Straying a bit from the MMO realm into hardcore geekery today… I wish I could believe that the newly announced Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was, as claimed in all the press materials, an attempt by Wizards of the Coast to re-connect with fans, to give them a chance to shape the new edition of D&D, to right all the wrongs, perceived and otherwise with previous versions.
But I’m a cynical SOB, so I really can’t.
According to Senior Manager of D&D R&D (heh) Mike Mearls:
“By involving you in this process, we can build a set of D&D rules that incorporates the wants and desires of D&D gamers around the world. We want to create a flexible game, rich with options for players and DMs to embrace or reject as they see fit, a game that brings D&D fans together rather than serves as one more category to splinter us apart.”
For those not in the know, D&D 4.0 was the “MMO Edition” of D&D. It provided much more fast-paced combat, with characters utilizing powers that were essentially on cooldowns (per encounter, daily, etc.), with near-instant healing between encounters and adventures. This was a sharp departure from previous versions of D&D (and, really, most every other tabletop RPG ever produced), which took a more realistic tack when it came to combat.
I know, I know, you’re thinking, “You’ve got wizards, dragons, and half-naked demon succubi in the game, how realistic can it be?” But think about your typical MMO combat. Why can your wizard only cast a fireball every 15 seconds (or whatever)? He’s got the mana/spell power/juju, so why not cast another one right away? Or why can’t your warrior use his Decapitating Strike as often as he wishes, provided he’s got the endurance/stamina/guramba to do it? And after the battle’s over, why does everyone instantly heal up in a matter of seconds? You just had your spleen cut into seven bite-sized pieces and got hit with the demon rot and now you’re fine?
Its esoteric spell-casting system aside, pre-4.0 D&D was like that, bowing at least somewhat to reality in its systems, at least where non-supernatural forces were involved. You just battled the troll to within an inch of your life? If you don’t have a cleric or healing potion handy, you’ll need some time to recuperate. In 4.0, you could just expend “healing surges,” which a typical character came well-stocked with, and be back in fighting form in no time.
It was this “video game”-type mechanics that, according to the ICv2 article, “split the fanbase.” I haven’t played D&D for a while, but I could easily see upon reading the 4.0 Player’s Handbook that it was either going to be a master stroke, redefining D&D for a new generation, or it was going to fall flat on its face as “old school” players rebelled against the new format and there wouldn’t be enough potential new blood to revitalize the game. As this article notes, a former WotC VP (who shall remain nameless, at least on this blog) believes that “the overall market peaked between 1999 and 2003 and has been in steady decline since 2005.” Another company, founded for former WotC VPs, Paizo Publishing, kept the torch burning, creating its Pathfinder line that expands upon the previous edition of D&D, for players who weren’t willing to make the transition.
So it’s entirely possible that 4.0 was weak enough to warrant a fifth edition. But here’s the essential truth, and the point where my cynical nature shines through: New editions of games sell better than supplements. If they could, RPG manufacturers would come out with new editions of their games every year, because people are more likely to rush out to buy the “essential” books than they are to buy the 12th book about halfling rogue customization. And the pace of new D&D editions has certainly accelerated over the last decade and a half or so. To wit:
D&D v1.0: 1974
Advanced D&D (which is what virtually everyone played): 1977-79
2.0 revised: 1996
3.0 revised (3.5): 2003
There was a fair enough uproar when 3.5 came out, so close as it was to the release of 3.0. 4.0 just a few years later also raised some eyebrows, but at least it could be acknowledged as a completely different game from 3.0/3.5.
Still, it’s been (counting AD&D as the “real” 1.0) 10 years, 11 years, 8 years, and now 4 years between “full” editions. Such a short window between 4.0 and 5.0 seems to indicate with some surety that 4.0 was such an abject failure that a new edition is needed immediately to try and salvage the game’s future. Or maybe 4.0 is doing OK and 5.0 is just being thrown out there to generate some more money and WotC plans to maintain both lines? At any rate, I’m skeptical as to whether we’ll see a 6.0. But if we do, it’ll probably be within five years or less.