The designers of D&D Next announced several audacious design goals for that iteration of the game. Next is built as a modular system, where players can choose lightweight or heavyweight approaches to the game. I could play a character with simple, First Edition-era stats, while the player next to me could play a crunchier, Third Edition-style character.
To my knowledge, no role-playing system has done this before. I can’t even think of a game that does this.
If D&D Next accomplishes this, it stands to establish a new paradigm in role-playing design. Writers throw the term “paradigm” around a lot, but I think it’s apt here.
Right now, designers insist that they design for a certain play style. If you don’t want that play style, play another game. Fair enough.
With Next-style design, designers will be able to cater to a wider variety of play styles than they do now. Each game will still focus on a certain genre or story type, of course, but a game could cater to experienced and inexperienced players in the same game. Those who prefer seat-of-the-pants improv storytelling could play with simulationists and Munchkins.
D&D‘s stature makes this possible. As popular as Pathfinder may be, Dungeons & Dragons is still the game most non-gamers think of when they think of tabletop role-playing, and even players who’ve moved on from D&D still confess to carrying soft spots for the game. Its mechanics spark the biggest debates and its direction is watched most closely than that of other games.
So, download a playtest packet and read through it. It’s a beta, of course, so approach it with that in mind. And wonder at what’s possible.