D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

The prior edition of Dungeons & Dragons, its fourth, welcomed too many players with a feel-bad moment. Eager new players would join a table with a character built from their new copy of their Player’s Handbook and learn the character was unplayable—full of errors created by fourth edition’s errata. The potential message: Your character is bad and you can’t use the book you just bought without embarrassing yourself.

The fourth-edition team strived to get rules right the first time, but they faced a relentless publishing schedule focused on releasing as many hardcovers as the market would bear, all packed with character options. To fix the inevitable missteps, the designers relied on players able to download errata. The game’s business strategy centered on online subscriptions to D&D Insider, so the finished rules existed on the internet, while the books attracted completists and folks who enjoyed reading the latest D&D lore from a comfy chair.

For fifth edition, the D&D team completely reverses this strategy, striving to avoid any changes that contradict text in print. In newer printings, wording gets an occasional change for clarity, but the game’s mechanics remain virtually unchanged. Surely this stability accounts for a measure of the newest edition’s success in winning new players.

To perfect new content before it reaches print, the D&D team relies on a slower release schedule and on letting players preview and test new game elements as Unearthed Arcana. Only the rare overpowered features that prove game breaking get tweaks. While the D&D team avoids errata, they feel comfortable assuming that players and dungeon masters can ignore feats, spells, and archetypes that don’t suit their game. If we find some spells annoying, then we can skip them.

Still, the D&D designers see the game’s flaws. The 12th printing of the fifth-edition Player’s Handbook includes some corrections. On rare occasions, the designers feel compelled to make functional changes to printed rules. For example, errata to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything changes the healing spirit spell from game altering to adequate.

Newer D&D books give the D&D team chances to improve on the Player’s Handbook without actually invalidating anything. Mainly the new books offer options that improve on the original versions. Players can still opt for the original, but the newer alternatives rank as stronger, easier, or just as a more flavorful realization of an archetype. So Xanathar’s Guide To Everything revisits the rules for downtime with a more evolved take, and Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything includes new beast master companions that strengthen the ranger archetype.

During the typical edition cycle of a roleplaying game, years of play expose flaws, while new supplements build a complexity that rewards obsessed players while deterring newcomers. But the D&D team’s careful release strategy has let the game attract new players when most RPGs—including past D&D editions—introduce a new edition. The rules foundation of fifth edition remains strong enough that even an enthusiast like me just names a couple of feats as the worst thing in the game. New editions fuel a surge of sales as a game’s existing fans replace their books, but they also lose players who choose not to leave their experience and old books behind.

Given the success of fifth edition, I suspect the D&D team would feel content keeping the lightly-edited Player’s Handbook in print for years to come. However, I predict that one change in emphasis will lead to a quicker revision. In an article on diversity, the team writes that in the six years since fifth edition’s release “making D&D as welcoming and inclusive as possible has moved to the forefront of our priorities.”

This new emphasis shows in Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything and the book’s options for customizing characters.

The original, 1974 D&D game avoided linking ability scores to a character’s race. Nearly 5 years later the game’s Advanced version added ability score penalties and bonuses for elves, dwarves, halflings, and half orcs. This change reinforced fantasy archetypes, but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes. Also, for many, such adjustments raise troubling reminders of how real ethnic groups can suffer from racist stereotypes that paint people as lacking certain aptitudes. Sure, elves, dwarves, and half-orcs are imaginary species, but they become relatable reflections of us in the game world. After all, imaginary halflings, I mean hobbits, just started as Tolkien’s stand-ins for ordinary folks.

Tasha’s Cauldon of Everything offers an alternative to ability score modifiers. “If you’d like your character to follow their own path, you may ignore your Ability Score Increase trait and assign ability score increases tailored to your character.” In a post previewing the change, the D&D team writes, “This option emphasizes that each person in the game is an individual with capabilities all their own.”

