The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Wizards says it will ensure One D&D is compatible with 5E and its SRD. Here’s the good and bad of what it takes to be compatible.
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In a recent Community Update (so far, not linked on the home page), D&D shares completed and upcoming goals. As we discussed on Mastering Dungeons, the “complete” column includes the release of the 5.1 SRD and the One D&D playtest packets and surveys. The “in progress” column includes localized 5.1 SRDs in French, Italian, German, and Spanish! It also includes updating the D&D Core rules, reviewing previous editions for CC licensing, and sharing their internal content policy.
And then we have the “upcoming” column with a single item: Ensure One D&D rules updates are compatible with 5E and the SRD. This echoes the promises Kyle Brink made in his interviews with me and four others (all interviews are linked from the pinned comment in my interview video) and Kyle’s statement that One D&D is not 6E, it’s more like 5.5. Kyle even compared it to 3.5.
This seems to be received positively by the community. But let’s take a look at the upsides and downsides to One D&D being 5.5E instead of 6E.
One D&D being compatible is very good news for anyone selling 5E products, both WotC and third parties. Stores love it too, as it may prevent dead inventory. They can keep selling older products and the community can keep buying them.
DMs and players can keep playing 5E, and upgrade to One D&D when desired. We can in theory mix D&D and One D&D. A character might use a Tasha’s subclass, a Multiverse species, and a One D&D feat. Maybe… more on this below.
This approach also reduces the friction point where a group just wants to stay on their current edition and not bother to learn a new one. This has been a huge issue for some editions.
5E is an uncommonly good edition of D&D. For many players, it is the best edition of the game. WotC wants to polish 5E rather than redesign it, so that the strong edition keeps doing well. Everyone’s expertise as creators, DMs, players… it all continues to make the game better. Not taking chances on a completely new edition makes sense.
On the other hand, new editions allow designers to innovate. Moving to ascending AC, having a high result on a d20 roll always be good, at-will spells and features, feats, downtime. These all came from new editions tinkering with the game. And some great ideas, like Action Points and Bloodied, came and went, but may come back again.
A .5 edition isn’t the same. It places huge boundaries on what the team can create. Changing the level when a subclass begins is about as big a change as a .5 can handle. Changes more substantial than that, or enough small and medium changes, result in the editions not working together. For example, consider if every time a 5E adventure mentioned a skill proficiency, you had to convert it to a new set of skills or make a judgment call on which new skill to use. Consider if monsters also had changes to their CR, such that an old adventure’s monsters might sometimes be too easy, and other times too hard.
A lack of innovation can also make a .5 edition less interesting and less compelling to some players. It also means the game stagnates somewhat. We don’t get to see what a completely different CR and encounter math approach would look like, or how the game might play with a different approach to healing. Over time, an edition can tire many hardcore fans, and some very dedicated people go off to find other games. This is the main reason we saw a Pathfinder 2… there are only so many sourcebooks and adventures fans will buy before sales decline and interest wanes.
I’m very concerned about D&D’s stance that D&D can live without editions. Editions is what resulted in 5E being so amazing. We want that innovation eventually, even if we get a .5 now. Language itself changes. What people want from a game changes. How we portray people and cultures and monsters changes. Games should change over time, sometimes dramatically.
Specifically looking at game updates, Wizards has recently appeared to favor digital over paper. While they say the game will exist in any form in which it sells, and that digital offerings are additional, the Player Survey launched last week included a question on whether digital is preferable because it offers continuous updates. And when the Spelljammer books were updated shortly after release, the changes were made without notifying anyone or creating an errata document as with previous updates. It took the community calling WotC out before they issued an errata document in an easily-lost D&D Beyond blog post (instead of the usual errata location on the Wizards site).
There is the possibility that WotC’s vision is that of an RPG updated constantly over time, evolving with players. But video games do this to fix major problems and add sellable content, not to have a game exist as the sole version of the game. The approach, if enacted, could drive a huge wedge between fans of digital and paper.
