Publishing a new, unofficial edition of D&D is a bold action, even more so if this edition is labeled "Ultimate". It's quite hubristic, really.
But it must be done.
From its inception, the game has aimed to capture the feeling of literary masterpieces of the fantasy genre such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook makes this explicit by even including a list of such works at the end.
And yet the game has spectacularly failed to capture the most epic of the scenes depicted in those novels.
Because ask yourselves for a second: Which are the epicest of the scenes? Aren't they the grand war scenes? And aren't they the grand political maneuvers and plotlines? Even when the author zooms in to the lives of individual characters, their triumphs and tragedies still revolve around, and are often precipitated by, these events that are far larger than the individual.
Granted, Robert Howard's Conan was also a huge influence, and his stories are at a much smaller scale. He doesn't even have a party. But even he became a king at the end.
Grand politics is simply where all fantasy ends up when it turns the epic meter to the max, and grand politics entails STRATEGY: the construction and administration of empires and armies. And it is precisely here that D&D has made almost no progress at all since its inception in 1974. If we consider only the material involved in the core games, i.e. the Player's Handbooks, their authors haven't even made an ATTEMPT to introduce strategy. They've been happily dicking around—pardon my French, but the occasion merits it—with hit points and armor classes for 46 years—i.e. with squad-level tactics—but in terms of strategy nada. The official settings and adventures are rife with kings and kingdoms and their conflicts and dealings, but what good does that do when the players are given no RULES on how to resolve those, let alone rules on how to build their own kingdoms from scratch and become kings themselves? Rules, after all, are what distinguish daydreaming from gaming; role-playing from improv theatre. D&D is NOT theatre, it is a GAME, and therefore requires RULES in order to be played. D&D is rife with rules on squad-level tactics, and quite a few that govern role-playing (that diplomacy or perception check you often make is precisely that), but when it comes to any aspect of strategy, the game is mum. And even in regards to many role-playing aspects, such as seduction, procreation, and therefore kinship and succession—which are so pivotal in epic fantasy stories, not to mention world history—the game has nothing either. Why bother role-playing a seduction scene, when it confers no mechanical benefit and has no impact in the game at all? Why bother writing it in an official adventure? And that's why no one bothers writing them and role-playing them.
Now I will be told that supplements to the game that introduce some strategy elements exist. And that is true. The old 1E BATTLESYSTEM rules, the 2E Birthright setting, and the PF1 Ultimate Campaign rulebook provide a decent starting framework for playing large battles or creating and administering kingdoms. A handful of adventures such as Pathfinder's Kingmaker also include certain strategic elements.
Yet none of that stuff is incorporated into the core game, and this has had a tremendously negative impact on these rules' complexity, for these rules are nowhere near as complex as the squad-level tactics found in the latest editions of the games (not to mention there are practically no adventures that use them, precisely because they aren't in the core books). For cryin' out loud, way more effort is expended on determining what happens if you sneeze in battle in PF1 than in how to run your kingdom in the Ultimate Campaign book. And as for a king's NUMBER 1 concern—succession and the continuation of his bloodline (which whole literary masterpieces in the fantasy genre revolve around, not to mention whole chapters of real-world history)—all those supplements have nothing to say PRECISELY BECAUSE THEY ARE MERE SUPPLEMENTS. The writers of the core rules have never been forced to view the line from private individual to national ruler in its entirety, hence they've never had the opportunity to notice the gaping holes in their game's coverage of this continuum, and thus be inspired to fix them.
Ultimate Edition is the first D&D game and role-playing game to address and fix all those issues. In UE, your whole journey from peasant or barbarian teenager to king and even beyond (all the way to mythic ghost-dragon king, believe it or not, and why not even to god?) is covered by a fabulously deep and deeply intertwined rule system. And even beyond a single character's journey, the revolutionary bloodline mechanics power the strategy dimension in a satisfyingly deep and realistic manner, with the BLOODLINE's strength becoming the measure of player achievement, as opposed to the power of individual characters. Nothing else that's ever been written about D&D, let alone any other RPG (all of which are massively inferior to D&D, fyi—they don't call it the world's greatest role-playing game for nothing), comes close. This really is the Ultimate role-playing game, even more so when you realize that we're linking contemporary and sci-fi rule systems and settings too via our groundbreaking unlocking mechanics.
