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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

MaskedGuy

Explorer
I mean one thing I find really frustrating about 5e (besides campaign books being underwhelming) is lack of new setting material and slow as hell pace at which they release new content. I don't really care as much about lack of crunch as lack of lore :p Then again, I have to admit that I don't find Forgotten Realms lore interesting in first place, its really not setting up to my tastes -_-;
 

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Mercurius

Legend
I mean one thing I find really frustrating about 5e (besides campaign books being underwhelming) is lack of new setting material and slow as hell pace at which they release new content. I don't really care as much about lack of crunch as lack of lore :p Then again, I have to admit that I don't find Forgotten Realms lore interesting in first place, its really not setting up to my tastes -_-;
There are four setting books in 20 months, and three in just eight months, so I'm not sure what the problem is as far as "lack of new setting material":

Nov, 2018: Ravnica
Nov, 2019: Eberron
Mar, 2020: Wildemount
July, 2020: Theros

But, yeah the release of books is slow. The way I look at it is that it keeps the game healthy and successful, and the quality relatively high. Would I personally like more material? Sure. In my ideal world they'd release a new hardcover every other month, alternating with with shorter modules and locations, but what they're doing is just fine.

I suspect the increase in settings isn't an aberration, but a sign of things to come. Maybe it is wishful thinking, but I could see them publishing two setting books a year: one legacy setting, one Magic setting. So something like this:

2021: Planescape, Zendikar
2022: Dark Sun, Innistrad
2023: Forgotten Realms Campaign Book, Dominaria
2024: Greyhawk, Eldraine

Etc. Or something like that.
 

MaskedGuy

Explorer
Do note that before Paizo moved to slower pace as well(thought not as slow pace), their campaign setting books used to be bi monthly :3 And I'm not talking about just "big new setting book" I'm talking about "Books that focus on particular area of the larger setting" books. And even then that is before that, do remember that last book about setting before Ravnica book was Sword Coast Adventurer's guide in 2015. So besides me considering "one book per year" too slow for my tastes, my problem is that 5e at this rate is never going out to flesh out the books they have released since that isn't their goal. Part of it is avoiding "too many books!" and one is probably part of "Well some dungeon masters complain about having to update their own homebrew setting to match published ones, so let's just not publish anything new in this edition!" or something, but as I said, I'm complaining based on my own preferences not matching their business tactic :)

(it doesn't really help that uh, no matter how high quality it might be, I don't find Forgotten Realms flavor likeable. Besides Forgotten Realms having heavy focus on mantaining status quo marvel/dc superhero comic book style, none of nations in Faerun have really been presented in fashion that makes them more than backdrops for dungeon crawling.)

Sooo yeah, it would definitely help if they had released other classic D&D book material before Eberron way earlier ;D I want mah Mystra or Birthright book :p (which I'm never gonna get since those are dead settings only sometimes referenced by 5e)
 

I respect the strategy of slower candence because this makes easier to be translated to other languanges.

Today WotC isn't selling crunch but more the "brand". 3PPs can produce their own lore or settings with a decent lore/background. And videogame industry is a serious rival for TTRPG publishers. Even some CRPGs are free-to-play, too cheap or free as gifts because they are "old".

You could remember I have said in the past some times one of the next goals by WotC is the section of the fandom market about superheroes.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I don't know about that. The skill system is a pretty solid departure from previous editions. Unless you meant additional crunch rather than new crunch. I'm also not sure why you're so fixated on WotC moving into a modern or Sci-Fi setting. They don't have to go there to add new ideas, and they are currently selling a ton of D&D books every time they release one. I don't see why this would push them to branch out into a different genre, at least any time soon.
 



MaskedGuy

Explorer
Yes, but any day now sales are going to implode. Any. Day. Keep repeating this like a mantra and eventually it's going to happen, right? ;)
Its honestly really promising since it means hobby's userbase is still growing and hasn't peaked yet
 

Paizo has got Starfinder, and WotC can't publish a new d20 Star Wars yet.

My opinion is WotC needs a d20 Modern to be ready when medieval fantasy isn't so popular as now, and that about "don't put all your eggs in one basket". A good strategy has to allow a plan B.
 

