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5E The Last Edition of D&D?

Changes in Dungeons & Dragons' various editions have ranged from the incremental to the epic, shaking up the game's sales along with its playerbase. There is evidence that Wizards of the Coast is following a new model in which there are no more editions, just updates and backwards compatibility. It's a model long touted by the software industry, and for an idea what the future might hold we can look to the future of video game consoles.

Edition History
To put Fifth Edition's longevity in perspective, it's worth looking back at the lifespan of the earlier editions. These editions lived long after the debut of later editions (and will live on in perpetuity on the Internet):

[EDIT: Alzrius did a much better job of summarizing editions, so I've replaced my timeline with his here, thanks Alzrius!)
  • Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1974 (woodgrain boxed set) through 1976 (Swords & Spells) - 2 years
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition): 1977-1979 (depending on whether you could it as beginning with the release of the Monster Manual in 1977, the Players Handbook in 1978, or the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979) through 1988 (DL16 World of Krynn) - 11 years
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition): 1989 (Player's Handbook) through 2000 (Die Vecna Die!) - 11 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (Holmes): 1978 (the Holmes Basic set) through 1979 (B2 The Keep on the Borderlands) - 2 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X): 1981 (the Moldvay Basic Set to 1983 (X5 Temple of Death) - 2 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (BECMI): 1983 (the Mentzer Basic Set to 1993 (Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark) - 10 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.0 Edition): 2000 (Player's Handbook) through 2003 (Ghostwalk) - 3 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 Edition): 2003 (Player's Handbook) through 2008 (City of Stormreach) - 5 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition): 2008 (Player's Handbook) through 2012 (Into the Unknown: The Dungeons Survival Handbook) - 4 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition Essentials): 2010 (Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set) through 2011 (Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale) - 1 year
  • Dungeons & Dragons (Next): 2013 (Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle through 2014 (Legacy of the Crystal Shard) - 1 year
  • Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition): 2014 (Starter Set) through Present (Mythic Odysseys of Theros) - 6 years+
Looking at these averages, the lifespan of an edition ranges from as low as a few years to as long as 11 years. At 6 years old, Fifth Edition is now at the beginning of when it might be considered old enough to warrant a new edition—Fourth Edition lasted just four years (if we count Essentials).

No More Editions?
Mike Mearls had this to say about a hypothetical sixth edition:

We’re nowhere near 6th edition D&D, but if we get there this is how I’d like it to play out. Zero disruption to what you’re already doing, just new toys to make your game better.

In an Ask Me Anything on Reddit, Mearls clarified in response to a question about modeling D&D's roll-out after Microsoft's roll-out of Windows 10:

Is the goal of 5e to get all D&D players onto one edition and then to support it for a long time, much like what Microsoft is doing with Windows 10? Should we expect 5e to last longer than the 5-6 year lifespan of the previous several editions?

I think we'd do a new edition only when the warts of the current one are bothersome enough that people want them excised.

The much-touted Microsoft model, itself inspired by the iPhone model, comes up frequently because it minimizes disruption to consumers while ensuring they still benefit from systemic improvements. And there's a good reason for customers and developers looking for another way: A platform change can be devastating to a game's market.

Damaged Edition
As D&D has become more embedded in the Internet ecosystem, it has become increasingly difficult for it to pivot. The Open Game License (OGL) era ushered in by Third Edition, in which many third parties flourished in support of the new game, came to a hard stop with the debut of Fourth Edition. Two planned hardcover supplements I wrote never saw the light of day because the rumors of a new edition spooked the publisher from producing new material. The hint of a new edition was enough to make third party developers change their tactics, and for good reason.

The current D&D ecosystem has only grown larger thanks to the new OGL and the DMs Guild. All the video streamers who are currently buoying interest in the game, the D&D-related Kickstarters launched every week, and market expectations for the brand’s IP as a transmedia franchise suggests that the investment in D&D goes beyond customers and includes small business owners too.

Before a new edition comes out, the existing edition takes a hit: D&D gradually lost market share to Pathfinder, dipping to third place according to ICv2 in 2012 (when Fifth Edition was announced). The drop was not solely attributable to D&D's edition change of course. The issues with Fourth Edition and Pathfinder's popularity certainly had something to do with the shift in positions, but it seems likely the steep drop to third place was accelerated by the edition announcement. We have further data that bears this out in Pathfinder's Second Edition launch, in which Pathfinder First Edition slipped to fifth place in Spring 2019, just before the Summer launch of the new edition.

