Editions and Edition Wars

Last week, the first in what’s assumedly a fairly long series of playtest documents came out for One D&D, the revised version of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition that is scheduled to be released in 2024. Fifth Edition’s product lifecycle is quite long for modern D&D: 10 years is the second longest any edition of D&D has gone with no major revision, still not quite beating out the first edition of Advanced D&D which went without a revision for 12 years. The main difference between AD&D 1e and D&D 5e, though, is that Fifth Edition is the best selling version of D&D ever and AD&D 1e is one of the worst; Basic D&D sold better at the same time and saw three iterations over those 12 years, clearly getting more of TSR’s attention. This contrast gets us to the broader point that running an RPG business is a complicated game, especially when it comes to figuring out how to maintain your product lines.

New editions of games have been part and parcel of the RPG industry since Gygax attempted to close the Pandora’s Box of D&D hacking by releasing AD&D. Even that first public revision of a game, a wholesale rewrite as opposed to small revisions gained over time, laid bare the various and sundry motivations designers could have for revising their game. It may be an attempt to regain editorial control, or appeal to a new audience. It may, cynically, be a way to sell more books after the product line has flagged. And maybe, in some limited circumstances, it could actually be to improve the game.

What’s the Point of a New Edition?

New editions are rarely intended just to fix or improve a game. One of the reasons is that a new edition implies incompatibility with what came before it, in a way that a new version with small or direct fixes need not. A revision of a game, which could be a new edition, can also be something much smaller. The revised version of AD&D Second Edition, released in 1993, and Burning Wheel Gold Revised, the current in-print version of Burning Wheel, are largely the same as the versions that came before it. These revisions add small rules improvements, tweaks, and what are called in the publishing industry ‘errata’, or edits and clarifications made to a text after it has gone to print. The new copy works fine with the old one, and in fact in the RPG world you can almost always find the errata and updates for free and have the same clarifications, though in the annoying form of a separate document.

There are some designers who release new editions of their game for the purpose of improving that game, as opposed to broader product line reasons (like those for D&D which I’ll discuss in a moment). Consider Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World has a second edition, which cleans up the book, makes some rules changes, and just generally makes the book easier to use. Apocalypse World second edition is little more than an improved version of Apocalypse World first edition. Now, though, over a decade later, the Bakers (all the Bakers, Vincent, Meguey, and their children) are revising Apocalypse World on a much deeper level to create Burned Over. One intent of Burned Over is to improve Apocalypse World, but that means bringing it in line with ten years of consideration and discourse around PbtA and games in general. In that way, the intent is to change it. The changes are to make it better, but they are also to make a different game, in a much more significant way than Apocalypse World second edition could or did.

Making a different game is implied to a degree in any edition change; consider Shadowrun. If we imagine for a hot second that Shadowrun has made it through six editions for only the sake of ‘improvement’, then how did we end up with fans who will pick favorites from Second all the way up to Fifth? If new editions are meant to be improvements, then why did we get Cyberpunk v3, or any edition of Exalted after the first? How did we end up with D&D 4e?

The role-playing game is a young medium, and that means designers are still figuring a lot of things out in terms of what games can do and what they can look like. Role-playing games are also a tiny industry, which has the effect of stunting knowledge transfer and archiving. To players this looks like having the same arguments for literally 50 years, but for designers it can be a lot worse. Your corner of the hobby could have been a very unique place in the 1980s or 1990s, but once you put your latest game on DriveThruRPG you may have a rude awakening about what the rest of the world thinks of your ‘new’ ideas.

In a hobby with so little institutionalized knowledge transfer, trying to do something in a new and different way is often conflated with improving it, especially if the new and different way is informed by more recent discourse within the hobby. So it was with Fourth Edition. Without placing a value judgment on the design of Fourth Edition (see the next section), it failed as an edition of D&D because it chose to depart from the design logic of D&D in ways that players did not want. Even if you love Fourth Edition you must concede it is a design aberration compared to the other seven (OD&D, B/X D&D, BECMI D&D, AD&D 1e, AD&D 2e, D&D 3/3.5, D&D 5e) versions of the game that all do essentially the same thing. Fourth Edition D&D was also the first new edition that did not have a clear purpose. B/X D&D was a substantial revision from OD&D (that made the game, among other things, playable), and BECMI was a dramatic expansion of B/X. AD&D was Gygax’s ego trip and supposed to be the be-all end-all version of the game, so AD&D 2e was the course correction necessary to keep publishing something based on Gygax’s ego trip (as well as an attempt to catch the game up to Basic sales-wise). D&D 3e was Wizards of the Coast wiping the slate clean, though the actual changes from AD&D were fairly incremental (don’t let any THAC0 zealot tell you otherwise). Fifth Edition, unfortunately, was the mouthwash to clear out the taste from Fourth Edition. Fourth Edition, then, seemed to be change for change’s sake, and an attempt to cash in on the changing environment of the RPG world. As the sales of Fifth Edition have indicated, the fanbase didn’t want change.

When you’re the biggest, oldest game in town, it makes sense that change is difficult. That is exactly the challenge that One D&D faces, and the reason that live playtest docs have become de rigueur in the hobby, not just at Wizards of the Coast. Fanboys will still whine and complain at every single change to their favorite game, but seeing these changes (or some of them) walked back in the playtest process will make more people happy (this is true regardless of whether or not the end product would have been any different). The rapid prototyping made possible by cheap PDF publishing not only makes incremental design easier and better, it also cements the parasocial relationships that gamers have not only with the designers, but with the artifice of the game itself. It is this empathy and relationship with an inanimate product line that creates a highly memorable (and ugly) facet of RPG fandom, the edition war.