The old approach to races in the Player’s Handbook hinders the book as a welcome to D&D. I predict that by the end of 2022, Wizards of the Coast will release of new version of the Player’s Handbook that revisits the old ability score adjustments in favor of the more flexible version. To be clear, this will not represent a 6th edition, but merely a better welcome to the existing game. That book will join revised versions of the other core books by swapping some of the original elements of the edition with the improved alternatives that appeared in more recent books. Meanwhile, the revisited Monster Manual will make some of our more fearsome reflections in the game world clearly “as free as humans to decide who they are and what they do.” After all, isn’t that freedom to decide a lot of the reason we love D&D?

Related: 3 Posts that Need Updates Thanks to Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything

21 thoughts on “D&D‘s Ongoing Updates and How a Priority Could Lead to New Core Books

    1. David Hartlage Post author

      Now I see that the original title suggested something different. I’m changing it.

  1. Tardigrade

    “… but it also limited player freedom to create capable characters who defy stereotypes.”

    Isn’t that up to the dice? You want a skinny, bookworm half orc wizard, I don’t see any rules saying you cannot put that 16 in Int instead of Str or forbidding you from using Con as your dump stat.

    And you know what else limits player freedom? Making them roll to hit. Yeah. And saving throws. And every other roll. And rules.

    Player freedom cannot be limitless. If it were, it’d be like a bunch of 7 year olds saying “my character kills the dragon with his pinky” “well MY character kills the dragon by sneezing!” “Well MY character kills the dragon and both of your characters with a stern look!” And then it devolves into a fistfight after several iterations of “nuh-uh” and “yuh-huh” and “you’re stupid”. Not much of a game, is it?

    In the original game you were supposed to roll 3d6 in order and make the best of it. That’s what the game is about. Make the best of it with what you’ve got.

    You want to play a hobbit? That’s fine. And even though your average adult hobbit is the identical height and weight of of an average, real life, human 4 year old boy, you think you ought to have no penalties to your strength. That’s great. Go somewhere far away from me to do it, though. Because that is some serious entitlement you got there.

    I mean, jeez. Why even roll stats at all? If a player wants a to break stereotype with a character with all 18s, why limit their freedom? And why not eliminate other limits, like movement?

    I presume if the same d&d players who have a problem with this were to play chess they’d have to change the rules so that all the pieces could move like the queen. Too limiting to their freedom otherwise.

    1. SMM

      “If I can’t have forced racial inequality in my games we might as well just GET RID OF ALL THE DICE THEN!”

      Please, get over yourself.

      1. ThrorII

        “Forced Racial Inequality”? These are not ‘races’, these are species. That’s like saying “it’s no fair the gorilla is stronger than the racoon.”

        1. Tardigrade

          That’s iffy. If two different groups can produce viable offspring, it’s usually (not always) considered to be the same species. Notable exceptions are big cats, but they’re all the same genus. In d&d we have human-elf and human-orc hybrids. So there is an argument to be made that humans elves and orcs, at least, might just be normal variation within the same species. I’m sure gygax, Arneson and Tolkien didn’t think too hard on the topic. None of them were biologists, to my knowledge.

          We also have owlbears, unicorns, Pegasi and magic in d&d, so, ya know, there’s that. Magic foils all rational argument.

    2. ThrorII

      Yup. 100% agree. There’s a level of disconnect if the 3 foot tall, 50 lb. hair foots are stronger than 6 foot tall humans. This is the new min-max, hidden in social justice.

    3. Tardigrade

      For the record, I am not crabbing about social justice in the least. My problem is hasbro and d&d designers do not seem to have the vaguest clue as to what their game is about. They are catering to the whiniest, most fragile and entitled potential players. They pander to these people for the sake of profits. I don’t begrudge them that. They are a corporation trying to make a buck. But in doing so, they are producing a worse product and giving people the wrong idea what the game is about.

      1. Beoric

        The wrong idea about what the game is about? They are just changing the implied setting, that’s all. The early game, and especially the 1e DMG, had a strongly implied setting that was Eurocentric (through a North American lens) and included a random harlot table, strongly gender stereotyped NPCs, and humanoid portrayals with strong racist overtones.