There's a parallel between an edition of a tabletop game and a video game console, which can have limited backwards compatibility with the games before it. Like the tabletop game industry, the video game industry convulses every six to eight years when a major game development platform (Xbox and Playstation) announces a new system. Developers change their schedules to accommodate and gamers stop buying the current platform as they wait for the new one to debut. This cycle grinds sales of video games to a halt; it can be so devastating that the current down cycle threatens to wipe out GameStop, one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar video game resellers in the United States (GameStop's desperation was on full display during the pandemic).

Something Has to Give
Increasingly, publishers are realizing that although this model produces an uptick in sales and expenditures in the short-term, it's damaging to the wider gaming ecosystem. This is why console producers are moving away from the existing model to one in which continual upgrades are possible while still guaranteeing backwards compatibility. They do this by building in compatibility from the start so that the console can easily run older games, while at the same time releasing more powerful products that consumers can opt-into as they see fit. In a similar fashion, one of Fifth Edition's goals was to be backwards compatible with the editions that came before it.

A longer market window to sell D&D has had some interesting side-effects, most notably that it creates an opportunity for luxury, high-end products. These products wouldn’t be able to flourish in a market where a potential high-end consumer would balk at investing a significant amount of money on something that wouldn’t compatible in a year.

There’s also signs that the old model no longer makes sense. D&D’s older editions never went away—Pathfinder’s success is an important reminder of this fact—and any new edition would have to compete with the five editions before it for digital attention. In the video game industry, downloadable content allows games and platforms to incorporate feedback and update themselves in real time—just like D&D is now doing with its Unearthed Arcana content and surveys.

Will we ever get a new edition of D&D? With Ray Winniger replacing Mearls as head of the D&D team, there may well be a declaration of a Sixth Edition in the near term, but it seems the game will always be backwards compatible … in which case an edition change is more a branding update than a radical change in the game’s rules.
 
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Michael Tresca

Comments



teitan

Hero
Some of your numbers are a ways off. 1e was released with the MM in 1977 and lasted until 1989 when 2e came and was superseded in 2000. Basic D&D, 3rd edition of that was BECMI and that is the one that lasted 13 years. The original Basic was a restatement of OD&D and Cook was a redesign of that to make it its own game. It was the subsequent rewrites of BECMI that had relatively short periods you are listing. There was significant enough differences in BX that lumping BX and BECMI together is an error. But so few differences between BECMI and the black boxes that they aren’t a different edition since they relied on the Rules Cyclopedia which was mostly an edit of the BECM sets. Original was in print until 1980. Essentials/4e was discontinued in 2012 and all products released from that period leading up to 5e were either edition neutral or Next play test products like Draonspear.

Part of the backlash against 4e was that it was too soon.
 

Envisioner

Explorer
I for one would very much like to see a new edition, or perhaps an "advanced" version of 5E, whose extreme rules simplicity and overreliance on DM interpretation are a significant irritant to me. 3E was too complex and granular, and I welcome the ways in which 5E improved it, but too many babies were thrown out with the bathwater, and now there just isn't enough depth to the game. I'd like to see them find a way to fold some of the lost complexity back in, at least optionally.
 

teitan

Hero
I foresee a refresh more than a new “edition” in the pipeline. Tweaks like a new ranger and some clarifications. New races added to core and additional popular subclasses from other books but not enough to warrant “must buy” like 3e-3.5 with its numerous itty bitty changes making massive changes. Something more akin to 2e to revised 2e but prettier.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
I for one would very much like to see a new edition, or perhaps an "advanced" version of 5E, whose extreme rules simplicity and overreliance on DM interpretation are a significant irritant to me. 3E was too complex and granular, and I welcome the ways in which 5E improved it, but too many babies were thrown out with the bathwater, and now there just isn't enough depth to the game. I'd like to see them find a way to fold some of the lost complexity back in, at least optionally.
A book of advanced options might be one way they handle that. However, I think one of the purposes of the current DM Guild and OGL is for the community to provide that content itself, while WoTC reaps some financial and social currency benefit.
 

Ulfgeir

Explorer
Interesting article. I don't think we are near another version at the moment, as it seems that D&D is still growing. If they were to do a change, then it would take maybe 2 years, or more from they announced it to the first books hit the shelves. That is if they wanted time for playtesting, editing and layout. Sure they could theoretically just start selling the new books, without any news of it in advance. It would probably not be a good thing if they did. It might have worked in the late 70's early 80's, but now it would be commercial suicide (unless they really were the only game in town)
 


MMO games are similar. World of Warcraft is in its 16th year? I downloaded D&D Online yesterday just to look it over. As long as there is new content there will be someone who will play.
If WoW was still in the same "edition" it was when it launched, though, WoW would have become a minor game sometime around 2010. Other MMOs would have exceeded it in popularity and so on. Classic is popular, but only as popular as it is because it exists as a contrast to later versions, and because its on the same sub as retail WoW.

