D&D has a messaging problem that goes beyond the OGL controversy

A lightly edited version of Fail Often, Fail Happy, from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes.
Image composition: Charlie Hall/Polygon | Source image: Aaron Miller/Wizards of the Coast

Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast kicked off 2023 with a series of troubling controversies. In January came the leak of an early draft of its Open Gaming License (OGL), an edict meant to impose new restrictions on third-party content, which led to an open revolt by its most vocal fans. Then, in April, it was revealed that its parent company, Hasbro, has a long-standing relationship with the Pinkertons, a private security company with a storied history of violence. As a result consumer sentiment has taken a dive, damaging a decade of hard-won goodwill for the oft-stigmatized tabletop role-playing game.

Turns out that D&D’s missteps go back even further. In August 2022 the team inadvertently rebranded its seminal role-playing game’s next version to One D&D. It even commissioned a new logo that was introduced with a lavish video reveal. But One D&D was never meant to become the new name of the franchise, representatives told Polygon. It’s still just called “Dungeons & Dragons,” and earlier this month during a private press briefing in Seattle (for which Polygon declined Hasbro’s offer for travel and lodging accommodations) marketers and developers alike attempted to course-correct.

Get ready to see a lot less of this logo.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

“[The design] team never called it that. [...] They’ve got codenames,” said Nathan Stewart, vice president of marketing, said in a group interview. “And so from our standpoint [One D&D represented] what they were doing, plus it was the things we were seeing the D&D Beyond team do for access and accessibility related to the digital and physical being more integrated [as well as the in-development virtual tabletop].”

Stewart was referencing parent company Hasbro’s recent acquisition of D&D Beyond, the officially licensed digital toolset for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Since it was brought into the fold a little over a year ago, it’s effectively become the primary point of contact for consumers who want to learn more about the D&D brand. It’s also slowly helped to acclimate consumers used to purchasing physical books to receiving their new monsters and magical items digitally as well. One D&D branding was intended to ease that transition.

“We don’t care if it’s a book, if it’s a virtual tabletop, if it’s a digital download,” Stewart said. “They should all put the player at the center and think about things from the player’s point of view. [...] One D&D was really more of a marching cry towards that.”

So what about ‘6th edition D&D’?

Part of the reason for the confusion over the One D&D branding is that for the better part of two years now, the company has been casting about for what to call that next “iteration” of Dungeons & Dragons — a revision that was officially teased in early 2022, and which is now slated for release in 2024.

Since its inception, Dungeons & Dragons has been released in a new edition every few years — first edition, second edition, third, then 3.5, fourth edition and in 2014, 5th. Those new editions have traditionally included new versions of the game’s three core rulebooks — the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual. Wizards confirmed that next year fans will also be getting newly updated versions of those three books.

What they won’t be getting is a 6th edition of D&D.

Your existing Player’s Handbook (2014) will continue to work with 5th edition D&D in 2024 and beyond, but the new edition will be greatly revised and updated.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

“One of the reasons why this word ‘edition’ is loaded is currently it has two different meanings,” said Wizards’ game design architect Jeremy Crawford at the event. “In broader publishing, edition is a pretty neutral term that simply means ‘a new version of the book.’ Now, in D&D the term has over the years gained much greater weight, because the term also came to mean a new version of the game.”

Those editions — those new versions of D&D — have always been fractious for the larger D&D community. Folks like to keep using the rules that they’re familiar with, and with every new edition of the game Wizards has left a significant portion of its player base behind. For a ready example, look no further than the transition to fourth edition that took place in the early 2000s. The transition from D&D 3.5 to fourth edition was a clean break with almost nothing but lore shared between the two systems. That huge change greatly splintered the player base, giving rise to Paizo’s Pathfinder and other upstart competitors. The fact that fourth edition played more like a tabletop miniatures game than a traditional RPG didn’t help matters at all, but the damage to the larger brand was not fully undone until 5th edition’s incredible surge in popularity prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For those reasons, Wizards said, 5th edition is here to stay... even though its core rulebooks are changing.

“We are releasing new editions of the books,” Crawford emphasized. “We are not releasing a new edition of the game. And so that, I think, is a really important distinction — that it is still 5th edition, but yes, we are releasing revised versions of the books, which anywhere else in the publishing world would be called new editions.”

The proposed solution, then, for differentiating between 5th edition and what comes next? To append the year of publication to the end of the core rulebooks’ names. That way, Wizards said, going forward there will have been a Player’s Handbook (2014) and there will also be a Player’s Handbook (2024). While they are fundamentally different books, Crawford said, they can both be used to play the same game. And, most importantly, they will both be compatible with every other 5th edition book that has come before.

“The other books aren’t changing,” Crawford said. “These are new versions of these three books. It’s the same game.”


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