Bring on Sixth Edition D&D — Modularity, Dynamics and Live Stream Play

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The immense popularity of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is undeniable. The streamlined 5E ruleset coupled with Wizards of the Coast’s dedication to engagement with the RPG community and embrace of social media and streaming culture has propelled D&D both up and out. Longtime gamers who’ve been with the hobby since the first days or any edition along the way, as well as incredible numbers of new players, have cottoned to today’s D&D experience. The upcoming Stream of Many Eyes, June 1-3, highlights how all these elements come together in a three day spectacle of live stream D&D games, cosplay, elaborate sets and celebrity guests. With the amazing success of the fifth edition of the world’s greatest roleplaying game, will we ever see a sixth edition D&D?

A truly iconic image from the 1983 Dungeons & Dragons basic set. [Art by Larry Elmore]

Sixth edition D&D on the horizon

In the video below, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted share their thoughts on when — not if — a sixth edition D&D will emerge. They also share a few ideas on what the next iteration of D&D might be like and how they see it shaping up based on the evolution of 5E so far. However, Nerdarchist Dave makes a great point, giving a nod to Adam Koebel from the most recent RollPlay Roundtable when Adam mentioned how he doesn’t feel the need to speculate too much on what he wants to see in a new edition. As gamers, we want to be surprised and excited by whatever we see next. And besides, content creators can develop our own ideas into new systems anyway. Rather than tell WOTC what we want to see, we can put our trust in the design team to share their own innovations.

As a huge D&D fan myself I’ve enjoyed every edition of the game, each one more than the last. Watching D&D evolve into the vibrant culture we have today is amazing. Some of my best gaming memories ever have come through fifth edition D&D. What’s more I’ve enjoyed the experience alongside so many others across the world through live stream D&D games. Critical Role notwithstanding, there’s both fun and lessons to be shared in anyone’s streamed game.

The variety of gameplay content out there, encouragement to experiment with both rules and styles, inclusiveness of the playerbase and influence of streaming culture will certainly impact the inevitable sixth edition D&D. Adding to the conversation Nerdarchists Dave and Ted began in the video, here’s my thoughts on what sixth edition could be, and some things I hope to see.

More modularity

I love the modular nature of 5E D&D. Technology and innovation have given consumers resources to customize all of our media consumption from music to movies, books and television and of course RPGs too. My bookshelves both digital and physical are lined with tons of RPG products and I’ve plucked bits and pieces from every one of them at some point or another. I’ve never run Out of the Abyss (I’d love to run or play it though) but players in my games have encountered The Oozing Temple. I haven’t run Storm King’s Thunder but N’von’s Pixie Dust came in handy in a pinch when a character’s trinket — a packet of pink dust — was employed during a desperate fight. Characters in my weekly live game Ingest Quest borrowed the species creation system from Hyperlanes to make some unusual characters.

What I suspect, and hope, to see in sixth edition D&D is design — and presentation — embracing this modular approach. This could be at a macro or micro level. For example, rather than see content for a specific setting like Dark Sun, Planescape, Spelljammer or Forgotten Realms, it would be more interesting and useful for Dungeon Masters to have a resource of modules to aid in creation and worldbuilding for those genres.

D&D customized content sixth edition D&D
Grissek’k, the Orc Queen is one of the Masters in Jetpack 7’s Masters and Minions for Fifth Edition. Modular design is one of the best aspects of 5E.

Looking at Dark Sun to illustrate the point, it would be more useful for DMs and players to have resources on how to create a run games focused on survival in dangerous environments. Why limit the options to a desolate desert planet with psionics and sorcerer-kings? Better to have a pool of elements to draw from and make our own settings. Survival in harsh arctic climates, aquatic settings, primeval forests or even urban environments would have broader appeal. A Dark Sun book works for people who want to adventure in that specific setting. A modular book on running survival-focused games in a variety of environments gives people the tools to create their own unique settings using a toolbox of resources.

The same thing can apply to players, too. Character classes in D&D are an intrinsic part of the game and I don’t believe we’ll ever see them go away. And there’s certainly risk of backlash changing the nature of character classes too much. But what if we kept the classics we all know and love, and presented them in a different, more modular way?

Imagine creating a warlock, barbarian, wizard or any other character and instead of gaining new abilities, spells, powers and so forth at every level, players could draw from a menu of options and wind up with a character more like a creature stat block? Consider things like the Warlock of the Great Old One in Volo’s Guide to Monsters or Baba Lysaga in Curse of Strahd. Neither have as many different abilities as a player character, but they absolutely have enough options, flavor and theme to make satisfying gameplay moments. What if our PCs were built in a similar way?

