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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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I'd be fine with D&D finally hopping off of the edition treadmill. At this point, I think justifying a new edition is a ways off - certainly not by sales, nor by rules. Considering I see arguments that 5e is both dumbed down and that it's too fiddly, I'd say that they hit the right middle ground. :D
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
I wonder if it's better to announce a move to a new edition while the current version is very near its peak? Or wait until it's very clear it's on the downswing?
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
This has never been done before:

For 6E, convert literally every D&D product ever made into the new edition ahead of time, and make it all available from the start, as PDFs at DMs Guild. Hire freelancers to convert everything.

Why? This entirely skips over the 'perpetual amnesia' and 'short-term-memory loss' and feeling of 'forced obsolescence' which is induced by each piecemeal rollout of a new edition.

Also, cover literally everything in the PF SRD as well. Talk about trumping Paizo!

This could/should be done for every subsequent edition of D&D, from now on.

One of the selling points for D&D is the vast Multiverse and product line. But it's not really and fully being tapped.
 
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dwayne

Adventurer
just do some options books with alternative rules and maybe some things that others were home brewing variant classes and combat systems magic even some throw backs to other things like more skills or an alternative skill system. A tool box of a sort so a dm or player can put the elements into a 5th edition game of their own making
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
I wonder if it's better to announce a move to a new edition while the current version is very near its peak? Or wait until it's very clear it's on the downswing?
If the reception of 3e vs. the reception of 4e is anything to go by, the answer is pretty clearly the latter - you don't release a new edition until the one you have is well past it's prime unless you want a fanbase revolt.
 



Mike Mearls said:
I think we'd do a new edition only when the warts of the current one are bothersome enough that people want them excised.
This is a completely innocuous comment and indicative of nothing. Every new edition was allegedly triggered by the fans finding the old edition troublesome. (Although, really, economic pressures are more important, as spelled out in Art & Arcana.)

There's also no reason to believe Winniger is going to be announcing a sixth edition, especially since he's apparently been on the job for a while now, and fans just weren't paying attention.

More relevant data points not in the original post:

1. WotC is moving heaven and earth to not update the ranger in the PHB, despite their admission that a lot of fans have problems with the class, as they don't want to fork the user base between people with PHB 1.0 and PHB 1.1 (although there has been more minor errata added).

2. The UA publication of supplemental rules intended to allow groups to tweak existing classes (including that pesky ranger) instead of wholesale replacing any classes, for the same reason as above.

3. The measured release of material that changes the core experience. So far, only Xanathar's comes close to really shaking up the core D&D game, and even then, most of the content in there is pretty niche compared to the iconic material in the PHB. Subsequent releases have had a few races, a few spells, a background or a subclass or three, but nothing that could be deemed essential outside of the setting or campaign they're linked to. This is clearly WotC following a game plan intended to allow indefinite releases.

4. And most importantly, the core D&D books are still selling like gangbusters, especially during the pandemic, which Amazon and other retailers are happy to show without waiting for (unfortunately less important at the moment) trade group reports. Until the PHB isn't a consistent best seller, there's going to be no real drive to kill a cash cow, devote resources to replacing it, and riding out the rough period of low sales between announcement and release.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
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.
 

TiwazTyrsfist

Adventurer
  • 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; insofar as I know, this never had any products made specifically for it) - 3 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 2007 (Elder Evils) - 4 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+
As with several other commentators, I feel like these numbers are presented in a way to support a conclusion not in evidence.

It seems reasonable to me to measure the lifespan of a game from the point it is release in a playable form to the point that the superseding game is released in playable form, therefore I would say this:

AD&D 1 - 1979 (When the core set, MM PHB & DMG, was fully released) - 1988 (10 years)
AD&D 2 - 1989 - 1999 (11 years)
D&D 3.X - 2000 - 2007 (8 years) [First major Gripe, separating 3.0 and 3.5 is definitely data manipulation IMO]
D&D 4e - 2008 - 2013 (6 years) [D&D Next was not an edition it was a public alpha playtest for 5e]
D&D 5e - 2014 - Current (7 years and counting)

Simple maths tells us that the average lifespan of an edition (assuming 5e dies today) is 8.4 years. And frankly I think 4e died early under the weight of a vocal minority who didn't like it. Also it was the first edition to have actual real competition, in the form of Pathfinder (D&D 3.75), which at least partially split the fanbase.

