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Why do the 5e releases (modules/books) seem to be coming at such a slow pace?

I think there's maybe two releases this year. At that rate, it seems like it will take forever to get things like alternate campaign settings, modules for high-level play, an official map of the Forgotten Realms, 5e approaches to other classic settings, a full explanation of the 5e canon - that kind of thing.

I have no problems filling in the blanks myself, and even adapting old stuff (I think 5e works very well for that), but I do like buying the official stuff when it comes out, and I wish more of it did.

Any reason things are coming at such a trickle? Was 4e that way too?

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This is actually an intentional strategy on the part of WOTC. Obviously we don't have full insight into everything they are thinking, but Mearls did talk a good bit about the intended release schedule in the run up to the release of the edition.

Honestly, I think our current plan fits my ideal pretty well. It was also driven by the data we collected as part of the open playtest. We're looking at two major releases a year, with one or two books supporting each. Before I worked at WotC, I rarely used stuff beyond the core. (Mearls Reddit AMA)

So part of the reasoning in creating limited releases is that the feedback they got on the playtest indicated that their customers wanted limited releases.

At this point it looks like those releases won't be splat books, but will generally be drivers for their organized play events (The current event being ToD and the next one being a single book Elemental Evil campaign).

More importantly, the kinds of things you're looking for, will likely at least for starters, be published digitally, and take a long time to develop. For instance, if you were interested in Eberron, they have already published an Eberron playtest for 5e.

They've said in a few places (including the AMA linked above, here's a better digest), that they plan to release a lot of optional content, and potentially other things (like the setting materials you mention maybe) via their website rather than to do full publications for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've included the one quote I could find, I feel like he's commented on this elsewhere as well, but couldn't quickly find anything else. \$\endgroup\$
    – wax eagle
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 1:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh hey, you might want to build an answer to this question around that Eberron playtest link. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 1:43
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There's another reason for this, and it has to do with Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro's shifting priorities. A lot of this is anecdotal and dates back about twelve years, so my apologies if I can't find citable sources to support it; it is true, however, based on what I remember from industry sources posting online at the time.

Earlier editions of D&D released several times more products each year than 5e. TSR released about 25 products in 1983, growing to something like 70 products (not counting novels and magazines) in 1996. A large part of that increase was campaign-setting specific sourcebooks, each of which sold to only a limited subset of the D&D audience who played that setting.

Almost nobody was buying 70 products a year. In 1997, TSR went bankrupt and were bought out by Wizards of the Coast, who started work on D&D 3rd edition. WotC scaled back the campaign settings (initially only Forgotten Realms, with one Greyhawk book that got no support; Dragonlance and Ravenloft were licensed out to third parties, and the rest left to online fan projects), and released fewer books overall. In 2002, WotC released only about 15 books. By 2006, it was about 30.

At this point, it should be noted that Wizards of the Coast had been bought out by Hasbro in 1999. While WotC operated largely independently, Hasbro put severe pressure on them to hit high profit goals that were rarely met. To balance the books during the D&D 3e era (2000-2007), WotC routinely laid off talented senior writers at the end of every financial year (and as Hasbro is a games company, that was right before Christmas).

Nobody in the third-party industry paid WotC rates (few full-time RPG writer jobs, WotC's freelance rates 25c/word according to Matt Colville, Dragon magazine 5c/word according to their published writer's guidelines, most major d20 companies 3c/word, many even less). This led some to start their own companies, and several RPG companies were actually founded by former WotC employees this way (Malhavoc, Paizo in a sense, Green Ronin).

At the time, Monte Cook blamed WotC for holding high profit standards, due to their previous successes with their massive trading card franchises Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon. A later story I heard around would blame Hasbro corporate in particular for the profit-chasing which led to issues in D&D 4th edition (2008-2013).

It goes like this: Hasbro corporate hands down a new edict to all of its major franchises: Dungeons & Dragons, Monopoly, My Little Pony, everything. All brands are now arbitrarily divided into one of two categories: those that make $25m/year profit or more, and those that don't.

