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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

Dire Bare

Hero
Supporter
But subclasses, especially too many of them, increase role-overlap. I'd really have a very limited selection of iconic classes that safely occupy their own niche, than have casting fighters, fighting wizards, shapeshifting barbarians, raging druids etc.
Multi-class or hybrid character archetypes are a staple of D&D. The paladin and ranger classes are great examples of martial/divine caster hybrids. The coveted "gish" or martial/arcane caster is a hybrid D&D has been trying to get right for several editions now, without quite hitting it.

Being given subclasses that attempt these sorts of hybrids I'm all for. Also being given subclasses that cover new ground for classes can be interesting also . . . . but you are right to a point, having too many subclasses that stray far from the classes core concepts can result in their own type of bloat and dilution.

It's a tough balance, keeping a class' theme "pure" but also innovating and giving us interesting new options . . . .
 

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Dire Bare

Hero
Supporter
As I said, ideally I'd have NEITHER subclasses NOR multiclassing, for the sake of niche protection. When you can make a fighty, stealthy, casting and healing "build" out of every class, it's wishy-washy and kinda bland. I'd even cut back the number of classes: all that's really needed are the Big 4 (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard) and possibly the Barbarian, the Paladin, and the Druid.
Sounds like an OSR game might be something up your alley.
 

reelo

Explorer
Sounds like an OSR game might be something up your alley.
Oh don't worry, I'm firmly in that camp. But that doesn't mean I don't wish for a current or future edition of D&D to veer some more in that direction while still maintaining some more recent developments.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This...
-Unlimited character advancement.
...combined with this...
D&D advancement should be streamlined to the extent that characters level up at the end of every session.
...would have some characters in my game sitting at over 200th level now.

As the game has yet to work well above about 15th-20th level (with slight variance by edition) I don't even want to think about the disasters three-digit levels would produce.

The point is that I (and many other customers) prefer an rules-set which is even more streamlined than the 5E Basic Rules. And which is also crafted to be a fresh 'standalone' experience, not a 'feeder' into the flagship line.
They won't do it without it being a 'feeder', and IMO nor should they.

A standalone game would just fracture the player base, which is the opposite of everything 5e has tried to do.
 

Jaeger

Adventurer
...But my point isn't just about whether The Essentials Kit could be used as a 'complete' RPG by someone. I and my group used the hell out of the Starter Set. Got a year's worth of play from it. But that doesn't mean it's a 'complete' or 'standalone' game. ...
If wishes were fishes...

At the 50th anniversary of D&D I would od an "upgraded" 50th anniversary D&D essentials edition.

Meant to be a boxed set sold at stores, but also a complete game.

i.e. bring back the B/X, AD&D paradigm, but don't call it a basic set, or call 5e advanced anything.

But my "50th anniversary D&D essentials edition" would be good to go for 20 levels.

All could be done with streamlined rulebooks that would fit the existing essentials box size.

If people want to move on to the "big game" and wade through 3 overproduced manuals at three times the price, they are more than welcome to it.

But WOTC will never do this.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
this...would have some characters in my game sitting at over 200th level now.
Yeah, but in a streamlined RPG such as The Black Hack (and the proposed 6E test balloon), PCs only start with a handful of powers, and only gain like one little power / boost / bump per level. If you count up all the bits and bobbles a 20th level 5E character has (racial traits, background features, skill and proficiency boosts, ability boosts, class features, spells, feats, attuned magic items, etc), it probably adds up to nearly 200 powers. A streamlined RPG just breaks that down into smaller, digestible bits.


A standalone game would just fracture the player base, which is the opposite of everything 5e has tried to do.
Tell that to the Tails of Equestria RPG project team, and to the project managers of the many D&D-branded standalone side-games: Adventure System board games, card games, tavern games, etc. There's room for a few one-off, standalone test balloons within the D&D brand.
 

I like sub-classes, especially sub-classes that steal a few minor features from other classes.

I dislike multiclassing. I dislike it a lot. It was one of those things I thought was cool about 3e until I realized just how much I dislike it*. That said, I don't try to ban it in my games.

I don't think of character classes as things that have a real existence in the setting. IMO character class is used to model a character concept a player has. You don't have to go to "eldritch knight school" in my game to become an eldritch knight. If your character concept includes both martial abilities and arcane spell casting, you can model that with eldritch knight, blade dancer wizard, or even a bard.

*You would think that I wouldn't mind multiclassing, since it is a great tool for defining a character concept. If a character begins play as a multiclass character, I don't mind. I dislike a character who has been a fighter for 10 levels and then decides to take a level of wizard without the necessary training time.

Characters never level except at the end of a story (adventure) in my game, and there is downtime, but usually measured in weeks or months, not years. Since I start most games at 3rd level, it's not hard to include any and all classes your character will need in those first three levels so that training has already occurred in backstory.
 


TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
As I said, ideally I'd have NEITHER subclasses NOR multiclassing, for the sake of niche protection. When you can make a fighty, stealthy, casting and healing "build" out of every class, it's wishy-washy and kinda bland. I'd even cut back the number of classes: all that's really needed are the Big 4 (Cleric, Fighter, Rogue and Wizard) and possibly the Barbarian, the Paladin, and the Druid.
Nah...being able to differentiate your character early on, and establish your vision onto the character is too important for most modern gamers.
 

