The Future of D&D: The Road to 2024
There were a lot of announcements in the Future of D&D segment of D&D Celebration, but I don’t think any had the impact of Ray Winningham confirming that 2024, D&D’s 50th Anniversary, would see a new version of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons. And nary the word edition mentioned anywhere.
Very quickly after Winningham’s announcement, he followed up by saying that this new set of core books would be compatible with previous 5th edition books. That’s about the extent of what we heard regarding the new core books.
So the biggest mysteries we are left with are:
- What do the digital assets look like?
- What are the “alternative formats” that were mentioned during the show?
- What will the 50th Anniversary version of the game look like?
Looking Back Before Looking Forward
My impulse in a situation like this is to go back through other editions of D&D and look at what “compatible” meant in context. That said, I don’t think AD&D 1st/2nd Edition are fair to bring up in this discussion. Nobody on the current team was around at the time those games were being produced (unless you count Winninger’s articles for Dragon Magazine or his 3rd party work).
That leaves us with 3rd edition and 4th edition to look at. While some of the team didn’t come on board with D&D until after 3rd edition, many people working currently had their hand in some kind of design work for D&D 3rd edition, Pathfinder, or D&D 4th edition. So if they weren’t part of any decisions made, there were exposed to what editions and “not editions” look like.
Both D&D 3rd edition and D&D 4th edition had a “halfway” refresh before the edition gave way to a new version of the game. In D&D 3.5’s case, it was literally naming the edition “3.5,” while with 4th edition, we got the “Essentials” line.
3rd Edition, Stealth Rules (But Not Literally)
Because 3rd edition used the same range of dice and bonuses, it was generally possible to use 3.5 and 3rd edition material together. Some skills were consolidated, which were easy enough to modify on the fly, or to determine class had access to one of the merged or changed skills so that it could be considered a class skill for the class.
While individual spells changed, as did the wording of how bonuses worked to limit stacking issues, spell levels and spell slots generally didn’t change, meaning that the only conversion was to look up the current version of the spell.
Weapon sizes changed, which meant that player character gear would have to be purchased and tracked differently, but again, if a monster had a weapon, it wasn’t that much of a hassle to assume it had the appropriately sized weapon for its size.
There was even a conversion guide between editions that pointed out the biggest changes, like the aforementioned merged skills and weapon size changes. Some classes got wrongly singled out for nerfing, for which cosmic justice needed to be meted out (okay, fine, I’m overly sensitive for the ranger), but beyond that if you were playing a 3rd party class, like a witch or a priest from various Green Ronin products, it was pretty easy to still use that class in 3.5.
Perception is Reality
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the perception. Anything that was designed under 3rd edition seemed to cause a strange reaction, as if 3.5 had such exacting changes that 3rd edition 3rd party products would be inferior when used in a campaign.
Let me say this, right now . . . there were a LOT of bad 3rd party d20 OGL books on the market. Not all of them were written as expansions to D&D, but rather used d20 as a basis for other genres, and didn’t exactly do the same kind of playtesting that WOTC did with 3rd edition. And, of course, some notoriously unbalanced 3rd party products didn’t seem to understand how not to give away the store when designing new feats or prestige classes.
The biggest change WOTC made to 3.5, which was likely to cause major issues if you used the material, was in psionics. Psionics went from a design that favored a class for each ability score, to a design that followed the same pattern as arcane casters, i.e. trained and untrained classes, along with new specialties that created psionic warriors or assassins.
But WOTC itself still referenced a lot of 3rd edition material without ever updating it. Savage Species and the Epic Level Handbook both got mentioned in 3.5 products, and those rules were never revisited in a new hardcover. While the Forgotten Realms received a new Player’s Guide, it still referenced several rules elements in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting book.
Regardless, 3rd party material couldn’t shake the onus of being “outdated,” possibly because in purchasing the core rulebooks again, and seeing the increased output of WOTC (at one point putting out two hardcover rulebooks a month), 3rd party material felt much less integral to the experience, since most tables had more rules than they would ever use just with the official releases.
In an interview, Monte Cook, one of the architects of 3rd edition, revealed that while he was still at WOTC, 3.5 was already being planned. However, 3.5 was not planned to come out until 3 edition “needed a refresh,” likely in 2005. D&D 3.5 hit the scene years before it was originally planned to be released.
While it wasn’t publicly acknowledged, Shannon Appelcline interviewed WOTC employees that indicated that WOTC’s parent company, Hasbro, wanted all departments to hit certain benchmarks, and those benchmarks were heavily skewed by the success of Transformers. Even before the Transformers comparisons started, Sean Reynolds was writing about how the Forgotten Realms line was in jeopardy, because higher-ups were sure that if they put the effort into more core D&D books instead of the Realms, everybody that was a fan of D&D would be buying instead of just those fans of the Forgotten Realms. This relied on an assumption that Forgotten Realms fans were primarily D&D fans that also liked the Forgotten Realms.
There was a push to expand the brand beyond tabletop roleplaying games. In a 2004 issue of PC Gamer, a WOTC representative mentioned that they wanted as many people to know D&D as the IP behind a line of successful video games as they did for the tabletop game.
