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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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Mercurius

Legend
The economics suggest (if not demand) that there will be a 6e sooner or later (there's a Worlds of Design column about that). The new chief coming in suggests sooner rather than later.
I don't think that necessarily follows.

I mean if 5E had been circling the drain and Mearls been ousted, then sure. But the former is obviously not the case, and there have been no glimmers of rumors to the latter.
 

Aldarc

Legend
If WoW was still in the same "edition" it was when it launched, though, WoW would have become a minor game sometime around 2010. Other MMOs would have exceeded it in popularity and so on. Classic is popular, but only as popular as it is because it exists as a contrast to later versions, and because its on the same sub as retail WoW.

WoW keeps its youth by bathing in the blood of er... oh that's not WoW, let me check my notes... WoW keeps its youth by eternally refreshing itself, constantly reinventing itself. The last major reboot was with Legion, but every 2 years or so we see an expansion that makes fairly significant changes and fixes to how the game plays and feels.

So I think comparisons to WoW and Win 10 are... confused. If they took the 4E strategy of regularly, sweeping errata, and frequent, large-scale rules-additions, then that would make sense. 4E was well-positioned to take a WoW-like or Win 10-like approach (yes, I said it, you heard me, you can quote me, I hear the shrieks of glee! Being positioned to take an approach is different from being something but the constant errata were probably the thing that most resembled MMOs about 4E).

5E is the opposite in design. 5E is very static, with very little errata. 5E is unchanging, and even the rules-additions so far have mostly been fairly minor. That does mean, however, at some point its likely to feel like it needs a larger overhaul, and realistically, that's going to mean 6E. I don't think the actual trigger for 6E will be the rules being outdated per se, though. I think the real trigger will be that WotC feels like they can make more money by having everyone online and playing not an MMO, but a fancy VTT version of D&D, which you can optionally play at the table too (hilariously, this was 4E's vision too, but it was over a decade too early, technologically and socially). They're letting Beyond pioneer this for them, whilst they build up multiple AAA software studios under the WotC brand, one of whom could very definitely implement such a thing. That's what will trigger 6E, anyway. I figure its 5-7 years out, myself.
 

I seem to recall that way back in the day, when a new version was announced (not sure which), it was revealed that the day after the last version had dropped, there was a team starting work on the next version. I could be wrong, as it was a while ago and I can't remember which versions were being talked about (I skipped D&D between 1e and 5e), but I'd be surprised if 6e wasn't already in at last the basic design stages, and has been for a while.
Errr... no.

Going back to 2E there was a good-sized preview "brochure" in a Dragon prior to the release - I still have it around here somewhere - that discussed the changes that were coming and showed the new covers etc.

3e was discussed/revealed in a yearlong series of articles in Dragon leading up to release. Many of them were ferociously discussed right here on the earliest version of this very site - "Eric Noah's Third Edition News"

4th was revealed in a series of 3 books - that you had to buy separately - in the last few months before release.

So no, they typically announce a new edition a year or less prior to releasing it. 5th was an outlier from that with two years or so of playtesting with "Next".

But they do not announce that they are working on another new edition when they release a new edition. That would certainly damage sales, and the idea is that you're going to be working on -this- edition for years. Videogames may work that way, but TTRPGs typically do not.
 

Parmandur

Legend
There are 7 billion people on the planet. Plenty of market share to go after... Heck, even in the core demographic (male, western, predominantly white, age 20-50) if you can move the needle on any of those you can open up even more market share. For example, there are more and more women playing - and that's not just good, but good business. So my point being - there is the possibility that the market will continue to expand for a long while and sales can continue to expand for a long while.

Which leads me to wonder if the core books have been published in other languages?
Based on the data that WotC has provided, that is not the core demographic...8-24 year olds, male and female, are the people primarily playing.
 

I am afraid 6th Ed will arrive after Baldur's Gate 4.... and Pathfinder 3. WotC is selling modules and settings/fluff/lore/background, and some pieces of crunch. the crunch is only an update and almost nothing is really new game mechanics. 6th will be when no new crunch can be added and trying to fix the power balance was too complicate.

Only it would start to think about a new edition if the retroclons ate more portion of the market. If a retroclon could be a good rival for WotC, then it would be the time to work in the next Ed.

* My opinion is Hasbro doesn't worry about D&D as TTRPG but more like brand for videogames and media productions. If WotC wants to test new ideas for the d20 system then it will be not with D&D sourcebooks but videogames.
 

Lem23

Explorer
Errr... no.

Going back to 2E there was a good-sized preview "brochure" in a Dragon prior to the release - I still have it around here somewhere - that discussed the changes that were coming and showed the new covers etc.

