Wizards of the Coast (TM) a division of Hasbro (TM) announced a few days ago that they have been working on a new version of D&D which they intend to release in the near future, meaning probably in about a year.
Within minutes of the announcement nerd rage erupted across the digital gaming world. Comment threads on the announcements have exploded like Tim Tebow threads on ESPN.com.
As of this moment it appears the gaming world has already divided itself into three main camps:
1. The Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition (aka: “D&D 4e” or simply “4e”) fan camp. This camp is mostly at least mildly optimistic about the release. It is pretty widely acknowledged even among fans of 4e that the system was published with several significant flaws and was accompanied soon after by a veritable flood of errata as WotC reacted to the howls of players about “broken” parts of the game. The general feeling of this group seems to be that this is our chance to get 4e “right.”
2. The Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 grognard camp. These are generally older players who did not find D&D 4e to their liking. Their reaction to the announcement is generally one of naked schadenfreude. “See! Even the evil minions of WotC are finally admitting that 4e has been a failure! This is the first sign of the end of WotC’s reign of RPG terror!”
3. The pure RPG gamer camp. This group is not quite sure what to make of the announcement. There is already a profusion of RPG game systems and with the schism that 4e created in the gamer community, there is a reasonable amount of concern that a “5e” version of D&D could further splinter the fan base to the point that none of the major vendors who provide material to keep the hobby fresh will be able to survive. But, at the same time they are intrigued by WotC’s promise to listen to the RPG community (something they are accused of not doing with 4e) and their promise for 5e to be a uniter, not a divider.
I would like to claim to be in group 3, which is probably by far the more rational group compared to groups 1 or 2. However I have to be honest enough to admit that I am probably in a group that might be called group “2.25” meaning that I’m not really a PF/3.5 grognard, but that I do prefer the PF flavor over 4e and I have not been complimentary of WotC’s stewardship of a brand that I consider to have been a pretty significant part of my entertainment for decades.
My personal opinion is that the announcement is an external manifestation of internal demands within Hasbro for the D&D brand to be profitable enough to meet their corporate goals. Although it is probably impossible to know exactly what the comparable market shares of 4e and Pathfinder are today, even 4e’s biggest fans have to admit that Pathfinder has at least a comparable market share of the RPG pie. And there is very easily available circumstantial evidence that Pathfinder has overtaken 4e in some critical areas of the RPG market. Since that market has not shown any significant growth in the past decade (but it hasn’t shrunk either, so it appears to have a sustainable fan base anyway) then since the two companies are competing for the same market that used to be totally dominated by the D&D brand, D&D itself has obviously lost a tremendous amount of market share which has been gained by Pathfinder. I do know that in my own gaming group roughly 1/2 of the gamers I play with are not interested in D&D 4e materials but are actively purchasing Pathfinder materials. These are people who were spending that money on D&D products three years ago.
So to me the obvious conclusion is that Hasbro has given their WotC division a mandate to regain that market share and profit margin “or else.” And the “or else” is likely the shelving of the D&D brand. Hasbro doesn’t typically sell off a game or toy product line, they simply shelve it. I suppose they feel that shelving is a better long term strategy in case a market ever materializes again, but I dunno. Maybe they just don’t like seeing other companies make a profit on what used to be their intellectual property. Whatever the reason, if 5e does not show immediate reversal of the D&D brand erosion, I strongly expect to see D&D branded products essentially disappear.
Which would be a shame, but it’s never been the brand I’ve cared about, except in a nostalgic sense. It’s been the game system. And right now the reality is that while WotC may have kept the D&D brand, it is Paizo, the publisher of Pathfinder, who has carried the D&D game system torch after it was dropped unceremoniously on the floor by WotC.
It will be an interesting year for RPGamers. I expect to see lots of leaks from the game designers to maintain interest in the community. I signed up to be part of 5e playtesting, so I hope to get an early look at what their plans are. No doubt that will include a non-disclosure agreement, so if I get into the play test group I won’t be able to say much about it here.
Wish me luck. I have to admit that I’d like to at least participate in what could either be the final death spiral of the D&D brand, or (preferably) the rejuvenation and restoration of the brand. I’m voting for the second because the only way D&D is going to win back the PF folks who have mostly abandoned 4e will be to return to the roots of the RPG concept and develop a gaming system that is so undeniably superior to Pathfinder that it will overcome the deeply embedded anti WotC attitudes of many PF fans.