Timothy Brown framed it brilliantly in his introduction to his 1992 Dragon Kings rules supplement for the Dark Sun setting, and I must quote him here in full, because his words should be required reading for everyone aiming to write RPG rules, and certainly D&D ones:
First, Dragon Kings lets characters advance as high as 30th level in all classes. They get wondrous new abilities, possibly even new bodies, when they reach such heights of experience. We originated all these concepts early on in the design of the DARK SUN universe, but we kept them out of the original rules for two reasons. First, they wouldn't all fit. Second, we didn't want to give away the secrets revealed in the first DARK SUN novel, The Verdant Passage. (If you haven't read the novel yet, be warned that this book spoils its surprises!)
The second, less obvious reason to present rules for the highest-level characters is rooted in overall campaign development. I'm a firm believer that the macro-forces of a campaign world should set the tone for even the lowliest adventures—sort of a "trickle-down" theory, if you will. In a science-fiction world, the ambitions of powerful corporations, star-spanning empires, and malevolent alien races set the stage for adventure. In the DARK SUN world, the sorcerer-kings, advanced beings, and other powerful characters set the tone. Characters beyond 20th level are the movers and shakers of Athas—their every move leaves a wake of adventure possibilities. To present a plausible DARK SUN campaign, a DM must understand that world's most influential NPCs and their incredible powers.
Why more powerful magic? Well, why not! Massive spells can help drive a campaign just as easily as powerful characters. I think of fantasy novels I've read that are centered on the casting of a single, incredible magical spell, one that takes years to prepare and wipes out entire cities or nations. Whole adventures can revolve around casting such magic or preventing its casting.
The existing 9th-level AD&D game wizard spells do the same old stuff, just bigger and better: They protect the wizard from being killed by a bigger monster. To me, it's just not epic. Casting a spell that erases a mountain range—now that's magic!
Do I expect lots of DARK SUN campaigns to become high-level campaigns? Do I want player characters unleashing 10th-level spells at one another as soon as they open this book?
No. But I do expect players to have something more to strive for, and I expect DMs to have everything they need to evolve a complete array of powerful NPCs for their little corner of Athas.
Obviously, use of player characters who have advanced beyond 20th level dictates a somewhat different role-playing style. These characters are usually people of great reputation who have many fantastic accomplishments to their credit and can challenge any foe or situation. More mundane adventures, such as searching for small treasures or taking jobs as mercenaries, become less important to the mega-characters. Their attentions should instead turn to more city- or region-sweeping epics, such as the search for lost ancient civilizations, struggles between large armies or nations, or quests for lost magical knowledge that can win a throne! Encourage high-level characters to use their talents toward lofty ends—what's the point of advancing to 25th level if all you're going to do is pen scrolls all day?
Note, though, that in the DARK SUN world, no one gains fantastic levels anonymously. In the FORGOTTEN REALMS campaign setting, a wizard might go from 20th to 30th level and hardly be noticed by the general populace, but I wanted something different for Athas.
No DARK SUN world character can escape the consequences of superior experience. With the exception of the rogues, high-level characters become victims of their own success. Fighters find themselves heading huge armies, like it or not. Fledgling dragons and avangions have nothing but enemies, and psionicists must either join an exclusive organization or be hunted by it. In terms of game balance, is this fair? Given that each class has unique advantages, it all evens out in the end. And if not, well, nothing on Athas is particularly fair!
As you can see, Brown, and the Dark Sun project in general, were way ahead of the curve here, possibly only rivaled by the Planescape project launched a couple years later. And that's why both of them failed commercially, and were quickly discontinued. Elsewhere in my works I have analyzed the normal distribution of videogame and art genres in general [ > ], and shown that the most complex genres and works, which are therefore also the best, will of their nature appeal to a smaller audience and hence be commercial failures; and the better they are, the greater failures they will be simply due to the nature of the curve. It's math, there's no arguing with it, as long as you can understand math. Well the same thing happened with D&D campaign settings, and that's why the two greatest such settings ever have been out of print for years or even decades. And that's also why the most popular settings, the Forgotten Realms and Pathfinder, are generic fantasy worlds. They are SOLID, GOOD worlds, and vastly superior to any "homebrew" piece-of-shit retarded setting that your current DM is running; but they pale in comparison to the evocative power of the Dark Sun and Planescape settings (and even to Ravenloft, which falls somewhere between the two extremes of mass popularity and niche obscurity in the curve, and hence repeatedly dies only to later rise from the grave again for a short while with each edition, hilariously enough, considering its theme).
