RPG Evolution: The Half-Edition Shuffle

The next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is finally on the horizon, but it's not here just yet. So when do publishers makes the shift?

The next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is finally on the horizon, but it's not here just yet. So when do publishers makes the shift?


A Historical Model​

D&D has been through several editions in recent memory, but few match the recent transition between two compatible editions. Although backwards compatibility is often promised, it's rarely delivered. And there's also the consideration of the thousands of small press publishers created through the Open Game License movement, which didn't exist before Third Edition. Of all the edition shifts, the 3.0 to 3.5 transition seems closest to what D&D is going through right now, so it's a good place to start this thought experiment.

Compatible, Sort Of​

Fifth Edition's transition to Sixth involves tweaks to the game. Those tweaks seemed largely cosmetic, at first. With the release of Mordenkainen's Monsters of the Multiverse, it's clear that the spellcasting section of monsters is going to be significantly changed. In short, while players may find their characters compatible with the latest edition of D&D, DMs may find their monsters aren't. And that's a problem for publishers. But mechanically, all of these issues can be addressed. What really matters is what customers think. And that's often shaped by branding.

What a Half-Edition Means​

The transition between Third Edition and 3.5 was more significant than many publishers were expecting. You can see a list on RPG Stack Exchange, which shows just how much the new edition changed the game.

This did not go unnoticed by consumers. The OGL movement was still developing but it caught many publishers by surprise, including the company I wrote for at the time, Monkeygod Publishing (they're no longer in business). When we released my hardcover book Frost & Fur, the only identifier was the D20 System logo. Little did we know that it was imperative to identify the book as 3.5-compatible (which it was), because stores wouldn't carry it and consumers wouldn't buy it if it wasn't.

There wasn't nearly as much communication from WIzards of the Coast back then as to how to prepare for the edition change, much less columns from the company explaining their strategy. More communication about the upcoming edition may mitigate its impact on third-party publishers.

Between the DM's Guild and DriveThruRPG, there is now an ecosystem that can more readily update itself without taking up shelf space or clogging up inventory. Digital products can be changed, covers can be rebranded, and newsletters can announce the update. Wizards of the Coast has also given considerable lead time on the coming changes by announcing the edition well in advance and updating books piecemeal so developers can see what changed. But there's still one important piece of the puzzle.

What Do Consumers Think?​

One of the ongoing concerns for supporting publishers of Third Edition was how the Open Game License would be updated and, at least as important, how to identify that compatibility.

Updating the OGL enables publishers to ensure their products are compatible. The OGL doesn't specify stat block structure, so it may not even be necessary to update the license much if at all.

Identifying compatibility will be even more critical. At some point, publishers will start identifying their products as Sixth Edition compatible. And that will happen when consumers shift their spending habits.

The Changeover​

But first, WOTC has to declare that Sixth Edition has officially arrived. Wizards was hesitant to put a number on Fifth Edition, preferring instead to indicate it was simply D&D to potentially head off edition controversy. Failure to do that in a timely fashion (or worse, failure to recognize a new edition at all and continue calling it Fifth Edition) will cause potential confusion in the marketplace, with both consumers and publishers.

At some point the tide will turn and consumers will expect compatibility with the new edition. That change is complicated by the fact that Sixth Edition should be largely compatible with Fifth Edition. But only consumers can decide that for sure; if they don't feel it is, there will be a sharp drop off in Fifth Edition buying habits. For smaller publishers, they'll stay close to the market to determine when that shift is happening and how to transition smoothly without harming their business model.

Getting it right can be lucrative. Getting it wrong can sink a company. The market convulsed massively when 3.5 came out, wiping out publishers and game store stock that were unprepared for the change. Here's hoping with enough foresight and planning, we don't have a repeat of the 3.0 transition.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Is it, or should it be, incumbent on Wizards to put stuff out to give 3pp updates to change their material before the final books come out. Part of me thinks that it would be hard for them to develop packets and information for other publishers. I recall something about last time and pre-buy in from 3pp being a disaster which maybe was just about charging money for it. Part of me thinks that they should do something with letting people know changes that they are going with in terms of statblock design and spell changes. Maybe just a webpage or something.

This may lead to people knocking things before the final product is out. I though the 5e playtest went fine and the final product is good.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Is it, or should it be, incumbent on Wizards to put stuff out to give 3pp updates to change their material before the final books come out.
Depends on the value they put on third party support. It's not incumbent, no; it might be wise. Or not, depending, as I said, on the value they put on third party support.

A question which many will also ask is what happens to all those thousands and thousands of DMs Guild products? Even if they are technically compatible, it's the perception which matters. It would suck if you're a DMsG publisher who has invested years of work and money into your products and building up an extensive catalogue, and folks stopped buying them.


Depends on the value they put on third party support. It's not incumbent, no; it might be wise. Or not, depending, as I said, on the value they put on third party support.
How much do you think? I see that they made a bunch of money last year for Hasbro and does this lead to some of the managers thinking they do not need the smaller guys. Some may even think that they could go back to the monopoly pre 3e. Their model for 5e seems to be working as far as making money.


#1 Enworld Jerk™
I think the changes that are coming in 5.5 (or whatever it will end up being called) will be less significant than the changes that happened between 3.0 and 3.5. So far it's been what, some lore and cultural changes regarding demi-human races and how they're writing a part of the monster stat blocks? If it remains like that I very much doubt 3PP have much to worry about. I think the whole reason we're getting a new 5.5 edition is because somebody higher up decided that the game's been out since 2014. So it's time to get people to buy core rulebooks again. Which, is fine. But doesn't mean that the changes will be particularly significant if you're working back from that decision.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
At what point did we become complacent in expecting new editions for everything? We just accept that the past games we loved and enjoyed are somehow no longer valid or out of date with "modern" standards? And in order to be relevant, we must go along with the new wave and rebuy everything for the rest of our lives because the rules are marginally better than the last time. Yet the publishers continue to milk the loyalists with nostalgia by recycling previous materials and contents to fit the new operating system. It's either the same game, or it isn't.


Slumbering in Tsar
I don't think everyone is complacent. Many people abandoned D&D when it has gone through edition changes (especially from 3.5 to 4E), but the flipside is also possible, as many came back to D&D for the 2E to 3E change and the 4E to 5E change. Pathfinder also lost folks going from its own 1E to 2E. But, as a lover of 3PP products, I would think that after this calendar year (or perhaps next summer for smaller runs), 3PPs would be wise to hold off releasing product compatible with 5E until after all the changes of the revised edition are known.

I still feel for Atlas Games when they released the giant Penumbra Fantasy Bestiary for D&D 3.0 right before the edition change to 3.5 which had to have tanked sales of what was otherwise a very cool product.


Depending on what actually gets released I'll consider my options. My books will not spontaneously combust. I may adopt some of the new rules, I may not. There are certainly some rough edges to 5E even if I do like the game. I'll be curious to see what they do. But if the products are any indication it will just be changing some language, updating how monsters are presented to make them easier to run without cross reference, more flexibility in character generation. None of that really matters too much.

So far everything that's been released lately I put under "optional". But we don't really know what they're thinking yet or how extensive the changes will be. If, for example they redo feats to tone down some like sharp shooter while improving some others that I never see used, I'd consider using them.

Maybe I'll buy into a new edition, maybe it will just be for people who are new to the game. We'll see.

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