Memory and Longevity: The Failings of WotC

Intro

I have, over the last few months, gone to great lengths discussing the ramifications of having long-lived races in our DnD settings. I’ve discussed how the length of their lifespans influences the cultures they develop. I’ve discussed how to reconcile those different lifespans and cultures into a single cohesive campaign world that doesn’t buckle under pressure. I’ve discussed how those things all combine to create interesting roleplay opportunities for our characters.

I’ve written in total 6 pieces on the subject, covering each of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, Half-Elves and ‘Anomalies’. In all of this I have taken the unifying concept of the limitation of memory and used it as a way to both allow these long-lived races to still make sense to our Human perspective of time and also lessen the strain these long lifespans place on worldbuilding for those GMs making homebrewed settings.

If I can do it, why can’t WotC?

By Now I’m Sure You Know

You’re reading this, I hope, because you’ve read the recent ‘Creature Evolutions’ article written by Jeremy Crawford. It has a number of changes to how creature statblocks are handled, many of which I agree with. There was, however, one choice line that truly rubbed me the wrong way.

“The typical life span of a player character in the D&D multiverse is about a century, assuming the character doesn’t meet a violent end on an adventure. Members of some races, such as dwarves and elves, can live for centuries.”

This is such an egregious cop-out I almost can’t put it into words. I’ll try though…

The ‘Simplicity’ Defence

One could fairly argue that this simplifies the whole situation and therefore achieves the same thing worldbuilding-wise in one short paragraph that I’ve achieved through some 15,000 words. They’ve made the timescale on which the majority of characters exist more Intuitable and approachable for the human player and GM.

The trouble is, ‘simple’ does not equal ‘better’. This approach by WotC does the same thing that my approach does by homogenising the majority of races, not by reconciling their differences.

If there’s one thing I’ve sought to highlight across the ‘Memory and Longevity’ series it’s the uniqueness of each race’s lived experience and, more importantly, the roleplay opportunities provided by that uniqueness. By homogenising, DnD loses those unique opportunities.

Defining age is maybe one of the simplest things to do in a sourcebook. You pick the age range and bam, you’re done. The approach taken instead by WotC does not strike me as simplicity, it strikes me a laziness. Rather than creating a suite of highly unique, well-defined races they have chosen to put the entire burden of creating uniqueness on the player.

The ‘Creativity’ Defence

Another immediate reaction to this change is to claim it allows for greater flexibility in character creation, and on the surface that argument seems to hold some merit. You’re now no longer bound by the pre-ordained restrictions on your age. If you want to play a Kobold but don’t want to have to play such a short-lived character then now you can just have them live as long as a Human.

I have about a half-dozen rebuttals to this idea of flexibility. Let’s start with the simplest:

Restrictions breed creativity. This is such a well-known maxim that it’s a shock that it bears repeating. The lack of restrictions provides freedom, which may potentially increase creativity, but it does not inherently guarantee increased creativity.

Why do you want to play these races if you don’t want to engage in the unique roleplay experience offered by their lifespans? If you want to play a Kobold for the culture they come from but don’t want to have to deal with the short lifespan then why not come up with a different approach? Perhaps there is a community of Dragonborn that are culturally similar to Kobolds.

And the real zinger, you were never truly bound by the RAW age restrictions anyway. One of my pieces in the ‘Memory and Longevity’ series specifically talks about individuals who are anomalously short or long-lived compared to their racial average. I even expressly say many such individuals make for great adventuring PCs. If you wanted to play a long-lived Kobold you already could.

So who exactly is this helping make more creative? I daresay the people who find this approach better enables their creativity weren’t actually that creative in the first place.

The ‘Approachability’ Defence

Another way you can justify WotC’s approach is that they’ve made the whole game more approachable for new players. They now have one less thing to worry about when it comes to character creation. There’s no more trouble of having a new player wanting to play a 100-year-old Halfling having to figure out what exactly they’ve been doing these last hundred years before becoming an adventurer.

This makes (flimsy) sense on the surface. They’ve removed a complication extant in character creation and have thus made the game more approachable. The problem is this thought holds up to little scrutiny. What’s happened here is WotC have stripped out the guidelines on age. By stripping out the guideline the burden is now entirely on the player to work out things like age, what it means to be old, what a society that lives to 200 operates like, etc.

They’ve substituted their own work for player work.

Which Is Bullshit Because…

Any GM who’s purchased any one of a number of recent releases has probably been stunned by how much extra work you as a GM have to put in to make these things run properly. WotC keep stripping out more and more under the guise of ‘simplicity’.

So now what happens is you spend a bunch of money to buy a new adventure book or setting guide, paying the full sum because a company paid people to work on the book, then having to do a ton of work yourself. In fact you have to do more work now than ever before! Has the price of the books dropped to reflect this? No, not a goddamn cent.

I am, after this announcement, firmly of the opinion that WotC is now doing for player-oriented content what it has been doing to GM-oriented content for the last few years. They are stripping it back, publishing lazy design work, taking full price, and forcing you to make up the difference in labour.

There is a point where we must accept that this has nothing to do with a game model and everything to do with a business model. 5e has been an incredibly successful TTRPG. The most successful ever, in fact. It’s accomplished that mostly through approachability and streamlining a whole bunch of systems. This has worked phenomenally, but now they seem hell-bent on increasing the simplification under the false assumption that it will somehow further broaden the game’s appeal.

In the end, the consumer loses. Those who play 5e for what it is are having to work harder and harder to keep playing the game the way they like (Read: ‘the way it was originally released’). I’m of no doubt that if this continues the mass consumer base they are desperately trying to appeal to will instead abandon them for more bespoke systems that aren’t constantly chasing ‘lowest common denominator’ design.

Nerd Rage

Maybe I shouldn’t complain. The way I see it, the more WotC keeps stripping this depth and complexity out the more valuable my own 3rd party content becomes as I seek to broaden and explore the depth and complexity of the system. Those that want 5e to be a certain way will simply go elsewhere to find it. People like me are ‘elsewhere’.

We all know that’s a hollow sentiment though. I should complain, because this is essentially anti-consumer. It may only be mild, but we started complaining about these sorts of changes when they began appearing a few years ago and the trend has only continued.

But then maybe I’m just catastrophising. No doubt some people reading this will just feel I’m getting too vitriolic about something relatively minor. All I ask is that those same people consider what the line is for them. What would WotC have to change to make you unhappy with the product? What business practice would they have to enact to make you question why you give them money? Obviously there’s the big ones like ‘racism’, ‘child labour’, ‘sexual harassment culture’, etc. Sometimes though we don’t stop going to a cafe because they’re racist, we just stop going because the coffee doesn’t taste as good as it did. How does the coffee taste to you now, and how bad would it have to taste before you go elsewhere? For me it’s not undrinkable, but it’s definitely not as good as it was…

Conclusion

I would say vote with your wallet, but really why should I tell you how to spend your money? All I can say is that the TTRPG market is bigger than ever before and that’s a great thing, because it means when massive companies like WotC make decisions like these there is still enough space left in the market for every alternative under the sun. If you want to buy 5e stuff then supplement it with 3rd party content then go hard. If you want to ditch it entirely for another system then by all means do so. If you want to stick with it regardless of changes then absolutely do that.

All I ask is that whatever decision you make, take the time to consider why you’re making that decision. We play this game for fun, so make sure whatever it is you’re doing as a consumer is the thing that will best facilitate your fun. Make sure the coffee still tastes good.

Thanks for reading.

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