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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


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Aldarc

Legend
Players being (too) attached to their PC leads to GMs feeling the need to fudge rolls in order to not kill them, which in turn can make combat feel trivial. If PCs are "supposed" to survive, so as to not upset players, it sucks all the thrill out of gameplay.
So which is the real problem? Players feeling attached to their characters or GMs feeling the need the fudge (and then blaming player attachment to characters on their fudging habits)?
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
So which is the real problem? Players feeling attached to their characters or GMs feeling the need the fudge (and then blaming player attachment to characters on their fudging habits)?
Maybe both? There seems to be enough of a feedback loop that figuring out where it starts is ... difficult.
 

Aldarc

Legend
Maybe both? There seems to be enough of a feedback loop that figuring out where it starts is ... difficult.
How about where the buck stops? With the GM. Players can be overly attached to their characters without requiring the GM to fudge. But the onus is ultimately on the GM to decide how attached they are to the players (and their PCs) and whether or not they want to fudge. But blaming GM fudging on player character attachment seems misplaced.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
How about where the buck stops? With the GM. Players can be overly attached to their characters without requiring the GM to fudge. But the onus is ultimately on the GM to decide how attached they are to the players (and their PCs) and whether or not they want to fudge. But blaming GM fudging on player character attachment seems misplaced.
I'm less willing to put all the blame on the GM than you are. Sure, the GM is ultimately responsible for their own actions, but maybe they're new; maybe there've been bad social consequences away from the table when characters have died in the past; maybe they just don't have the emotional energy to deal with Player A having a meltdown because their character died; maybe there's a story happening that the GM doesn't want to interrupt; maybe there've been 3 TPKs this year and it's only March.

I'm not as anti-fudging as some are--I try to avoid particularly pointless character deaths--so maybe I'm more willing to see it as not exclusively something to blame someone for. All those reasons and experiences listed above can accrue, and especially if they start accruing early in a GM's gaming life, it's easy to see how a GM could end up feeling the need to fudge without ever knowing there was another option.
 

wingsandsword

Adventurer
I will say that serious talk about a "last" edition of D&D is encouraging.

While 5th is not my favorite edition, it's definitely not my least favorite either.

The very idea that WotC could think of an edition as the current one for an indefinite long timeperiod is very progressive and forward thinking of them.

I remember the official WotC line circa 2008, when 4e was coming out, that it was supposedly just obvious that D&D MUST create a new edition every few years to stay alive, and that new editions would be radically different and incompatible from that which came before, but they fully expected fans to collectively buy-in to whatever the new edition was. I remember the analogy used was much like how a band might put out a new album with a different sound, but fans of the band would buy it anyway even if it sounded different than their old material. I also remember fans questioning the idea of a radically incompatible new edition every few years being told they were being unrealistic.

So, while 5e isn't my favorite, I'll definitely say that I can appreciate that WotC may be warming to the idea of an edition of D&D that stays constant for more than a single-digit number of years.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I'm less willing to put all the blame on the GM than you are. Sure, the GM is ultimately responsible for their own actions, but maybe they're new; maybe there've been bad social consequences away from the table when characters have died in the past; maybe they just don't have the emotional energy to deal with Player A having a meltdown because their character died; maybe there's a story happening that the GM doesn't want to interrupt; maybe there've been 3 TPKs this year and it's only March.

I'm not as anti-fudging as some are--I try to avoid particularly pointless character deaths--so maybe I'm more willing to see it as not exclusively something to blame someone for. All those reasons and experiences listed above can accrue, and especially if they start accruing early in a GM's gaming life, it's easy to see how a GM could end up feeling the need to fudge without ever knowing there was another option.
You say that I'm blaming the GM. I'm saying that we shouldn't blame GM fudging on players being attached to their characters. Not exclusively blaming the players for PC attachment is still blaming the players. The onus is on the GM to fudge or not, regardless of how one feels about GM fudging. But if it is perceived as such a problem to blame others for, then clearly there is some anti-fudging sentiment in the blaming of players for being overly attached to their PCs. So again, I'm struggling with my initial question "so what?" if the players are overly attached to their PCs?
 

Starbrat

Explorer
I think it's important to remember that the climate that surrounds RPGs in general, and D&D in particular, seems to be changing. The older model of "New Edition - expand & accessorise - falter under the bloat - New Edition!" - is a model that generates revenue from a near-static, indeed slowly declining, consumer base.

Unfortunately it's also a model that makes it increasingly difficult to attract new players, except during the New Edition phase.

Wizards seems to have cracked the problem of expanding that consumer base and raising awareness of D&D to new heights. Frankly I've never seen the like, not even when I got into it back in '82/'83. Is this just another fad, that will die off in a couple of years? Is it a new phenomenon that will permanently increase the profile and cultural impact of RPGs?

If it's the latter, then despite the fact that D&D and I have barely spoken in nearly 19 years, I will always be grateful to Wizards and their efforts to break the declining cycle that has plagued our hobby for so long.

But it also seems very clear to me that, if the latter case is true, the old model must not be allowed to dominate or the hobby runs the risk of crippling that growth.
 

Other option may be a super-basic version for a boad game with miniatures as hook for the portion of the market of +7/10 years old children. It would be practically a spiritual succesor of the Hero-Quest by Milton Bradley. (Some times in the past I suggested the name Endless Quest for the serie of game-books).

