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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.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Comments

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Not necessarily. I want players invested in the emergent narrative. Which should ideally be bigger than the sum of its parts (read: characters).
Actors fade in, actors fade out, but the story remains. But I guess that's just a different playstyle.
Ideally you have both. The extent to which that narrative is driven by the characters (or not) also changes the mix. I think it's a spectrum, not a binary.
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Not necessarily. I want players invested in the emergent narrative. Which should ideally be bigger than the sum of its parts (read: characters).
Actors fade in, actors fade out, but the story remains. But I guess that's just a different playstyle.
I think "too attached" is a judgment that's likely to vary from table to table. I think players invested in their characters, and in achieving those characters' goals, help good stories emerge from play. Character death can also help good stories emerge from play, of course, and if the rest of the party decides to achieve a dead character's goals that can be a powerful statement about the other characters as well as a strong story.

I don't think you can have that sort of story emerge if characters are dying every session or three. That doesn't mean you can't have any story, just not that kind; it also doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong. As you say, it's a matter of different (valid) playstyles.
 

wingsandsword

Adventurer
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.
People keep thinking in terms of new book sales for competition in the gaming market.

The problem is, when you create a new edition, you get a lot of fans of the current edition that just stop buying at all.

People acted like 4e's main competition was Pathfinder. . .it was just as much 3.5e. How many fans really just stopped buying new D&D books when 4e came out and kept playing 3.5? They didn't rush to abandon 3.5 for Pathfinder just because Pathfinder was now in print and 3.5 wasn't.

I know of more than one gaming group that just stopped buying D&D books when AD&D 2e came out, and kept playing 1e for many years like that.

D&D editions indeed never do go away. . .especially 3e, thanks to the OGL it can essentially be reproduced infinitely and legally.
 

darjr

I crit!
Not only 3.5, but all older editions, and increasingly clones. Though at the time of 5e’s inception it was larger in percentage than I think now. Maybe. 5e does seem to have captured a lot of the attention from folks that may have otherwise stayed with older and much older editions.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Not only 3.5, but all older editions, and increasingly clones. Though at the time of 5e’s inception it was larger in percentage than I think now. Maybe. 5e does seem to have captured a lot of the attention from folks that may have otherwise stayed with older and much older editions.
The key was making what people wanted. Who woulda thunk?
 

darjr

I crit!
The key was making what people wanted. Who woulda thunk?
Yea but easier said than done!

so many diverse wants! And the language talking about RPGs is a mess and rife with “traps” where understanding is difficult.
They needed a real understanding of the different play styles acquired through experience. And I think they needed to get to the aha moment of each of those.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
It's nowhere close to that, unless you're counting all of the options they could theoretically select from, not what they actually have.

I'm not saying your idea isn't an interesting idea (it is), but being loose with your numbers is only going to cause arguments over the numbers, not advance your point.
Fair enough. Yet a 20th level character in 5E does have a helluva lot of 'powers'. Especially spellcasters. And especially if you count every Tool Proficiency, Weapon Proficiency, Armor Proficiency, BAB, Save, and Skill bump. And if you count separately every 'automatic' level-based upgrade in cantrips and spells (e.g. get more magic missiles at higher levels). And every attuned magic item slot.

I don't have time to add it up, but though it may not add up to 200, it is a big number. A streamlined RPG busts up of this into tiny bite-sized dollops. Then advancing one level each session, and gaining one 'power' each level, makes sense.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Fair enough. Yet a 20th level character in 5E does have a helluva lot of 'powers'. Especially spellcasters. And especially if you count every Tool Proficiency, Weapon Proficiency, Armor Proficiency, BAB, Save, and Skill bump. And if you count separately every 'automatic' level-based upgrade in cantrips and spells (e.g. get more magic missiles at higher levels). And every attuned magic item slot.

I don't have time to add it up, but though it may not add up to 200, it is a big number. A streamlined RPG busts up of this into tiny bite-sized dollops. Then advancing one level each session, and gaining one 'power' each level, makes sense.
Yea, but a lot of those bumps are already vastly simplified. Attack bonuses, saves, and skills all increase at regular intervals, and that's the same number for all those categories across every character.

You could certainly do away with a lot of those increases; indeed, you could probably get rid of level-based increases entirely and have level give purely additive abilities that increase the breadth of capability only, rather than the depth. You could have spell progression that is entirely flat, rather than level-based.

But at that point, that sounds like you'd be advocating for WotC to put their marketing muscle behind your interpretation of a fantasy heartbreaker, which doesn't seem like a good way to market D&D.
 

Why not just houserule it that if you want to dip into a class like that you've gotta put in the training time, even if it means retiring the character?
I said that I don't tell players no except in extreme situations. If someone wanted to dip into wizard at a later point, I would probably sit down with the player and work out a modification to the backstory. Maybe they had studied wizardry but never finished their schooling. Now they've decided to brush up and expand on those skills.

I don't like the way some players treat characters as a bag of class abilities that exist outside of story and background, which is why multiclass discussions online do not interest me. The whole discussion seems to be focused on optimizing class abilities, not on creating an interesting character or story. I'm a combination storyteller and method actor when it comes to gaming.

See Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering

Since I start most chronicles at 3rd level, it's not a problem. If someone wants to be a multiclass character they can do it. If I were playing at 1st level, I'd probably houserule some sort of hybridization for the first two levels that eventually would come together as a traditional multiclass character.

