Thoughts on a 5th Edition of D&D

Conventional wisdom says that WotC is working on 5E. I’ve done a little digging, and I’m officially agreeing with CW. Here’s why.

When Monte Cook returned to WotC back in September, there was a bit of buzz as to why he did. He wasn’t talking, and it doesn’t seem like he’s working on any big 4E related projects. There was even outright speculation that he was brought back specifically to work on 5E. As Mike Mearls said in announcing Cook’s return:

“It’s now time to focus much more on the future of the game. Monte has an
unmatched design pedigree in the RPG field, and for that reason we’ve
brought him on board to work with R&D in making D&D the greatest
RPG the world has seen. Over the next few weeks, Monte will use this
column to share his thoughts about the game. As we look to chart
D&D’s future course, this column will continue to be a place where
we share our ideas and listen to yours…”
(Legends and Lore, 9/20/2011)

“Future of the game,” “D&D’s future course.” Hmmm. It’s even more interesting to see what, exactly, Monte Cook’s been talking about in his online column at WotC. He’s invariably discussing topics relating to basic design philosophy, mechanics that have little or nothing to do with 4E mechanics, and rules organization. Very odd choices for a game whose design philosophy was decided years ago, whose mechanics are pretty solidly established, and whose rules are already published in two different forms. A few examples:

My job is primarily to explore options. It’s the “research” part of
“Research & Development.” The goal I’ve been given is to make
D&D the best game it can possibly be. It is and always has been the
premier roleplaying game in the world, and I want to make sure it
continues to be.
(Legends and Lore, 9/27/2011)

Imagine… If the character’s rank was equal to or higher than the rank of the
secret door or other hidden thing, he could find it if he took the time,
because it was easy for him. No die roll needed. He can just do it
because he’s very perceptive. If the rank of the hidden thing was
higher, though, he could still try to succeed at a die roll.
  (Legends and Lore, 9/27/2011)

D&D gamebooks are like no other form of writing. Something like the Player’s Handbook
needs to be equal parts teaching tool, reference work, and muse.
Someone is going to sit down and read that book to learn how to play.
They need things explained carefully and often in detail. That same
person will refer to that book over and over again while playing. Then
they need everything to be straightforward and succinct to keep the game
moving. They also need that book to inspire them to create fantasy
characters and adventures. In this case, they need imaginative hooks,
references, and ideas that send them off on their own flights of
fantasy. All three of those aspects usually come in the form of entirely
different books. To ask a book to serve all three at once is a real
challenge. Fortunately, game designers like a challenge.
(Legends and Lore, 11/1/2011)

Believe me, I know what it looks like when someone is musing in order to develop ideas for a new game. And that is what I see there.

WotC also made some pretty radical changes to their release schedule this year, taking out several products that many people saw as major tentpole releases. There have been reports of product shortages among some European distributors. Both of those could be indications that WotC is trying not to be left in a position next year of being stuck with tons of 4E product sitting in warehouses (or worse, on store shelves) when they make the grand announcement about 5E. 

It’s also the case that rumors of 5E’s imminent announcement have been swirling around select areas of the blogosphere. Margaret Weiss stated flat-out that she’s been told (2nd hand) that Monte Cook is working on 5E. Normally, third-hand reports like that wouldn’t be given a lot of credence, but when added to some of the other information out there, including the writings of the supposed designer, a picture gradually begins to form.

Obviously, it’s far too early to even begin to speculate on what 5E will end up looking like (not that that’s stopped everyone). Monte Cook is certainly saying a lot of the right things in his column; he keeps harkening back to 1E (and even 0E) for positive examples in a lot of cases. Unless there’s some radical change in direction with 5E (like making online access a requirement for play, or having a collectible card system a la Gamma World), I’ll give it a try. Heck, I gave 4E an honest try and ended up dropping it because I didn’t like the way it played. I’ll certainly give 5E a chance.

I just wish they’d come out and make the announcement already.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

15 thoughts on “Thoughts on a 5th Edition of D&D

  1. Well obviously they can't. Saying "hey kids, 5e is out in a couple of years" is the exact same thing as saying "hey kids, stop buying 4e cause we are moving past it!". It is financial suicide.

