Jan 192012
The Puns were better in the older versions, too.

Reproduced under a Creative-Commons share alike license, with thanks to flickr user B_Zedan


Alright, it is. A little bit.

As you almost certainly already know, Wizards of the Coast recently announced that the company had begun development of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, accompanied by a call to gamers to participate in the process of creating the new edition. Many of us DnD-ers are quite internet savvy and have taken to the webstreets to promulgate their own ideas for what Wizards should do with 5th edition. I think I’m a sight more cynical than most of the community: since, less than three full years after the release of 4th Edition, Pathfinder sales have been consistently better. Simply put, Paizo is kicking the crap out of Wizards, and Dungeons and Dragons is in danger of being completely dethroned as the fantasy simulationist roleplaying game of choice. So they’ve made a bold move.

Here’s a simple timeline:

  • 1st Edition: released 1978
  • 2nd Edition: released 1989 (11 years)
  • 3rd Edition: released 2000 (11 years); 3.5 released in 2003
  • 4th Edition: announced GenCon 2007, released June 2008
  • 5th Edition: announced January 2012, release TBD

Obviously, this is very simplified. Advanced was released in 1979, so maybe you consider that to be different than the main game and perhaps it deserves an entry. Either way, I think the signal Wizards is flashing is quite clear: they’re pulling the plug on 4th Edition.

Now, I’m not trying to add fuel to culture wars. I’m not here to say one edition is better than any other edition, but I think the evidence is clear: Wizards is worried enough about 4th Edition sales to announce a new edition only 3.5 years into the life of their newest product. Announcing itself is a damning step, since this will certainly mean that 4th Edition sales will take a hit (since consumers will be loathe to buy more books from a game that is going to be obsolete in a year or so). Undoubtedly, they’re transferring some people from 4e development to 5e development, so the quality of the supplements that do get published in the next year might be lacking. Wizards is forsaking 4th edition for the hopes of recapturing a share of 5th edition.

It’s quite a bold move indeed. They’ve got to get 5th out the door rather quickly: I can easily imagine (more) people jumping ship to Pathfinder, an actively supported, successful, OGL product in the vacuum between editions.

I promised a post that was not about 5th edition. While I won’t run directly back into Wizards’ open arms like a lost puppy eager to trade my dollars for permission to create my own fantasy world using their framework, I do appreciate that the company seems to recognize that they ignored the concerns of a vocal segment of the community about 4e, and are at least trying to bring them back into the fold. Yes, their attempt is clumsy and stinks of marketing-speak, but the thought counts. Right?

There was a good Penny Arcade comic satirizing the call to arms. It’s funny, but this is definitely going to happen to an extent. Let’s assume that Wizards is serious about seeking the community’s input. How can we help them?  In my opinion, the Edition Wars have left us with a divided community and a torn identity. Before we can move forward, we have to take stock of where we’ve been and where we are: what, exactly, IS Dungeons and Dragons?


Like them or hate them, levels are an inextricable part of the D&D experience. They are an easily communicated context for a character’s power (“experience”) level. The more levels you have, generally, the stronger you are, whether that strength is measured in the ability to absorb blows, deal out damage, the power or quantity of magic available, and so on. They’ve been around since 1e, and their importance has changed over the years, but levels are the core unit of power. Compare, for example, to other games where you spend XP like currency.

Now, levels can be very useful. They are a stat that all players have that is meaningful, and since characters will generally be in the same level range, we can base powers which have variable outputs off of character level (or class level, or caster level, or manifester level, or whatever level). We can say damage for Ability X is 5 points per level, and damage for Ability Y is 2 points plus 3 per level, and so on.

Levels also give us a framework off of which we dole out abilities. This helps prevent characters from getting “powerful” abilities when it’s inappropriate for them to do so. If we deem Ability X and Power Y to be of relatively equal power, we can allow access to them at the same level.

You can already see where this can easily go wrong. Circumventing this system gets abusive quickly. Things that give a character a higher effective level should be meted out judiciously, since so many things end up basing off this base number. When so much work is put into balancing things against a number, easily accessible spoofing of that number throws off the balance work.  This became a problem late in the 3.0/3.5 design cycle, where boosting Caster Level was so powerful, or so many cool, flavorful races were unplayable because of the Effective Character Level offset.

Another problem with level is that, as much as we want, we can’t make a Level 1 character always equal to another Level 1 character, but that’s because of our next unique Dungeons and Dragons construction: the character class.


