The completely unsurprising news is that in 2014, the 40th anniversary of D&D, a 5th edition will be rolled out. From what the playtest version has shown us, this isn’t a huge departure from core mechanics like that of 4E. This is a game of ability scores, saving throws, Vancian magic, and fast, brutal combats. It’s an edition that will strive to be backwards compatible with previous modules and material. DnDnext is going to try and pull older players, likely folks running Pathfinder now, back into the fold.
4E pushed the game into new directions. Some was good and some was bad. Yet you could see WotC soldiering on promoting the game in new ways to new players. Face it, you’re likely shooting for a younger demographic with play sessions of writers for Robot Chicken and the podcast antics of Penny Arcade and PvPonline as they formed the adventuring company, Acquisitions Incorporated (so popular it culminated into many live session events at PAX). 4E was peddled to new players and old players alike. However it’s clear there were things that didn’t resonate with older fans.
DnDNext shows that. I got idea of reducing fluff in the core books with 4E. Why codify everything? Instead push the philosophy that it was your game, change what will make the game work for you. However as additional core 4E books were rolled out, fluff became a more prominent feature (take a look at the difference in MM1 and MM3). It was what fans wanted, a key characteristic of what a D&D book should be. Having additional, optional supplemental material (like the Dragonborn racial book) wasn’t ideal. That stuff had to be in the core books.
It became clear that 4E simply wasn’t getting the expected traction needed. I expect the sales for the soft reboot of the game with Essentials was pretty much a disaster. 4E was a departure from the game a lot of folks wanted and the DnDnext playtest rules demonstrated that. A focus on classic mechanics with a houserule treatment was wanted. Powers, these player abilities being broken down into turn elements with different timing characteristics was not D&D in people’s minds. So another set of rules are being rolled out to try and rectify that.
Games Workshop is a company that sells the immensely popular miniature wargame, Warhammer 40K (and it’s sister flagship game, Warhammer Fantasy). GW doesn’t promote their game much. They know their fans are absolutely rabid for their products. Some of it is well founded, as their models and quality of their product line is amazing. However updated rulebooks churn out with new versions ever on the horizon every 3-4 years.
It’s their existing community that make the bulk of future sales and at times it seems they are taken for granted by GW. There is a reason that Tau haven’t gotten a codex in years, while Space Marines have gotten one with every new release of the rules. People love space marines and buy them in droves. A new codex will sell new models. Tau just isn’t as popular, so that fraction of fans is left out in the cold. I never think it’s sustainable, that someday players will stop buying and move onto something else, but I’m continually wrong. GW has hit a rough patch of late but I don’t see the company folding. They have a way of promoting and selling their game and have a legion of GW followers that will continually buy what they sell.
In 14 years, 5 sets of D&D rules will have come out from WotC. Now I am certain WotC didn’t want to be in this situation. I think they would be perfectly happy if we were all excited about the release of a new 4E PHB4 and MM4, and wondering what might be in the pages of the upcoming DMG3. But it didn’t work out that way. Much of the D&D crowd are not like Games Workshop fans. There are key characteristics of the game that resonate with D&D fans. 3/3.5 hit a chord with folks that Pathfinder has managed to tap into, and as 4E tried to branch off into something different, it didn’t have that lasting appeal.
A while back I wondered if fans of Pathfinder and 3/3.5 would even bother getting into DnDnext. I felt trying to get new players around the table was more important. Clearly I was wrong. DnDNext is for the established fan of old. The push for the new alienated older players, and 4E failed. It’s long-time fans which make the game and more importantly seem to not blindly follow a brand. D&D should be a certain way. WotC realizes that and DnDNext is the result. There can be some tweaks, but the core engine of the game can’t be unfamiliar. Big mechanical changes should be saved for other games like FATE, 13th Age, and Dungeon World, where you’ll find many D&D players willing to dabble in them, as long as it’s presented as a different game.
So that allure of a new ruleset will be coming up the next few months, the excited buzz of a new D&D. There’ll be tales of fans pulling out their old, creased copy of White Plume Mountain and running a good old dungeon crawl. There’ll be accounts of a weekend jaunt against the giants as a group plows through G1-3. At the end of the year, you’ll be browsing a local big chain bookstore and stumble into the gaming section, seeing a shelf full of new D&D books. There will be that call. The clatter of dice. The groans, cheers, and table chatter of people having fun playing D&D. And I’ll likely be right there with them. I hate to admit it but I’m more like the rabid followers of Games Workshop when it comes to WotC. I’m a D&D junkie and will grudgingly follow the cult of the new books.