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D&D 5E Where We've Been and Where We Might Be Going (or, What I Think WotC Is Doing)

Mercurius

Legend
I'd like to draw together some thoughts based upon my observations of trends in 5E's publishing history, as well as recent news about the upcoming schedule. Most of this is speculative; I don't claim insider knowledge, nor am I an expert in publishing or economics. But I've been following the "meta-level" of D&D relatively closely, and there's a lot of stuff floating out there, so I thought I'd try to weave it together into a coherent narrative around the "state of the game," a bit in the past, the present, and most importantly, the future.

Where We've Been: 5E's Rise to Glory
To get a sense of the full arc of 5E's history, we have to go back to the 4E era, 2008-12. 4E was, as we all know, a rather striking departure from D&D 3.5E, not to mention older editions of the game. A major aspect of its design was to bring in a new generation of players, namely Millenials who had grown up on increasingly simulative video games. Yet, not only did it fail to do that, at least on the scale that was hoped for, but it fractured the long-time player base, with many leaving for Pathfinder and other games, or returning to older (or retro) versions of the D&D game. In a last-ditch attempt to bring in new players, Wizards of the Coast published the Essentials line, meant as an "easier on-ramp" (Bill Slaviscek, I believe) to a very complex game.

But it seemingly was a case of too little, too late, and by 2011, D&D was in crisis. They changed course towards designing a new edition, which was announced in January of 2012--just a bit more than three and a half years after the first 4E product. A massive playtest commenced, the idea being that they wanted to design a game that people--especially the active and/or long-term fans--wanted to play. They realized that they couldn't ignore the bird in hand (long-term players) for the hypothetical two birds in the bush (new players). 5E was, in many ways, the "edition by and for the people." "The people" being us, the long-term fans of the game. It was WotC's way of saying, "OK, we hear you, now come back home."

D&D 5E was well received when it was published in 2014. Almost everyone seemed to--if not absolutely love it (many did) at least like or tolerate it, and very few seemed to really dislike it. It brought old fans back in, and re-established D&D as the flagship game of the RPG community.

From Moderate to Major to Runaway Success
My sense is that while 5E's success was immediate, the steep curve didn't begin for a few years. Meaning, WotC didn't realize what a huge success the game was until a few years in. We could imagine WotC's dawning recognition of just how popular 5E was as going something like this:

2014: Phew - everyone seems to like it, and no one seems to hate it.
2015: Going really well so far.
2016: This seems to be working as good as we could reasonably hope for - a real success.
2017: OK, this is meeting and even exceeding any expectations we had - let's start expanding.
2018: Wait a minute...this might be more than just a major success, but a runaway one...
2019: HOLY SMOKES!!!!
2020: OK, we've gotten over the shock that 5E is a runaway success. Now, how do we maintain and stabilize this success as much as possible? How do we keep as many of the newly enlarged fan-base, and keep expanding?

Or something like that. That last 2020 "realization" seems to be their modus operandi now and going forward. While some contraction is likely inevitable as tepid or faddish players move on to other activities, it seems that no matter what, D&D is not only more popular than it every was, but has a good chance at "plateauing" at a much higher level than ever before. And, of course, WotC is looking for ways to continue to grow, so if even some attrition occurs, it could be countered with further growth.

Meaning, for the first year or two, WotC was probably just happy that 5E was well-received, and many fans had returned to the fold. For the couple years after that, it becoming increasingly clear that it was a huge success; but it wasn't until maybe 2018, certainly by 2019, that they realized just how successful it was.

Publishing History
5E began with a rather spartan publishing schedule: In 2014 they published the three core rulebooks and a two-book adventure (which could really have been one book, by later standards). For the next three years (2015-17) they published only three hardcovers per year. We can look back and consider the minimalist approach to be an act of brilliance based on the "less is more" axiom, but it may be that it was simply caution: not only to avoid the glut of products that lead to the edition treadmill, but also as a way to avoid crashing and burning. This is reflected in what was a rather small group of core designers, with some products being designed by freelancers and other publishers.

In 2018, they added a 4th book, although two of the books were connected (the Waterdeep adventures). This schedule of four hardcovers held for the next few years, although in 2019 they added the Essentials Kit, plus a revised compilation of Tyranny of Dragons and two alternate starter sets.

