I don’t even have to say its name and you know what I am talking about. Rumors of 5E have been hotly circulating since Mearls announced that Monte Cook is taking over his column. That’s a pretty huge announcement in my opinion. A company that is known for laying off higher paid staff does not hire someone that can command one of the best pays in the industry unless they are certain there will be a huge pay off for it. The only thing that can guarantee that kind of pay off is a new edition. So whether you would like to believe it or not, 5E is coming and soon. My guess from several years ago holds true in my mind: official announcement in 2012 with a release in 2013. Everything I’m seeing points to this.
So the question now is what will it take for 5E to be a success. While 4E was mechanically well put together, commercially it was a failure. 5E could easily fall into the same pitfalls if it is not careful. Mearls’ seminar at GenCon this past year made it sound like they are on the right track, but I’d rather wait and see before giving to much credit to a corporation with an entrenched culture. So what will it take? There are three groups, in my opinion, that need to be catered to: hard core D&D gamers, curious/lapsed gamers, and 3rd party publishers.
Hard Core D&D Gamers: These are the gamers that frequent message board and Wizards can probably count on them to buy the books sight unseen, as long as it hits all their benchmarks. What are most hard core gamers looking for? Most simply want to recreate their favorite character in the current system. Even if they do not, “it just doesn’t feel like D&D” unless the gamer can do that. So the core book needs to have gnomes and half-orcs and barbarians and all the other races and classes in the 3E core book. Depending on the specific mechanics of the game, the sorcerer can be dropped. If there’s a spontaneous wizard build, that’s fine. While the new shiney is important, Dragonborn, Eladrin and warlocks can wait for the first major rules expansion. The hard core gamer wants to know that the game setting he created back in grade school can still be used without massive overhauls to its history.
Hard core gamers also want to know that the Forgotten Realms will still have the same feel it always had. The Forgotten Realms’ timeline advancement would have been fine had the entire setting not gone to hell off camera (ok, in a few a few adventures published in the run up to 4E, but that’s beside the point). 4E’s FR was a radical alteration. Hard core gamers don’t want a radical alterations. Yes, the timeline can be advanced to make it a lot easier for writers to write in the setting, but keep the feel of the setting the same. One of the justifications for the alterations was that it needed to fit with the mechanics. While that is important, no major changes were made to Eberron to make the setting fit the new rules. That left a lot of negative feelings in gamers minds about the “necessity” aspect of it. A properly timeline advanced FR setting needs to regain the kitchen sink feel where you can have everything, like it use to be. Making it a meta-plot altered setting is not what the FR is all about.
Another thing that hard core gamers need is support. Paizo’s adventure paths are a huge seller because they do the work for the GM for a full campaign. Start to finish. I am currently running my first campaign ever. That is thanks more to the adventure paths than to the rules. I couldn’t come up with that much for my own campaign without serious help. 5E will need some kind of serious long term adventure support. And I’m not talking individual adventures. I’m talking full campaigns.
Curious/Lapsed Gamers: Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m calling curious gamers have never tried RPGs before while lapsed gamers are those use to play D&D before but left for one of many reasons. I count myself in the latter group. I stopped playing D&D because I couldn’t play my old characters in the new system. So my group switched to Pathfinder Beta and later to Pathfinder RPG. But I could see us switching back to 5E if we do like the game and someone decides to run it (see Hard Core gamers above what it would take us to consider it). This group is going to make up the majority of the player base. Most hard cores will be GMs but they need someone to play with. This group wants the game to be relatively simple to understand and customizible while still being flavorful and evocative. While 4E was a success on the first part, I’d call it a disaster on the latter. The core book was nothing but a rule book. More flavor and fewer rules are better. You need something to fire the imagination of the players. The 4E rule book was not it.
3rd Party Publishers (or 3PP for short): The true hallmark of the 21st century in my opinion is that no one has the ability to be the be-all-end-all of anything. No one group can go it alone and say to hell with everyone else. We 3PPs offer a game legitimacy that frankly, WotC can’t. While 3PPs sell substantially less than the main publisher, they do fill niches that the main publisher cannot. Plus they give confidence to the players that they are playing the best game on the market today. A company that can attract significant followers among people that are basically harder than hard core has to be doing something right. People that routinely purchase from a 3PP are Hard Core Gamers, generally. They’ll buy just about everything the many company puts out and everything their favorite 3PP publishes. They typically do so because they feel that the 3PP is hitting the right niche that the main company is ignoring. So if the 3PP leaves, the customer might follow, wanting their favorite niche covered with a different system. If you don’t think that that can make a significant difference, remember that that is basically what happened with the start of Pathfinder.
So what does D&D need to attract 3PP. Lets start off with the license: 3PP need a good compatibility license. No “we can end this license at any time with no warning and you’re screwed” poison pill clause in there. The OGL is perfect. If not that, we can work with something else, but drafting a new license is little more than making needless work. So I am advocating with the OGL d20STL model. For most companies and products, this system worked just fine. A few fringe products gave problems. Fine. We have no problem with a license that strictly forbids those kinds of stuff. But the 4E poison pill clause made it so that we publishers couldn’t sell our hypothetical current books, back stock (and books in production) with no notice when the license ends. That is just something we publishers are not going to work with.
We also need the license and the rules before the books hit game stores. Many of us have signed NDAs and can keep secrets. We can keep Wizards’ secrets as well. If Wizards can show they can trust us, we can work with them. Many of us approach our own companies and our publishing efforts from just as much of a professional stand point as WotC does. Sure we’re not owned by a multinational corporation, but we’re just as serious about quality. The 4E delayed license made it difficult for publishers to get a book to market early. But finally shutting off access to the online tools sealed the deal. My first Pathfinder product with Hero Lab support was released last week. With any luck sales will be good enough that this will be a permanent trend. But if I can’t make sellable material for the inevitable 5E program, I’m always going to be writing for a fast shrinking market. So I need access to the same online tools WotC has as well or 5E is a non-starter for me.
One thing that would really help sell the deal to 3PPs is access to something that Paizo can’t offer: WotC’s unused settings. Lets be frank, WotC is not going to use them all. We all know they will do FR and Eberron. And I continue to support the 1 campaign setting per year for the smaller campaign settings, but the FR and Eb should not be cut off. Dark Sun, however, is ideal for 1 year’s worth of support and then licensing it to someone else for 3 years. Now take that to the next level. I wonder how much a company would pay for a three year exclusive license to publish official sourcebooks for a portion of Faerun they’re not going to use anytime soon. More than I could pay, I know that. However, I could afford the license for something like Al-Qadim, or Maztica, or possibly even Birthright. Left in WotC’s vaults, they’ll never see the light of day in the next 10-20 years. They simply do not have the resources to do them and their larger settings as well. However, we small publishers can do a bang up job with them. And we’d pay for the privlege to do so. Remember, what I feel is the hallmark of the 21st century. This is a perfect example of how 3PP can be used to fill that niche.
So can 5E be a success? Yes. But it would take a lot of things to go right for Wizards. Many of which are in their control to do. I really hope it turns out to be a commercial success.