Classes have gone through changes over time (remember, some of the original classes were Dwarf and Elf), but we as a Dungeons and Dragons community have come to know classes as part character archetype, part party role, part access to abilities. Classes are a necessary extension of the level system, but could certainly exist in games without them (think of Professions from Call of Cthulhu, where you get access to certain skills as “Occupational Skills”). As development of Dungeons and Dragons progressed, class eventually separated from level (and in some ways became its own separate progression).

Nothing defines your character more in DnD than your class. Being a Barbarian, or a Paladin, or a Wizard brings a discrete set of abilities. While there is tremendous variation within the classes, the general archetype remains the same. Usually these classes have defining abilities, such as a barbarian’s rage, or a wizard’s magic, or a rogue’s backstabbing.

The class system, like the level system, has some warts. You can’t create your own class (and in editions where you could, the results were often disastrously unbalanced), and of course, each class was not made equal. Nor would we want to, right? One of the thrills of playing a roleplaying game is to express your character’s uniqueness. Class selection goes a long way to defining that uniqueness. In my opinion, one of the more disappointing facets upon release of 4th edition was the sterilization of class uniqueness in favor of balance. Yes, I might be “twirling a blade to distract the enemy” and you might “toss a bit of dirt in your enemy’s eye”, but if we’re both doing [W] plus Stun for 1 round, our abilities are the same.

Magic and Magic Items:

Vorpal Sword. Bigby’s Crushing Fist. Cure Light Wounds. Bag of Holding. These are iconic DnD abilities and items (not to mention Wizards’ intellectual property :D).

Not only are they iconic, but they have always been a huge part of the game, especially for non-caster classes. Think about the fighters without their massively-enchanted battleaxes, elvish archers without their magical bows and quivers of Elhonna, rogues without their Cloaks of Elvenkind and bags of tricks. Everyone has their stories about how they held off a room full of Orcs with an immovable rod or how they hid out for days thanks to a ring of sustenance and bottle of air. magic items have been a huge part of the game.

Magic, too, has been incredibly important to the game. Magic created entire dungeons, cities, and planes out of nothing. Some of the most incredible landscapes and campaign settings have been shaped by potent magics (Dark Sun to name just one). Dungeons and Dragons is fantasy, not a renaissance revival, because of magic.

Furthermore, I think the system of magic envisioned by Jack Vance and incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons resonates today (Vancian Magic – warning, TVTropes link.) Having spells be packaged into discrete, unchangeable units (spells) which must be prepared in advance dictated the framework upon which wizards, sorcerers, clerics, and other spellcasters were built.

Where do we go from here?

You could argue that other core elements of Dungeons and Dragons (such as experience points or fantasy races, or, you know, dungeons and dragons) stand as the pillars of the game, and please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

If you accept my first premise, that Wizards believes 4th edition is a failure (at least commercially), then we need only look at these pillars to perhaps realize why. They kept levels but, in my opinion, broke a cardinal rule by basing too much off character level (such as the skill system). You could make the argument that the classes were just not different enough (plus, they added super- or meta-classes: striker, defender, leader, controller). You could say that they sterilized the magic system, muted the awesome power of magic items in favor of placing most of the capabilities in the Powers granted by the class.

Or, you could take the reverse approach. 30 levels was a welcome change, especially if the players level faster and gain new abilities more often. The classes were way more balanced than ever before, with Sorcerers and Rogues being fairly equal throughout their existence. Magic items were also brought into line, with no chance for a Staff of Power to disrupt the game when accidentally dropped into the laps of the PCs.

But, again, we’re not here to criticize 4th or 3rd or any past edition. We want to turn what we perceive as the central pillars of DnD into as much a part of its future as it has been of its past. The developers need to decide how they want to proceed. It’s certainly possible they could forsake all of them and completely remake the game (which many old vets believe they did for 4th edition), but, based on their call to arms, it seems like they want everyone to what we’ve done here: identify what DnD is at its core, and build from that core.

I would be remiss were I not to include some ways to build around this core I perceive. Firstly, I’d keep levels. There are plenty of games out there without them, and I think they provide a nice framework. I almost want to say “more levels” but I think 30 is daunting enough. Keep those levels coming, though. Spread out the abilities gained across levels so that the gain in power is not as jerky as it was in 3rd edition, especially when it comes to spell-casters.