2020's schedule, which was four books plus Strahd Revamped, was impacted by the pandemic; after the fact, it was rumored that a fifth hardcover was scheduled. Similarly with 2021: five hardcovers are to be published, although WotC has stated that they originally had a sixth book--Monsters of the Multiverse--planned for the holiday season.

So the takeaway is that WotC increased their publishing schedule in 2018, again in 2019, and were going to again in 2020 and 2021. Meaning, there is a clear upward arc in publications, from 2017 on.

I'll share this chart again, which shows us the publishing schedule of 5E, from 2014-21:


Screen Shot 2021-10-06 at 1.20.49 PM.png


Meaning, the above is both what we have seen published so far and what we can say, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that we'll see through 2024 (for 2022-24, the products in bold-face have been announced, while those not in bold-face are just likely, based upon the publishing history so far).

The Next Few Years (2022-24)
Presumably WotC has already set the course for the next few years, as they have been--for the first time in 5E's cycle--telling us about books years in advance. What we know:
  • The first book of 2022, Monsters of the Multiverse, will include revised/revamped monsters from previous books.
  • Three classic settings will be published in the next two years, to in 2022 and one in 2023; plus, a fourth setting will receive some kind of cameo.
  • Furthermore, at least some of these settings will be published in "new formats" that aren't digital-first.
  • They are working on two entirely new settings, neither of which has been 100% green-lighted (although the fact that they're mentioning them publicly implies that they will likely be).
  • In 2024, revisions of the core rulebooks will be published, that will be backwards compatible with previous 5E material.
  • Also in 2024, a classic setting will be "revisited."

Meaning, for the next three years (2022-24), we already know what 8-10 books will be; if not the specifics, then the general form, with endless speculations about what those books will be, and general consensus around what, at least, the classic settings will be.

It is also quite likely that, over the next two years, we see another world/plane from Magic: The Gathering, as three have been (or will be) published within a four-year span (one each in 2018, '20, and '21). Presumably they will continue with a splat-per-year (with MotM in 2022, and an unknown in 2023, and the revised core rulebooks in 2024), and two adventure books per year, probably at least one campaign/story arc and one compilation.

And who knows, maybe a surprise or two is in order.

It also seems that they're taking the 50th Anniversary quite seriously. While only the three core rulebooks and the revisited classic setting have been announced, it also seems possible that we see some kind of commemorative product celebrating 50 years of D&D.

Speculative Publishing Schedule: 2021-24
Putting it all together, here is one possible schedule that I could see for the next few years. Note that the announced books are in darker colors, while the speculative ones are lighter.

Screen Shot 2021-10-06 at 1.28.17 PM.png


Of the three classic settings in 2022-23, the most common speculations are Planescape, Dark Sun, and Dragonlance, with the Forgotten Realms also receiving some mention. I think PS and DS are all but locks, it just depends upon when. I go back and forth on DL and FR, but currently think the former is more likely for 2022-23, especially with mention of a "revisited" setting in 2024. Another possibility is that we see the FR in 2022-23 and Greyhawk or Ravenloft in 2024, and DL to be unfounded rumors.

We can assume that we'll see two adventures in 2022, one story arc and one compilation. Many have speculated that the cameo will be Spelljammer in a Lantan-based Realms adventure. As far as the anthology is concerned, I personally think it will be planes-related, as a single setting book for Planescape is not enough to get people, especially new DMs, going on a planar campaign.

Which brings us to a hypothetical sixth book. If one of the settings is Dragonlance, I could see this being a story arc, either a War of the Lance campaign, or perhaps based upon the new Weis/Hickman novels. But the point is, for the very same reasons that Dragonlance seems appropriate for the 5E ethos of "story and worlds," it seems unlikely that they would publish just a setting book, and not an accompanying story arc.

We know less about 2023, only that we'll see one classic setting. But like Planescape and Dragonlance, I don't see a singular Dark Sun product doing the setting justice. Furthermore, this would be the most likely next date for a fourth Magic setting book.

