The Future of D&D

With the news of more layoffs at Wizards of the Coast, including long time D&D game designer Bill Slavicsek, discussion regarding the future of Dungeons and Dragons has exploded on Twitter and the various online forums.

In February NewbieDM posted his speculation regarding the future of D&D, and just recently, NeoGrognard posted his thoughts.

At the time, I agreed with NewbieDM, that some sort of ‘new edition’ of D&D was incoming, although I didn’t think it would take until 2014 to come out.  In fact, I think NeoGrognard is pretty correct on this timing.

We will get an announcement of a ‘new edition’ of D&D at GenCon in August.

Here are my thoughts on the subject.

D&D is at a  crossroads.

WotC miscalculated when they originally designed 4e, in that while it does fix many of the problems that 3.5e had, it created new ones, either within the rules, the presentation of the rules or in the adventures.  By taking over the production of Dragon and Dungeon, WotC gave Paizo an opportunity to develop their own product, Pathfinder, in order to support the products that they did well.  This had the result of driving a deep schism in the D&D market and fractured it.  Some people, like me, went to 4e.  Some stayed with 3.5e or Pathfinder.  Some went old school either using the original 1e or 2e rules, or their clones.

The fact is though, that there are a lot of people playing D&D (at least according to the definition that Mike Mearls came up with) that aren’t purchasing new D&D products or subscribing to DDI.

The Virtual Table, is an attempt to try to grab some of that lost market, in that it appears that it will at least somewhat support other editions of D&D.  Essentials, in addition to providing a more clear way for new players to get into D&D, also was an attempt to attract the older crowd.

I don’t think it’s working.

Early in the year, and late enough that the Essentials sales figures should have been known, we got word that several announced products, all of which were crunch based players books, had been cancelled.  The latter part of the year, which had not had any previous product announcements looked rather sparse, and included at least two board game products (Legend of Drizzt and Conquest of Nerath).  We recently had an announcement of another board game product (Dungeon of Dread).

There is at least anecdotal evidence that book sales of Pathfinder products is starting to exceed that of D&D products in stores, and that book inventories are being allowed to deplete.  Now, that doesn’t mean that the income that overall sales of D&D products is being overrun by Pathfinder, given the existence of DDI.  However, there is enough to be concerned about the overall economic viability of the 4e D&D line.

As NewbieDM has pointed out, the designers at WotC have been playing a lot of earlier editions of D&D at the office.  Mike Mearls has been writing the Legends and Lore column on DDI for several months, going over what made D&D tick in the past.  I have to agree with NewbieDM, that it’s making me feel that they’re going to make one more push to try to grab the old guard.

However, there is no appetite for a completely new edition either.  Just look at the backlash over Essentials and whether or not it was D&D 4.5e.

In addition, WotC has spent a lot of money over the past three years developing and promoting DDI.  I don’t think that they’re willing to throw that money away by bringing out a new edition that would be substantially different than 4e.

The one thing that would indicate that they’re not planning on producing a new edition of D&D is that there has been no increase in staffing levels (and as mentioned above, more layoffs have occured).  However, there isn’t nearly the amount of 4e product being produce as was done at the end of 3.5e, and if the new edition is largely going to be similar to 4e, there isn’t nearly the amount of playtesting that would be required either.

So how do I envision this next edition of D&D to be like

The new ruleset will be based largely on the ruleset that is provided in the Essentials Rules Compendium, though with some streamlining as I’ll explain below.

Most of the changes will be on the player’s side though as I think that the monsters are still the best that D&D has ever come up with (at least now that the higher level monster damage has been fixed, and solos aren’t pushovers).

A push to make combat more fast and furious will be paramount.  There will be a drastic reduction to immediate actions available to players.  Opportunity attacks will either become automatic damage, or will be restricted to Defenders only.   It won’t be necessary to be so fiddly with exact positioning of miniatures on the battlemap, and in fact, this edition could theoretically be played without one.  I hope that some sort of ‘stunt’ mechanic (like in Dragon Age) will get introduced, although I don’t expect it.

DDI will support the new edition more, with a reduction in 4e support (but not eliminating it).  Adventures written for DDI or published will be compatable with both editions.