I even do this for subclasses. I had a player want to play an eldritch knight but was unhappy that the character didn't feel like an eldritch knight at 1st level, so I gave them one cantrip at first level, a second cantrip at 2nd and then the other stuff at 3rd.

This is, however, the main reason why I start at 3rd level. Characters can build multiclass characters and all single-class characters have their subclass by that point.
 

Parmandur

Legend
I think it is a sign of 5E's perennial potential that different people on this forum both want a next edition that is less complex and cuts the crunch, and others who want a less simple game that needs up the crunch.

Glden Mean, y'all.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I said that I don't tell players no except in extreme situations. If someone wanted to dip into wizard at a later point, I would probably sit down with the player and work out a modification to the backstory. Maybe they had studied wizardry but never finished their schooling. Now they've decided to brush up and expand on those skills.
Fine, I suppose, though I'm not a fan of meta-retcons like this.

I don't like the way some players treat characters as a bag of class abilities that exist outside of story and background, which is why multiclass discussions online do not interest me. The whole discussion seems to be focused on optimizing class abilities, not on creating an interesting character or story.
Agreed.

That said, as a DM the character's story I care about is that which arises from play, rather than its backstory. As a player, both are important.

Must I? Every time I read anything he's written I just end up getting annoyed with myself for having wasted my time.

Since I start most chronicles at 3rd level, it's not a problem. If someone wants to be a multiclass character they can do it. If I were playing at 1st level, I'd probably houserule some sort of hybridization for the first two levels that eventually would come together as a traditional multiclass character.
See, here's a huge difference between us: I'd never start a campaign (as opposed to a one-off) at anything other than 1st, unless I could find a way to start it at 0th.

And this ties into why I really don't like 'additive' multiclassing (as in, the way 3e-4e-5e do it): you're always only ever advancing one class at a time, whcih really gets in the way of the idea that a character earns class experience (i.e. xp) based on what it does within that class. Thus, in my view a 3e-4e-5e character who's currently 2nd Fighter and 1st Cleric and is looking to move to 2-2 at the next bump should be functioning for that level almost solely as a Cleric, because that's where your xp are going!

The 1e-2e model*, where each class advanced independently and side-along made far more intuitive sense; sometimes you'd be acting mostly a Fighter and other times mostly a Cleric, leading to a more-or-less 50-50 split over the long term; when you got xp each class got half (or whatever ratio you'd decided). In this system a 2-2 character is roughly equivalent to a 3rd-level single-class.

* - RAW for demihumans and very long ago houseruled here to work the same for Humans as well.

This is, however, the main reason why I start at 3rd level. Characters can build multiclass characters and all single-class characters have their subclass by that point.
Fortunately perhaps, I don't have to worry about subclasses. :) But even there, I'd still say there's advantages in starting from raw 1st, in that something might change a player's plans during those first few levels - maybe someone starts out planning to end up in subclass a but something happens in the game and suddenly subclass b makes more sense. Hard to change this if you're locked in right from the start.

I'm also not one who sees any value in a character concept being fully realized at low levels, because where do you go from there? Your concept is the late-stage or end goal, and the campaign sees you slowly grow from nothing into that concept - or die trying.
 


Mercurius

Legend
I think it is a sign of 5E's perennial potential that different people on this forum both want a next edition that is less complex and cuts the crunch, and others who want a less simple game that needs up the crunch.

Glden Mean, y'all.
Yup. I'll add to this that 5E's strong core chassis allows for a lot of customizing and, dare I say, modulating of the complexity dial.

Make it your own, y'all.
 

It's better to await more time to avoid a new "edition war".

This is like a videogame studio what should produce the title of a different franchise and not the sequel of the same IP than the last year. My theory is we will see before a TTRPG based in the comingsoon sci-fi game about Archetype Enternaiment is working. If WotC can't create yet a new d20 Star Wars then maybe it wanted a game based in some other famouse franchise, maybe videogames (for example Fortnite: Save the World), Borderlands or Overwatch, even superheroes, Marvel or DC. But a project like this would need a update version of d20 Modern.
 

There are multiple reasons to wait until people are tired of 5e to wait to make a new edition, but I think a main one is:

If you create a new edition when many people are still playing 5e or are happy with the current state of 5e, then when you make a new edition, you'll have a group of people who won't move on to the new edition, and will continue to play with the older products. Many of these people won't buy the new edition products, and you'll be stuck with a group of people who don't buy your new products, because they like the old edition.
 



If this still works, why to change it? The next edition will be necessary when the crunch/gameplay was broken and it can't be fixed easily. And the candence of books is slower than previous editions, and most of them aren't crunch.

And Hasbro's project about the D&D brand is this to be promoted with media productions.

The "6th Ed" will be not to play D&D but some other famous (no medieval fantasy) franchise (movies, videogames or comics, I guess).
 

S'mon

Legend
Back in 2014 I thought there'd be a 6e in 2024. That seems increasingly unlikely given the success in making 5e evergreen. I think many people might buy an updated/errata'd/expanded 50th Anniversary 5e PHB and MM - I can't really see what could go in a new DMG that'd be worth the effort - I guess the (very nice) XGTE encounter tables if they still don't fit in the MM. And if compatible with the 2014 releases, that wouldn't break the base. Which I think has got to be WoTC's main concern - they don't want a 3e to 3.5e situation, never mind 3e to 4e.
 


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