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Is the next version of Dungeons & Dragons coming too late?

Slow and steady has not won this race.

Wallpaper celebrating Dungeons & Dragons' 50th Anniversary
Image credit: Campbell White/Wizards of the Coast

2024 is meant to be a big year for Dungeons & Dragons, as the 50th anniversary of the tabletop roleplaying game lines up with the release of the next series of core rulebooks.

However, it doesn’t feel especially momentous. Instead, it seems like the recent cultural steam for D&D we’ve seen spewing out across the mainstream has been dissipating in the last couple of years. To the point that it feels like the 2024 edition of the RPG could turn out to be a sad flop, rather than the triumphant evolution of Dungeons & Dragons 5E into a digitally-focused roleplaying game.

Though it makes a lot of sense to time the release of the new rulebooks to coincide with the 50th anniversary of D&D, the buzz surrounding the next iteration roleplaying game is a lot quieter than you’d expect it to be considering that, 1) it’s been ten years since the release of Fifth Edition and 2) this is the newest version of the biggest tabletop RPG in the Western world.

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This feels partly the fault of Wizards of the Coast itself. Since One D&D - now called Dungeons & Dragons 2024 - was first announced in mid-2022, there have been regular updates to its work-in-progress playtest rules, which could only be found on the Unearthed Arcana website. Eventually, announcements for the release dates of the new Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual were made earlier this year. However, the company’s overall approach to marketing has been decidedly minimal so far. No official documentary, no word on the previously announced D&D TV show, no glamorous event celebrating the anniversary - which was this February and was acknowledged with a small video - and no tie-in with Wizards of the Coast’s other big game, Magic: The Gathering. Not even a ridiculously overhyped campaign featured some ludicrously overpriced piece of merchandise.

This approach could be leading D&D 5E to stagnate, with less loyal players looking elsewhere for new experiences.

Since the release of D&D 5E, which is easily the game’s most successful edition - Wizards claimed that it had over 50 million players by 2020 - Dungeons & Dragons has become a lot more accessible, meaning that there are more people willing to give it a try. After its initial release in 2014, there have been no major changes to the 5E formula and it looks unlikely there will be in the near future, with the upcoming rulebooks looking to refine rather than reinvent. This approach could be leading D&D 5E to stagnate, with less loyal players looking elsewhere for new experiences.

Promotional art for Dungeons & Dragons' Planescape book trio
The recent Planescape: Adventures in the Multiverse book was a disappointing return to the otherwise fascinating setting. | Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

One factor that aided in Dungeons & Dragons becoming more popular was its role in Netflix’s hit 1980s-themed series Stranger Things, with aspects of the RPG’s lore appearing, almost wholesale, within multiple seasons. Wizards even released an official Stranger Things-themed starter set for D&D 5E. However, with critical acclaim for the series declining with every subsequent season, a two-year gap since the release of its last season, and a fifth and final season yet to be seen, Stranger Things and D&D alike don’t have as much of a stranglehold on popular culture as they once did.

Critical Role’s gradual move away from D&D has further added to the feeling that Dungeons & Dragons has crested over a hill of cultural relevance.

The rise of actual play series - shows in which the cast are filmed playing tabletop roleplaying games, often D&D - have also played a large part in the increased interest in Dungeons & Dragons. The most popular actual play series is easily Critical Role, reportedly one of the top earners on Twitch in October 2021, which was also arguably the show’s high point in terms of quality. More recent numbers for Critical Role’s Twitch channel reportedly show that their yearly viewership was down from around 10 million viewers in 2021 to around five million viewers in 2023.

Critical Role itself appears to be exploring other tabletop RPGs outside of Dungeons & Dragons, both on-screen and via its own publishing label Darrington Press, including recent horror RPG Candela Obscura and upcoming fantasy RPG Daggerheart. Critical Role’s gradual move away from D&D has further added to the feeling that Dungeons & Dragons has crested over a hill of cultural relevance in the last year or so.

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This feeling was reflected in the performance of last year’s Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the latest attempt from Wizards of the Coast to bring the RPG to the big screen after its critically disastrous noughties movie. Though Honor Among Thieves was critically well-received, it fared a lot worse financially. The film cost $150 million to make and only brought in $208m worldwide, likely putting it under its total production and marketing budget. It’s no surprise that Wizards of the Coast owner Hasbro has since offloaded its television and movie studio Entertainment One to Lionsgate.

Even the release of video game Baldur’s Gate 3 last year, which has turned out to be a surprise hit, both critically and commercially, feels like it hasn’t been capitalised on by Wizards of the Coast. Its only major tie-ins were a Magic: The Gathering set released in 2022, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate, and a prequel D&D 5E adventure book released years earlier, 2019’s Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus. Despite the D&D video game reaching the kinds of players who probably haven’t ever played the original tabletop roleplaying game, but might do now they’ve fallen in love with Baldur’s Gate 3, it seems Wizards hasn't attempted to court them further.

It’s clear that Wizards has already rocked the D&D boat with its OGL shenanigans and hasn’t done enough to court the interests of people outside its usual fanbase.

D&D fans’ loyalty has also been tested by last year’s debacle around the Open Game License, which saw Wizards attempting to tighten its grip on any supplements and games based on the OGL 5E gameplay system. The OGL gives third-party creators the legal right to use gameplay mechanics and other elements from Dungeons & Dragons in their own releases, which has since led to a thriving community of expansions and spin-offs, as well as D&D-descended RPGs such as Pathfinder. Wizards had initially planned to scrap all previous versions of the OGL System Reference Document and force creators to agree to a new OGL - which could have seen some publishers paying a 25% royalty cost if their materials made enough money. The outcry from publishers, creators and fans eventually saw Wizards pivot away from its plans to change the OGL, but the damage was already done.

Dungeons & Dragons Bastion system unearthed arcana drinking buddies
Wizards has been releasing updates to the ongoing version of Dungeons & Dragons 2024 on the Unearthed Arcana website. | Image credit: Kent Davis/Wizards of the Coast

Which brings us back to this year and the imminent release of the next series of core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons despite the fires stoked by the release of D&D 5E, Stranger Things, Critical Role and Baldur’s Gate 3 seeming to have burned out before their arrival - with the OGL debacle pouring cold water on the once red-hot RPG.

We can’t yet predict how well these books will sell and how many people will come onboard for the digital-first approach Wizards of the Coast is pushing for D&D 2024. However, it’s clear that Wizards has already rocked the D&D boat with its OGL shenanigans and hasn’t done enough to court the interests of people outside its usual fanbase, with much of the world remaining completely unaware that a new version of the roleplaying game is arriving in the same year as its 50th anniversary. Wizards’ apparent lack of enthusiasm towards promoting the next big step for its biggest game could be reflective of the tabletop industry’s current aversion to costly campaigns and tendency to button down the hatches in response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Perhaps if the company had released the new version of D&D a couple of years ago, it might have arrived into a better environment - both in terms of the global situation and people’s perception of D&D. For now, the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons 2024 could be too little, too late.

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Alex Meehan avatar
Alex Meehan: After writing for Kotaku UK, Waypoint and Official Xbox Magazine, Alex became a member of the Dicebreaker editorial family. Having been producing news, features, previews and opinion pieces for Dicebreaker for the past three years, Alex has had plenty of opportunity to indulge in her love of meaty strategy board games and gothic RPGS. Besides writing, Alex appears in Dicebreaker’s D&D actual play series Storybreakers and haunts the occasional stream on the Dicebreaker YouTube channel.

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