Final Thoughts
While it is clear that WotC is expanding their publication schedule, I'm guessing that they'll continue operating under a "quasi-minimalist" approach. Meaning, I don't see them going back to the monthly hardcover of 3E/4E, or the 60+ yearly products at the height of 2E. But there's a lot of room between 5 and 12 hardcovers a year (let along 60+ products), and I wouldn't be surprised to see them explore their potential a bit, possibly settling in at about half a dozen major products a year, plus one or two odds and ends.

Furthermore, for the first few years, 5E's focus has been on stories; since 2018, that has expanded to settings, and thus now, "stories and worlds." That will likely continue, with rules supplementation being minimal, sticking to one major product per year, perhaps generally alternating between DM-centric (e.g. monsters and thematic books) and player-centric (e.g. rules expansions and players options).

Some questions that still exist, aside from the specifics of forthcoming products, are:
  • Will they expand beyond the Realms as the default setting for their story arcs? I think this is likely, as reflected in my speculative chart. Which is related to...
  • Will any of the upcoming settings have later expansions, or will all continue to be "one-and-done" products? This is uncertain, but I don't see why not. The "revisited setting" implies an "expansion" or at least a fuller treatment. But one thing they may be contemplating is starting product lines for different settings - not in the "gluttonous" fashion of 2E, but in a more minimal 5E version. So imagine seeing a new Ravenloft or Planescape or Dark Sun product every year or two, either an expansion of the world or a new story arc. This is more likely if they expand the yearly product count from 5-6 to 7-8.
  • Will D&D expand beyond fantasy, either through revisiting old TSR games (e.g. Gamma World) or creating new ones? This is unknown and seems unlikely, at least through 2024. But in 2025 and beyond? who knows.
 
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Mercurius

Legend
These are well-collected thoughts.

I think the biggest wrench in this thought process however is the "new formats" they were referring to in the panel, as well as the digital component. I really have nothing to add though, as that stuff is largely a complete mystery.
Yeah, I've commented on those elsewhere and, like you, have no idea. To summarize my thinking:

1. We do know that the "new format" aren't digital-only or even digital-primary.
2. It does seem some degree of multi-media is possible, though.
3. It is unclear whether it is "new" to 5E or new to D&D. We haven't, for instance, seen a setting box set yet in 5E, thus that would technically be "new."
4. It could be that they're being sneaky with "new format," and really mean "new presentation," which could simply be a slight variation on old formats, like"slipcase with softcovers and a map" or "box with hardcover, maps, and random stuff."

Regardless, I suspect that we won't be surprised - or rather, we'll say, "Oh, you're saying that is new?"
 

One thing that might happen for Planescape and especially Dragonlance is that adventures might come bundled with the setting book. They did mention that they are going to be releasing some of the settings in a non-traditional (but not a wholly digital) format, so an adventure bundled with the setting book (and maybe with maps and other items) in a slipcase might be what they are talking about...
 

Mercurius

Legend
One thing that might happen for Planescape and especially Dragonlance is that adventures might come bundled with the setting book. They did mention that they are going to be releasing some of the settings in a non-traditional (but not a wholly digital) format, so an adventure bundled with the setting book (and maybe with maps and other items) in a slipcase might be what they are talking about...
Yes, that's what I've been thinking (see above).

This seems especially pertinent to Dragonlance, as I speculated in the OP. More so than perhaps any setting, DL "requires" an adventure, and has the iconic Wars of the Lance to draw from.

This also related to one of my final questions: whether or not we'll see expansions or continued support in some form or fashion for settings. I tend to think that some will be "one and done" (e.g. the Magic settings), while others will have some degree of continued support - if only an expansion or new adventure every other year.

So for instance, if the initial Dragonlance product(s) is popular, we might see a Taladas expansion in 2025 or after. Similarly with Planescape and Dark Sun, although the latter better suits "one and done" than PS, even if it has a lot of material to draw from.

Eberron is an interesting case, because while there is a lot of stuff to draw from--Xendrik is very popular, and Sarlona quite interesting--my sense is that it is one-and-done, with any future support coming from Keith Baker and/or DM's Guild.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
There are entire threads for debating the mystery to-be-released setting books, so I won't do that here.

But I'm doubtful they're going to do an entire anthology book that's setting specific, especially something as specific as Dark Sun. Any adventure that would reasonably be set in Dark Sun would have to be specific enough to it that it wouldn't really work anywhere else. They've said before that the idea is to present adventures that can easily be dropped into any world, whether official or homebrew. As much as I love Dark Sun and want to see all the Dark Sun products, I doubt it's getting a whole anthology book. An adventure or two in an anthology, sure. But not the whole book.