        That isn’t acceptable to a good chunk of younger players (and when I say “younger players” I point out that the oldest millennials are turning 40 this year and now have significant disposable incomes). So it makes sense that the implied setting would be updated to reflect the current mores (and marketing reality), just as the original implied setting reflected its times.

        And I’m pretty sure that those “whiniest, most fragile and entitled potential players” are a huge marketing category who know what they want and as a group are dropping a lot more coin with WotC than a relatively small group of OSR DIY grognards who rail against the corruption represented by the Unearthed Arcana and only support independent publishers (assuming they have purchased any new material since 1974).

        And most of those “kids” play a different game from what I infer is your preference – but not really a younger one, the current traditions are arguably an outgrowth of thoughts that Hickman was having in the early eighties, maybe as far back as the seventies. And you can curse them for their dungarees and their new-fangled rock’n’roll gaming style all you want, but nobody is listening to Lawrence Welk any more.

    4. damacguy

      I’m as liberal as they come – I respect everyone regardless of sex, orientation, sexual identity, race, etc. I love diversity and feel it can only make everything better. Diversity brings different viewpoints – in the real world.

      But if you decide to play a gnome, you’d better expect that out of the box you’re going to need a ladder to get onto a table, you’re not going to benchpress a bugbear, and your career as a raging barbarian will be lackluster (albeit humorous).

      But, as ALWAYS, that doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to your DM and do whatever you want. Do you want to be a 6ft Gnome with 20 STR? Um, if you’ve got a fun story idea and your DM says okay, then whatever. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      Should everyone just be able to play a 6ft Gnome with a 20 STR because if they don’t get to their feelings will be hurt? No! That’s why there are other character races (ie species). If you want to play a 6ft character with 20 STR then look to a character race that fits… a human, half-elf, half-orc, maybe even an elf (really a stretch). Do you want to play a nimble little character that can slip into places easily? Then a half-orc probably isn’t the best choice.

      And talk to you DM If you want to do something unusual. A human with dwarfism? How about a Gnome with dwarfism? Or a Gnome with a pituitary gland condition and is extra tall for his races, or an elf with albinism (constantly confuse with a Drow)? Sure! Talk to the DM and have fun. But codify it in the rules? Why!?!

      Otherwise, why even bother with character races? Why bother having elves and gnomes and dwarves and half-orcs if there’s nothing that makes them ‘special’ compared to other character races?

      And no, character races are NOT analogous to real world ethic groups. Should you feel depressed because your Gnome can’t simply sit in a normal chair, or your half-orc can’t slip into a hole in a tree… then play a different character race or talk to your DM about it.

  2. Astral

    I get why they do this, if “attracts new players” is read as “increases their consumer base”. They’re a company, so obviously that’s what they want to do. Nevertheless, it’s unfair to that same base to expect every player to buy a $40+ book to have the same fun as those who can afford such luxuries – and it IS a luxury.

    I’ve been playing since 3.5e and DMing since 4e (one day I’ll get to be a player again…). I love this game, and I honestly consider my specialty to be introducing players who don’t know DnD from Warcraft and making their first campaign so epic and memorable that they’ll play this game and others like it for years to come. But lately, I’m leaning more toward the “others like it” side of that equation. 3.5e was wonky, and I won’t miss having to calculate the flight path of an arrow ever. But from a DMing perspective, the processes by which you adjudicated were much, much clearer. This was true for 4e as well; as much as people hate on the explicitly gamist language, that language clarified and codified things that had been true throughout DnD’s existence. Compare Sleep in 4e to Sleep in 5e and you’ll see what I mean about clarity. For all its flaws,

    Don’t get me wrong; I love running 5e, and it’s a much more accessible game all-around. For players at least. What they consistently drop the ball on, again and again, is adequate DM support. This DMG has to be the worst of any edition I’ve ever seen. In the name of accessibility, clear processes have been replaced with the Pirate Code – they’re more like guidelines, and everything is couched and contextualized with “do what’s right for your table!” or “don’t do it that way if you don’t feel like it!” I mean, sure. But say you’re a brand new DM who just wants a damn checklist to figure out if that player is stealthed or not. You’re kinda screwed. It’s a confusing mess that doesn’t even adequately cover what WotC itself considers the “pillars of gameplay”. Want to know how to do exploration well? For another $40 you might be able to – just buy Wildemounts and find the few pages they deigned to offer DMs!