Lem23

Adventurer
Yes, but any day now sales are going to implode. Any. Day. Keep repeating this like a mantra and eventually it's going to happen, right? ;)
I'm sure that when every person in the world has 17 copies of the PHB, that sales will start to drop a little, yes. :D
 


Hatmatter

Explorer
I disagree that "editions" are bad for the industry as a whole. Maybe for video games but not for TTRPG, though if Rockstar could put out a new GTA every year they would. I think change is good and taking risks is a healthy part of any industry. 4th edition was not a product I liked, and was clearly not good for WotC, but that was all very good for, among others, Paizo and OSR.

I would hate to see TTRPGs take the same update model as video games. That model has produced a lot of half made games that hardly function on launch. Titles are pushed it out early, with the knowledge issues would be fixed in later updates. This leads to sloppy work. I want a completed, polished product, full stop, with the understanding that errata will always be with us. The other problem with the update model is fan service. Where the loudest gripers get what they like amplified over what is good for the game. I think of what happened to the AAA MMO industry specifically.

I am not opposed to new ideas or a new way of doing things, far from it, everyone should play what they want for sure and there is no wrong way as long as you are having fun. And for those who don't like the update model, or dislike 5e and other new games that use its design philosophy, there is a mountain of material for the old games and plenty still being made by enthusiasts. The tricky bit is finding anyone who will play with you.
I thought about this comment, Univoxs, for a week before responding. When I read this, I see a couple of ideas under the surface that are worth unpacking.

The first idea is that I understand this to be an enthusiastic support for iterating in order to improve. This is a great cheer in support of creativity, which I think most of us can get behind. However, I see it being applied to a mode of "edition thinking" that presumes Dungeons & Dragons will or should have new editions that change the way the game is played. This is what I disagree with. I agree that "change is good and taking risks is a healthy part of any industry" if we are talking about the innovation of new games or changing games that have promise but are broken or could use some improvement.

The second idea is that I think if the "change is good" ethos is applied to an expectation that D&D will always have new editions that change the rules, we will see much of what others here have observed: a fractioning of the fanbase and, as I pointed out in my post on page two of this forum, we lose years worth of campaign narratives and interesting supplements to D&D from the good folks at Wizards because the iteration of new rules sucks all of the oxygen out of the room for years as a new edition is play tested, promoted, sold, and then elements from older editions are now converted into the new edition. In effect, a new edition because "change is good" can keep Dungeons & Dragons from developing because creativity stagnates as it is forever applied to tweaking rules that, to be honest, work fine. A crass analogy might be that of the addict, who becomes emotionally stunted at his or her maturity level when he or she became an addict. An "addiction" to edition thinking can lock the development of D&D into constantly iterating how to adjudicate underwater combat or multiclassing or what-have-you and stunt what I believe to be the far more richer and creative contributions of the game: the development of narratives, settings, and new ways to tell stories. Let's see the D&D large battle rules that have been rumored. Let's see a guidebook on DMing campaigns with large numbers of players. Let's see adventures that traverse the multiverse in greater depth than ever before hinted at. Let's see familiar IPs tied in to the game in unexpected and revelatory ways. Let's see what happens when someone like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King or some other talent is hired to develop a D&D adventure, campaign, or setting. And so on...

At this point in our history of the game, Dungeons & Dragons has proven successful because the 5th edition was able (brilliantly, I think) to use some of the chassis of 4th edition, which was developed in order to overcome some perceived balance issues in 3rd edition, while returning to key elements of the game that players missed and, without which, did not feel the game "was Dungeons & Dragons." How many times have people observed that 4th edition is a great tactical game but does not "feel" like D&D?

Because we are dealing with a game with venerable history, tropes, and lore, this is part of what new iterations of D&D will run up against, just like 4th edition ran right into it. When I read that people would like a new edition of D&D that diverges from a class-based system, for example, I think that is likely a great idea for a new game, but, at this point in D&D's history, it would be unwise to take the game in that direction because many players who like to play D&D want the class-based system because it feels like D&D. It is ok to acknowledge that D&D was created in the 1970s and retains some hallmarks of that era's design philosophy. It lends a charm to the game that renders it, dare I say, iconic.
 
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D&D is in the phase of recovering and updating the "old glories". Later will be the phase to try new things. D&D doesn't need changes yet, and we want to add new ideas, the options are to publish a new Unearthe Arcana or to introduce a new game with d20 system, for example Gamma World.

