

As far as system bits go, the chapter offering these is brief but flavourful, and the designers show a fair degree of restraint in how they implement stuff – in particular, they don’t feel obligated to completely stat out Realms-specific racial variants or subclasses if a perfectly serviceable type is already available in the Player’s Handbook. Neatly, they also include an appendix with advice on how the new subclasses and so on could be incorporated into homebrew worlds or other D&D campaign worlds, including Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Eberron. If Wizards ever get around to adapting those worlds to 5E (which seems likelier for Eberron, which apparently is in the top tier as far as setting popularity goes these days, than second-tier worlds like Greyhawk or Dragonlance), these sections might feel a little redundant next to the more world-specific material put out for the settings, but if they don’t this is a nice courtesy and it doesn’t take up too much space.

One notable thing about the supplement is that, like the adventures preceding it, it wasn’t written in-house by Wizards but done on commission by a third party – in this case Green Ronin. Wizards are obviously keen to maintain good relations with third party developers in the 5E era, going so far as to print an advert for a whole heap of non-D&D Green Ronin products at the back of the book, and I suspect engagement with third parties will be how Wizards manages to bring back some of the less popular settings – simply by licencing them out with correspondingly more financial risk and responsibility for printing on the shoulders of the licensees the more niche the setting is.

If the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is anything to go by, 5E is going to be a markedly easier game to keep up with than 3.X or 4E, with the supplement firmly steering away from extra crunch for the sake of it and aiming for quality over quantity in the system additions it does make, with an emphasis on providing appropriate additional options within the existing framework of the game rather than bending or breaking that framework altogether. This could well prove to be a sustainable model for a more evergreen edition of the game, which is fine by me.

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