GENCON: The First Inagural Keynote Address

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With Gen Con celebrating its 45th year, the organizers saw fit to address the D&D gaming faithful with GenCon’s first inaugural keynote address. The focus? The ballyhooed development of the next edition of D&D: D&D Next.

Those willing to brave a change of venue and a brief trek underneath Indianapolis’s stormy skies were greeted by a fog-filled ballroom adorned with life-size halfing and owlbear cardboard cutouts, as the soothing sounds of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin wafted through the air.

The address opened with an introduction by Gen Con owner (and former WOTC CEO) Scott Adkison, who welcomed the attendees before handing the microphone to current Wizards of the Coast CEO Greg Leeds. Following his brief speech, the meat of the program got underway, in the form of a panel moderated by Kevin “Piratecat” Kulp of EN World. The panel consisted of Mike Mearls (Senior Manager for D&D Research and Design), John Schindehette (Senior Art Director for D&D), and Ed Greenwood (creator of the Forgotten Realms setting and D&D novelist).

The panel’s focus was on the progress of D&D Next, the presently in-development successor to the current 4th Edition system. The panelists reiterated WOTC’s commitment to incorporating play-testing and player feedback into the new system, trying to combine elements both old and new. Mearls spoke of “putting the rules behind us” in order to refocus D&D on the storytelling aspects, by providing a more modular system of rules that will allow DMs and players more flexibility in play. The panelists also spoke of bringing balance back to the game, although they were frustratingly vague on any specific problems with current or past systems.

The main takeaways from the addresses were:

- Player feedback from playtest sessions, as well as aesthetic reactions to art previews such as Dragon’s-Eye View on wizards.com, are immensely important to the development of D&D NExt.
- The development team is focusing first on the Forgotten Realms setting, feeling it necessary to fully and completely explore one setting before publishing another, in a way that has “never been seen before in D&D history.”
- The Forgotten Realms will undergo a major event known as “The Sundering,” which will be told in a six book series written by, in order, R. A. Salvatore, Paul S. Kemp, Erin M. Evans, Richard Lee Byers, Troy Denning, and Ed Greenwood, featuring familiar Forgotten Realms protagonists like Drizzt Do’Urden and Elminster.
- The “Sundering” event will be on par with the Time of Troubles event that marked the transition from 1st edition to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.
- In response to Kulp’s question about players in the Forgotten Realms setting feeling like their characters’ actions were overshadowed by the likes of Drizzt, Mearls stated that the setting would take off after the novel series’ end. Furthermore, WOTC will be releasing two adventures in 2013 which will allow player groups to submit the results of their playthrough. The results would be aggregated and incorporated into the canonical history of Forgotten Realms.
- By early 2013, WOTC is going to begin digitally rolling out supplements from all former settings and editions. It was indicated that this could take some time.
- The D&D Next development team has been revamping the way the four core classes (Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard) play, based on player feedback. Some examples given were making Rogues better at finding traps in spite of poor Wisdom scores, or boring Fighter play spiced up with expertise dice.
- Starting on Friday, the development team is rolling out playtest rules for the Warlock and Sorcerer classes, up to level 5. In the spirit of modularity, the team wants to incorporate both classic D&D fire-and-forget spell-casting with elements of the 4th Edition power system, as well as a magic points system.
- Lastly, Mearls stated that at the current rate, the development looked like a 2 year process at this point.

The overall tenor of the address was very chummy, with a repeated emphasis on how important the players are to D&D, and how WOTC wants to make this clear with the development of D&D Next. The speakers were enthusiastic about their progress on all fronts, from the rules to the art to the setting, but never quite addressed why D&D is indeed of an update beyond some vagaries about returning to basics. Just what that will mean does seem to be somewhat in the hands of the playerbase through the current open playtesting sytem.