3e was discussed/revealed in a yearlong series of articles in Dragon leading up to release. Many of them were ferociously discussed right here on the earliest version of this very site - "Eric Noah's Third Edition News"

4th was revealed in a series of 3 books - that you had to buy separately - in the last few months before release.

So no, they typically announce a new edition a year or less prior to releasing it. 5th was an outlier from that with two years or so of playtesting with "Next".

But they do not announce that they are working on another new edition when they release a new edition. That would certainly damage sales, and the idea is that you're going to be working on -this- edition for years. Videogames may work that way, but TTRPGs typically do not.
You misunderstand me (or I didn't convey my point well enough): I don't mean that they put out version X and said that they were then starting work on version Y; I mean that they put out version X and said that they'd started work on version X the day after version W had come out.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Wasn’t Mearls promoted to that position the new guy is in after 5e release?
Winninger's role was created in July last year's after Nate Stewart was promoted to VP of all things D&D. Mearls appears to have been put in charge of another "Studio" in the company, outside of the game, with a transition that finished with Eberron coming out.
 


mcmillan

Explorer
I seem to recall that way back in the day, when a new version was announced (not sure which), it was revealed that the day after the last version had dropped, there was a team starting work on the next version. I could be wrong, as it was a while ago and I can't remember which versions were being talked about (I skipped D&D between 1e and 5e), but I'd be surprised if 6e wasn't already in at last the basic design stages, and has been for a while.
Think you might be remembering some things Monte Cook had to say about 3.5 edition REVIEWS Monte Cook shares his thoughts

Monte Cook said:
Even before 3.0 went to the printer, the business team overseeing D&D was talking about 3.5. Not surprisingly, most of the designers -- particularly the actual 3.0 team (Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams, and I) thought this was a poor idea. Also not surprisingly, our concerns were not enough to affect the plan. The idea, they assured us, was to make a revised edition that was nothing but a cleanup of any errata that might have been found after the book's release, a clarification of issues that seemed to confuse large numbers of players, and, most likely, all new art. It was slated to come out in 2004 or 2005, to give a boost to sales at a point where -- judging historically from the sales trends of previous editions -- they probably would be slumping a bit. It wasn't to replace everyone's books, and it wouldn't raise any compatibility or conversion issues.
Also my impression that seems to have been fairly unpopular move to have made. While I think it's likely any new edition will probably be worked on for a bit before it's publicly acknowledged, I think 5e is still popular enough with areas still open for design that I doubt they've had serious thought about 6e right now
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Think you might be remembering some things Monte Cook had to say about 3.5 edition REVIEWS Monte Cook shares his thoughts



Also my impression that seems to have been fairly unpopular move to have made. While I think it's likely any new edition will probably be worked on for a bit before it's publicly acknowledged, I think 5e is still popular enough with areas still open for design that I doubt they've had serious thought about 6e right now
There were some figures that came out a few years ago.

3.5 was less popular than 3.0, Pathfinder was less popular than 3.5 and 4E was outsold by Pathfinder.

Initial sales of 4E may bump it's numbers up out of the gutter but those initial sales evaporated very fast to Pathfinder.

In terms of sales 3.5 is one if the lowest selling editions only beating OD&D and maybe 4E although initial sales might save 4E.

OD&D was so early it wasn't that big.
 




Mercurius

Legend
I've seen several posters say something to the effect, "We'll get 6E when the broken parts--the crunch--of 5E accumulate to the point that a new edition is warranted, and given a variety of factors, that could be closer than we think." No one is putting it in quite those words, but the emphasis is on the word crunch and its potential impact on the timing of a new edition.

Folks, we live in a new paradigm. D&D is now a cultural phenomenon, with an estimated 14-15 million or more players--most of whom are not excessively focused on mechanics or crunch, but the story and play experience itself. From that perspective, there will never be a point--in the foreseeable future, at least--where a new edition is warranted, at least based on "crunch disgruntlement." Crunch will not be the deciding factor, or pleasing the minority of D&D fans who focus on the finer points of crunch.

WotC will design 6E when they feel like it is financially warranted. It is really that simple. That has always been the case, of course, but whereas in the past, the number of people unhappy with the rules were a larger percentage of the fan base, now they are a smaller percentage.

How do I know this? I don't, but it is a hunch based upon a variety of factors. For one, long-term players tend to be more concerned with the finer points of crunch than newer fans, and we do know that the current fan-base has a much higher percentage of new players than in previous editions (that is, new to the game via the current edition). Secondly, there are far fewer disgruntled fans of the current edition than there were, say, of the previous one. Couple the smaller number of disgruntled fans with the larger number of total players, and the "vocal minority" is a much smaller percentage.