The article in question highlighted D&D Online, the Eberron RTS Dragonshard, Neverwinter Nights 2, and even had a sidebar on Baldur’s Gate 3, featuring an image of a mind flayer. That last one took a little while to resurface.
One big sign that things were about to happen was a wave of material coming back “in-house.” Several licenses for WOTC IP that allowed others to use them came due and were not renewed, including Paizo’s contract for Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine, Margaret Weis Productions license for Dragonlance, and White Wolf’s license for Ravenloft.
4th Edition, And Plans Unravelling
The original plan for 4th edition wasn’t just a new line of rulebooks, it was a plan to have an online rules interface, as well as an official, D&D branded virtual tabletop. Virtual tabletops were still a pretty new concept in this era, but they were noted as one area of expansion for the brand.
Unfortunately, the VTT didn’t materialize for some tragic reasons. The character builder, which had up-to-date information from all of the rulebooks, launched, and for a pretty reasonable fee, you could subscribe and get all of the content for character creation whenever it was released in book form. It trailed a bit behind, but there was also a monster builder that could not only build monsters, but used the internal math of 4e to allow you to scale monsters up or down to different levels than the base creature.
I talked to a designer who had worked on Forgotten Realms material, and also D&D material, privately, and was told that initially, WOTC assumed anything with the Forgotten Realms name on it would be enough to sell those products, and anyone they lost, they expected to replace with new players.
The tools were wonderful for creating characters and for modifying monsters, and they were extremely unfriendly to 3rd party publishers working under the less flexible GSL issued for 4th edition. You couldn’t make your characters, including printing out handy power cards for all of your abilities, if you used 3rd party material. You might fare a little better if you wanted to run a monster out of a 3rd party book. For those publishers that did attempt GSL titles, adventures and monster books were much more common than character options.
Stay on Target
Fourth edition sold very well, when compared to other roleplaying games. It did not sell very well compared to Hasbro’s most popular IP. In addition, when Pathfinder came out, using the 3.5 OGL rules as a framework, it pulled a lot of fans that WOTC had assumed would stay on board or leave the hobby altogether. The Essentials Refresh happened, which in part would sell new “core” books, and would also address some of the complaints that long-term players had with the game.
Some of these arguments seem less dire than others, but everything from how classes were perceived (“does my fighter always have to be a tank”) to spells using the same conceptual base as previous editions (“magic missile shouldn’t need an attack roll!”) were addressed in Essentials.
Much like 3.5, you could use monsters and classes from earlier 4th edition products. The way classes worked, they were distinct entities, so playing new versions of the fighter didn’t affect your ability to interact with older monsters or skill challenges or interact with other characters. The “monster math” had been addressed, again (earlier Monster Manuals had already begun this process), trying to make for faster fights, but creating a sense of danger.
In the end, Essentials felt like a “mid-edition” refresh but fell short of that mark. WOTC announced that they would be engaging in a multi-year playtest for a new edition of the game.
WOTC, in 2021, is one of the most successful divisions at Hasbro. Instead of selling a lot upfront, and leveling off, sales of the core books continued to increase year to year. Due to that increase in sales of core rulebooks, WOTC had the breathing room to ratchet back from a monthly release schedule. Each year that the sales came in, they continued to grow. Every year from 2014 to 2021, for seven years, the brand has seen growth, and that growth has continuously included the core rulebooks.
WOTC outsourced its rules management to Curse, a company originally known for supplemental apps to aid with MMOs. Curse created D&D Beyond, and unlike the D&D Tools for 4th edition, a monthly fee wouldn’t grant access to all of the content. Prices were per book, so that each release was generating profit for both Curse and WOTC.
WOTC also released official support for multiple VTTs. Both Fantasy Grounds and Roll20 had content that could be purchased and used in their VTTs, but unlike the proprietary D&D Tools in 4th edition, 3rd party publishers that converted their materials to one of these VTT formats could see their products work in tandem with the official D&D content. If you want to play a 3rd party class next to one from a core rulebook, you are using the same character sheet and the same interface that works in the VTT for the D&D ruleset.
Early in the life cycle of this iteration of D&D, various 3rd party developers, Kobold Press, Sasquatch Studios, and Green Ronin, developed adventures for WOTC that were published by the company. In addition, Kobold Press was subcontracted for the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book that was published a few years later.
Streaming had become a major entertainment venue in the era in which 5e was released, and not only was D&D played by people with huge followings, like the McElroys, Penny Arcade, and Critical Role. Eventually, both Penny Arcade and Critical Role had official content that was published by WOTC itself. As D&D became increasingly more popular, WOTC began to stream celebration weekends that often featured these streamers, as well as other celebrities that were either long-term D&D fans, or willing to be filmed playing D&D for their first time.
What’s the Same?
