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General A look at WotC and Paizo Product Lines (and their different approaches)

Mercurius

Legend
A few years ago I created a spreadsheet that included every official product (I think) produced for D&D by TSR and Wizards of the Coast going back to 1974, as well as Paizo's 3.5 and Pathfinder products (I used a variety of sources, but Echohawk's Collector's Guides were indispensable...unfortunately the seem to be no longer available?). My initial impetus was comparing the out-put of the different editions. I'm one of those people who find visual depictions more meaningful than numerical representation only. A couple weeks ago I dusted off the spreadsheet and updated it through 2020, and then made a new version--at least of 2000-20--that tried to differentiate products by size. More on that in a minute.

The updated charts, which are shared in this post and I'll explain in a moment, offer an interesting way to analyze D&D products. But they also brought up some interesting questions and observations, in particular two related ones that I'd like to explore:

How does Paizo do it?
As you can see in the charts, Paizo's output has been enormous and, if you count Starfinder--which I think one should, as it is essentially an expansion of the Pathfinder line--hasn't abated. Their output isn't quite at the levels of 2E, but is comparable to 3.x or 4E, and dwarfs 5E.

What I mean by "how do they do it?" is how is this sustainable? Now of course other editions of D&D, with much larger outputs than 5E, were sustained for years. 4E didn't end because of glut; it ended due to some combination of poor reception by the community and questionable handling by WotC. Now why 3.5 ended may have something to do with glut, as WotC produced a huge amount of material over its five-year span, covering a wide variety of themes, which led to diminishing returns and the then-believed "inevitable" necessity of a re-boot. And of course 2E is the prime example of "runaway glut"...1995 saw it produce almost 70 different written products (70!); during that year alone, TSR released new and revised core rulebooks, nine box sets by my count, and were actively supporting seven different settings, with the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Planescape, Ravenloft, and Birthright all receiving at least five products, and Lankhmar and Mystara receiving three and one, respectively.

Somehow Paizo is taking a similar approach to WotC of the 3.X and 4E era, and making it work (thus far). I would guess some of the reasons for this is the increased emphasis on stories via adventure paths which, as I'll discuss briefly in a moment, was not WotC's approach before 5E, a focus on a singular setting, and a very loyal fan-base.

Wizards of the Coast is Doing Something Very Different
It isn't just the number of books--it is also the type of books they are producing. It is well known that their focus is on stories via the story arcs, with far more limited rules supplements. Since Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica came out in November of 2018, this focus has expanded to become "stories and worlds," with four unique setting guides published in a period of 20 months.

But as I was going through the 3.X era books, I was struck by a marked difference: With 3.X, there seemed to be an attempt to cover as much ground as possible--to provide options for as many variations on D&D as Wizards could think of, or at least that they thought would have wide enough appeal. There was some narrowing in that with 2E, this "shotgun approach" included settings. 2E saw setting guides for a full thirteen different settings, with varying degrees of coverage; 3.X created product for only four, a number that 5E has already surpassed, with Theros being its fifth setting. Furthermore, where 2E did a lot of everything, 3.X did a lot of some things (rules supplements and focus on two settings), but not much range of settings, and relatively few adventures.

But my point is, 5E has been a huge departure in the type of books that are being produced. Gone are the days of "The Complete X" or the "Y Compendium" series of books. In other words, and here is the key point: They're not trying to be comprehensive and cover everything.

This, I think, is an under-emphasized aspect of their minimalist approach, and a stark contrast to Pathfinder. Paizo's approach is essentially a refinement of WotC's approach in the 3.5/4E era. They created a comprehensive product line, but focused on only one world, and simmered down the rules supplements to a few major releases a year; and, of course, they focused it all on adventure paths, which gave the Paizo community not only a shared world, but a shared world in that story, a strategy that WotC has clearly emulated with 5E. And it worked for Paizo. The problem, or at least result, is that they still followed the "old school" approach of the Edition Cycle. After ten years, they rebooted with Pathfinder 2, and we're seeing old wine in new bottles. This is not to criticize Paizo; if it works, it works. But it is to highlight the difference in approaches (and I would also emphasize that they're further refining their approach with P2, and have also added a new line in Starfinder).