Today to publish a new edition is too risky for TTRPG with a lot of crunch. WotC can't allow itself a new edition war, and it will not change its strategy if this still works.

And if there is some important change to the rules, we will have to see the preview in the Unearthed Arcane articles.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The first idea is that I understand this to be an enthusiastic support for iterating in order to improve. This is a great cheer in support of creativity, which I think most of us can get behind. However, I see it being applied to a mode of "edition thinking" that presumes Dungeons & Dragons will or should have new editions that change the way the game is played. This is what I disagree with. I agree that "change is good and taking risks is a healthy part of any industry" if we are talking about the innovation of new games or changing games that have promise but are broken or could use some improvement.

The second idea is that I think if the "change is good" ethos is applied to an expectation that D&D will always have new editions that change the rules, we will see much of what others here have observed: a fractioning of the fanbase and ... we lose years worth of campaign narratives and interesting supplements to D&D from the good folks at Wizards ...
There's an even deeper issue around a constant expectation of change: in order to make a new edition seem new enough to be worth jumping to, rules and systems that work fine as they are will inevitably be replaced with things that don't work as well. Change for the sake of change.

At the same time, of course, rules and systems that aren't working will be replaced with things that (in theory) work better.

End result: one step forward, one step back.

In the end - and take this as a cynical viewpoint if you like - in order to justify the next edition it's actually in their interests to design problems into the current one. I'm not at all suggesting this was done with 5e; they really do seem to have made an effort to reduce headaches from prior editions, but they didn't catch 'em all and 5e has some headaches unique to itself as well (rest-and-recovery, front and centre please!).

Because we are dealing with a game with venerable history, tropes, and lore, this is part of what new iterations of D&D will run up against, just like 4th edition ran right into it. When I read that people would like a new edition of D&D that diverges from a class-based system, for example, I think that is likely a great idea for a new game, but, at this point in D&D's history, it would be unwise to take the game in that direction because many players who like to play D&D want the class-based system because it feels like D&D. It is ok to acknowledge that D&D was created in the 1970s and retains some hallmarks of that era's design philosophy. It lends a charm to the game that renders it, dare I say, iconic.
Well said; and while some of those 1970s-era rules and systems were almost unplayable, others arguably turned out better than anything that's come since.
 

Hatmatter

Explorer
There's an even deeper issue around a constant expectation of change: in order to make a new edition seem new enough to be worth jumping to, rules and systems that work fine as they are will inevitably be replaced with things that don't work as well. Change for the sake of change.

At the same time, of course, rules and systems that aren't working will be replaced with things that (in theory) work better.

End result: one step forward, one step back.
Yes, Lanefan, I agree that this is a risk. Well said.
In the end - and take this as a cynical viewpoint if you like - in order to justify the next edition it's actually in their interests to design problems into the current one. I'm not at all suggesting this was done with 5e; they really do seem to have made an effort to reduce headaches from prior editions, but they didn't catch 'em all and 5e has some headaches unique to itself as well (rest-and-recovery, front and centre please!).
Yikes, let's hope that kind of cynicism does not creep in. Concerning rest-and-recovery, I like how the Dungeon Master's Guide provides a collection of optional rules for handling damage and grievous, long-lasting injuries for those who want to introduce more lasting consequences into battles.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I thought about this comment, Univoxs, for a week before responding.
I apologize for causing so much rumination on the point. I agree that editions waste time as developers recreate Keep on the Borderlands for the millionth time. I don't think D&D needs rules added to it so it can do everything. Maybe that is good for WotC but I don't think it is good for the players. What I would prefer to play a different game to experience elements D&D does not do as well, rather than play a bolted on rules set. Why wait for a sourcebook on sea faring adventures? I'll just go play 7th sea.
 


Hatmatter

Explorer
I apologize for causing so much rumination on the point. I agree that editions waste time as developers recreate Keep on the Borderlands for the millionth time. I don't think D&D needs rules added to it so it can do everything. Maybe that is good for WotC but I don't think it is good for the players. What I would prefer to play a different game to experience elements D&D does not do as well, rather than play a bolted on rules set. Why wait for a sourcebook on sea faring adventures? I'll just go play 7th sea.
Hello, my friend. I appreciated the opportunity to think it over.
Looks like we are in agreement that innovation in new games is an asset for all.
 


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