    I think those of us who have played a long time forget just how confusing this kind of thing is if you have zero experience with it – especially since we gauge it in comparison old editions. A new DM should be able to open the DMG and start learning how to run a table, not how to create a pantheon (literally the first chapter). To run a game of DnD, you don’t have to go all Carl Sagan and first invent the entire damn universe. Clear processes on how to set up the campaign, prep a session, guide the players through it, and adjudicate their choices in the context of all five pillars of gameplay should be the baseline. And no one should have to buy five books and piece it together themselves.

    End of the day, DMs make up a much smaller fraction of WotC’s existing and ever-growing consumer base. There is no monetary incentive to provide better, more cohesive guidance to DMs, or to retroactively fix the disaster they call the DMG. So they slap a few DM-related things in a new supplement many people can’t afford and spent the rest of the book adding new, ever-more-powerful subclasses because that’s what gets players to shell out bucks.

    Sorry for the wall of text. I probably sound more bitter than I am. Still love this game. I just wish WotC supported all of its base equally. Of everyone at the table, DMs need it the most.

    1. Denver

      Hard agree about the DMG. I wish it actually taught you how to GM; the burden has really fallen on community creators (DM David, AngryGM, Satine Phoenix, Sly Flourish, Colville, etc.) to actually teach new GMs how to run games. It seems like a lot of 5e’s books assume that the GM has already been running games for 5+ years.

  3. SEBOS

    I like the variant in Tasha’s and think adding it to the PHB would be a great idea. Keep the “standard” racial bonuses as a guide if that’s what people want, but offer the option of going against trope. More choice is a good thing.

  4. simontmn

    I’d be fine if there were no racial mods in the game – BX-BECMI D&D works just fine without them. But what they did in Tasha’s is a Worst of All Worlds solution where every min-maxer’s Wizard is a Mountain Dwarf, and standard Humans are the weakest race (which may be intentional I guess). If you are going to make a radical mechanical change like free assignment of stat boosts, you need to take that into account in the rest of the system.

  5. Abelhawk

    I’ve also noticed that as of Candlekeep Mysteries, they don’t prescribe alignment to any monsters, they list Proficiency Bonus on their stat blocks, and they simplify monsters’ spellcasting to just a number of times per day, rather than keeping track of each level of slots.

    I hope they don’t go too far in the racial trait changes, because it makes the game a lot more fun to have ability score changes related to race, and if they resort to changing all the races to essentially Variant Humans with or without darkvision, all the flavor in the entire game is going to turn tasteless.

  6. Enrique

    I really hope you are wrong, but I fear you are right.

    As others pointed out, the idea of making every fantasy folk into “variant human” is BAD. It’s bad for the worldbuilding, it’s bad for the character creation, it’s bad for strategy, and it’s bad for DIVERSITY. If you want to “defy the norm” YOU NEED A NORM. You can still have a strong hobbit and an intelligent half-orc. However, the STRONGEST hobbit shouldn’t be as strong as THE STRONGEST half-orc. That should be obvious for anyone.

    Also, this focus on real life issues only creates unnecessary drama among the community and perpetuates the stupid idea that fantasy races = human cultures, which is blatantly wrong.

    And pleas,e don’t start with the “it’s fantasy! there are unicorns!”. That’s a not-argument. I want a game with horses instead of cars and castles instead of a giant pink pudding. I want to see a dwarven king sitting a throne carved on stone. I don’t have any interest on an elected public servant that happens to be a half-dog made out of cardboard. There are other games for that kind of stuff. Every fictional world have its own set of rules. D&D it’s based on Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Poul Anderson, Frtiz Leiber, celtic myth and norse legends. Being “fantasy” IT’S NOT a wild card.