Bottom line is that, from a grand perspective, all previous editions of D&D are essentially equivalent, and I can demonstrate this very easily. When any given decently-smart player would much rather play through The Dragonlance Saga or Curse of Strahd or The Avatar Trilogy with FIRST EDITION RULES, or EVEN WITH THE BASIC D&D RULES FOR CHILDREN than a shitty DM homebrew campaign with the deepest rules you have (Pathfinder 1st Edition, currently), that says a lot about your rule system. It says your rule system kinda sucks, because in the grand scheme of things it's kinda irrelevant. It is UTTERLY IRRELEVANT whether your sword does 1d10 or 1d8+2 damage, compared to the importance of the quality of the adventure that is running on that system. But in Ultimate Edition, that is not quite so. The vast complexity of the additions that turn the game essentially into a multi-party versus 4X game of insane depth are such that, even if the individual adventures being run kinda sucked, the game would still be insane fun. Of course, the adventures won't suck, because we'll be running almost entirely official ones, but I am just sayin'. It is time someone pointed out that the progress made from basic D&D to PF1 is nowhere near as great as people think (and let's not even mention 4E or 5E, which retrogress).
On top of all the above considerations, a seismic shift is currently occurring in the role-playing industry that all the rules-writers and rulebooks have missed. Everyone's still writing rules as if it's 1991, all the while the tabletop games that we've known and loved for decades are gradually evolving to full-blown videogames as more and more aspects of them are digitized and enriched with an array of special effects, like the silent black-and-white films of the late-1800s are finally becoming CG-only Marvel masterpieces that turn comic books into films. A similar but far more complex and comprehensive process is underway and in full swing currently in the role-playing artform, and in my Role-playing Culture essay I analyze it in exhaustive detail. We're on the verge of creating A NEW TYPE OF ARTIST: the live movie director and the associated live cinema artform, which is really a genre of videogame, since all artforms are genres of videogames at the end of the day, as I've already explained at length in my landmark 2014 essay On Set Theory and the Bastardization Process. What the entire industry is therefore missing above all, is the impact of TECHNOLOGY on the games we have loved for so long, not merely in the RUNNING of these games, but above all in their DESIGN. I see NO RPG DESIGNER who seems to realize that we need A NEW KIND OF RPG to take advantage of all these incredibly powerful tools that hardware and software engineers are putting into our hands. People are brainlessly streaming their ugly faces on Twitch all over their D&D campaigns as if anyone buys an RPG book and spends months learning hundreds of pages of rules to have a middle-aged bald dude's face staring at him the entire session. People are stupid enough to praise IN-PERSON gaming over VTTs when, in this day and age, if a bunch of people showed up at my home to play D&D, I'd stick each of them in a different room with a laptop, even in the bathroom if need be. And that's still just talking about the RUNNING of the game, as opposed to its DESIGN. Because insane worldbuilding tools such as World Anvil are now allowing us to incorporate videogame-style overworlds into our campaigns, so that players can freely travel across them exactly as in a videogame, as opposed to being blindly led around by the nose by the DM as usual. Don't we need some new rules to fully exploit all these new tools? I sure as hell think we do, and I think it's a disgrace that new systems like PF2, 5E and Starfinder are mum on the subject. It's even a disgrace that they don't advise you to ditch books and let VTTs handle the math. Not to speak of actual dice, or physical miniatures and battle-mats! Is this the 1970s still or what?! Put that shit on your shelf as decoration, but keep it away from my game, because it has no place in a modern RPG session.