The skill system may be tweaked to deal with the complaints from 3.5e players that the 4e system doesn’t have enough granularity.

The new edition will try to have an even better old school feel to it.  Adventures will start to include more roleplaying and more exploration. Encounter powers will be reduced in emphasis.  Charges for magic items may return.  Resource management in general will be re-emphasized.  Magic items with enhancement bonuses will actually feel like bonuses, rather that just allowing you to ‘keep up’ with monster power levels.

The new system will be such that you could even take earlier editions and easily convert them.  This would allow WotC to begin selling older modules again electronically leveraging all that history and backproduct.  I6 Ravenloft is generally acknowledged as the best adventure ever produced, so why won’t WotC sell it?

I think that the 4e rule structure is more than capable of supporting two different ‘versions’ of D&D.  One that is complex, and highly tactical.  One that is more cinematic, quick and with an old school feel.

The only question is whether or not WotC is actually developing this, and whether or not they have the skill to make this work and try to reunify the fanbase.  This may be a difficult job given how much loyalty Paizo attracts, but I think this is the only way for D&D to thrive going forward.





Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd

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About Arcane Springboard

I'm a 37-year old meteorologist. No, not one of those guys you see on TV, but someone who actually forecasts the weather. In my spare time (what I have with a toddler), I game. Mostly I run a D&D 4e game every two weeks, but also play Warhammer 40,000 and Warmachine. I'm a skeptic (not a cynic) and am interested in political topics. I can be followed on twitter @ArcaneSpringbrd
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25 Responses

  1. I am not sure if I suspect this or hope this, but:

    I think martial at-wills will be compressed into “stances” and “tricks” a la Essentials. (How is an at-will attack simpler than a basic modified by a stance? But whatever.) Implement master wizards will be gone, and schools of magic will be the major choice. (The only good reason they haven’t introduced more schools options via DDI that I can come up with is they’re testing them for the next edition. Same with clerical schools.) If classes have more than one “build,” they’ll still have only one prime requisite and one secondary — no more strength clerics, no more strength sorcerers.

    And I think skill challenges, if they even exist, will be broken out to represent exploration and problem-solving and all the other things people say 4e lacks.

  2. A very interesting set of predictions, and one I’d love to see implemented, although I like playing 4e well enough.

    I think the biggest thing that WotC needs to do is go digital with their actual products. So many gamers are switching to tablets and pdf’s, and these in combination with the current DDi system would actually be pretty great. As you mention, it would also allow a HUGE back library of products to be sold through very little effort on their part.

    Overall, what I would say you’re describing is actually a straight hybrid between 4e and Dragon Age – and I do’nt think it’s a bad thing. I think what attracts so many of us to Dragon Age is its versatility as a modern system that also gives off that old school, simplistic feeling. I’d love to see a shift away from powers and toward an individual, unique, class-based stunt table for each character. It would be a big departure, but I think it could still be translatable – Essentials Fighter and Rogue could be warped just a little bit further to make that happen.

    • Well, I have said that my ideal RPG would be a combo of 4e D&D, Dragon Age with Aspects from FATE. 🙂

  3. I think that Dragon Age’s “stunts” are feats in disguise just with triggers.

    as far as a new edition? I have said it before and I will say it again. They will probably come out with a combat book. One that fixes the problems 4e has and probably offer alternatives. I could be wrong but it would work well with the rules compendium.

    I think we have seen their new format for characters with the Class Compendium going online and DDI only. They are redoing Monsters now from MM1 as DDI only and they have added more options for the Strength Battle Cleric with new mechanics.

    Adding board games does nothing to lessen the RPG brand. In fact, just from today I demoed Ravenloft to a couple of young kids and based off of that they put the game Decent back on the shelf and bought it. They also made characters for Encounters after also buying one of the essentials books.

    Having those board games branded with D&D on them is name recognition. It helps the games, it does not hinder it.

    Encounters and Essentials is the best selling RPG product at the store I run at despite the Store Manager being a die-hard Pathfinder fan. He has only sold Pathfinder books to his own players, at Encounters we have kids as young as 12 buying the 4e and essentials books to run their own games. We routinely have 20+ players a week that is 4-5 tables worth of players.