  7. Indra F.

    I’m pretty happy with how the DMG expands. New DMs just need to know how the game works from Basic Rules or PHB

  8. MisterLT

    I’ve never been sure why there are a lot of people who don’t understand that – once you buy the book, it’s your game to twist and deform however you wish.

    As it has always been from AD&D (1e if you absolutely have to call it that) through today, DMs and players have the ability to come to an agreement on house rules. This means if the group want to keep racial adjustments in, they can. If they want extra flavor and have some special table to roll on for critical hits or fails that the DM makes up, they can. This is one of the things that has made D&D last for so long, and why you get cells of people who will always stay with one edition or another, because that’s the edition in which they cut their teeth, or that it conformed closest to the ruleset they prefer.

    If a player wants to attend play outside of a close-knit group, they ought to be smart enough to ask (or at least be told by their DM) if the gameplay will be strictly RAW, or include/exclude certain house rules they are used to. Sometimes, getting into a new group like that is the only way a relatively new player learns that some rule they’ve always be told to follow turned out to be some homebrewed rule that they never bothered reading up further on.

    In the end, play is ultimately going to vary from close-knit group to close-knit group because play styles vary, and house rules are always going to be a thing. Rules hawks might review every Reddit discussion and Jeremy Crawford tweet on a subject and play to the absolute letter. Roleplay-heavy groups might care a little less and just go by decisions at the table, and my Sat. night group will just sit around cracking one joke after another, barely caring. The fact that all three types of groups enjoy playing the same game to their different degrees is why it will last.

    Sometimes you have to just players play. Wizards publishes RAW, but we know that in the end we make it the game we want it to be once it’s out of the box.

    Oh and BTW – Wizards should never try to get in the business of teaching how to DM. If you must, watch someone DM live (over and over) or go online to see it in action, or try it over and over (and over and over) again like we did back in the day. Ask for feedback. You will eventually learn what works and what doesn’t. That was a huge part of the D&D experience for me as a kid, and as it is right now, 40 years later (yeah, I’m old). It would be a shame to see an entire legion of DMs who all functioned identically because of how Wizards “taught” them. Give them guidelines and advice, but don’t ever say ‘this is what you must do, just like this’. DM variety is one of the classic parts of D&D. You haven’t really played until you have your own personal ‘suck-hole DM screwed my character’ story to tell. 🙂

  9. OrcishKiwi

    It’s really hard for the DM sometimes when all players go against trope. Have played in a group that had a child monk, a teen warlock, a sleazy bard and a greed-driven rogue… all of them playing against racial type. The fiction came apart as soon as we realized the NPCs were encouraging an overt thief, two minors, and whoring musician to go and loot their ancestral catacombs. When there’s too much encouragement to play against type, this can happen – an adventure the DM prepared to be epic or morose might end up being ridiculed or simply nonsensical.

    Sure, say it’s how the game surprises us.

    But if you read WotC’s published adventures, there’s certainly the feeling that they expected something more along the lines of, well… archetypal heroes.

    I’ve played for 40-something years and have seen many groups fall apart. But it’s only recently that I’ve witnessed two tables of good players and DM just prematurely stop a game because there was no real party dynamic.

    It’s ever increasingly a game for players, and a burden to the DM. And while I don’t think the “put your stats wherever you want” will do much damage on it’s own, it does continue to raise the expectations and pressure on the DM. I speak mainly to the improvisation difficulty in thinking how the world reacts to (and motivates) the party mentioned above, not the mechanical balancing.

    Perhaps it’s easier to understand by asking yourself questions like… If every racial trait can be substituted for another, why do dwarves live underground or why elves make good wizards? Perhaps they don’t anymore – and the burden of worldbuilding and smoothing over ludonarrative dissonances is the burden of the DM.

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