Wednesday, 27 July 2016

5e's Unearthed Arcana - My Thoughts

So, in an effort to stave off the splat-treadmill of 3rd edition D&D (a tradition still alive in Paizo's ridiculous amount of books for sale and more on the horizon), WotC has been keeping releases to a minimum - one Adventure Path every 6 months or so, and so far only a single actual sourcebook.

There's also the fact that the D&D team has been downsized dramatically - leading to a lack of people to work on new products.

This lack of "official" content has led to an interesting experiment - the "Unearthed Arcana" articles posted monthly. These are short little documents detailing a variety of new rules - new races, class options, some hints to help set a 5e game in a classic setting, or in-depth looks at alternatives for current rules. These are all marked as "early" content - they might not be fully balanced, might show up in a different form in later books. As they say in the intro, "they're written in pencil, not ink." But they do what they set out to do pretty well - give some examples of how to adapt content, and to encourage others to try and make their own content.

Indeed, one can see the recent launch of the DM's Guild as a way to have their cake and eat it. The service allows users to post their own homebrewed ideas, and even get charge for it! Players now have all the content they could want, without having to use vital resources or to stretch their staff even thinner.

But let's focus on the Unearthed Arcana articles. Are they good for the game?

Well, yes and no.

For the good; it's a nice way of releasing small loads of content to fans, while keeping it all optional - if its not in a book, GMs don't necessarily feel forced to include it in their campaigns. It also allows the GMs who want a little more of an example how to alter existing material, to give an unofficial "okay" to those who want to homebrew content. (Of course, this aspect has been supplanted by the DM's Guild). It's also nice to see some love for setting that have't been fully updated yet (the Eberron and Dragonlance mini-bits were surprisingly decent), and lets WotC gauge interest in what content to release next. It's a nice way to maintain interaction with the community, especially now that the Wizards forums have been removed.

But, we come to the bad.

First off, the actual content of these articles varies... wildly. From the awesomely in-depth look at Feats, which picks apart what makes a good Feat and why they only included a few in the core rules, to the most recent - a series of tables to quickly roll up a character. Which honestly takes about as much time as just... making a character. While this is to be expected of what amounts to random doodles from the developers, it does mean that a decent amount of the material released is not going to be any use to your audience - and that's pretty crap when it's the only extra material they get.

Second, it can have something of the opposite effect to what was stated above - instead of encouraging people to go ahead and make their own stuff, people coming from more restrictive systems find themselves having to use these articles as a source of extra options - after all, it comes straight from the developer's pen, so it must be official (wording to the contrary be damned).

And thirdly for the bad stuff - why haven't they done a Dark Sun one yet, dammit!?

All in all, it's an interesting experiment, combining standard practices with the random releases of a developer's blog. I'd like to see more companies follow suit, but a little more creative control wouldn't go amiss.

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