Don't we agree it's too soon for a new edition yet? There are still lots of things to be added or remade. And the strategy of expanding the consumer base is working. Why to change it? Now we are in the phase updating old glories, the next to dare to add new things, and the last phase will be compilations and affording themself the riskiest ideas, for example classes with new game mechanics.

Hasbro doesn't worry about selling more TTRPGs but making money with D&D as a multimedia franchise.

I guess the next step will be a new universal-genre system what allows publish adaptations of differents IPs (videogames, superheroes, other Hasbros franchises).
 

S'mon

Legend
I guess the next step will be a new universal-genre system what allows publish adaptations of differents IPs (videogames, superheroes, other Hasbros franchises).
They'd probably be better off doing these as 5e D&D setting books, I expect - and sticking to D&D-able settings, so maybe something like Guardians of the Galaxy for sci-fantasy & superheroes, but probably not harder SF.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
There is a case for fudging, but its niche. Adventure design is complicated and its very difficult to judge all the potential ramifications in every case. As a DM, I will always reserve the right to fix and indeed fudge, in cases where my design elements are the source of the problem. Regularly fudging rolls as a kind of plot armor isn't something I can get behind though. I think it takes too much away from the stakes. That's not to say that adjudication can't change TPK to unconscious imprisonment or whatever though, that's fine.

In between is some grey area. Do you fudge a roll to allow the cooler result? IDK.
 

They'd probably be better off doing these as 5e D&D setting books, I expect - and sticking to D&D-able settings, so maybe something like Guardians of the Galaxy for sci-fantasy & superheroes, but probably not harder SF.
Maybe we will see some steps in the middle, for example the return of Red Steel/Savage Coast to test new rules about repearting firearms and superpowers by mutations. And Spelljammer to try some ideas to be used later in a new edition of Gamma World. Or the return of the old Ravenloft spin-off "Mask of the Red Death", but this time the lore is almost retconted to be more linked to the demiplane of the dread.

If D&D is making money, why not a d20 version of famous franchises? For example G.I.Joe, to show potential partners their franchises can be adapted to the new d20 system.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
There is a case for fudging, but its niche. Adventure design is complicated and its very difficult to judge all the potential ramifications in every case. As a DM, I will always reserve the right to fix and indeed fudge, in cases where my design elements are the source of the problem. Regularly fudging rolls as a kind of plot armor isn't something I can get behind though. I think it takes too much away from the stakes. That's not to say that adjudication can't change TPK to unconscious imprisonment or whatever though, that's fine.

In between is some grey area. Do you fudge a roll to allow the cooler result? IDK.
Some of this depends on how you define fudging. I rarely change the roll of the dice, but I do change tactics, don't bring in reinforcements or changed the number of creatures I had planned on using. Since I never use published mods (and think they need to be adjusted for the group if I did), is that fudging? If the party is having a tough time is it really fudging if the BBEG's henchman sees an opportunity to betray them in a play to take over themselves?

I'm more concerned about telling a fun, dynamic story than adhering to the thought that everything I had planned on doing is set in stone.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I'm actually amazed by how Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast have diverged in their strategies here, considering both companies are reaping some of their best years of all time.

WotC is sticking with the same edition of D&D, while GW just announced 9th Edition for Warhammer 40,000... truly incredible. Completely different games of course, but it is interesting how WH40k (which has a far faster release schedule than D&D) is able to very quickly get into rules bloat, and then want to start over again.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
I'm actually amazed by how Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast have diverged in their strategies here, considering both companies are reaping some of their best years of all time.

WotC is sticking with the same edition of D&D, while GW just announced 9th Edition for Warhammer 40,000... truly incredible. Completely different games of course, but it is interesting how WH40k (which has a far faster release schedule than D&D) is able to very quickly get into rules bloat, and then want to start over again.
Didn't they recently do 8th edition with primaries space Marines?

Different business model I suppose. More MtG.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I'm actually amazed by how Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast have diverged in their strategies here, considering both companies are reaping some of their best years of all time.

WotC is sticking with the same edition of D&D, while GW just announced 9th Edition for Warhammer 40,000... truly incredible. Completely different games of course, but it is interesting how WH40k (which has a far faster release schedule than D&D) is able to very quickly get into rules bloat, and then want to start over again.
GW has a very different business model for 40K, and to lesser extent for Fantasy. The power balance in the game shifts every edition and that's a prime motivator for people to buy new armies. The newbs come regardless, but the changing editions and standard codex creep keep miniatures flying out the door. Everyone wants to be playing the new hotness.
 




Parmandur

Legend
I'm actually amazed by how Games Workshop and Wizards of the Coast have diverged in their strategies here, considering both companies are reaping some of their best years of all time.

WotC is sticking with the same edition of D&D, while GW just announced 9th Edition for Warhammer 40,000... truly incredible. Completely different games of course, but it is interesting how WH40k (which has a far faster release schedule than D&D) is able to very quickly get into rules bloat, and then want to start over again.
My understanding is that Warhammer's audience changes every few years, aging out after having completed their armies, and their model is built around giving newer, younger players a good jumping on point to start their collections.
 

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