World Engineer has a post about the impending 5th Edition, and I find it hard to disagree with most of what he says. Fighting over editions is bad, there’s no need to convert people, and so on and so forth. But while I agree with what he says, I think I disagree partially with why he says it. I don’t think that people complaining or worrying about 5E are motivated by childishness or spite. I think they’re motivated by fear.
I’ve been going to my friendly local gaming store for longer than I’ve been a friendly local gamer. Now I can’t swing a cat without hitting two ongoing campaigns, but for a while there were only two or three people willing and able to run a regular session. If you wanted to be in a campaign, you had to go through all the normal steps (seeing if a spot was available, making sure you were free on the day in question, arranging transportation, tolerating the other players and house rules) but with the added complication of a limited option pool. If you didn’t like either of the current games, you had no game.
The standard blackjack-and-hookers options didn’t apply either, because the players were similarly limited. There simply weren’t enough people to guarantee a group willing to play in 2nd Edition or try an indie system. Most of the available players were college students, which meant they were playing largely what they knew from high school and what the local clubs supported, and at the time the hotness was D&D 3.0. Even if I wanted to start a GURPS session gathering a group was an uphill climb. Campaigns with only two players aren’t very fun (trust me—I didn’t learn my lesson the first time).
When an edition change occurred, the problem escalated. When 3.5 came out, some 3.0 campaigns stuck around as a show of defiance but gradually petered out. When 4.0 came out, we had the same issue. Anybody who wanted to play in a 3.5E campaign was out of luck unless they managed to get into the one campaign that was playing it.
I suspect a lot of this mindset is still around. Folks in smaller areas or with limited gaming options worry not about the existence of a new system itself but the presumption that it will be adopted locally. It’s a Hobson’s Choice: if I don’t like 5E but every gamer in town moves to it, I can either play in a system I don’t like or not play at all. In that sense, a new edition may actually diminish my enjoyment of the game.
In an online world or with a large enough player pool, the problem is instead merely a dilemma. I can either stick with the people I like and play a game I don’t, or leave the people I like and look for a system I do. There’s something to be said about knowing that my friends are enjoying themselves elsewhere while I’m taking whatever I can get.
This is related to but distinct from the very real expectation that a new edition will prevent a company from expanding the old edition. When 4E was announced, 3E and the OGL went away (until Pathfinder, but it’s not like we knew that would happen at the time). When 5E was announced, 4E stopped as well. The edition died in the same sense as a language. It could not expand except via house rules, and coupled with players moving to the new edition the interest in expanding it faltered in kind.
We’re people. We have a strong loyalty to our favorite things, and anything that is not that thing is in some way less (or else it would be our favorite, of course). A favorite edition is no different. Every person who adopts 5E is a person who isn’t looking for 4E and thus isn’t interested in what I want or have, and the issue is exacerbated when adjacent editions are so different. Players aren’t really attacking people who play other editions because they think those players deserved to be attacked. They’re lashing out as a survival instinct: “if you would do the thing I do and enjoy it as much as I do, the thing I like would not be dying”.
They’re wrong, of course. No system or edition can last forever. Eventually 5E will die, and if it was sufficiently profitable 6E will come out, and we’ll complain about that too because it shows too starkly how dead 5E is. Pathfinder will die too, and in the sense of system expansion it may already be dead so Paizo can focus on world-building and adventure modules. Any gaming historian can rattle off a dozen systems that don’t have the player base they once did. The only systems that stand a chance aren’t really systems as all but vague concepts. Apocalypse World and its related games are large and varied, but that’s mostly because its core concept fits on a sheet of paper and trusts DMs and others to build the system for them. It’s a like a building—a house of bricks may fall, but bricks will still live in another building somewhere.
So while I can see why some players are worried about 5E and what it means for the system they want to play, I’m not. I tend to take a system and pervert it until it’s something I enjoy anyway, so doing it all over again with a new edition strikes me as more of an intellectual exercise than a death knell. But I do think I understand why people are upset, and understanding it helps me. If I know what players liked about a given game, I can adjust my game to work with it, like applying story game principles to D&D. It’s a little more fire, a little less brimstone.
This all assumes that people aren’t complaining about how 5E is a money grab. Of course it is. A business’ job is to find ways to get more money out of their customer base. By this definition your shoes are a money grab. “5E is Wizard trying to get more cash out of us” is no more a valid complaint than “cars travel on roads”. Don’t worry about whether a given game costs money—worry about whether it’s worth that money to you.