The 5E approach is cleared geared around sustainability. They want to de-emphasize editions and highlight the game of D&D itself. This doesn't mean that we won't eventually see revisions, but that they're making a deliberate break from the traditional Edition Cycle model, which may be a variation on planned obsolescence.

But here's the point I want to highlight, again: 5E products--even the rules supplements--are not intended to cover a subject comprehensively. For example, Xanathar's Guide to Everything is not "Player's Handbook 2." It is more like Some Optional Stuff that DMs and Players Can Use If They Want. Or with Mythic Odysseys of Theros, which has been described as a sourcebook first, a setting guide second. Meaning, the primary purpose of the book is to facilitate "mythic odysseys" in your game, be it in Theros or your homebrew.

Remember the 4E adage, "everything is core?" That seems to be reversed: everything (outside the core rulebooks) is optional. "Everything is core" seems like a not-so-subtle way to say, "buy everything," whereas the new approach is "You don't have to buy anything after the core rulebooks, but we're going to offer some options that you might enjoy." Coupled with their minimalist approach, this has led to unprecedented growth. In other words, sustainability and not implying that everyone "must have this product," is working very, very well.

Now I know there are other factors involved, but I think this is part of what has made 5E thrive so much. 5E's vitality and growth seems to be two-fold:
  1. It has somehow found the "holy grail" of bringing a huge number of new players, perhaps primarily due to social media, but certainly a greater degree of cultural visibility, with an increasing number of "celebrity surrogates."
  2. It offers a version of the game that seems to be a sweet-spot that appeals to a wide array of die-hard and long-term fans, bringing the "fractured tribes" together again. It may not be crunchy enough for some, innovative enough for others, or traditional enough for old-schoolers, but still finds that sweet-spot that appeals to the widest range of D&D players in decades.

The Charts
OK, onto the charts. I'm going to offer two versions: one that includes product names, and one that doesn't, and is narrowed so that you can better compare the output of editions.

The format is this: Rulebooks are in shades of green, settings are in pink, and adventures are in blue. Darker colors mean a core book (whether a rulebook or setting), or a complete adventure path or story. All capitals means a BOXED SET, and bold-face means a hardcover. Finally, I've tried to differentiate the size of the book by how many rows the entry takes up. This isn't an exact science, and I'm sure there are errors, but as a general rule:
One row means a 32-64 adventure or rules supplement, or a single entry in an adventure path, or 32 page setting supplement.​
Two rows means a longer adventure, or a 64 page setting supplement.​
Three rows means a major product, in the 100-200 page range.​
Four rows means a core product, 200+ pages.​

Again, these are rough. I've made some judgement calls, such as giving each episode of a Paizo adventure path only one row, despite them being 96 pages, but their Golarion campaign setting supplements two rows, despite being only 64 pages, because I figure that a distinct setting supplement is more significant than a single episode of a six-part adventure. Or I've color-coded all of the Pathfinder player's companions as setting books, because most of them are specific to Golarion, even if some aren't (I can only do so much research into all of these products!).

Finally, please let me know if there are any significant inaccuracies or missing products. I only included written products: no flip-maps, map folios, dice sets, or accessories that don't have usable gaming text. I generally only included products that could be purchased, but did include the 5E Basic Rules, but for some reason, not the Elemental Companion, maybe because it is more of a web enhancement to an existing product. I also didn't include the Wayfinder's Guide to Eberron because it is a D&D Beyond product, and was largely subsumed in the Eberron hardcover. I did include some of the Next playtest material, but mostly only for visual reference.

WIZARDS OF THE COAST OFFICIAL D&D PRODUCTS: 2000-20 (3E, 3.5E, 4E, 5E)

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PAIZO PRODUCTS: 2007-20 ((3.5, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Pathfinder 2)
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VISUAL COMPARISON OF ALL D&D and PAIZO PRODUCTS: 2000-20

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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
A fascinating take on the situation (and also, those are some really nice charts)!

My suspicion is that Paizo's output is sustainable largely because they use a subscription model in addition to traditional sales venues. While there might be other factors (e.g. maintaining their own online store), I suspect that their use of subscription lines has allowed them to cultivate a much closer relationship with their core audience, many of whom are content to allow the self-sustaining nature of a subscription to settle in rather than having to actively go buy products the way you do with WotC's books.