WotC will ride this wave, and try to build it, for as long as they can. The last thing they want to do is create a new edition with crunchier rules just to appease a small minority, while potentially turning off the millions of new (mostly young) fans who are enjoying the play experience of the relatively simple 5E rules.

As I've already said, I do think an anniversary revision is a good possibility, but it is highly unlikely that we'll see more than "errata plus"--the plus being added bells and whistles, maybe some revised classes and sub-systems, monster tweaks, new art, etc. Say, something like "5.2" at most. But the 5E rules set is here to stay -- or at least until the game's popularity tanks, and there's no sign of that happening anytime soon.
 

Lem23

Explorer
The time to work on a new edition isn't when the current one is tanking, its when it's still doing ok. That way, when it does start to tank, you're all ready to roll out the new version. Profit stream continues with maybe a slight dip and (hopefully) a huge boost as the new edition hits, rather than a couple of years of nothing then a boost.
 

Parmandur

Legend
I've seen several posters say something to the effect, "We'll get 6E when the broken parts--the crunch--of 5E accumulate to the point that a new edition is warranted, and given a variety of factors, that could be closer than we think." No one is putting it in quite those words, but the emphasis is on the word crunch and its potential impact on the timing of a new edition.

Folks, we live in a new paradigm. D&D is now a cultural phenomenon, with an estimated 14-15 million or more players--most of whom are not excessively focused on mechanics or crunch, but the story and play experience itself. From that perspective, there will never be a point--in the foreseeable future, at least--where a new edition is warranted, at least based on "crunch disgruntlement." Crunch will not be the deciding factor, or pleasing the minority of D&D fans who focus on the finer points of crunch.

WotC will design 6E when they feel like it is financially warranted. It is really that simple. That has always been the case, of course, but whereas in the past, the number of people unhappy with the rules were a larger percentage of the fan base, now they are a smaller percentage.

How do I know this? I don't, but it is a hunch based upon a variety of factors. For one, long-term players tend to be more concerned with the finer points of crunch than newer fans, and we do know that the current fan-base has a much higher percentage of new players than in previous editions (that is, new to the game via the current edition). Secondly, there are far fewer disgruntled fans of the current edition than there were, say, of the previous one. Couple the smaller number of disgruntled fans with the larger number of total players, and the "vocal minority" is a much smaller percentage.

WotC will ride this wave, and try to build it, for as long as they can. The last thing they want to do is create a new edition with crunchier rules just to appease a small minority, while potentially turning off the millions of new (mostly young) fans who are enjoying the play experience of the relatively simple 5E rules.

As I've already said, I do think an anniversary revision is a good possibility, but it is highly unlikely that we'll see more than "errata plus"--the plus being added bells and whistles, maybe some revised classes and sub-systems, monster tweaks, new art, etc. Say, something like "5.2" at most. But the 5E rules set is here to stay -- or at least until the game's popularity tanks, and there's no sign of that happening anytime soon.
Maybe a 5E equivalent of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia would be warranted by 2024...

I think the crunch-focused were always the minority, but WotC didn't figure that out until they got into BiG Data in the postmortem for 4E. 3.x and 4E were focused on the minority, whereas 5E has turned to the majority.
 

The time to work on a new edition isn't when the current one is tanking, its when it's still doing ok. That way, when it does start to tank, you're all ready to roll out the new version. Profit stream continues with maybe a slight dip and (hopefully) a huge boost as the new edition hits, rather than a couple of years of nothing then a boost.
Don't fix it if it ain't broke. That's the key here. They will keep making d&d 5e products until they've sucked the fanbase dry of money. They're going to run the edition into the ground. They're not going to start making a whole new edition of D&D until profits fall significantly.
 

While I think there could be a better edition, I'd actually like D&D to reach a permanent edition. Once it gets things right, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. They can publish setting material and even additional mechanical toys forever without needing to change how you roll a d20 or how the Fighter class works, once they get it done right.

I think it would take about 1.3 more editions to get to the point where I'd say it's there. One new edition to try to present everything they learn about how to make the best D&D up to that point, and then a partial revision to fix the parts that didn't come out quite right in the initial release.

Of course, since I don't own the IP I unfortunately don't get to make the decisions about when and how.
 

Lem23

Explorer
Don't fix it if it ain't broke. That's the key here. They will keep making d&d 5e products until they've sucked the fanbase dry of money. They're going to run the edition into the ground. They're not going to start making a whole new edition of D&D until profits fall significantly.
They'd be fools to let revenue drop before starting work on a replacement, and Hasbro aren't fools.
 

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