Shawn Merwin raised an interesting point today in his Critical Hits blog, "How the Internet Changed a Game." I'd like to expand on it a bit.
D&D Next has set itself two noteworthy goals. The first is to offer something to fans of every D&D edition and get them all to sit down at the same table in one big Dungeons & Dragons inn. The second is to harness the power of fandom and the internet to help build that inn, through public playtesting and open feedback.
Both of those goals are challenging. The first is ultimately the responsibility of the very capable design team. The second places enormous power in the hands of a collective with the capacity to be energetic, enthusiastic, and effective -- but also vindictive, vicious, and downright malicious.
In the months leading up to 4E's release, online forums lit up like a Ukrainian geiger counter with hate for the concept, the art, the cosmology -- for anything new at all, in some cases. Those reactions were met by counter-hate against the haters, and Edition War III was on. (Depending on how you count them, I suppose.) Once the core books were published, the situation only got worse.
It’s fair to say that WotC did a poor job of managing expectations, reactions, and the raging arguments that erupted. But that failure didn't cause the problem. The great irony in the current divided state of D&D fandom is that while WotC created a schism with 4E, as every new edition of D&D inevitably does, it was overzealous, overreacting fans who turned that schism into a religious war complete with fanatics sworn to persecute and destroy the infidels. The validity of someone's opinion doesn't seem to matter; if you can't win an argument with facts, then you can at least drive away your opponents by being louder, more vehement, and more obnoxious.
Most grownups manage their disappointment without spitting on strangers and spray-painting hate onto public buildings. Away from the internet, that type of reaction is considered sociopathic. On the internet, it's commonplace, almost accepted.
As noted above, more than a little responsibility for the fractured state of D&D fandom can be laid at WotC’s doorstep, but the edition warriors can’t duck their share of the blame. To let them do so allows the same sort of dishonesty that lets the wife beater claim “she made me hit her.” No one stood to gain by turning the D&D community against itself; everyone had something to lose, including the people who stirred the pot with the biggest spoons.
Where does that leave us? With this: The next iteration of D&D has given itself the goal of reuniting as many players as possible in the town inn, regardless of whether their currently preferred edition is 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, original, B/X, Pathfinder, or one of the many old-school retro-clones. D&D Next is not going to appeal to everyone, and plenty of people will stick with whichever previous version they know and love. But wouldn't it be grand if those who don’t come to the reunion would at least adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who do and refrain from actively seeking to burn down the inn?