While this is less related, I also suspect that WotC's current success with 5E has a lot less to do with the 5E model - both in terms of rules, and in terms of product output - than people think. In my opinion, 5E has become such a runaway hit largely because of branding. That is, D&D's appearances in major cultural phenomena such as Stranger Things and Critical Role is what propelled it to its current height of popularity. (Citing 5E's format as immaterial to Critical Role's success might sound odd to some, but I'm of the opinion that the actual RPG system has little to do with the show's success; people are tuning in because of the cast and the storyline, with the rules mattering only so much as they don't slow things down.)

It's why Hasbro is putting so much work into making a successful D&D movie, which also won't have much to do with the actual game rules; D&D is back in our cultural consciousness because of its identity, not its books.
 

Parmandur

Legend
(Citing 5E's format as immaterial to Critical Role's success might sound odd to some, but I'm of the opinion that the actual RPG system has little to do with the show's success; people are tuning in because of the cast and the storyline, with the rules mattering only so much as they don't slow things down.)
I watched Critical Role play a Pathfinder one-shot from early in their run. Comparing that to 5E, Call of Cthulu, and other systems they used shows the system makes a big difference for streaming watchability. It's basically central, next to having a talented DM.

You can abstractly question the contribution of the product release strategy, but I myself have bought many, many times more books than I did in earlier editions. Before 5E, I bout the 3.0 PHB and the 4E PHB. I've bought every 5 hardcover, except Acquisitions Incorporated. That's like ten times as many books, and the slow release schedule and mixed products have been a major factor there.
 

Mercurius

Legend
A fascinating take on the situation (and also, those are some really nice charts)!

My suspicion is that Paizo's output is sustainable largely because they use a subscription model in addition to traditional sales venues. While there might be other factors (e.g. maintaining their own online store), I suspect that their use of subscription lines has allowed them to cultivate a much closer relationship with their core audience, many of whom are content to allow the self-sustaining nature of a subscription to settle in rather than having to actively go buy products the way you do with WotC's books.

While this is less related, I also suspect that WotC's current success with 5E has a lot less to do with the 5E model - both in terms of rules, and in terms of product output - than people think. In my opinion, 5E has become such a runaway hit largely because of branding. That is, D&D's appearances in major cultural phenomena such as Stranger Things and Critical Role is what propelled it to its current height of popularity. (Citing 5E's format as immaterial to Critical Role's success might sound odd to some, but I'm of the opinion that the actual RPG system has little to do with the show's success; people are tuning in because of the cast and the storyline, with the rules mattering only so much as they don't slow things down.)

It's why Hasbro is putting so much work into making a successful D&D movie, which also won't have much to do with the actual game rules; D&D is back in our cultural consciousness because of its identity, not its books.
Yes, good point - and I agree that branding is central, which was fueled by a bit of luck (Stranger Things) and collaboration (Critical Role). But I also agree with Parmandur that the release schedule is a factor, at least as far as return on investment. It does make one wonder, though, how a more prolific release schedule would work in today's context. I mean, if the game is thriving so much, why not see how more product would do? Not going back to the Edition Cycle approach, but the obvious strategy would be more setting books, and maybe more gimmicky products like Paizo's pocket edition or one of my favorites, the 4E Rules Compendium.

You can abstractly question the contribution of the product release strategy, but I myself have bought many, many times more books than I did in earlier editions. Before 5E, I bout the 3.0 PHB and the 4E PHB. I've bought every 5 hardcover, except Acquisitions Incorporated. That's like ten times as many books, and the slow release schedule and mixed products have been a major factor there.
But is that because you feel like you can buy everything, or because you simply like 5E?

I know for myself, I would buy more books if they published more books. I haven't bought everything, but I do buy every setting book, most rules supplements, and maybe about half of the adventures. So let's say that ends up being 3 of the 4 books a year. Now let's say they had the following schedule:

1 rules supplement $50 list.
2 story arcs $50 each.
2 setting books (one Magic, one Legacy) $50 each.
1 "something different" - a box set, maybe an adventure book or monster book for one of the settings, etc. $50 on average.
2 reference-y supplements (e.g. Rules Compendium, a pocket spellbook, etc). $30 each.