    Frankly I thought announcing 4e at Gen Con 10 months before it came out was way too early. If Monte Cook is working on it (and think there is every reason to think he is) then it still won't be out for a bit.
    I say 2 years, which means it is more like 18 months.

  2. But what's the hobby without a little speculation? 😉

    I was surprised to hear that Weiss had come out and said Monte was working on 5e.

    Timothy's right in saying that it could be financial suicide for WotC to announce 5e so early. The hobby being as it is, no doubt it would put folks off buying new supplements (unless they announce backwards compatibility).

  3. Obviously they don't want to make an announcement about 5E until they're well within release distance, for exactly the reasons Timothy gives. Which is one of the reasons I found the supply issues and the cutting stuff out of the 2011 release schedule somewhat telling. Like they're already starting to get the warehouse shelves empty.

  4. Well if you look at the release schedule of ALL D&D books then 2014 is on target for a new edition.

    The truth is companies make the most money on core rule books. That is why there is more prestige (and pay) in working on a core book; they can afford it.

    To stay viable as a brand WotC needs another core release.

  5. @Joseph… I wish Wizards would consult with you for 5e… I've always thought you've got a better grasp of the game than most of the voices on the net…

  6. I wonder how much 5e will be in reaction to their successful D&D Encounters program and also the success of Pathfinder. Clearly they could go in different directions.

  7. @ mortellan: If I was the WotC brass, and saw the success of Pathfinder, I might just want to bring on the guy who invented the game Pathfinder was itself based on, to regain the undisputed top-dog spot.

  8. First, if they are still 2 years out from launch they may as well quit while they are behind.

    If Paizo continues on its current trajectory they will dominate that aspect of the market so completely that they may as well stick with 4e and the small base of loyal fans that they have now.

    Second, and this one is personal, I will never buy another D&D product until WotC/Hasbro release the property to someone else. I wouldn't trust them to feed my goldfish at this point.

    And if you think this edition war has been bad god help if they do go for something more 'old school'. The fan boys are already complaining that Monte was brought back. I can't imagine the gnashing and wailing that will ensue.

    Plus we still don't know just what the potential of the Indie/OSR market is at this point. I'm seeing a lot of small publishers see their best sales numbers ever this year and the market seems to be growing. In the middle of a bad economy. The little guys have the ability to turn on a dime and use creative methods to generate sales. At some point all the people who are 'confused' by all these different game systems are going to realize that they have basically the same foundation and that the majority of material is compatible with each other. We just need more support items now. Things like Vornheim seem to be a step in the right direction.

    Critical mass is approaching. Look at how WotC/Hasbro have missed the boat 3 times-first with Play By Email/Forum/Blog/etc, then VTT and now with the G+ thing burning up.

    In the interview with their CEO he couldn't stop talking about 'driving' players into game stores, that the stores are their main game plan, that it's the future for the company. The reality is that most of the game stores are hanging on by a thread.

    They've missed the boat. I fully expect to see 5e be more or less a board game much like they are producing now(people are already using the stripped down 4e "Adventure System' rules to play D&D) and sadly that might be their best play. They won the award for Best Board Game this year and it is making them money.

    It's going to be an interesting year…

  9. Interestingly, Baldman Games has announced Dungeons & Dragons Exposition 2012 will include not merely a 4e version of Isle of Dread, but several 1e modules played under 1e tournament rules. They're even asking for DMs to step up with their own modules from older editions.

    "We are also really looking to mix in home-brewed games of D&D and especially older editions. If you are interested please choose that option and put details in the notes section. You can earn a badge running your own game the whole show if you want."

    They're not WotC, but they do work closely with them and WotC staff run and play games each year.

  10. Timothy said Frankly I thought announcing 4e at Gen Con 10 months before it came out was way too early.

    I'm not sure about that. WotC announced 3e a year ahead of release, and they managed things way better that time. For example, every Dragon Magazine from the announcement to the release had material that could be incorporated immediately, fairly easily. They showed us a lot about how it worked in that year, so when the books were actually released I was right there.

    4e? Announced. Vague descriptions of how cool it was going to be. Contrary descriptions later, with a "trust us, it'll be cool!" And so on. Months before release, I saw a lot of people who decided that the stated goals and described implementation were at cross purposes.

    I will agree that 4e was announced too early, but not because the lead time was too great — but because they weren't done designing it.

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