Monday, 9 January 2012

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS 5th Edition revealed

Wizards of the Coast have confirmed that a 5th Edition of the popular Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game is in development. No release date has been set, but the game will have a lengthy development period in which fan feedback will be welcomed.

The 4th Edition of the game was released in 2008, itself only five years after the previous version of the game (3.5E, a revision of the 3rd Edition originally released in 2000), so this is a fast turn-around for a game that spent almost a dozen years between the first two editions, and almost the same between the second and third. Normally fans would be up in arms over this, accusing Wizards of the Coast and their parent company, Hasbro, of trying to fleece them. However, a grim resignation seems to have met the news. 4th Edition, to put it mildly, was not a universally-acclaimed success.

Previous editions of the game had built upon what had come before: 2nd Edition was a streamlined version of 1st Edition, with new rules brought in to clarify spotty parts of the rules (most infamously, THAC0, a system designed to make it easier to work out what you need to roll to hit a monster with a weapon). 3rd Edition appeared a more radical shake-up, but in fact many of its features and rules were originally roadtested in the 'Player's Option' rulebooks released towards the end of 2E's lifespan (and others were extremely popular and common house rules). 4th Edition was a much more revolutionary game, in which perceived imbalances between classes were controversially bulldozed out of the way by making the classes comparable in power, just doing things slightly differently. It was loved by those who had been complaining about the game being 'unbalanced' on forums for years and loathed by those who felt it threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Initially, 4th Edition seemed to do well, shifting impressive numbers of copies of its core rulebooks and hitting a second print run before publication. However, controversy greeted its approach to expansions. Rather than release optional rulebooks (aside from a few of the 'usual suspects' which appear every time a new edition is released), Wizards of the Coast opted to release a single campaign setting every year and annual updates to the core rulebooks. Other rules would be added via the D&D Insider, a subscription-based website featuring exclusive content. Whilst sales of the core rulebooks were good, sales of the expansions and subscriptions to the Insider seemed to fall below expectations. In addition, the goodwill of a large number of fans who liked the 4th Edition rules was squandered when the Forgotten Realms campaign setting was destroyed and turned into a post-apocalyptic fantasy world, moving the timeline on 100 years and throwing out most of the established canon (including killing virtually every single character of note apart from Drizzt, Elminster and Erevis Cale).

All of this could perhaps have been borne if 4E didn't have a unique problem not faced by any previous edition: a credible rival product. In 2000 Wizards of the Coast released the Open Gaming Licence, allowing other companies to release products compatible with the 3rd Edition rules, even entirely new games using the same rulebooks. Though 4E used a different (and vastly more commercially restrictive) version of the licence, nothing legally prevented another company from simply publishing its own game using the 3rd Edition rules. Paizo Publishing did exactly that, releasing the Pathfinder roleplaying game in 2009 after a public and open development process lasting well over a year (meaning people were playing Pathfinder months before 4E's launch). Unlike 4E's revolutionary approach, Pathfinder opted for more modest improvements to resolve 3E's outstanding issues and was a huge success.

Neither company has released sales figures, but by all indications Pathfinder's performance for Paizo (a small company) has been spectacular, whilst D&D 4E's performance for Hasbro (a massive, international corporation) has been disappointing following the initial success of the first three core rulebooks. The signs that things were not going well at Wizards of the Coast came when a number of key game designers were made redundant several months after 4E's launch. Wizards' original plan to release a campaign setting every year also seemed to come off the rails. After the controversial Forgotten Realms setting in 2008 and the much more warmly-received Eberron and Dark Sun settings in 2009 and 2010, plans for a 2011 setting were dropped (despite rumours and hints that an updated Dragonlance setting was in the planning stages). The D&D Essentials sub-game was released in 2010, designed to appeal to new players, but seemed to make little impact.

Rumours of a 5th Edition being in-development started early in 2011 and gathered pace throughout the year, given credence by the suspension or cancellation of previously-announced products and rumours of other projects behind the scenes being dropped. The biggest clue came late in the year when Monte Cook, a respected game designer who'd played a key development role on 3rd Edition, was re-hired by Wizards of the Coast and was strongly rumoured to be working on a new edition of the game.

The question now is what direction will 5th Edition take? Whilst it would be pleasingly simplistic to conclude that 4E was a gross failure and a dead end, and simply roll back to 3.5E and develop things from there, this would probably be a mistake. 4E has sold well enough and has enough fans that doing something to alienate them - the current, active D&D fanbase - would be an error. In addition to that, those who prefer the 3.5E approach still have Pathfinder, and would not be guaranteed to return to a 5th Edition of D&D that took that approach anyway (Wizards of the Coast having squandered a lot of goodwill throughout the years). The only viable approach would appear to be trying something new that is not so directly tied to previous editions of the game, to create something that will appeal to both 3E and 4E fans. This seems insurmountable - the two games are based on radically different design philosophies with regards to balance - but the only solution to the problem.

It'll be interesting to see how this process unfolds. I suspect we won't see the new game released until late 2013 at the earliest.


David H. said...

Neither company has released sales figures, but by all indications Pathfinder's performance for Paizo (a small company) has been spectacular, whilst D&D 4E's performance for Hasbro (a massive, international corporation) has been disappointing following the initial success of the first three core rulebooks. The signs that things were not going well at Wizards of the Coast came when a number of key game designers were made redundant several months after 4E's launch.

I'm not so sure your analysis here is entirely accurate.

1) Just because Paizo's Pathfinder was a "spectacular" success doesn't mean that WotC didn't do as well or better (since Hasbro/Wizards probably had a higher bar to clear than Paizo did). Wizards & D&D is still the 800-lb. gorilla in the industry.