Instead of $200 to buy everything ($17/month), that's $360 ($30). If the books were of equal quality to the current out-put, how much of them would you buy?

For me I'd buy both settings, probably the "special" product, and then half or more of the rules supplements, story arcs, and references. So instead of getting $150 from me (3 of the 4 now), they'd be getting $250-300.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Yes, good point - and I agree that branding is central, which was fueled by a bit of luck (Stranger Things) and collaboration (Critical Role). But I also agree with Parmandur that the release schedule is a factor, at least as far as return on investment. It does make one wonder, though, how a more prolific release schedule would work in today's context. I mean, if the game is thriving so much, why not see how more product would do? Not going back to the Edition Cycle approach, but the obvious strategy would be more setting books, and maybe more gimmicky products like Paizo's pocket edition or one of my favorites, the 4E Rules Compendium.



But is that because you feel like you can buy everything, or because you simply like 5E?

I know for myself, I would buy more books if they published more books. I haven't bought everything, but I do buy every setting book, most rules supplements, and maybe about half of the adventures. So let's say that ends up being 3 of the 4 books a year. Now let's say they had the following schedule:

1 rules supplement $50 list.
2 story arcs $50 each.
2 setting books (one Magic, one Legacy) $50 each.
1 "something different" - a box set, maybe an adventure book or monster book for one of the settings, etc. $50 on average.
2 reference-y supplements (e.g. Rules Compendium, a pocket spellbook, etc). $30 each.

Instead of $200 to buy everything ($17/month), that's $360 ($30). If the books were of equal quality to the current out-put, how much of them would you buy?

For me I'd buy both settings, probably the "special" product, and then half or more of the rules supplements, story arcs, and references. So instead of getting $150 from me (3 of the 4 now), they'd be getting $250-300.
I liked 3E, like a lot. I loved the products WotC was putting out, so much that I could never bring myself to choose one to buy! Analysis paralysis is real. State of life is a serious consideration, though, as 5E hit as I was bearing the end of my 20's and really starting to have a serious income to use on games.

But, there is a practical experience that already illuminates the limits of my 5E enthusiasm: in 2018,WotC released 4 major products, and I bought 4 of them. In 2019, they released 7 major products, and I bought 4 of them. 1 book a Quarter or so is about my limit.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I liked 3E, like a lot. I loved the products WotC was putting out, so much that I could never bring myself to choose one to buy! Analysis paralysis is real. State of life is a serious consideration, though, as 5E hit as I was bearing the end of my 20's and really starting to have a serious income to use on games.

But, there is a practical experience that already illuminates the limits of my 5E enthusiasm: in 2018,WotC released 4 major products, and I bought 4 of them. In 2019, they released 7 major products, and I bought 4 of them. 1 book a Quarter or so is about my limit.
I hear you, but remember that those 7 products (8 if you count Rick & Morty) included a reprint (Tyranny of Dragons), two variant box sets for fans of different licenses, and a new starter set. But what if those 7 or 8 products were akin to what I wrote above? Would you buy more?
 

Parmandur

Legend
I hear you, but remember that those 7 products (8 if you count Rick & Morty) included a reprint (Tyranny of Dragons), two variant box sets for fans of different licenses, and a new starter set. But what if those 7 or 8 products were akin to what I wrote above? Would you buy more?
Amendment, I bought 5 out of 8 products: forgot about ToD, I lent my copy of HotDQ out a while back and never saw it gain, so Ifelt it was appropriate to replace it with the cool cover from my FLGS.

I don't think I would have bought more, though, if they upped the speed. At a certain point, I would get product fatigue. The pace right now is juuuuust right.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Amendment, I bought 5 out of 8 products: forgot about ToD, I lent my copy of HotDQ out a while back and never saw it gain, so Ifelt it was appropriate to replace it with the cool cover from my FLGS.

I don't think I would have bought more, though, if they upped the speed. At a certain point, I would get product fatigue. The pace right now is juuuuust right.
Yeah, I like the pace and am fine if they continue, especially if they keep up with 2 settings a year, but also admit that I'd prefer a bit more. But that doesn't mean I think it is the right thing for them to do.