Keep classes, too. They serve as kits to help build a character. However, don’t provide too many options within classes, and provide more “tracks” to follow within (not to steal from Paizo, but the variants they have built into character classes are great examples of the right way to customize classes with flavor). Have the classes be close in balance, but they don’t need to be perfectly balanced. DnD is, at its core, a cooperative game. Who cares if your friend is “more powerful”? Of course, different classes are going to be more powerful in certain situations. Make sure that those situations are clear, though. Furthermore, don’t try to fit every class into the same rules paradigm. It doesn’t make sense that a Barbarian can perform a maneuver only once per day. We suspend our disbelief when it comes to magic, but it’s a lot harder to swallow when it comes to doing a whirlwind attack.

Magic definitely should be reigned in from 3rd edition, but expanded from 4th edition. The real question, to me,  is whether we should abandon the Vancian system. I’m really torn on this one. The flavor is weird and kind of arbitrary, but then again, so is magic. Personally, I think there should be multiple options for magic, but all of them should have drawbacks. Such is the nature for having the ability to ignore the laws of physics.

Magic items are one are I think DnD has actually been getting it wrong for a long time. Things shouldn’t be more and more standardized. Magic items should be hard-to-find, harder-to-acquire unique pieces of equipment that define stories. Sure, there’s a place for bags of holding and robes of power, but there needs to be a much easier way to create and integrate custom items. Even when I play today, I look back at my Encyclopedia Magicka to find obscure and often random magic items that someone created 30 years ago.

There are a lot more suggestions I could make: fix the economy! make crafting make sense! eliminate the arbitrary divide between “adventurers” and “normal people”!  trust the DM more, not less (seriously, I knew there was going to be a problem with 4.0 when I saw there were rules to play w/o a DM)!

There’s a thought experiment in philosophy known as the Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’ paradox. It goes like this: after his many travels, Theseus returned from Athens and his ship was put on display in the city for generations. Whenever a plank or part rotted or was ruined, it was replaced. After some time, every piece had been replaced at least once. Was this ship that stood on display in Athens still the Ship of Theseus?

Dungeons and Dragons has undergone many changes over the years as well. Pieces have been removed once they were aged, rotted, and no longer useful and replaced with newer pieces. We stand on the edge of a precipice: only a few timbers remain? Do we replace them? And if we do, will it still be Dungeons and Dragons?


About Nick

Nick is an inquisitive type, never satisfied with what he reads in a book.

  14 Responses to “This is not a post about 5th Edition”

  1. I don’t think you’re quite correct in thinking that replacing 4e with 5e is an admission of failure on the part of Hasbro, any more than coming out with a new Barbie doll indicates the previous one failed. I strongly suspect that the heart of the decision looks like this: a) Core Rulebooks sell more than any add-on or supplement, by far. b) Core Rulebooks are not “evergreen”, there’s a point a couple years into a release where you’ve sold the bulk that you’re ever going to sell. c) Ergo, when you’ve reached that point, it’s time for a new set of Core Rulebooks.

    • I guess my point is that it’s only been 3 years since 4th came out. Does this mean that we should expect a new edition now every 3 years? I don’t think that is likely, but it is possible. It’s hard to tell with 3rd, since they did release 3.5 a few years after, but that was mostly a fix. It’s quite clear that the next edition will not be 4.5

      I think, if you look at the life cycle of most games, you can get a lot out of the core system. Things like World of Darkness had the same core system for many years – but they were helped by adding new semi-systems (VtM, Mage, Hunter, Werewolf, etc.)

      The problem with the Barbie analogy is that you can play with both Barbies at the same time in the same setting. Also, any clothes you bought for your 1st edition Barbie will probably fit on your 2nd edition Barbie. This is certainly not true about 3e –> 4e, and probably will not be true about 4e — 5e.

      I agree that it’s completely a business decision. But they wouldn’t be making a new edition right now if 4e was selling like hotcakes, they’d continue to support their massively successful product. Unless they plan to support both 4e and 5e side by side, I see this as them giving up on 4e. Whether that makes 4e a “failure” or not is debatable.