So, really our data set is AD&D 1 10 years, AD&D 2 11 years, and D&D 3.X 8 years.

Average lifespan = 9 years 8 months.

Oh also, if things are published in all the years listed, you can't just subtract one year from the other to get the lifespan.
E.G. 2000 PHB - 2003 Ghost Walk is 4 years
2000 - 1 year
2001 - 2 years
2002 - 3 years
2003 - 4 years


Anyway I've wasted to much time on this already, goodboo
 

Myrhdraak

Explorer
Considering how little material they are producing right now, maybe they have already started the internal work on a 6th edition, or maybe Advaced D&D 5e?
 

DaveMage

Slumbering in Tsar
Oh also, if things are published in all the years listed, you can't just subtract one year from the other to get the lifespan.
E.G. 2000 PHB - 2003 Ghost Walk is 4 years
2000 - 1 year
2001 - 2 years
2002 - 3 years
2003 - 4 years
That presumes a January release and last product in December end.

Often the releases of the new editions have been in the summer/at Gen Con.
 

Monayuris

Adventurer
As with several other commentators, I feel like these numbers are presented in a way to support a conclusion not in evidence.

It seems reasonable to me to measure the lifespan of a game from the point it is release in a playable form to the point that the superseding game is released in playable form, therefore I would say this:

AD&D 1 - 1979 (When the core set, MM PHB & DMG, was fully released) - 1988 (10 years)
AD&D 2 - 1989 - 1999 (11 years)
D&D 3.X - 2000 - 2007 (8 years) [First major Gripe, separating 3.0 and 3.5 is definitely data manipulation IMO]
D&D 4e - 2008 - 2013 (6 years) [D&D Next was not an edition it was a public alpha playtest for 5e]
D&D 5e - 2014 - Current (7 years and counting)

Simple maths tells us that the average lifespan of an edition (assuming 5e dies today) is 8.4 years. And frankly I think 4e died early under the weight of a vocal minority who didn't like it. Also it was the first edition to have actual real competition, in the form of Pathfinder (D&D 3.75), which at least partially split the fanbase.

So, really our data set is AD&D 1 10 years, AD&D 2 11 years, and D&D 3.X 8 years.

Average lifespan = 9 years 8 months.

Oh also, if things are published in all the years listed, you can't just subtract one year from the other to get the lifespan.
E.G. 2000 PHB - 2003 Ghost Walk is 4 years
2000 - 1 year
2001 - 2 years
2002 - 3 years
2003 - 4 years


Anyway I've wasted to much time on this already, goodboo
A point I'd like to make...

I run B/X as well as retro-clones such as Basic Fantasy and Old School Essentials. I have used AD&D modules, Judges Guild products that predate official TSR releases, and new OSR content that emulates each the content of each of those editions (Swords & Wizardry, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, etc)

I believe that OD&D, B/X, BECMI, AD&D 1E and AD&D 2E were relatively compatible with each other. By your numbers, that represents 20+ years of content that can be used within the same umbrella of a D&D rules set.

Since then, there were three major departures in rules in D&D that made such inter-compatibility difficult. The transition from 2E to 3E, the transition from 3E to 4E, and the transition from 4E to 5E.

We have went from a long term period of inter-compatibility to several short spans of completely incompatible rule sets.

I'd like to see a return to the previous state of matters. There may be edition updates and tweaks, but backwards compatibility should be maintained. I would like to see my current copy of the Players Handbook be usable with new content released 5 years from now, rather than be presented with yet another completely different rule set.
 


Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It seems reasonable to me to measure the lifespan of a game from the point it is release in a playable form to the point that the superseding game is released in playable form
I tend to think of it that way as well.