Those that make $25m/year will receive the lion's share of funding: a higher marketing budget, all the staff they need, as many product releases each year as they want. Those that don't will be reduced to a skeleton crew and relegated to a handful of token releases each year, just so that Hasbro can hold on to the trademark. (Incidentally, I suspect this is why the successful reboot of My Little Pony came out in 2010, and why we see so many gimmick Monopoly variants.)

At the time, D&D was very clearly not making $25m/year, and had only come close to that figure during the launch of 3e, since core rulebooks are always the most popular books (hence the release of the 3.5 core books). The D&D team had to decide whether to fire most of their friends and accept the decline of tabletop in the era of videogames, or come up with a plan to make D&D considerably more profitable.

The result was D&D 4th edition (2008). D&D was redesigned so that you had to buy miniatures to play, you had to pay an MMO-style subscription for the character builder, Dragon/Dungeon magazine were closed so that WotC could sell them digitally, mechanics familiar to MMO players were included to draw players from the hugely popular World of Warcraft, and mechanics were deliberately written with video game use in mind in order to increase the value of the brand to Atari, licenseholder of D&D video games. From 2008-2010, they were releasing about 30 products a year.

D&D 4e flopped, both critically and financially. People have long discussed the reasons: in my opinion, it never attracted the MMO players because they found it more cumbersome, slower, and more expensive than MMOs; and it lost existing 3e players because it was too different, more expensive and slower than 3e, and many 3e players already had heavy investment in 3e books and knowledge and were happy enough with the game, hence the success of Pathfinder; and 4e never completed its planned its 3e online board, which was already far too ambitious. However, that's a separate topic, and it's sufficient to say that 4e failed to meet WotC and Hasbro's financial plans.

Only about 7 books were released in 2011. We don't know what went on inside the company, but the resulting decrease in D&D books is consistent with the hypothesis that the D&D brand was scaled back to a smaller operation after its attempt to attain Hasbro flagship brand status failed. Following the D&D 5e launch in 2014, only 4 books were released in 2015, two of them adventure modules; 3 in 2016, two of them adventure modules; 4 in 2018, consisting of a M:tG setting tie-in, a monster book, and 2 adventure modules.

The unexpected twist here is that, according to WotC, D&D is now actually more successful than at any point in D&D's history. The D&D brand is now more profitable than at the 5e launch, the 4e launch, even the 3e launch, and it is estimated (as IIRC WotC have no hard figures for TSR before the acquisition) that D&D may even be more profitable than during its heyday of the 1980s (as depicted in Stranger Things) or the 1990s (the popular era of the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance novels and the Baldur's Gate game series).

This success is, I believe, due to D&D 5e's design being unfettered by profit-minded corporate interference, and thanks to the popularity of livestreaming allowing new people to become entry-level D&D fans without the usual impediments of buying books, finding a group, and just learning what D&D is or how it's played. We're also seeing more books now, and Mike Mearls has pledged that if WotC does release a 6th edition, and they are in no hurry, it will be highly backward-compatible (as were AD&D 1e and 2e).

In the 5e era as a whole, we're now seeing fewer books than before, but more people are buying those books. I think the 1990s-era TSR mindset was that more books means more profit, but consumers fundamentally have limited money, while each book has a more or less fixed cost of production, so that the slower you release books, the better each sells. I believe D&D 3e even released its three core books a month apart for this reason, on the understanding that many players, particularly the key demographic of young people, can't afford to buy multiple books each month.

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    \$\begingroup\$ $0.25 per word?! Good heavens! No wonder there's so much filler in the Third Edition books! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ Though some of the early history might be harder to cite, it is probably easier to find supporting citations/links for the more recent events related to 5e (e.g. Mearls' claim about 6e, which I believe he made on Twitter and possibly in a Reddit AMA as well; and 5e sales numbers, especially relative to 4e and 3e's launches). \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 5:34

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