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Is this the end of new editions of Dungeons & Dragons?

Mike Mearls, lead designer at Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) for Dungeons & Dragons, explained on June 23 what he meant by a "living rule set" discussed at the Origins Game Fair. The concept of an evolving rules set implies that there will not be future editions of the game, because there will be frequent micro-changes to the rules instead. This philosophy is reflected even in the way the Starter Set has been rolled out, with entire excerpts posted to WOTC's site (see slideshow for the six latest previews). Mearls explained:

Table of Contents from the rulebook.
Wizards of the Coast

The biggest change affects how we make updates to the game going forward. In the past, we relied on forums, summaries of issues from customer service, and our own experiences with the game to guide the changes we made. Though this approach uncovers parts of the game that people are having issues with, it does a poor job of assessing the magnitude of those issues. The public playtest showed us that we need to cast a much wider net to create a clear picture of what’s going on.

How will WOTC determine what needs fixing and updating? Annual surveys, similar to the ones used for the fifth edition playtest. Changes will come in a variety of formats, including a Frequently Asked Question documents, and annual updates to future printings. Significant changes, such as a class imbalance, will be addressed differently. As Mearls explains, just because someone doesn't like something (or likes something too much) doesn't mean it should be changed:

To start with, we’ll assess the issue’s impact on the game. Let’s say a number of players complain that a class is too weak and refuse to play it. But at the same time, people who play that class enjoy it and give it high marks. In this case, we won’t change anything. But if no one is playing the class even though they want to, then we need to look at different options.

A similar process applies to elements of the game that might be too good. Are too many players choosing a particular option? Do people who choose that option like it and find it balanced? Do DMs hate some particular rule or game element even as players love it? We’re likely to change something only if players report that it’s too good, if it’s a popular option with players, and if DMs have issues with it.

Most important, Mearls explained WOTC's new philosophy on editions:

Some players might see the specter of a new edition always hanging over this sort of process. However, we see the fifth edition rules as a game that we want to stick with for the long haul. A revision significant enough to require serious changes to printed books should offer multiple obvious improvements to the game. If you’re buying new books, it should be because you want to—not because we’re twisting your arm. In an ideal world, updates to our printed products should simply capture the incremental updates and revisions that have proven widely popular.

This has significant implications for both players -- who fear the aforementioned "specter" of a new edition -- and publishers of the upcoming Open Game License. Some publishers were significantly harmed by the change of Dungeons & Dragons from 3.0 to 3.5, which created a perception among consumers that the two games were completely incompatible. As the success of Pathfinder has demonstrated, there are significant market benefits to keeping the same core system stable over the long run.

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