Multiverse anthology books, however, are far more likely. Using Planescape and/or Spelljammer as the bridge between mini-adventures in an anthology book seems like an obvious way to go.
 

ASchmidt

Explorer
I think not starting the discussion with 3rd edition misses critical parts of the picture. 3rd edition was remarkably successful and spurred a renaissance in the tabletop gaming community. A key part of this was the license that allowed other publishers to add to the 3rd edition ecosystem, something never before allowed in D&D. And then Paizo and Pathfinder happened, because of that license. That 4th edition was remarkably restrictive by comparison was no surprise. It also contributed to 4th edition's ultimate failure given the volume of 3rd edition content versus the paucity of 4th edition content. Now we have 5th edition with a somewhat more open license even if it's not quite as open as that of 3rd. And again the 3rd party publishers have come forth to add major content to the game and again the edition is a hit. Heck, the people who run this very site just put out a massively successful Kickstarter campaign for a set of 5th edition compatible books just yesterday.

Bottom line: The availability of content is a huge driver in the success of any edition of D&D.
 

One thought I had about Planescape is instead of 1 hardcover book, they might release Planescape as a collection of cheaper smaller soft cover books on each of the major planes (related group of Planes) simular to what was done with the original planescape.

So a soft cover planescape book on the Upper Planes, a Planescape book on the Lower Planes, a Planescape book on the Neutral Planes (possible including Sigil and its factions), a book on the Elemental Planes, a book on the Energy Planes, a book on the Mirror Planes and maybe in years to come a book on the Far Realms.
 

aco175

Legend
What is that game you play with your kids where you all stack you hands in a pile and the bottom hand slides out to be placed on top. after a bit, people know they are coming up and slid their hand out faster and faster. In the end you just get people just slapping hands like some sort of cat attack. This seems to be the publishing schedule before it falls apart and 6e comes out.

I also wonder if there will be a connection between quality of work and pace of releases.

I thought I would say that there is also a quest to beat last quarters dollar projections, but some may also be based on consumer wishes and not just corporate greed. I mean that I would buy more myself if they published more I liked.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
  • Will D&D expand beyond fantasy, either by revisiting old TSR games (e.g. Gamma World) or creating new ones? This is unknown and seems unlikely, at least through 2024. But in 2025 and beyond? who knows.

This is backed up by Hasbro going to someone other than WotC to do RPGs for Transformers, G.I. Joe, and such. Don't expect WotC to stretch into that space and have Hasbro effectively competing with itself.
 

I guess Hasbro wants a no-fantasy d20 TTRPG, but this is a true challenge for the game designers if they want to be totally retrocompatible with D&D. Hasbro is more focused in the digital game industry.

Now the most possible options are Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Planescape, Spelljammer and Eldraine(Magic: the Gathering). We don't know if the reboot of Spelljammer can retcon radically the crystal spheres. A videogame of Dragonlance could allow optional retcons accordin player's wishes, for example adding artificiers or barbarians among the heroes of the Lance.

Birthright and Mystara could return, but maybe in a next phase or later.
 

Mercurius

Legend
This is backed up by Hasbro going to someone other than WotC to do RPGs for Transformers, G.I. Joe, and such. Don't expect WotC to stretch into that space and have Hasbro effectively competing with itself.
Well, I could see them expanding in a "D&D-adjacent way." "D&D in Space" or "D&D Post-Apocalypse." That doesn't necessarily compete with Transformers, GI Joe, etc, none of which is all that adjacent to D&D.
 

Mercurius

Legend
What is that game you play with your kids where you all stack you hands in a pile and the bottom hand slides out to be placed on top. after a bit, people know they are coming up and slid their hand out faster and faster. In the end you just get people just slapping hands like some sort of cat attack. This seems to be the publishing schedule before it falls apart and 6e comes out.
This applies more to the pre-5E paradigm. 5E is different, with its emphasis on stories and worlds, of which there are infinite possible variations and diversity.
I also wonder if there will be a connection between quality of work and pace of releases.

As with the music industry, there are far more talented game designers out there than any number of product that WotC hopes to produce.