WoW keeps its youth by bathing in the blood of er... oh that's not WoW, let me check my notes... WoW keeps its youth by eternally refreshing itself, constantly reinventing itself. The last major reboot was with Legion, but every 2 years or so we see an expansion that makes fairly significant changes and fixes to how the game plays and feels.

So I think comparisons to WoW and Win 10 are... confused. If they took the 4E strategy of regularly, sweeping errata, and frequent, large-scale rules-additions, then that would make sense. 4E was well-positioned to take a WoW-like or Win 10-like approach (yes, I said it, you heard me, you can quote me, I hear the shrieks of glee! Being positioned to take an approach is different from being something but the constant errata were probably the thing that most resembled MMOs about 4E).

5E is the opposite in design. 5E is very static, with very little errata. 5E is unchanging, and even the rules-additions so far have mostly been fairly minor. That does mean, however, at some point its likely to feel like it needs a larger overhaul, and realistically, that's going to mean 6E. I don't think the actual trigger for 6E will be the rules being outdated per se, though. I think the real trigger will be that WotC feels like they can make more money by having everyone online and playing not an MMO, but a fancy VTT version of D&D, which you can optionally play at the table too (hilariously, this was 4E's vision too, but it was over a decade too early, technologically and socially). They're letting Beyond pioneer this for them, whilst they build up multiple AAA software studios under the WotC brand, one of whom could very definitely implement such a thing. That's what will trigger 6E, anyway. I figure its 5-7 years out, myself.
 

This is why console producers are moving away from the existing model to one in which continual upgrades are possible while still guaranteeing backwards compatibility. They do this by building in compatibility from the start so that the console can easily run older games, while at the same time releasing more powerful products that consumers can opt-into as they see fit.
I can't see that lasting. That backwards compatibility costs, both in terms of the hardware and also because it closes off options for future development. Sooner or later, probably sooner, it will be dropped as not being worthwhile.

With D&D, I expect much the same - at some point someone will want to do something radically different with it, and a new edition will break backwards compatibility. Despite 5e's undoubted strengths, it is not the definitive last word in RPG design. The only way 5e is the last edition, or even the last major revision, of the game is if something catastrophic happens and the game gets cancelled.
 


Alzrius

The EN World kitten
  • Original Dungeons & Dragons: 3 years
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition): 8 years
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition): 7 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition): 13 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition): 3 years
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (3rd Edition): 6 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3rd Edition): 3 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 Edition): 5 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition): 2 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4.5 Edition/Essentials): 4 years
  • Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition): 6 years
These numbers look odd to me. If we judge the lifespan of each edition by measuring the time between its first and last standalone products (to distinguish it from, say, articles in Dragon or Dungeon magazine), and not counting new products released for older editions (e.g. the release of L3 Deep Dwarven Delve in 1999 as part of the Silver Anniversary Boxed set), system-neutral products, web-only products, etc. then I'd put them like this:

  • Original Dungeons & Dragons: 1974 (woodgrain boxed set) through 1976 (Swords & Spells)
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition): 1977-1979 (depending on whether you count it as beginning with the release of the Monster Manual in 1977, the Players Handbook in 1978, or the Dungeon Masters Guide in 1979) through 1988 (DL16 World of Krynn)
  • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition): 1989 (Player's Handbook) through 2000 (Die Vecna Die!)
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (Holmes): 1978 (the Holmes Basic set) through 1979 (B2 The Keep on the Borderlands)
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X): 1981 (the Moldvay Basic Set) through 1983 (X5 Temple of Death)
  • Basic Dungeons & Dragons (BECMI): 1983 (the Mentzer Basic Set) through 1993 (Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.0 Edition): 2000 (Player's Handbook) through 2003 (Ghostwalk)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (3.5 Edition): 2003 (Player's Handbook) through 2008 (City of Stormreach)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition): 2008 (Player's Handbook) through 2012 (Into the Unknown: The Dungeons Survival Handbook)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (4th Edition Essentials): 2010 (Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set) through 2011 (Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (Next): 2013 (Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle) through 2014 (Legacy of the Crystal Shard)
  • Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition): 2014 (Starter Set) through Present (Mythic Odysseys of Theros)
 
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rknop

Explorer
Continual changes and upgrades doesn't work for a RPG system as it does for video game consoles. With software, the operating system is underneath, and whatever nastiness it has to do in order to support old stuff (emulators? legacy libraries?) is painful for the developers, but coded in and (if done right) transparent to the users. Emulators are enabled because eventually new systems are fast enough that they can inefficiently replicate earlier systems at even faster speeds. Buildups of libraries (to the point that now lots of people work in containerized virtual environments where each and every application comes with a complete system of OS libraries to go with it) have been enabled by growing memory and disk space.