I’ve experimented a bit like this myself with a one-shot I ran where all the players were grung. To give each of the characters a distinct character class feel, I added iconic class abilities to each one. One got a Sneak Attack action, another Rage, one could grant Inspiration and so forth. Perhaps sixth edition D&D could have a menu of options for players to select from at certain levels, and at other levels those more limited options would increase in power. By the end of an adventurer’s career, depending on player choices, they could have only a handful of abilities but incredible focus on them, or a smattering of many abilities with less mastery of them.

Likewise Tomb of Mercy from Kobold Press comes with 8 pregenerated characters created in similar fashion. The Sister of Ashes is a warlock, but one with unique traits like Voice of the Succubus allowing a hypnotic pattern spell once per game, and an occult blast instead of eldritch blast. Perhaps our eventual sixth edition D&D will organize in this way, with new PC option emerging through these sorts of adventure-specific characters. Tagging traits with a level prerequisite would give players choices to customize incredibly unique characters. In addition, by creating a system where monsters and PCs are designed with the same resources, the delineation between player and DM would blur a bit, and perhaps encourage more people to try their hand at running games.

Focus on player and character dynamics

Nerdarchist Dave brought up Kate Welch in the video, and how the player interaction on The C Team is a big part of the game. As DMs, we strive to keep our games moving forward and engage players by encouraging them to describe what and how characters interact with the world. Even further, we look to give players opportunities to participate in the ongoing creation by letting them add their own thoughts, ideas and imagination to the world beyond their character.

The C Team really leans into this practice, and the players encourage each other to explore their own agency. The stories on The C Team are enriched tremendously as players ask each other to describe what a spell looks like, what their character feels or thinks, how their backstory relates to the matter at hand and so on. This is a truly wonderful aspect of their game and inspires me as both a player and DM to engage with whoever I game with whether it’s a one-shot with new friends or a longterm campaign.

D&D has always been a social game, and because of how much more social D&D has become through streaming culture, wide appeal and acceptance and connectedness through technology, sixth edition D&D will almost certainly include content designed to foster closer connections. As Nerdarchist Ted points out, the rules in the books doesn’t explicitly call out the camaraderie and effect of player dynamics on a game; the evolution of these dynamics is more a part of the greater conversation in places like social media. I would not be surprised to find portions of a new edition focused on increasing immersion and engagement through player dynamics.

Streaming culture influence

People are streaming games and will continue to do so in greater numbers and variety. And this is great! Live streaming RPGs is a distinct playstyle considering factors like session length, narrative and storytelling, and interactivity with audiences. The last part I’m not so sure would be included in any core ruleset for sixth edition D&D, but addressing the phenomenon certainly wouldn’t be out of the question. Streaming is a part of RPG culture and the D&D community has embraced it vigorously. Providing tips and guides for adapting games for live streams would be a value add.

Modular elements on structuring games for specific blocks of time would be useful too, and not just for streaming. People lead busy lives and many other responsibilities vie for our time. Something along the lines of templates or worksheets and how to construct sessions could be incredibly useful for even veteran DMs. I’m not a world class DM by any stretch but I have been playing and running D&D games for decades, and I can attest that streaming a game creates some wrinkles. Official material, developed and playtested by pros on the distinct live stream D&D playstyle would be indispensible.

When will we see sixth edition D&D?

I am no facts or figures to back this up, by I believe we’ll see the next innovation of D&D within the next couple of years. Like Nerdarchists Dave and Ted say in the video, it is coming and is purported to be backwards compatible. Any of the elements I mentioned above could be presented without negating what we already have in 5E. Modular character customization and setting guidelines, mechanical and/or playstyle guidelines for creating more immersive experiences and stronger group dynamics, and structural advice on creating sessions tailor for streaming or time-restricted play can be developed while keeping our current era content relevant.

Adding Kate Welch to the design team was a superb choice on WOTC’s part too, considering all three of the areas discussed above are evident in The C Team. Every character in the party has unique abilities, player dynamics are strengthened by everyone’s participation and it’s a very popular and successful live stream D&D game. With Kate’s impressive design chops, experience and dedication added to the already fantastic design team, I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Give me sixth edition D&D by 2020 and I’ll be a happy gamer.

But what about you? What do you think sixth edition D&D will look like and when do you think we might see it? I’d love to hear what others have to say in the comments below or on the video. There’s so many incredible games out there, but if I’m honest I’m a huge D&D fan at heart and the idea of experimenting and pushing the limits of what the 5E system can do is plenty to keep me busy having fun at the gaming table for years to come.

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy, he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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