That said, I still think we might see 5 become the new norm. The did 3 for three years (2015-17), 4 four two years (2018-19), and my guess is that whether we get a fourth book or not this year, that was the plan for 2020. Could that mean that the plan is to up the book count once every three years, so 5 books in 2021-23? It is a graduated approach, so they can always pull back if they find that they published one too many. So if they publish 5 hardcovers in 2021 and notice a diminishing of return on investment, they could always fall back to 4 in 2022.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Yeah, I like the pace and am fine if they continue, especially if they keep up with 2 settings a year, but also admit that I'd prefer a bit more. But that doesn't mean I think it is the right thing for them to do.

That said, I still think we might see 5 become the new norm. The did 3 for three years (2015-17), 4 four two years (2018-19), and my guess is that whether we get a fourth book or not this year, that was the plan for 2020. Could that mean that the plan is to up the book count once every three years, so 5 books in 2021-23? It is a graduated approach, so they can always pull back if they find that they published one too many. So if they publish 5 hardcovers in 2021 and notice a diminishing of return on investment, they could always fall back to 4 in 2022.
Given the nature of Corporate sales accounting, I suspect that they are aiming to have a new book every Quarter. Almost got Q1 and Q2 this year.
 

While this is less related, I also suspect that WotC's current success with 5E has a lot less to do with the 5E model - both in terms of rules, and in terms of product output - than people think. In my opinion, 5E has become such a runaway hit largely because of branding. That is, D&D's appearances in major cultural phenomena such as Stranger Things and Critical Role is what propelled it to its current height of popularity. (Citing 5E's format as immaterial to Critical Role's success might sound odd to some, but I'm of the opinion that the actual RPG system has little to do with the show's success; people are tuning in because of the cast and the storyline, with the rules mattering only so much as they don't slow things down.)

It's why Hasbro is putting so much work into making a successful D&D movie, which also won't have much to do with the actual game rules; D&D is back in our cultural consciousness because of its identity, not its books.
Just disregard the quality and ease of the 5e rule set.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Given the nature of Corporate sales accounting, I suspect that they are aiming to have a new book every Quarter. Almost got Q1 and Q2 this year.
Yes, and if they do add a 5th or 6th book, we'd probably see a second November title, and maybe a second summer title.
 



DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
...if, after watching Critical Role, people went and bought the core books and found them impenetrable. 4e would have had that issue...
Disagree. We live in an age where millions of people have played variations of the roleplaying game in other forms, all of them with various levels of rules-- computer video games, board games etc. 4E's ruleset is by no means impenetrable, especially by people who are coming in new to the hobby. There's nothing in the system that people haven't experienced in some format and fashion in other games. If you can go from knowing nothing of D&D and making the jump to learning 5E... you can do the same from knowing nothing and making the jump straight to 4E.

Personally, I think It's the people who spent years using the other D&D rulesets of the past who looked at 4E and found the new formatting odd and not what they were used to. They were the ones who were so locked in to older styles of D&D that made 4E seems so alien and unable to be comprehended.

(And I say "unable to be comprehended" facitiously... as of course they could understand the rules if they really felt like they wanted to. But instead, since the formatting and rules changes were a departure from what they were already happy with, they just chose not to bother.)
 

Steel_Wind

Adventurer
Paizo's insane publishing schedule is possible because:

1 - They have a vastly larger number of employees than WotC's D&D division, though they pay most of them less . Cranking out that much material takes real and direct supervised labor (yes Paizo uses lots of freelancers, too); and,
2- Above all, direct sales via subscription.

Note that Paizo's product schedule, as large is it is now, was far larger in the 2013-2017 era when PF1 was the 500lb gorilla.

Yes, there are thousands of people who buy all of Paizo's product releases every month. Pawns excepted, I would be one of them. Numbers have not been officially released, but my guess (and that all it is - a guess) is that PF subscriber base is somewhere in the order of 8,000-20,000 regular subscription customers; a number which has risen and fallen over time. Whatever the case, that sort of predictable, bankable direct sales (with immediate cashflow) is core to Paizo's business model. Without it? That production schedule and employee base is not sustainable. With it? It mostly is. Mostly. Essentially, Paizo prints on terms in China, and on ship, their direct sales pay for the cost of the product - and then some. How much "and then some" is the devil in the details.