Compatibility promises a lot, but it has a poor track record of delivering on many of those promises. WotC launched 3.5E in an effort to raise sales back up to where they had been early in 3E’s edition. It worked… for a very short time. The sales then began dropping again. And 3.5 had many impacts.
The game was technically compatible with 3E, but if you played it for any decent length, you found you really had to stick to 3.5. There were so many small changes to the wording of how charging worked, or the base size of monsters (dragons and horses became square, but used to be rectangular), and on. Some classes didn’t change at all, while others had dozens of changes. Some spells changed drastically, some class features, and so on. In the end, gamers realized they needed new books and to fully swap to 3.5.
If in the end you have to buy new books, why did we give up on getting innovations? 5E is awesome, but has some serious problems at the core level, such as monster CR and encounter balance. Is it worth giving up on fixing those when we end up with new books? Maybe. Maybe not.
When gamers started to give up on 3.0 and swap to 3.5, it had a huge impact on sales of the older “compatible” material. There was already a glut of 3rd-party content, and this made huge amounts of it very hard to sell. Companies went into debt and closed shop after taking losses on old inventory and from trying to revise and reprint materials at great cost.
Is this the future for 5E? Will an older subclass book, whether on the DMs Guild or a large third party publisher suddenly become worthless? It’s hard to tell. Gamers probably don’t mind if an old adventure has different rules for jumping, or a Dwarf’s stonecunning, or when subclass powers arrive. But if enough of these changes pile up, they might.
Even WotC isn’t immune. Tasha’s has many class features, some optional and some in subclasses, that now are part of the core class mechanic. This makes using that material in Tasha’s redundant. Is every DM supposed to houserule such cases? Will WotC update just the digital book? Will WotC republish Tasha’s, so we all have to buy it again?
WotC has been deeply discounting their books on Amazon. Fantastic books like Van Richten’s have been on sale for up to 75% off. Are they clearing inventory? Then again, Kobold Press just decided to reprint Tomb of Beasts 1 at a high price and without either One D&D updates or Black Flag updates. My point here is that compatibility is no sure thing, but historically the ecosystem has been fragile.
One of my favorite barometers for how a game is doing is to walk into a gaming store and look at the shelves. Can I find the current game? Is it clear what I should buy if I’m a new player, or a casual player looking to expand my initial collection?
When a new edition launches, we get new book bindings. The three core books and a Starter Set suddenly become super easy to see. As the edition lengthens, covers start to change and the shelf becomes a mess. We have three to five Starter Sets. We have core books in several covers. We have auxiliary books in different covers and reprinted. To this mess, we will add 5.5E books, all theoretically compatible. I can imagine the store clerk saying, “well, you can get this core set, but then you want to also get this book, but it’s old. But it still works, mostly, and it has the better dragonborn. Or, get this starter set, but this other book, unless…”
Confusion hurts sales and new player acquisition.
3.5 felt like a money-grab to most members of the D&D community. And, in many ways, it was. The game needed some fixes, but didn’t need all of the changes the book made. We were told it was all compatible, but we ended buying reprinted .5 versions of most books and some adventures.
When I talk to people about One D&D, they like some changes. But they seem to find the vast majority of one D&D changes to be unnecessary or arbitrary. Sure, the new rogue class is fine. But so is the one in the 2014 PHB. Why does it have to change beyond when subclasses come in? If the answer isn’t clear at the table, it erodes trust in the company.
For some time now, it feels like D&D is a bit too focused on revenue. More books, more often, even if they have some pretty obvious weaknesses. We see problems resulting from rushed changes, and the marketing can’t keep up. How can it be that Strixhaven wasn’t tied to a program involving schools and universities? How can it be that even hardcore fans can’t remember what the last five books were that WotC printed? There was a time when this was very different, with each storyline a huge presence across the entire industry.
Okay, I realize I’ve listed many more downsides. We should be aware that compatibility is not without its potential downsides. However, it’s worth considering that 3E and 3.5E were relatively successful while also suffering from these problems. What do you think? Am I missing some upsides? What do you prefer? A new edition? Reprinted 5E books that make just very light changes? The 5.5 we seem on track to receiving?