The breaking news of the day is that Hasbro’s D&D 4E  is dead, D&D 5E is on the way, in a NY Times article by Ethan Gilsdorf.
Over at Forbes, David M. Ewalt talks about playtesting the new edition.
First, the message of the medium: The Rise and Fall of D&D is in the NY Times and Forbes? It’s not a big-money business. It’s not even a medium-money business. There’s a few tens of millions of fans, who play a huge variety of RPGs, some of which are labelled “D&D” and some of which are not. Are NY Times and Forbes editors or readers big D&D nerds?
The things that drove D&D down are pretty simple, but they don’t really address them, just a facile “videogames did it”, which misses the forest full of ravenous trolls for a pixie stabbing them in the ankles. And if they don’t understand them, they can’t fix them.
First, Wizards and then Hasbro made each new edition more complicated, annoying, and less RPG-like than the last; 4E isn’t even really an RPG, just RPG stats attached to a boardgame. The “Ravenloft” boardgame is just 4E cleared of unnecessary mechanics like role-playing and a GM. Hasbro seemed almost determined to discard settings with any character, like Greyhawk, and switch entirely to generic brand “Forgotten Realms”, or just a “points of light” non-setting between dungeon crawls.
Casual D&D players haven’t had a simple, usable, complete game from Wizards since 1983. The 2010 “Red Box” was just a demo, with only level 2 advancement. The new edition desperately needs a starter set that is not crippled. Pathfinder’s Beginner’s Box is an excellent game, which I’ll be reviewing here soon, and it has a full, simple game up to level 5. If Hasbro can’t make a better starting experience, they will continue to fail and be dead on arrival.
Second, they wasted time and money on new technology that didn’t matter, instead of the only one that does: ebooks. Which makes this line hilariously ironic:
“Even if players increasingly bring their iPads, loaded with Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to the gaming table.” —Ethan Gilsdorf
There was a brief time when Hasbro allowed PDFs of older editions of D&D to be sold, and I have a large set of the modules and a few books. But Hasbro has never sold current editions in PDF, and seem dedicated to never doing so. Not everyone is so blind to the “future”, Paizo sells all of their Pathfinder books in PDF, print, or PDF+Print bundles. So do most other publishers now.
Third, they have to compete with everyone else who makes RPGs, either cheaper or for free, almost always with better, faster, simpler mechanics, and more interesting settings. Would you rather hack through a series of setting-less dungeon crawls with hours of counter-twiddling per battle, or role-play in A Song of Ice and Fire or Dragon Age, and complete an adventure in a night or two? The latter two combined will cost you less and be infinitely more fun. Even if you unreasonably played a new game every 6 months, it would cost less than keeping up with modules and supplements for D&D 4E.
Fourth, they have to compete with older editions and retro-clones of those editions. My preference is for Swords & Wizardry, where it is 1978 and always will be. Others prefer AD&D and OSRIC. If you have a rules set you like and a GM with a modicum of imagination, you never need to buy another book. That spells doom for any game company that tries to make it “big time” like Hasbro.
Fifth, MMOs. The people who “leave” for MMOs don’t generally stay gone. They often play both, or come back to tabletop. Having a branded D&D MMO that wasn’t terrible would help retention, but that didn’t work out (I have no real opinion of DDO, as it doesn’t run on Mac OS X, while World of Warcraft does; but that’s failure enough). But if you left D&D 3E for a few years, there’d be no compelling reason to buy into 4E and start over, when you could pick up your old books, or Pathfinder, or Dragon Age RPG or anything else, and carry on.
So What Now?
Mike Mearls is the guy who drove 4E into the ground, but he’s still in charge. Monte Cook has returned to Hasbro, and is an excellent game designer (though D20 didn’t always show good design, it sold very well indeed), but if he’s not able to call the shots, I don’t see how this situation will improve.
Hasbro’s “D&D Next” is trying to crowd-source ideas and get wider playtesting for the new edition, which apparently is playable but still so malleable they could take it in entirely new directions?
And finally, Jeff Rients has an excellent suggestion: Release old editions as PDF so they can be studied and learned from. Hasbro not selling PDFs hasn’t stopped people from playing retro-clones and other RPGs. They might as well make a little money off those players, and try to make the next edition enough better that a few come back.
I Had In Mind Something a Little More Radical
I have another solution, though. Repackage the Moldvay/Mentzer D&D Basic Set and the D&D Cyclopedia as “Fifth Edition”, add some new art, and sell those. They’re better games, and the work’s already done.
 Hasbro owns Wizards of the Coast, which owns TSR, which has the same initials as Gary Gygax’s former company Tactical Studies Rules, and Gary Gygax created D&D with some assistance from Dave Arneson. Calling whatever Hasbro sells “D&D” is kind of weird.