Still , core rulebooks, which can be printed in the hundreds of thousands of copies over the course of a game's life is where the real money is in RPG publishing, so WotC focuses on those sales via retailers. Those same FLGS retailers are the ones who generate the real money selling hobby games: which is to say, selling Magic:TG for WotC. [All RPGs taken together are modest compared to MAGIC:TG. It also explains why WotC has been reticent to sell directly. WotC depends on those retailer relationships.]

The direct sales model allowed Paizo to dominate the RPG business from 2010-2016. But when 5e started to gain some real legs in the marketplace, by early 2017, Paizo's retail sales via FLGS had dropped significantly.

Players like direct sales and the free PDFs a subscription provides. FLGS store owners? Not so much.
 
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Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
A clarification/possible nitpick for the OP because I do not have the book and have no interested in reading through it at a store....

Would Acquisitions Inc better be described as a setting and less as a rulebook? I'm curious because I am interested in generally useful materials but have no use at all for setting specific details like NPC names, locations, etc... and assumed AI mostly contained that kind of information.
 

Sabathius42

Bree-Yark
You can abstractly question the contribution of the product release strategy, but I myself have bought many, many times more books than I did in earlier editions. Before 5E, I bout the 3.0 PHB and the 4E PHB. I've bought every 5 hardcover, except Acquisitions Incorporated. That's like ten times as many books, and the slow release schedule and mixed products have been a major factor there.
I am the anti-you when it comes to D&D purchases.

In the 3e era I purchased almost every official rulebook published, along with a couple of the FR books as well. I run a homebrew campaign (always have) and have no desire to pick up a book that I am not going to be able to use more than a 1/4 of the content of. I bought a LOT of 3e books.

In the 4e era I did the same, getting all the rulebooks and skipping the campaign settings. I stopped playing 4e when Essentials rolled out but that was because of the system, not the content.

In the 5e era I have only purchased the 6 setting and adventure neutral books and have no interest in purchasing anything else. With the release rate of 1 book that fits this bill every other year....I have purchased less 5e product than I purchased 2e product (when I was in High School and bummed money off my parents once in a blue moon to add a book to my collection)
 

Parmandur

Legend
I am the anti-you when it comes to D&D purchases.

In the 3e era I purchased almost every official rulebook published, along with a couple of the FR books as well. I run a homebrew campaign (always have) and have no desire to pick up a book that I am not going to be able to use more than a 1/4 of the content of. I bought a LOT of 3e books.

In the 4e era I did the same, getting all the rulebooks and skipping the campaign settings. I stopped playing 4e when Essentials rolled out but that was because of the system, not the content.

In the 5e era I have only purchased the 6 setting and adventure neutral books and have no interest in purchasing anything else. With the release rate of 1 book that fits this bill every other year....I have purchased less 5e product than I purchased 2e product (when I was in High School and bummed money off my parents once in a blue moon to add a book to my collection)
You are missing out.
 


Mercurius

Legend
Disagree. We live in an age where millions of people have played variations of the roleplaying game in other forms, all of them with various levels of rules-- computer video games, board games etc. 4E's ruleset is by no means impenetrable, especially by people who are coming in new to the hobby. There's nothing in the system that people haven't experienced in some format and fashion in other games. If you can go from knowing nothing of D&D and making the jump to learning 5E... you can do the same from knowing nothing and making the jump straight to 4E.

Personally, I think It's the people who spent years using the other D&D rulesets of the past who looked at 4E and found the new formatting odd and not what they were used to. They were the ones who were so locked in to older styles of D&D that made 4E seems so alien and unable to be comprehended.

(And I say "unable to be comprehended" facitiously... as of course they could understand the rules if they really felt like they wanted to. But instead, since the formatting and rules changes were a departure from what they were already happy with, they just chose not to bother.)
You're mostly talking about experienced gamers. But the important question is, is 5E easier to learn from scratch, both for those "mentoring" with an existing group, and a bunch of kids inspired by Stranger Things who buy the Essentials Kit at Target?

I think,the answer is clear. 5E is a simpler rules system. It also has improvisation and hand-waving built into it in a way that makes it easier to "wing it until you get it."

But yes, I agree that it was mostly experienced D&D players who found 4E off-putting. The difference in mechanics and tone was rather jarring for traditional-minded D&D players.
 

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