Why Edition Wars Happen

Edition wars tend to be at their worst over incremental changes, and that’s why the edition wars over D&D are the most dramatic in the industry. Furor over Third Edition helped create the OSR, and fans took over Paizo’s Hail Mary, Pathfinder, and made it a vehicle for grievances against Wizards. The reason incremental changes create such energy is twofold. First, some fans resent having to buy new books for incremental changes, or to buy new books which abandoned elements they liked in service of incremental changes. Second, the fans already willing to spend the money on new books must defend that choice, sometimes in the face of cognitive dissonance. For D&D specifically, these flames are fanned by the fact that Wizards of the Coast is a monopoly, and if you don’t like the new edition you’re going to get shut out of basically all opportunities to continue playing, unless you can convince your entire group to stick with the old edition. If the group is split? Well, that’s how D&D destroys friendships. Ironically, when the game is worse, the edition war situation happens less. When Cyberpunk v3 came out, virtually nobody liked it. Even Mike Pondsmith, years later, said (in essence) ‘yeah, my bad’. That can really hurt a business, but if the fandom’s in agreement they’ll come out relatively unscathed. Similarly, a game like Exalted is such a mess that, though edition warring does take place, most fans can see the flaws in their chosen gem, making empathy with someone with a different opinion easier.

Speaking of Cyberpunk, there is something a publisher can do to drown an edition war, at least partially. When R. Talsorian released Cyberpunk Red, they made the deliberate decision to keep the Cyberpunk 2020 books available to gamers who wanted to buy them. When a new edition shuts down your fun, that can easily make you resentful, but when both editions are still available it’s easier to approach preferences for what they are. This is a big reason why Wizards has used the term ‘backwards-compatible’ when describing the One D&D playtest; the appearance of abandoning their paying customers is going to create a strong negative reaction exactly when they can least afford one. Turns out they know this from experience: With no legal digital copies of D&D 3.5 material available, Fourth Edition is one of the clearest examples of the publisher ‘cutting off’ the earlier edition that we have in recent history. In addition to making fan resentment much, much worse, it also funneled thousands of dollars directly to Paizo, away from Wizards of the Coast.

It’s ultimately not going to matter how much damage control Wizards does around the coming edition war, or how much they lean on backward compatibility (backwards compatibility does not imply forward compatibility, gamers will probably need to buy all new core books to use subsequent releases). D&D is the largest game in the industry, and their marketing has been heavily leaning on D&D being the only game that ‘matters’. This rhetoric will backfire; it’s very difficult to call yourself by all sorts of superlatives and then tell the fanbase to repurchase the game because it’s not actually the world’s greatest roleplaying game, this new one is. There is of course the small possibility that their changes will be unanimous and beloved, but what we’ve seen from the first document is that the new D&D won’t even be able to get rid of the game’s long-standing racism, let alone fix anything else. Trying to get rid of editions is mirroring Wizards’ desire to get rid of the inevitable edition war, but neither of these things are going to happen in the end. One D&D (the label) will go the way of D&D Next, and we’ll have D&D Fifth Edition Essentials, or something like it, come 2024. If Wizards is lucky, maybe this time they won’t create an entire RPG subculture or prop up another company’s game line with the sheer volume of people who dislike them.

There is a balance between updating and improving a game and rereleasing it to make more money. Apocalypse World, as I mentioned above, was incremented once, with one more potential release which isn’t even done yet. Eclipse Phase had a second edition and a very interesting Fate offshoot, but that’s it. GURPS is on its fourth edition, but Steve Jackson Games has been supporting that edition at some level for 17 years. We all know the stories on the other hand, though. Shadowrun’s second edition was a direct improvement on the first, but third, fourth, fifth, and sixth all took different directions and alienated different parts of the audience. Paranoia bounced through at least five editions of varying silliness and mechanics, to the point that I’m not sure the authors, let alone critics, know which version really accomplished the goal best. Runequest had become such a different game by its sixth edition that the newest version is actually based on the second. As games follow their own random path to a hypothetical optimal version, it’s the gamers who are left in the lurch, trying to make sense of when changes are better design, when they align with subjective preferences, and when they’re just not good on either account. 

At the same time, we’re not seeing new editions to the same degree any more. The games that can get away with having five, six, seven, or more editions are fossils, artifacts of random walk game design of the 70s and 80s. As the industry changes, it’s becoming less likely a game will get one edition, let alone six. And when we are seeing major revisions, they’re often better described as resurrections. Games like Twilight:2000, SLA Industries, A|State, and Rifts are being rescued from obscurity and ignominy to find a whole new generation of fans. While these heavy revisions can be done well or poorly, it’s much easier to understand the motives and design choices of bringing a forgotten game back than of iterating on literally the most popular RPG ever. Alas, whether we want it or not, we’re going to have at least one more edition of D&D. And at least one more generation of gamers is going to enlist for an edition war.

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2 thoughts on “Editions and Edition Wars”

  1. Role-playing games are also a tiny industry, which has the effect of stunting knowledge transfer and archiving.

    How do you think we could fix this?

    Great article, thanks! I’m interested in 1D&D,but have moved on from 5e unless I’m doing something special for a community of gamers.


  2. Every edition of D&D has hit its “design limit” at some point, after which it becomes fairly clear that creating new materials is going to be more and more challenging without changing fundamental rules. 2nd edition hit this with the Players Option books, 3rd edition was Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition was Essentials. 5th edition is maybe not quite there yet, but maybe it was Tasha’s and in retrospect that will be obvious. At any rate, I feel like the “design space” in 5e is full at this point. It’s one of the reasons my group has switched to PF2, not because we dislike 5e, but because it’s starting to feel like we’ve seen everything there is to see from it.

    Liked by 1 person

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