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?