I used to visit the official D&D website every day or two, back when 3E was the hotness. In those days the site was nothing but content: new monsters, new spells, new items, new class features, all available for perusal or download. I have several folders of the art galleries from published books, and I think I have almost everything from the Map-a-Week archive. Even the ads for an upcoming book had previews of that book with playable examples of the things you’d find it it. Many of those pages still exist if you know where to look for them, and they’re an amazing resource for session material and inspiration.
In the move to 4E, the site changed. I think there were two big reasons for it. The first, and the only one I think people saw when it happened, was money. D&D Insider started, a monthly subscription service that gave players access to the aforementioned art galleries and new content. I think it was also the only place to find errata for a while, though that might have just been my inability to find it after the site redesign. I can’t fault the business aspect of it; it’s more profitable to sell some material than give away all of it. But with half of the content effectively locked behind a paywall, it became much less fruitful for a poor gamer to visit.
The other reason was quality control. The content on the website wasn’t tested the same way content in books was. There simply wasn’t time. We had to treat website material like we did material from the D&D magazines: either accept it carefully and allow it in your game on a trial basis in case it wasn’t as balanced as it purported to be, or save yourself the time and ban it out of hand. 4E was a very tight ship regarding balance. It couldn’t have anything that didn’t get a certain amount of testing and consideration because it couldn’t afford to let anything break the mold. The 3E style of website content couldn’t work with it.
There was another things that came from both of these points: the death of the SRD. The 3.5E System Reference Document was a downloadable list of files that gave you everything you needed to play the game without buying a single book. They were stripped of lore (meaning there were no gods, so good luck, clerics) and art and anything proprietary (beholders, mind flayers, the like) and in a few cases readable formatting, but they were there.
The 4E SRD exists, which I actually didn’t know until this week. In fact, this is probably news to every person I’ve spoken to about 4E over the last several years, especially the ones who’ve written their own content. It seemed its release was fairly quiet, and it’s not very useful besides. It’s just a list of the things in the books that can be used in licensed products. For example, it doesn’t say “the fighter does X at level 3”, it says “crushing blow” and trusts you to look it up. It’s not a document we can use to reference things in the system, so it’s not a System Reference Document at all. It’s just a list of things you can say about 4E without getting in legal trouble.
…Technically, if I’m reading this correctly, I can’t even legally tell you what I can legally tell you about the ostensible SRD. It’s probably safest to just link it.
I’ve gone off-topic. The point is that anything on the website takes a while to get to me, especially after things got even worse in the move to 5E. The site now has no content, just ads. As I write this the top five articles are for an adventure, a standalone dice game, shirts, an adventure, and a series of video games. If you’re interested in D&D the tabletop roleplaying game, like I am, and you create your own campaign settings, like I do, you can use none of this in your game. As I’ve said before, D&D as intended kind of isn’t for me any more.
But in bungling through archives I did find something that gives me a glimmer of hope. Wizards now has a real, honest-to-goodness SRD for 5E and provides an official, endorsed way for people to publish their own content. You can even charge money for it, and receive some of that money. It’s called the Dungeon Masters Guild and it’s actually pretty neat.
Yes, you can only use it to publish 5E material, even though they’re actively selling their own books from other systems on the same site. Yes, you can only publish material set in Forgotten Realms, because that’s what they want players to like (a sensation with which I, as a fan of professional wrestling, am very familiar, and there’s a whole other blog post about the similarities there). Yes, you’re probably still going to have to bribe your DM to allow any untested, unsupported content you find. But it’s a step in the right direction, and it’s the kind of thing that makes me more excited about 5E than I have been in a while, even if I don’t plan on putting anything up for download myself.
Heck, it might even give Wizards some ideas. The top title as I write this is the “Gunslinger Martial Archetype for Fighters”. Based on this I’d say there’s a market for guns in D&D, like there always has been. The only mention guns have gotten in any official Wizards material in the last fifteen years is a mention in the DMG that says “we suppose you could have alien guns that shoot lasers, perhaps”, so there’s an opportunity here. Though there’s probably equal odds between Wizards saying “huh, that’s clearly popular and we should do something with it” and saying “huh, that’s really popular, but we can’t top it so let’s do another Drizzt thing instead”.