    The majority of them are under 16 thus their presence is not felt on the internet in any form. They have no voice to say how cool they like this edition of D&D. They will of course just roll with the changes until they get sucked into the edition wars that will soon be sparking.

    What has me feeling sad is how quickly, within 20 min of the announcement that Bill was out. There was no sympathies by some, they went right into the twitterverse with Something is afoot at WotC I smell new edition.

    The speculation will run wild, there has been talk like that because they play older editions at lunch things were going to change. From what I heard they have played older editions for quite some time. I bet Bill still ran 1st edition D&D and probably d6 Star Wars. 🙂

    They have said before, they play other games to keep their designers mind sharp. It is also not unheard of to always be thinking of innovation in the RPG industry or any industry for that matter.

    • In my defense, I was just about ready to pull the trigger on this post before the announcements of the layoffs. They do mean something, although exactly what obviously is up for speculation.

  4. I’ve thrown my prediction hat into the ring a bit too on the future of 4E. I expect you might even get an ‘advanced’ and ‘streamline’ set of the same rules. Everyone has the base rules with a ton of options to make it a little more meaty and crunch if needed, and everything in the same book.

    Although I won’t be surprised if they roll out another version, maybe in DDI only. A ‘classic’ D&D game. Possibly with a DRM you might even get all the old material out again. Make it a feature that with DDI you can get access to all their old stuff online. They have to be looking at Pathfinder and thinking how they can tap into that market of their old 3.0/3.5 stuff.

    • That’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of…trying to tap into Pathfinder with their own products from the 3e era.

  5. I’m a die-hard 3e/Pathfinder fan at this point, but I’ve played 4e. I even like what they did with Essentials, to a degree. So I don’t “hate” the current edition, but I don’t really like it that much either. I for one would be happy to see a new edition. It kind of sucks and feels kind of weird to not be playing the current edition of D&D. I played all the way through 2nd (which I still love) and 3e, so turning my back on 4e feels odd. That’s why I tried Essentials, I just have a hard time accepting that I don’t play D&D (the current edition anyway) anymore. I’m only playing past editions. I’m one of “those guys”, now. I’m one of the guys they used to make fun of in the game shops when they refused to go to 2e or 3e. I don’t like being that guy, it’s just weird. The only consolation I have is back then you were the oddball if you didn’t play the new edition, now I feel like the oddball because I really do want to like the new edition.

    It feels ever more odd that when my group (made up of players from age 13 – 38) says “lets play D&D”, they’re actually talking about Pathfinder. 4e doesn’t even register to them as D&D (not hating on the game, just making an observation) and they aren’t the types that even read, or know that RPG blogs exist so there is no negative influence from 4e haters. They don’t visit the message boards, and they only know that other systems exist (HEX, M&M, Palladium, etc) because I own them.
    Yet when we discuss playing D&D it is either 2e or Pathfinder that gets mentioned. 4e is not an option for them, unless I bring it up. Even the kids (daughter, niece, and their friends) will play 4e/Essentials, they prefer 2e and Pathfinder.
    So I’m all for a new edition that combines the good parts of 4e/Essentials with the good parts of older editions. Something with rules written to accommodate games that can be as tactical or as free form as you like. I think that is one thing they did right with 3e. The rules were written to allow you to run a very tactical minis game, but you could also run a game without minis with no problem. The rules worked well for minis, but didn’t require them.

  6. I would like a D&D that is more of the AD&D 2nd edition when it comes to feel, setting and graphical style. No need for digital aides to be able to have a fluent game. Never got into 4th ed at all. Had invested to much into 3 and 3.5 and I believe many others did as well. Problem with the 3+ system was the plethora of feats and classes that ran amock. My wish for rules would be a more solid and “complete” set of core rules. The “three” should really feel like all you need, and digital toys for the fun or progressive ones. Updated rules upset my group. They had no wish into having rule discussions, they simply wanted to play.