WIth a pen-and-paper RPG, we are the hardware that runs the operating system, and the books are the code. Continual changes is not a process that allows us to continually adapt, it's a constant buildup of cruft that makes the system heaveir and heavier and eventually nearly impossible to keep up with. Human mental capcity has not been expanding along Moore's Law as computers have. This buildup of cruft to make the whoel thing unwieldy is what happened with Pathfinder 1e, which lasted something like ten years (and which I still play, by the way). Somewhere between the Advanced Class Guide and Occult Adventures, it became clear that there were just too many rules. Yeah, GMs had the option to limit them, but that becomes a big effort. In organized play, it's not an option. It became basically impossible for a GM to come to the table and understand everybody's character if the players were using stuff across all of the releases. New players were at a pretty big disadvantage because there's no way they could assimilate all of the rules system.

You can run many XBox 360 games, and even some original XBox games, on your XBox One without you yourself having to know anything about those earlier systems. You can't pick up Pathfinder's Ultimate Intrigue and create a Vigiliante without also going back and understanding something about the Pathfinder core rulebook, plus a whole bunch of stuff in between.

The closest you can come to a new edition while keeping it backwards compatible is probably what Call of Cthluhu has done. But, that's a very different sort of game system from D&D; new editions really don't change much, and they aren't constantly adding things, certainly not for players, not anywhere near the rate of a D&D or Pathfinder. The idea of continuing to give players new toys -- that describes a buildup of necessary knowledge and cruft that will eventually become just too brobdingnagian for many players to keep up with.
 


Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I'm trying to remember when in the development cycle Mearls' quotes come from. Because goals shift, priorities change, worthy ideas may become unrealistic.

Is 5E a "forever" edition? It seems to be doing well for now, I don't see any new edition coming along any time soon. But I'm not convinced that any edition can be a "forever" edition. I can see them releasing what will be effectively a 5.1 edition at some point that keeps most of the feel of the old stuff but still makes fundamental changes. Change how bonus actions or two-weapon fighting works for example.

But when or if another edition (even a minor upgrade) ever happens is anybody's guess. Sales are still going strong so it's going to be at least a few years.
 

J-H

Explorer
I'm pretty happy with 5e. It's also very houserule/homebrew friendly thanks to the simplicity, so any specific "warts" (Warlock Blade Pact, Ranger, etc.) are easy to get through.
 

Var

Explorer
In all fairness 5E fairs pretty well but has shown a few problems that could be ironed out by introducing an official alternative ruleset. Basically just a collection of Alternative Rules. I explicitly don't want to touch the current 5E rules, rather build upon them and expand

The Class Variant Features are pretty much up there on my wishlist for ideas I want to be official. Making the PHB Ranger playable and just adding options for anyone who feels like the base mechanics have been a bit too stale and rigid.

Touching on core rules and mechanics, I'd like to see alternative Combat rules including Feats and things like a revamp for dual wielding in it's entirety. Put a second level of difficulty next to Advantage/Disadvantage. This also gives the option to rebalance the problematic existing Feats in the new system, like Crossbow Master, Elven Accuracy, Sharpshooter, GWM, Athlete, etc. Ideally split existing Feats into smaller perks bought through a resource pool separate from ASIs. Expand weapon types, maybe add some sort of maneuver option to each weapon class.

I'd highly doubt that an Expansion that's basically advanced rules for idiots like me, who like things more complicated, is anywhere close to WotCs plans, but a man can dream. Honestly I'd be happy with just alternative Class Features/redesigned Feats being official.
 
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Snarf Zagyg

Aleena died for your sins.
These numbers look odd to me.
Agreed. I would put it like this for the release dates for the non-Basic lines:

OD&D 1974
1e 1978 (PHB)
2e 1989
3e 2000
4e 2008
5e 2014

The average length of viability for each edition appears to be eight years; this means that conversations about 5e being an evergreen edition are premature until after 2022.

In addition, if you view the OD&D/1e/2e as a continuation of the same D&D, then ...
 

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