My name is Mike Mearls, Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.
As some of you might be aware, we announced the removal of three print products from our 2011 schedule (which we covered in a recent Rule-of-Three Q&A). With that announcement in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how the product line behind D&D has shifted over time. It’s perhaps easy to expect a hardcover book or two each month in support of D&D, but that hasn’t always been the case.
In looking at the big picture, D&D has twisted and turned in its support over the years. The original white box was supported by five supplements released over the course of about 18 months. The first three of these—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry—added more classes, spells, monsters, and magic items to the admittedly sparse lineup of the game. Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes added stats for gods and other figures drawn from mythology, while Swords & Spells introduced a set of mass combat rules for D&D.
With the rise of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the emphasis shifted from rules to adventures. Much of the material contained in the first three supplements for the original edition appeared in AD&D’s three core books, released by the second half of 1979. The game then saw expansions released in the following order:
- 1977: Monster Manual
- 1978: Player’s Handbook
- 1979: Dungeon Master’s Guide
- 1980: Deities & Demigods (later re-titled Legends & Lore)
- 1981: Fiend Folio
- 1982: No hardcover books
- 1983: Monster Manual II
- 1984: No hardcover books
- 1985: Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana
- 1986: Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, Wilderness Survival Guide
- 1987: Dragonlance Adventures, Manual of the Planes
- 1988: Greyhawk Adventures
- 1989: Second edition released
Over the course of 1st Edition’s 12 years, that’s a grand total of three core rulebooks and ten hardcover expansions. Of those expansions, six added new character options. The remaining four either added more monsters or setting detail.
Beyond those hardcovers, TSR primarily released adventures, boxed sets that described the major settings of the era (Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms; Dragonlance’s first boxed set arrived during the 2nd Edition era), and Realms sourcebooks that detailed specific regions.
While little appeared in hardcover form, Dragon magazine shouldered almost the entire load of new options and material. The magazine regularly featured new spells, new classes, and new monsters. In some ways, it was a toned down version of modern D&D’s supplement schedule, delivered in magazine format. Still, an issue of Dragon during this era was about 90 to 100 pages long, with much of that space devoted to ads, advice, fiction, and non-mechanical elements. Perhaps about 20 to 30 pages each month were new player options.
Oddly enough, while 2nd Edition saw a huge uptick in the number of monthly releases, it looks like the total number of hardcover releases comes in at about eight. I’m sure I missed a few, but outside of the Player’s Option books and the core rulebooks, not much came out in hardcover during this period.
However, during this time TSR released five or six soft cover books each month. Sometimes that number would drop to coincide with a big product, like a boxed set, but it was fairly consistent for most of the decade. Many of those books focused on specific settings, others were adventures, and some were generic supplements aimed at all D&D players, such as the Complete Fighter’s Handbook. Still, in terms of total volume of releases, the pace shot through the roof.
3rd and 4th Editions reversed the 2nd Edition trend, with few soft cover books sprinkled among a steady stream of hardcover books. While early support for 3rd focused on soft covers, the release of 3.5 saw an almost complete conversion to hardbacks. Continuing a trend started in the 1990s, this era saw only a scattered release of adventures after the initial adventure path. Gamers had to rely on Dungeon magazine, in its print or digital format, for adventures.
Prose and Cons
All of that history brings us to an important question. At the end of the day, how much new material for D&D should we here at Wizards of the Coast produce each month? More importantly, how much material should Wizards produce that you could directly use in your campaign?
D&D is a fundamentally creative game, requiring the players to create characters and the DM to build a setting and craft adventures. You could easily argue that a big part of playing D&D is making stuff up. Beyond the basic rules, players and DMs don’t need anything.
On the opposite end, you could instead argue that D&D presents such a vast range of possibilities that there is virtually no limit to the number of adventures, character classes, spells, and so on that could prove useful to a group.
Looking at it from a production viewpoint, more content naturally yields more errors and inconsistencies. Even if Wizards added more designers and editors, the sheer volume of information makes monitoring and coordinating everything a challenge—as you produce more content, the chance for an error increases at an exponential rate, rather than a linear rate. However, you can also argue that while more mistakes might creep in, the total volume of content counteracts that. You might have mistakes, but you have enough stuff in total to make up for them.
Complexity stands as perhaps the biggest argument against a rapid release schedule. One of the things R&D must consider is what it’s like for a new player to enter a store and pick up a D&D product. If that new player is greeted by a wall of books and boxes, buying into the game becomes that much more daunting. It’s easy for an experienced player to navigate that maze, to understand that the Player’s Handbook is the key to getting started while Complete Warrior and Martial Power are optional expansions. However, that isn’t clear from their titles or even how they are arranged in the store. Compare that to many board game lines, where the core set is in a bigger, more expensive box and expansions in smaller ones. That might seem like a minor detail to an experienced gamer, but such visual cues are really helpful to beginners. It’s easy to understand that the big box is a starting point and the small box is an expansion.
Finally, even for experienced players too much content can prove troublesome. A small list of spells is on one hand limiting, but on the other it provides a familiar starting point for talking about the game. One of the things I miss from 4th Edition is the ubiquity of certain effects. Fireball and invisibility were not only wizard spells, but they also served as monster special abilities. You could identify and understand them in play much easier than, say, comparing powers from two different classes. A smaller set of mechanics, especially if those mechanics are used for a variety of purposes, can create more cohesion between players and DMs.
At the end of the day, the only right answer is the one that you, the audience, settle on by purchasing or avoiding materials.
Legends & Lore: Poll #1 Results
The 3rd Edition of D&D had rules for cover that required the DM to apply a rule to a situation using his or her judgment and common sense. The 3.5 update (and 4th Edition) created a hard and fast rule for determining cover that removed the DM’s judgment. Which do you prefer?
- A set of guidelines used by the DM: 50.8%
- A hard and fast rule determined by the grid: 49.2%
Setting aside all the concerns I talked about above, how much player content (including in Dragon) would you feel comfortable reading and incorporating into your campaign each year? Assume that this page count includes text that describes the new mechanics?
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.