  7. I’ve seen several people saying that they think WotC will be doing a revival of AD&D.
    I no jack about trademark and copyright law, but I was goofing off on the US gov’s copyright and trademark site and found that AD&D (advanced dungeons and dragons) is a dead/abandoned property. It hasn’t been renewed in a decade or more and is considered abandoned/dead. On the other hand D&D (dungeons and dragons) has been renewed regularly.
    I don’t know what that means actually means leagally and I am making no claims to the contrary. From my non-lawyer POV, it seems to say that WotC is not working on an AD&D or else they would have filed to revive that trademark, copyright or whatever.
    Just some info I found out.

    • No, I doubt that they’d have something under the AD&D brand. That way lies more fragmentation.

  8. You are wrong…and right…and wrong. I wrote all about it. 🙂

  9. I don’t think the hiring of more employees signals a new edition as much as relying much more on freelancers, while the in-house staff is too busy play testing to write books.

    I kinda wrote about this a while back, before Bill S. left.

    Regardless, I hope WotC embraces the public mass playtest model of Paizo. 4e had some huge problems that would have been fixed with extra eyes testing an otherwise playable version of the game.

  10. Excellent piece – you’re right on that while 4e solved some old problems and has spectactular features (like combat’s many options), it unfortunately has created some new and very unappealing elements (diminished RP and overlong combat duration).

    Those are the two big ones for me, and I love where you’re going with some ideas on how immediate actions are revised. Off-turn actions are far too plentiful, time-consuming, and there’s plenty with boring, uninspiring triggers.

    Interrupt someone’s turn over something exciting, not just any area attack or melee attack or movement. Only do it rarely and when something big happens. Combat’s long enough and tactically complex enough as it is – leave other turns alone!

    • I don’t have a lot of problem with immediate actions that involve things like putting up Shield, or Teleporting away from an attack. But anything with an attack roll I don’t think really needs to be done out-of-turn.

  11. On the subject of the board games. They sell, Look at Fantasy Flight Games, they are making board games that sell for $50-$100 and Living Card Games that average $40 bucks with a new expansion set every month. Theses guys are making a lot of money.

    WotC wants to get a bit of that market share. Both of the games Ravenloft and Ashardalon are great buys. No DM, 5 players (more if you put both together, we have done it at the store) and it does not scare people away with the cost.

    We just got done playing Conquest of Nerath, Axis and Allies and Fortress America meets D&D. The game is excellent, plays well and we got so much attention from people in the store for open gaming tonight they sold out of the game.

    Dungeons of Dread it is coming out soon with the new Legends of Drizzt as well. Dungeons sounds like a Decent contender from FFG. I do not fault them with board games. For some gamers the board games are the better alternative with the inability to play RPGs.

    When 4e came out we got lots of books fast. They have slowed down, which is fine on my pocketbook. I get a discount but still this month I still plunked down 130 bucks on new WotC product. In this economy we need to look at it as a company that is hearing people complain about costs, the speed of new product and the very content they are getting with both DDI and Print.

    Sure a new edition? Eventually. Not this soon. New product to modify 4e? They have done it already like it has been said with Essentials.

    Right now I have Essential Characters playing right along with my PHB 1,2 and 3 characters. I think if they went into a new edition of D&D right now or within the next few years they might get a revolt from store owners. Like it or not it will be a print product, not pure online, they take the books out of the store they will kill the game.