2) Getting rid of some game designers after 4th Ed. was released is the same as what happened after 3rd Ed., so you can't really use the fact of the recent event to imply that 4th Ed. was a failure. (After all, 3rd/3.5 continued for a full 8 years.)

Ty said...

I'm curious to see what they'll do. I myself find 4th edition kind of lame. I was a huge 3.5 fan, and am actively looking for a Pathfinder group to join.

4th struck me as, "World of Warcraft, dice edition." I get why they thought that was a good idea (9 million WoW players), but in practice it, for me, doesn't work. If I wanted to play WoW, I'd just play WoW.

I want my paper and dice RPG experience to be a little richer than that.

F said...

Dungeons & Dragons' 4th Edition never appealed to me, though I tried it: once as a player and once as a game master.
Pathfinder, on the other hand, is a great system (as far as class and level-based rules are concerned) where it can be fun, for example, to play a core or base character class from 1st to 20th level without applying prestige classes or other fancy stuff. Because the different tools to individuate any character are vastly superior to any previous edition of the game, they allow for the most diverse playing and mastering experience in D&D history (even though it's not exactly D&D...).
Except, maybe, for Monte Cook, I can imagine no reason whatsoever why I would spend money on a 5th Edition from Wizards, who - maybe pressured by Hasbro - seem to have taken their roleplaying game into the direction of World of Warcraft. True, if you want a "realistic" or less "cliched" game you don't play d20 but Cthulhu or other skill-bnased systems instead. But with Pathfinder there is a d20 system that suits many, if not most of the various forms in which people like to play fantasy RPGs. Paizo's success is well deserved!

Adam Whitehead said...

@ David:

Yup, the original three 4E D&D core rulebooks have probably sold, in overall terms, more than PATHFINDER (though I note that on the current Amazon sales ranks, the PATHFINDER core rulebook is obliterating the D&D PHB1 in terms of placement).

The problem is support for ancilliary products since then. 4E products have been cancelled (several of the announced ESSENTIALS products for 2011 were cancelled and the strongly-rumoured DRAGONLANCE setting was never confirmed in the first place) whilst Paizo's supporting line-up for PATHFINDER seems to be doing well.

As for the redundancies, there was an initial round of lay-offs that was to be expected when a game comes out of development, but then there were further rounds of lay-offs in late 2009 that were unexpected. Some of these people are the sources of the news that WotC and D&D were in trouble (at least in a 'not perfoming as well as had hoped' way, not 'bombing completely' as some have suggested).

You yourself also identify another major indication that 4E has underperformed: 3E continued to sell for 8 years, whilst 4E's retirement has been announced 3 years and 7 months after its publication, which is ludicrous if the game has been a major success. If it had, I think the game would have continued for several more years before 5E was brought in.

dwarf74 said...

I think you're painting a rosier picture of 3e sales and WotC's business than are warranted... The initial 3e release was lightning in a bottle; I don't think we'll ever see an RPG selling like that or making such a splash ever again. But from there ... The recent series of Escapist articles - particularly the addendum by Ryan Dancey - are pretty telling. 4e was released not because of any specific system issues, but because sales of 3.5e had been flagging since 2005; it was still the biggest RPG, but it wasn't riding high anymore. There had been Christmas Layoffs just about every single year since then; they aren't new to the 4e era. (FWIW, this trouble likely would have started much earlier without the .5 revision spurring re-sales of the core books and core supplements; Paizo's been able to capitalize on this, too, which is great for business.)

None of this is altogether surprising - it happens with every new game; core books and initial setting books make a splash, and everything else tends to flag a bit. WotC presumably knew this, and released around 2 books a month for a very, very long time, and they were starting to scrape the barrel.

I expect the same is what's going on here - sales are flagging, and have been for a while. 4e had critical DDI-related failures on its release, and only really got into its groove in 2009, IMO. It really picked up in quality in 2010. For the past year, the releases have been slow, but (as I mentioned above) of rather excellent quality - the Neverwinter mini-setting helped make 4e's Realms make sense, for example, and the Gloomwrought boxed set was just about a perfectly-made sandbox setting.

I've been (and still am) very excited about 4e; I started playing in 1981 or so, at the impressionable age of 7, and at the moment I'd rather play 4e or 1e/OSRIC than most anything else. I've been running a weekly 4e game since the release in 2008. which is kind of crazy for me - I'm a polygamer by nature, and normally switch between systems regularly, since none of them can scratch all my gaming itches.

I'm still very happy with the rule set - happier, honestly, than I was 3 years ago; the Essentials line was a valuable addition on the player side, and their DM-oriented releases have just been downright awesome for over a year. So I'll do the same thing I did when I was a mostly-happy 3.5 player: I'll certainly buy the core books, and either migrate to the new system or not. There's a lot of talent on board for the project, and I'll be stunned if the final result is something I'll find unpalatable.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that Monte Cook will be coming back for 5E, I thought that Fourth-Edition was a little too lighthearted and good-biased for my tasted—let's see another "Book of Vile Darkness" come out for a DM with a dark side.

On that note though, I hope that they don't get rid of 4E's mechanics entirely. there are a few changes that I have issues with—neutering intelligent weapons, static saving throws, truncated magical items .etc—but I also love the streamlined mechanics they introduced.
As a DM playing 4E, I don't have to spend twenty minutes looking up the damage a spear trap does anymore based on a weapon's table, or have my players roll a "Use Rope" check when they just swam across an ocean, and are clearly capable of climbing a rope of tying a knot. They might have made some unpopular decisions, but I think they made is more open too—as long as they listen to played feedback and reintroduce a few of the 3E mechanics that they removed, I'll certainly be buying their newest releases.