Or how about the fact that, now that VTTs take care of table limitations and clutter, not to mention time-consuming calculations, we can finally run groups of more than six players without bogging down the game, not to speak of multiple groups in the same world, all the while our modern rule systems and adventures are going THE OPPOSITE WAY, with Pathfinder, the premier system today, reducing the recommended party size from the traditional six to four. Have you any idea how much this dumbs down the tactics and impoverishes the role-playing? And have you any idea how much these tactics and this role-playing—not to mention the brand-new strategy dimension!—could be enriched by employing much larger groups, and even multiple groups, in a single world and mega-campaign?
So as the reader will soon understand, every aspect of Ultimate Edition is deeply intertwined with the latest digital hardware and software techniques, and is UNTHINKABLE WITHOUT THEM. D&D Ultimate Edition employs half a dozen programs at last count, and will be employing more and more of them as time goes on, and of an increasing complexity. Ultimate Edition is therefore NOT a pen-and-paper game, it is NOT a tabletop game. Those days are far behind us, because our goal with RPGs is maximal immersion, as it is with all art. (And yes, RPGs are art, just like board games, but architecture isn't. If you want to understand why, read my Genealogy of "Art Games"; it's all explained there in more detail than most people can grasp.)
In short, RPGs are becoming videogames, and that, for the first time in history, is a good thing, because it is only now that we possess the software to do it justice, and this software isn't Larian's or Obsidian's or inXile's shallow engines, but TaleSpire and Syrinscape and World Anvil, and many more besides. It therefore makes perfect sense that the world's premier videogame theorist and critic—who unlike most every other videogame expert, also happened to roll some dice in his youth—will be the one to fuse all these tools together with traditional RPG rules, and create the ultimate rule system. RPG designers were bound to be hopeless in this because they simply lack the strong grounding in videogames, just like videogame designers are hopeless, because they think Pokemon and Final Fantasy are RPGs (or they think Larian games have good plots and rules and reactivity). I've grown hoarse shouting at videogamers for decades that hit points don't make a game an RPG, but they don't care, anymore than the typical douchebag DM who can't be bothered to read ten pages and just makes shit up while leading his players by the nose around for years on end won't care, and fuck all of them. They are all happy brainlessly making numbers go up in JRPGs, or blindly following the whims of their douchebag DM, so whatever. There's no known cure for low T and low IQ, so it's not worth worrying about it, as long as you realize that the game I am creating and running, D&D Ultimate Edition, is the absolute cutting-edgiest that is possible in the genre, and will therefore be wildly unpopular as written (i.e. without being dumbed down for the masses, as I am sure it will be some day).
Will there be an Ultimate Edition 2nd Edition? No. We'll be trailblazers in that respect too, by taking full advantage of a little thing that RPG designers have also missed, called THE INTERNET, and just publish the books in forum-form, and constantly update them. It's next-level stuff, what can I tell you, you have to be a genius to figure it out. So the latest rules we're using will be found near the bottom of the corresponding thread-chapter, and new thread-chapters will be added to the official UE forum [ > ] as needed. If you don't have the time to keep up with the forum, keep an eye on the Battlegrounds frontpage, where the threads will be regularly arranged in a book-style contents format, for easier access. Eventually I'll get around to updating the OPs with bullet-point breakdowns of the latest rules for easy access, and that will be the official latest revision of Ultimate Edition. The rest of you, who'll try to adopt these rules for your own worlds, can do whatever the fuck you want there, I don't care. Most of you will probably fuck this up because you are probably lazy douches, as most DMs are. And this ruleset would be tough to implement properly even if you aren't a douche. Ultimate Edition is not for lazy people, or low-IQ people, or douchey people (which groups have tremendous overlap, btw). And no, this isn't your standard Player's Handbook where the author loves every player and wants to see all of them hold hands and sing kumbaya. Go fuck yourself if you're a douche. The world would be a better place without you (though granted a less funny one, so I guess we do need at least some of you around). So obviously this ruleset won't be picked up by Wizards or Paizo for official publicaton, but I don't give a fuck. As long as I can play my game with my friends, I am sorted, and the rest of you can go paste your ugly mugs all over Twitch and cringeily overact all day long if you like.
Now I got lots of work to do, so I gotta scram. This has been fun. If anyone who reads this now or in the future is interested in joining us, we're currently 3 groups with 15 players and 2 DMs, and the sign-up page for our world and game isn't far [ > ].
icycalm over, and out.