  12. The bottom line for me is this. 4e came out and myself and my gaming groups embraced it. Having largely rejected 3rd ed in favor of just continuing 2nd ed until pretty late in the game (after 3.5 for sure) .. we thought we’ll be early adopters and see what its all about. We did and I have to say it took several games with different groups (in different states no less) for me to finally have 4e click. Once it did though I appreciated it for what it was. A group tactical board game with really balanced characters and a really fine balance between players and the DM (if everyone was 100% on top of the rules and their game that is … on both sides of the screen). So we had a good year or so of 4e (after we worked out the initial kinks and before the essentials shat hit the market) and then the rug was pulled out from under our feet. Essentials hit our group like a typhoon and we never recovered from it. Since late last year we have moved on to other game systems … oddly enough my group has split partially in two with one half playing Vincent Bakers Apocalypse World and 2nd Edition Warhammer Fantasy. We were all heavily invested into D&D … well beyond the PHB level. We are all 10 – 30 year D&D fans … so the decision to take a long break (and in some cases make vows to never play anything related to 4e) was a tough one for most of us. But the game just doesn’t provide for us what it was and the change was so unforeseen and abrupt, after we all really took a leap of faith and left our comfort zones in the first place to just give 4e a chance we felt a deep sense of betrayal basically. We have collectively lost any faith or trust that we had in WoTC. Clearly to us we have fully experienced that WoTC is utterly under the thumb of Hasbro and those pulling the strings have no clue about what they are doing. We made the investment of cash, and probably more importantly of time … time to learn the rules …. really well and really think about and talk about all the nuances of 4e. That represented hundreds of collective hours of toil, blood, sweat and tears. So losing all that … really pissed us off. Now yes, did we “lose” it no … we didn’t because we can just go back to rules compendium and stop right? Use one of the cleaned up versions of character builder that resembles the old one we learned to love. No for us we were as much suckers for new releases, new content, new tile sets, yada yada … as anything. Once they stopped moving the game in what was a then familiar, cherished even, direction that we thought it was going in … we just collectively lost our will to go on. The spell was broken, the magic lost its hold over us and we all realized … we actually like to OWN our own rules. We like to just have certainty of where things are going to go. So we moved off in that direction. For good bad or otherwise that is what happened to our group and I can’t help but wonder how many others have had this same experience. I hope Hasbro (I won’t even bother to say WoTC anymore) comes up with a wiz bang game with 5th edition … all that I know is I will not be an early adopter this time. I can’t see myself touching it for at least a year or two … just to make sure. I do really hope the stick a fork in 4th soon though … I just can’t stand to look at it anymore 🙁

  13. Maybe Hasbro will just sell off the D&D brand … or farm it out to Fantasy Flight, Green Ronin … or someone else (like Games Workshop does with half of their IP these days). I’m sure they could make just as much money … by cutting/firing and/or just re-assigning all of the WoTC staff to other non-D&D related projects. MTG makes them money … I would be surprised to hear that D&D makes them all that much anymore.

  14. No offense Jester (because you really wrote a solid piece on this I agree) but I think citing Amazon sales … top 40 … etc. That sounds impressive but if people do digging into what that translates into in terms of numbers it can be pretty small. Low thousands actually. That doesn’t mean tens or hundreds of thousands of units are moving by any stretch. So I don’t know if that really means D&D is still holding its own. Hasbro could cut it lose … its only a small line in a big business … or who knows its all speculation, wishful thinking, etc. I just know its sad times for me personally and many people I know who have been life long D&D fans. This has been a low point for many as far as D&D is concerned.

  15. I think one edition to rule them all is a pipedream. It’s not the 70’s or 80’s, where the number of RPGs could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now there is a huge amount of choice available in RPGs, and version that cater to almost every genre and taste.

    Now D&D is the biggest selling tabletop RPG by far, and it makes commercial sense to target it at as many people as possible. But tastes are so particular now that this is a very difficult thing to do.

    RPGs are much less useful without players. My local RPG shop has a full shelf of 4e stuff, and 2 Pathfinder books. I suspect the popularity of RPGs in any locality depends on what the referees run, and the players are willing to play.

    My problem in this sort of discussion is that I like 4e. I used minis and maps (sometimes) in 1e and 2e. I ran 3e during it’s run, but preparation times got very long. Almost every modification to 4e people propose to make it acceptable to them is something that I don’t want. The steps back in essentials are not personally of interest to me, though I bought the material , and have an essentials PC for a new player in my group as they are simpler.I like encounter powers. I don’t like charged items. I don’t want massive resource management to come back. I really like balanced characters and would hate a return to linear barbarian, exponential wizard.

    The business requirements for any new version of D&D mean that lots of books and supplements should be possible. That’s just business.

  16. Not sure how relevant this is … but if you look at the document properties for recent Dragon/Dungeon articles, one of the fonts used is named DnD5Attack-Regular. This has been true for some time, however.

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