  2. Yes, I expect a new edition every three or four years, at least while Hasbro continues to own D&D. It’s true that if 4e were selling like hotcakes, they wouldn’t replace it, but I think it’s pretty much impossible for that to be true….the ranks of the hobby just don’t grow or turn over enough to prevent saturation. Everybody who’s even vaguely interested in 4e either has a copy or has decided they don’t need one; the only people they’re selling to now are new entrants into the hobby, and that doesn’t occur nearly as fast as new entrants into the market for Barbies. That’s not a dig at 4e, it’s just the way that book sales work, particularly for things like text-books–which is pretty much what an RPG rulebook is. Nobody buys it for a nice read, they just want it for the information it contains.

    • Well, I thinlk you’ve hit upon the main problem. If what you say is true, that 4e has penetrated the market as much as it ever will, then how does one evaluate the product?

      We then must ask ourselves, how much market share should DnD have, and how much does 4e have? I don’t thin one can argue that 4e has as much share as Hasbro wants. So, they’re scrapping it and moving on. Which is the right decision.

      Its not a problem with the content, a lot of things contributed to 4th’s (relative) commercial failure (though some of it is content): no OGL, missing stuff from Core books, Insider, and other mistakes all contributed to 4e’s lagging sales and slipping market share.

      (Sorry for the short reply, doing this from my phone)

  3. Magic – I think there’s a place for some classes to have vancian magic, others to have AEDU magic, others to have point-based magic. It will take some work for them to be balanced, but the different types can coexist.

    Magic items – I think the new system needs to accomodate both magic-rare and magic-heavy campaigns. 3e and 4e built magic items into the power level. I think the answer is to not have magic items give a huge bump to your power level, but bump your flexibility. Get rid of plus one swords. A flaming weapon lets you do fire and slashing damage instead of just slashing. It’s the same amount of damage, but you have more flexibility. A more powerful version might allow somebody to cast a few level appropriate fire spells. Another item might be a wand that increases the range of spells cast through it. Or a wand that lets you cast the spells contained in it instead of what you would normally cast.

    As for the business decision, I think you are assuming strategy where there is none. People at WotC might put forth a strategy that is a cycle that is good for the game or the players. This strategy then goes up the chain to a level of management that is not invested in the game as a game. And when management changes, managers often impose change for change’s sake. If they change something, they can’t measure the results until thing stabilize. People will expect 4e sales to be down until 5e comes out. People expect that there will be an adoption curve with 5e. This means it will be two years until they can meaningfully report on the success of D&D.

    And 4e wasn’t tanking completely. It’s got a lot of fans. However, there are several external factors. 1) a huge global recession. 2) players switching to electronic formats and WotC not supporting them 3) game stores and chain bookstores are dying by droves. 4) the GSL turned off the 3PP community, causing – 5) Pathfinder being an excellent revision of 3.5. The other issue is that they are comparing 4e to 3e. 3e came out at a time that D&D was in the doldrums. It was a great game and a huge success. Through the OGL it took over the gaming community. Those are huge shoes to fill.

    5e will be coming off the doldrums of 4e. There is some economic recovery and hopefully it will continue and expand. If 5e doesn’t suck it should be able to meet the 4e level of sales. If it’s a good game it can do well.

    • I agree with quite a bit of this. However, I think that a lot of the problems you list are not wholly “external”. Many of them were directly caused by the behavior of Wizards/Hasbro: the poorly done release of DDI, abandoning the OGL and 3rd party, and even Pathfinder’s surge can be attributed to marketing strategies of 4th edition.

      And yes, everything looks a lot worse considering how successful 3.0 and 3.5 were. Wizards very clearly admitted that they made some mistakes with 3.0, and corrected them by releasing 3.5 three years later. Now, three years after 4.0, are they doing the same thing? I don’t know.

  4. I think you make a lot of good points in your article. I certainly agree that I want to see levels, and certain magic items (among other things) in any and every edition of D&D.

    However, a couple of your points in the beginning I agree with less. The ICv2 reports are significantly less than complete way to measure sales. These numbers come only from in store sales, and don’t even measure the sales of all stores who sell these books. While I think its generally a good indicator of print sales, it doesn’t take digital sales into account. There are nearly 70,000 current DDI subscribers paying a monthly fee to WotC. A fair number of those people (or more truthfully an unknown number) don’t buy the books because they have the core and all the new mechanics get pushed digitally.

    It also doesn’t take into account Paizo’s digital sales either. It’s just a poor metric for measuring either companies success in this current time.

    • Well, as you said, there’s no way to know how DDI is affecting sales of print books.