[First major Gripe, separating 3.0 and 3.5 is definitely data manipulation IMO]
With respect, "data manipulation" either happened, or it didn't. It is not a matter of opinion - it is a matter of intent on the part of the person presenting the data.

Data manipulation is where someone knowingly and intentionally mucks with data to get a desired result. Basically - if you want to say, "You are trying to lie to us," then accuse them of data manipulation. If they just have a different opinion of what constitutes an edition, then you don't.

Given that the author of the work is right here, and you could ask, "Why did you separate these two?" rather than just decide you know why they did it... maybe that would be better than speculating. Hm?
 

The way that I think of editions of D&D is like TV shows. They keep making more content for the current show or edition, until they are sucked dry at the end of the edition and aren't making money anymore. That's when it's time to make a new edition, or another half of an edition. I don't think 5e is coming to an end anytime soon. There are some minor problems that could use revisions, like Rangers, but there's not much else that needs a fix. Those fixes can be done in Xanathar's 2.0 when it comes out, so I don't think we're getting a d&D 5.5e or 6e for a long time. I'd estimate 5-10 years before the mention of such a change.

I do think there will be more editions of D&D, but not anytime soon.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
This maybe a bit of Heresy on my part, so forgive me, but honestly I wouldn't MIND AT ALL if we didn't get a 6th Edition, and we just kept on getting stuff, updated backwards compatibility, rule variant/add-ons/refinements. There is so much books/crap from previous editions that it be a shame to let it go to waste. Heck if 5E is supposed to be the "Nostalgia" edition that it's called at times, make it compatible with 6E like how 1E and 2E were with each other.

Anywho, DND 5E, despite it's quirks, runs well. Please note: I'm fully aware no edition is perfect.
Harumph. Us heretic stand together. Slowly does a moon walk back two paces. As other have said some of the timing is wrong. 1 and 2E were so close together that a common gripe at the table was enough was change so you had rebuy. I think I have more 1e modules in my horde than 2e.
 

You have to remember other obstacle in the industry. The translation usually is slower than the original editions. The last sourcebook I bought months ago was Xanathar guide when it was translated into Spanish.

The strategy by WotC now is higher number of readers, not more books for the same number of readers, and this seems is working very well. Why to change it when they are making money?

The best trick to try sell a 5.5 Ed is a new d20 game without the logo D&D, for example a d20 Fortnite Save the World or a d20 Overwatch. Maybe they will use the idea by Paizo for Pathfinder where the racial traits are replaced with an optional list of racial feats, and the class features with class feats. Other option would be to use a different system for leveling up, with two pillars, the classic power level (bonus for saves and attacks, +hit points, power levels for spellcasting), and other the talent level (known languanges, no-combat feats, bonus for social interactions or investigation).

Today marvel superheroes are making more money with the movies (and toys) than with the paper-printed comics, and I guess the future of D&D will be making more money with the videogames and media productions than the old classic TTRPG. My theory is in a future many superheroes will be "nerfed" to be adapted to videogames more easily, and this also will allow TTRPGs about superheroes but with leveling up.

Now WotC doesn't need a best-seller novel as "Games of Thrones", because others are doing those work, profesional writters and cinema production studios, and lot of people are very used to videogames of epic fantasy.

* How would be a Ravenloft version of "R.L.Stine's Goosebumps", gothic horror for teens?

* They don't want to start the work to start when they know they are a lot of new things to be added and theses may be broken because munchkings found something.
 

Stormonu

Legend
If you break the years of 3.0 and 3.5, you have to then also break AD&D into the UA years and 2E into the start and Player Option division.

I will say that 2E got quite long in the tooth, in a era where there had been a lot of change to the RPG landscape, with White Wolf's Storyteller series being the opposing camp that brought about a lot of rethinking D&D's engine. Right now, the landscape is pretty much D&D and flavors of D&D. Until there's a significant revolution in how RPGs are approached, there's not much reason for 6E to be brought about now, when instead simply adding to and tweaking the current version will suffice.

All that said, I do repeat 6E will come some day, I just don't expect it to be soon.
 

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