We don’t have details, but we have some maybes, and some solid confirmations:
- Expand the IP into more video games (they own an in house studio for this now)
- Expand the IP “beyond the tabletop” (D&D movie, D&D television)
- Perform a refresh of core rulebooks (at the 10-year mark they never hit with 3.5)
- Move towards a “digital initiative” (fuzzy, but you can infer a little)
Now, the problem with a digital initiative is that it could fall into that same territory that the 4e tools fell into. Proprietary tools that function as a rules reference and as a VTT are going to cut out 3rd party developers from working with D&D, and this is at a time when some companies are starting to sink some major dollars into starting up companies to create 3rd party material. In addition to people who have traditionally been in the RPG industry, there are several new companies backed either by “video game” money, record-setting Kickstarters, or by investment capital firms, like:
- Arcanum Worlds (former Bioware employees)
- Warchief Gaming (former Blizzard employees)
- MCDM (Matt Colville)
- Darrington Press (Critical Role)
If WOTC rolls out their own VTT, and their content delivery system, what does this mean for D&D Beyond, as well as those VTTs currently selling licensed WOTC products?
- If the agreement with D&D Beyond ends, what does that mean for anyone that purchased content?
- If licensing ends with VTTs, will products continue to work, but future items will not come to the VTT’s marketplace?
- Will the “new format” items that haven’t been announced be digital-only products?
Losing access to D&D Beyond and/or VTT content would represent a serious monetary hit to most customers. Additionally, it might be devastating to the VTTs that have either lost access to, or can no longer sell, official D&D material.
Similarly, if everything becomes proprietary to WOTC, that will be devastating for 3rd party products that will not be able to use the proprietary VTTs, and that will have lost a platform where their products worked in tandem with official D&D resources. That could potentially alienate people that have been attracted to the gaming sphere in recent years, that have money but may no longer wish to support D&D.
If the new format items are digital-only or have a significant portion that is reliant on digital access if consumers have lost access to previous digital content, will they be willing to purchase digital products on a new platform?
The digital initiative could very well be much less volatile than my worst-case scenarios. It may work alongside current digital providers, and perhaps even synergize and coordinate with them. It may be that special format products either aren’t digital or are digital in a manner that enhances them instead of necessitates an online component.
WOTC may consider their 3rd party support as important, especially those with extensive media presence and/or capital behind their operations. The thing fueling any kind of worst-case scenario is that this digital initiative was hinted at in a survey, then announced, but without any details. There isn’t much to go on except past plans, and given the hallmarks of previous plans:
- Digital Delivery of Product
- Proprietary VTT
- Video Games
- Multimedia expansion of IP
. . . its hard not to see this less as a new plan, and more of a return to a previous plan that fell apart. Does that mean it won’t work this time? Definitely not, but it does mean that the plan has to be communicated in a manner that will restore confidence in its successful implementation.
All This And We Haven’t Touched On Rules
There has been a lot of speculation about rules, and what the 50th Anniversary books will look like. How much will change, and what aspects of the rules are likely to be different. My theory is that it’s not going to be very different. I could be completely wrong about this, but I’ll lay out a few reasons why I don’t think we’ll see major changes.
- Winingham mentions compatibility with current 5e books; I’m assuming this is with all books, not just adventures or monster books
- Next year, 2022, two years away from the release of the books, we’ll be getting a new gift set with three books that have player-facing content
- The most recent survey, the long, long, long survey, went into a lot of detail asking about every aspect of races and classes in the Player’s Handbook–these weren’t mentioned in the abstract, but in a manner that seemed to indicate that similar classes, races, subclasses, and abilities would be at play and modified based on feedback
- I think we’ve already seen a lot of what races (or whatever the terminology ends up being) will look like in recent Unearthed Arcana
My guesses about what we’ll see is what follows:
- Races, or whatever terminology gets used, will be the biggest changes–we’re not going to see built-in proficiencies or languages, just actual abilities; we’ll still see the same range of races, but we won’t see them organized as subraces any longer, but all as distinct design
- Due to backwards compatibility, I don’t think we’ll see the level at which any class or subclass gains abilities–some might be changed discreetly based on input
- I’m betting most of the optional class features that were previewed in Tasha’s will end up being the default setup for the classes in the new core rulebooks
- I’m expecting most of the current abilities that are “per ability score bonus” to be shifted to the newer design paradigm of “per proficiency bonus”
- I doubt that the books will explicitly mention this as a change, but I’m expecting some spells to just “disappear,” with summoning spells and counterspell being the ones most likely to be omitted
By not explicitly “banning” any spells, anyone that wants to use the spells from older content, but going forward it won’t be something they are assuming players will be using. Honestly, I’m a lot less concerned about radical changes in the rules at this point. The current edition is selling well, and gaining consumers. It’s better to sell a shinier version of something that is still consistently selling than to market it as a brand new edition.
I have no idea what’s going to happen. I can talk about what I hope we can avoid based on what has happened in the past, but it’s not a perfect circle. Some things are similar, but some things are brand new. We’ve never seen D&D this popular before, nor have we seen this level of online digital access. I just don’t want to see everyone outside of WOTC’s direct orbit get cut out of future prosperity, when the industry is in the shape it is currently in. Does WOTC have enough incentive to be concerned about that?
Nothing lasts forever, and success can change a good thing. I just hope the current era doesn’t change too much, too fast. But mainly, I hope everything I have gotten out of D&D over the years is available to future gamers that discover the hobby.