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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
I think the optional rules for resting in the DMG provide an interesting template. They are good examples of a modular rules sets that can be swapped into the core rules to customize the gaming experience. That seems to have been a popular thing, and I know I use some of those rules quite a bit. The important thing is that they exist at all though. If this is a model for the rules that WotC is happy with, they have far less need to rev the edition. They could quite easily release a Masterclass book that is a collection of modular rules sets that can be swapped in and out of the core rules. In a stealthy way they are already kind of doing this with the setting books, like way Ravnica introduced more advanced faction rules. Anyway, I think that WotC has left themselves room to modify and update sections of the rules without having to move to a new edition.
 

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Hatmatter

Explorer
I think the optional rules for resting in the DMG provide an interesting template. They are good examples of a modular rules sets that can be swapped into the core rules to customize the gaming experience. That seems to have been a popular thing, and I know I use some of those rules quite a bit. The important thing is that they exist at all though. If this is a model for the rules that WotC is happy with, they have far less need to rev the edition. They could quite easily release a Masterclass book that is a collection of modular rules sets that can be swapped in and out of the core rules. In a stealthy way they are already kind of doing this with the setting books, like way Ravnica introduced more advanced faction rules. Anyway, I think that WotC has left themselves room to modify and update sections of the rules without having to move to a new edition.
I agree and also think that you said it well! Thanks!
 

S'mon

Legend
I think the optional rules for resting in the DMG provide an interesting template. They are good examples of a modular rules sets that can be swapped into the core rules to customize the gaming experience.
I think overall 5e did do a good job with modularity. The only thing I really find lacking is options for a lower-magic game where most PCs are not spellcasters. Everything else is quite flexible.
 


FEADIN

Explorer
I have no need for a new edition. I'll just keep using 5e until no one wants to play. After that I'll play other RPGs in my book shelf.
Yes maybe in the USA new editions gets a good sell but in France there is less players and the old ones like me, I started in 1981, stay with older editions, 3.5 or Pathfinder even 2.5 sometimes.
Even Pathfinder edition gets no more traduction, a new game is out (4 years) called: Les chroniques oubliées (Forgotten chronicles) and I think it will be more and more difficult to find D&D books traducted in French.
And for the english readers like me: Too much books to buy, to read, learn new rules and so on and no time to enjoy the game at last.
 

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 -_-;
I think a lot of people agree with you, but I find it puzzling since there are so many...far more than I can ever use...3rd party settings that are 5e compatible. The way I see it, WotC is the curator of the rules, but I can get content from anywhere (including my own head).

Is there any particular reason why 3rd party settings don't scratch that itch for you?
 

Parmandur

Legend
I think a lot of people agree with you, but I find it puzzling since there are so many...far more than I can ever use...3rd party settings that are 5e compatible. The way I see it, WotC is the curator of the rules, but I can get content from anywhere (including my own head).

Is there any particular reason why 3rd party settings don't scratch that itch for you?
Not to mention WotC is about to release their third Setting book in a row...
 



darjr

I crit!
ERP, sorry.

thiught you were kidding about the whole “setting” debate about the announcement.
Ugh I’ve been sleeping most of the day with a mind splitting head ache
 

vpuigdoller

Adventurer
...?

Eberron, Wildemount, Theros? The two most recent D&D books are Setting books, and so is the next one coming out. That's three in a row...?
Even Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus was part Baldur's Gate / Avernus Setting. I think they will keep on this roll, its been very popular. (Adventure + Gazzeteer) books and (Setting + Monsters + Character options) books.
 


5e books are very much in categories. It's been awhile since we've had a player or DM options book other than a setting book, so Xanathar's 2.0 should be coming fairly soon (with the pandemic a possible source of delay).
 

Parmandur

Legend
5e books are very much in categories. It's been awhile since we've had a player or DM options book other than a setting book, so Xanathar's 2.0 should be coming fairly soon (with the pandemic a possible source of delay).
What is a Setting book, but a player and DM option book, with a mini Monster Manual and some Gazeeter material?
 




prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Yeah, the new format seems to be a little something for everyone. The AP, some mechanics, some player options, and a leavening of new monsters and magic. If there's a little something for everyone, then everyone will want to buy it.
Depends on how the "little" is for a given person, and how much is useless. I'm not happy buying a whole setting book if all I'm going to use from it is one subclass and a handful of monsters, but I've done exactly that, and there might be other setting-ish ideas I can grab. The signal-to-noise ratio is even worse for me in an adventure book, where there is (usually) even less in the way of useful stuff and even more in the way of useless stuff. (Regular reminder: I can't make sense of adventure books, even to pull adventure ideas out of.)
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Depends on how the "little" is for a given person, and how much is useless. I'm not happy buying a whole setting book if all I'm going to use from it is one subclass and a handful of monsters, but I've done exactly that, and there might be other setting-ish ideas I can grab. The signal-to-noise ratio is even worse for me in an adventure book, where there is (usually) even less in the way of useful stuff and even more in the way of useless stuff. (Regular reminder: I can't make sense of adventure books, even to pull adventure ideas out of.)
If you're only talking about 3-4 books a year, I think it can be pretty little. I lot of people also just like to read the books too. I primarily DM, so I can use pretty much every inch of the AP books, even if I never run the AP, so I'm good. But even if I were primarily a player, I'm pretty sure I'd still buy all the releases just for the player options and the general read. At 3 or 4 books a year, it's a pretty small investment. We're talking maybe $250 Canadian tops, which is like $20 a month. That's chicken feed for a lot of people compared to other hobbies.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
If you're only talking about 3-4 books a year, I think it can be pretty little. I lot of people also just like to read the books too. I primarily DM, so I can use pretty much every inch of the AP books, even if I never run the AP, so I'm good. But even if I were primarily a player, I'm pretty sure I'd still buy all the releases just for the player options and the general read. At 3 or 4 books a year, it's a pretty small investment. We're talking maybe $250 Canadian tops, which is like $20 a month. That's chicken feed for a lot of people compared to other hobbies.
Yeah, it's not a lot, but there's a value proposition that some people are going to have problems getting themselves past. Also, as someone who plays some, I'm reluctant to buy adventure books in case someone else wants to run one. I'm hard enough to get through an adventure path as it is--I can't help but think it'd be worse if I knew the logic-holes before we started.
 

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