Dungeonosophy

Adventurer
What? Says who?
Do not be alarmed. :) I'm speaking of what I proposed earlier in the thread. Namely, that WotC release various one-shot standalone D&D branded RPGs which are radical evolutions of D&D, not intended to be compatible with 5E. As test balloons. Just to see how the gaming community responds, and to see how they sell.

For example, something like a D&D-branded Black Hack clone (a complete 20-level streamlined RPG in a single small book). Or a D&D-branded one-off game which uses the Tails of Equestria RPG system. Or like Tinyd6, Maze Rats, or Knave. These aren't just 'kiddie games' (well except for Tails of Equestria) - they're real streamlined adult RPGs.

I wish I could say that it was WotC who proposed this. But alas, it is moi.
 

TwoSix

The hero you deserve
Supporter
Yeah, but in a streamlined RPG such as The Black Hack (and the proposed 6E test balloon), PCs only start with a handful of powers, and only gain like one little power / boost / bump per level. If you count up all the bits and bobbles a 20th level 5E character has (racial traits, background features, skill and proficiency boosts, ability boosts, class features, spells, feats, attuned magic items, etc), it probably adds up to nearly 200 powers. A streamlined RPG just breaks that down into smaller, digestible bits.
It's nowhere close to that, unless you're counting all of the options they could theoretically select from, not what they actually have.

I'm not saying your idea isn't an interesting idea (it is), but being loose with your numbers is only going to cause arguments over the numbers, not advance your point.
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
*You would think that I wouldn't mind multiclassing, since it is a great tool for defining a character concept. If a character begins play as a multiclass character, I don't mind. I dislike a character who has been a fighter for 10 levels and then decides to take a level of wizard without the necessary training time.
Why not just houserule it that if you want to dip into a class like that you've gotta put in the training time, even if it means retiring the character?
 

reelo

Explorer
Nah...being able to differentiate your character early on, and establish your vision onto the character is too important for most modern gamers.
About that, yeah, that's another minor gripe. People are way too attached to playing a singular character. What good is a "vision for your character" when said character dies at level 2 or 3?
 

Aldarc

Legend
One easy thing they could do.Cut Feats, cut Multiclassing. Most of the people I know who play avoid even looking at those options, as they find them fiddley and intimidating. Makes room in the PHB, too.
Not sure if I entirely agree, but I wouldn't mind seeing WotC build more off 5e Basics or have a separate line that tries to streamline the game down to basics.

Nah...being able to differentiate your character early on, and establish your vision onto the character is too important for most modern gamers.
This is one of my gripes regarding rules against feats, subclasses, multiclassing, etc. as well as 5e class structures, even if I myself would potentially want to simplify the game and remove these elements. Players often want to have their core concept for a character once they hit the ground running. (Not necessarily fully realized, but the core components.) With a number of games, you can do precisely that. But with a class/level system like D&D, it can take awhile. So barring the presence of feats, subclasses, multiclassing, etc., then I would want players to have a means to realize their character concept in a meaningful way. If you see your character as an Arcane Knight, but have to weight until level 3 before getting to actually experience that, then that's not a lot of fun. This is also why I wish that Background had a bit more weight. Why couldn't, for example, a background provide a cantrip or two? Or maybe training in certain arms or armor? Would you get ideal min-max combinations? Sure. But IME, most of players (apart from one I recall), aren't too concerned with that. Most are more interested in realizing their character concept.

About that, yeah, that's another minor gripe. People are way too attached to playing a singular character. What good is a "vision for your character" when said character dies at level 2 or 3?
So what?
 

reelo

Explorer
Players being (too) attached to their PC leads to GMs feeling the need to fudge rolls in order to not kill them, which in turn can make combat feel trivial. If PCs are "supposed" to survive, so as to not upset players, it sucks all the thrill out of gameplay.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Players being (too) attached to their PC leads to GMs feeling the need to fudge rolls in order to not kill them, which in turn can make combat feel trivial. If PCs are "supposed" to survive, so as to not upset players, it sucks all the thrill out of gameplay.
Then DMs probably shouldn't be fudging those rolls then, should they? The 'problem' there isn't a really a problem. You want players who are invested in their characters, that's what provides the stakes necessary to drive good fiction. They just need to accommodate themselves to actual consequences. D&D has a bunch of mechanics in place to bring back dead characters anyway, so it's not like the final frontier is actually, you know, final or anything. It can be tough to stick to your guns as a DM, but it needs to be done.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Players being (too) attached to their PC leads to GMs feeling the need to fudge rolls in order to not kill them, which in turn can make combat feel trivial. If PCs are "supposed" to survive, so as to not upset players, it sucks all the thrill out of gameplay.

Different people play for different reasons and the DM can always set up scenarios where PCs die. So one person's "thrill" is another person's end of an envisioned character arc.

I always chat with my players in a session 0 about lethality level of the game. Becoming attached to a PC is neither good nor bad, it's a preference on style of play.
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
I wouldn't take anything Mearls said as gospel.

1. Things change. Covid plus depression.
2. Mearls is gone burger.
3. He was never the big fish.
This.

Mearls is OUT
 

reelo

Explorer
You want players who are invested in their characters, that's what provides the stakes necessary to drive good fiction.
Not necessarily. I want players invested in the emergent narrative. Which should ideally be bigger than the sum of its parts (read: characters).
Actors fade in, actors fade out, but the story remains. But I guess that's just a different playstyle.
 

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