      The ICv2 reports represent a significant (if incomplete) portion of the known data. I think it’s a good indicator of trends, not clear proof of anything other than exactly what it is (data from these stores specifically).

      I think it’s hard to make out exactly how much Wizards is making from DnD. There are print products, there is DDI, there is licensing to DDO, there are the board games, there used to be the miniatures, etc. etc. I think Wizards has done an OK job of expanding the brand in the last few years, but I stick to my conclusion that this is an admission of defeat as it currently stands (or, if you want to put it a different way, a recognition of the threat to their market share that Paizo is making.) I would contend that if their sales were strong, they would probably not announce a new edition so soon and jeopardize their current subscriber/consumer base. With any edition change, there is going to be some customer base loss. There is a lot of uncertainty about DDI itself – will it continue to be subscription-only once 5e is released? Will it be monthly subscription if 4e is no longer supported by Wizards?

      Winston Churchill said about Democracy that (paraphrasing) “it’s the worst form of government in the world, but it’s the only one that works.” I don’t know if there is a better way to measure how close the competition between DnD and Pathfinder is, but I do know that this is one way, even if it is poor. These figures have been around for more than a year. Amazon’s sales seem to indicate the same as ICv2. I combined these data points I do have with some ominous circumstantial evidence from WOTC (canceling the miniatures line, light book release schedule, continued unwillingness to allow 3rd part content, “early” announcement of 5th edition development, marketing technique of “hearing your input”) and that led me to the conclusion that, from Hasbro’s standpoint, going for 5e NOW is the right business move. And I just can’t see that being true unless 4e is not where they want it to be.

      • I hear you, but I would hesitate to make such a strong statement without better information. Remember that while wizards cancelled one miniatures line they announced another. Their novels see a steady schedule, they’ve regained and re-licensed their video game rights, and they’ve created not just a board game, but a board game line.

        This edition is unlike every previous edition of D&D with its own number as the designers have promised that all your old gaming material will be useful at the table. While I can’t begin to comprehend how they’ve done this, they’re pretty clear that they have. That means no replacing your existing 4e books. This doesn’t seem like a desperate move, but maybe a little crazy one, just because the premise seems so impossible.

        All of the existing 4e fans will still be able to use their existing material, and if for some reason 5e doesn’t work out, they’ll still have those players, who will not have sold their books. I don’t know how happy they’ll be if 5e doesn’t deliver on it’s promise, but it will be a lot different than those who sold their 3e books and found out they don’t like 4th edition.

  5. Quick note from a FLGS owner:

    Having owned/operated a FLGS for near 20 years, even though we are dying off in droves, Wizards has offered much more 4E support than any previous edition! They have gone above and beyond with Encounters & Lair Assault. From personal experience 4E has brought many more ‘new players’ into the fold than any previous version and even though Magic is my bread & butter, I get 30+ D&D players every Wednesday night & that many again on weekends.

    My fear, and I’ve had a chat with a few rep’s, is that 5E will go the digital route, leaving the print model in the dust…

    • Well, I think the subscription model is working out for them very well. You can charge people a flat monthly fee, keep the money rolling in, and ensure that people stay subscribed by releasing new content every so often.

      I don’t think they’ll completely abandon print books, but I do think they’ll reduce the book footprint. More web-only updates and features, fewer glossy published books. They will probably keep supporting other tabletop products though: tiles, minis, cards, etc.

  6. @Polyhedonism, while I know it’s going to hurt your business, I hope that they don’t keep to only books. I just don’t use paper anymore – my back can’t take carrying all the books anymore. I bought the legal PDF when they were available, and when they pulled them, the internet provided. One idea I’ve heard is to figure out a way to buy the paper book at a participating game store and then be able to download the PDF from a secure site.

  7. I hope they offer both, I’m of the opinion that they sell digital at a slightly reduced price & still produce printed products. But honestly so long as they keep supporting FLGS like they have been (or ‘fingers crossed’ even better than they have been) then we will survive, maybe even thrive. As I’ve said, back in the late 90’s early 2000’s I did little RPG business, it picked up a little for D&D 3.X, but it’s gone through the proverbial roof since 4E.

    My retail business is very limited when it comes to RPG material anyway. I suspect this is a universal truth amongst most FLGS, as I said my bread & butter is Magic the Gathering and the always steady miniature skirmish groups. Board games and the like have actually gotten better as well over the past couple years.

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