Really, I think the pace will be the direct result of WotC closely watching the market, meaning relative to sales. I think they'll add a bit slowly and keep an eye on if there is any waning in sales per book.

Let's say they find that they can comfortably publish six books a year and sales for all or most remain great, both initially and in an ongoing manner. Let's say they go for seven, and start noticing a dip in sales per book, but it still remains more profitable to publish seven than six. Then they try eight, and the drop becomes more noticeable, with one or two books seriously lagging behind, and overall ongoing sales dipping. At that point they might dial it back to seven.

Meaning, if we continue to buy, they'll continue to publish. And more to the point, it is clear that, over the last few years, they're starting to stretch our capacity and interest in buying. I see no reason why they won't continue to slowly test and expand, and only stop growth when they reach a point when they feel it is no longer more profitable to expand than maintain (or dial back).

In other words, WotC will let the market dictate how many books they produce, and will bring in new game designers as necessary. But slowly and carefully.

I thought I would say that there is also a quest to beat last quarters dollar projections, but some may also be based on consumer wishes and not just corporate greed. I mean that I would buy more myself if they published more I liked.
Exactly. Now imagine 49,999,999 other D&D buyers, and WotC is assessing what they/we want. With their resources and such a large buying group, they can produce both books that appeal to as many folks as possible, and also hone in on sub-groups that really want a particular thing.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Well, I could see them expanding in a "D&D-adjacent way." "D&D in Space" or "D&D Post-Apocalypse." That doesn't necessarily compete with Transformers, GI Joe, etc, none of which is all that adjacent to D&D.

Yeah, but I don't think "D&D in Space" or "Post-apocalypse D&D" is really "beyond fantasy" either. Spelljammer is basically D&D in space, after all, and it is still really just fantasy.
 

Yeah, but I don't think "D&D in Space" or "Post-apocalypse D&D" is really "beyond fantasy" either. Spelljammer is basically D&D in space, after all, and it is still really just fantasy.
True, but Spelljammer never presented itself as science fiction. That makes a big difference, I think.
 

Gamma World could become a D&D setting, and redesigned to allow possible crossovers with other franchises. But modern tech can break the power balance, for example trucks used to hit over a horde of zombies, a McGyver's style traps against monsters.

1633551846508.png
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
True, but Spelljammer never presented itself as science fiction. That makes a big difference, I think.

Exactly - I don't foresee WotC going into the sci-fi space any time soon, because that would compete with Hasbro's other RPG offerings. But Spelljammer isn't sci-fi, so that's okay.
 

Mercurius

Legend
Yeah, but I don't think "D&D in Space" or "Post-apocalypse D&D" is really "beyond fantasy" either. Spelljammer is basically D&D in space, after all, and it is still really just fantasy.
It is a matter of degree. I think of Shadowrun and Starfinder as being essentially offshoots of a fantasy game (Earthdawn and Pathfinder, respectively, although to be fair, Shadowrun came out before Earthdawn, which was--if not initially, eventually--imagined as the fantasy pre-history of SR).

That question was just as a place-holder for something that doesn't fit within the strictly D&D umbrella. Spelljammer does, Gamma World doesn't - but GW could be re-envisioned as "post-apocalyptic D&D."
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
That question was just as a place-holder for something that doesn't fit within the strictly D&D umbrella. Spelljammer does, Gamma World doesn't - but GW could be re-envisioned as "post-apocalyptic D&D."

Right. So, my thought is that you should not expect to see any serious work done with Gamma World in the near future. You might see "D&D after the Rain of Colorless Fire" or Darksun, but they aren't sci-fi.

After we see if the Transformers et al. flop, maybe you'll see WotC branch out. I still think it unlikely, but you might see it.
 

Bolares

Hero
Exactly - I don't foresee WotC going into the sci-fi space any time soon, because that would compete with Hasbro's other RPG offerings. But Spelljammer isn't sci-fi, so that's okay.
I don't know if other Hasbro RPG offerings would have the power to stop WotC if they did want to go in to the sci-fi space (not that I think they will). WotC brings the big bucks, and if they say to Hasbro, we want to sell Sci-Fi, I could see Hasbro letting them, even if it steps on the toes of smaller RPG offerings.
 

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