The Next Evolution: What We Know About DnD 5.5e

At the D&D Celebration event held in October, the lead designers and execs at Wizards of the Coast formally announced that “the next stage in the evolution of D&D” is coming in 2024.

Everyone kind of expected something big around that time, as 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons

However, the WotC team – especially Ray Winninger, the game designer and Executive Producer of the D&D arm of WotC – have been cagey about specifics, mostly because, as the team revealed during the event, they’re still figuring out exactly what “the next evolution of D&D” actually means.

“[The 50th anniversary] is going to be very exciting for a number of reasons,” said Winninger on stream in October 2021. “Earlier this year we began work on the next evolution of Dungeons & Dragons.” 

Apart from a string of much-hyped community surveys released earlier this year, this is the first (admittedly vague) confirmation we’ve got of something approaching the release of a new edition of D&D. Here’s what we know so far. 

5.5e: What we know so far… 

  • The “Next Evolution” is coming in 2024. 
  • WotC will mark it with the launch of a new set of core rulebooks (likely updated editions of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual). 
  • The new evolution will be backwards compatible with existing 5e content. 
  • New “digital tools” are in the works. 

So, first of all, we’re not going to be seeing the launch of D&D 6e in 2024. Confirmation of backwards compatibility aside, there are a few other common-sense reasons why we’re pretty certain to be getting something akin to D&D 5.5e rather than a sixth edition. 

Based on the release schedule of earlier editions of D&D, the gaps between new editions have been getting steadily longer as time has gone on.

While the space between OD&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was just three years, both AD&D and 2nd Edition reigned for a full six years apiece, followed by 3e (and 3.5e) which lasted for eight years. D&D 4e only lasted for six years, but considering the fact that the ultra-tactical, combat-heavy “problem child” of the game has always been something of an acquired taste, that’s not massively surprising. 

D&D 5e was launched in 2014, and so hasn’t lasted any longer than 2nd or 3rd edition. However, there’s one reason why we should probably take the shelf lives of previous editions with a pinch of salt.

Whenever WotC (and TSR before them) have launched a new edition, it’s tended to come at a time when things are getting stale. Player engagement has dropped, content releases have slowed down – essentially, the publisher has been losing money, or there’ve been other behind the scenes complications. 

By contrast, 5e is going stronger than ever.

Buoyed by a massive cultural groundswell, from hugely popular podcasts like The Adventure Zone (currently on its fourth major arc and once again back to playing 5e), Dungeons and Daddies (not a BDSM podcast and legitimately the best piece of comedy podcasting I’ve encountered in a long time, with a shocking amount of tenderness and heart thrown in – check it out), and Not Another D&D Podcast, as well as mainstream representation like Stranger Things, celebrities “coming out” as D&D fans like Terry Crews and Steven Colbert, to the whole Critical Role phenomenon – which I don’t personally get, but people love it – D&D has never been more popular or culturally relevant. 

Rich here, I have to pop in and plug my favorite RPG Podcast: The Glass Cannon Podcast. They do Giantslayer, a Pathfinder adventure for the main show, which is what I’d recommend starting with, but recently announced a 5e campaign! Definitely check it out. Ok back to Harry…

There’s a D&D movie coming out in 2023 with Chris Pine for crying out loud. Incidentally, based on the kind of heist-centric plot and roguish nature of Michelle Rodriguez’s character (not to mention the fact that Joe Mangianello, another avid D&D fan, had a hand in writing the original script) the movie seems like it’s going to actually feel more like a D&D campaign than previous attempts, which always tended to skew more towards generic fantasy.   

As a result, it would be absolute foolishness for WotC to split its community across 5e and a whole new edition, and they don’t appear to be planning to do so – just look at how much content they’ve released in the last year alone. 

So, expect continued adventure and sourcebook releases over the coming three-ish years. In fact, it already looks a bit like WotC is starting to soft launch 5.5e with changes to player races (implemented in the new Wild Beyond the Witchlight) and subclasses (the new Strixhaven Unearthed Arcana is pointing towards subclass options more akin to feats that you can take across different base classes). 

Also, this is once again pretty vague but Winninger also hinted at some new digital tools to support the New Evolution. Whether that means virtual tabletop, an improvement to D&D Beyond – which is currently outsourced to a third-party developer – or something new and unexpected entirely, 

Basically, there’s a bunch of stuff that could change, a bunch of stuff that will probably change, and it seems as though the community is going to be allowed to have a hand in a lot of it. 

Because just about everyone else is putting in their two cents about this, here’s our best guess for stuff that’s going to change in D&D 5.5e, followed by our wish list for things that we’d really like to see changed as well.

D&D 5.5e Changes – Our Predictions

Rebalanced Classes 

As newer subclasses – especially for the Sorcerer and Ranger – have been released, there’s been a noticeable improvement (or power creep if you’re a curmudgeon about such things) in the effectiveness of newer content versus older versions. 

For example, all of the Sorcerer subclasses released in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything get an extra known spell each time their Sorcerous Origin improves, which helps make up for the class’ pretty glaring lack of spells.

For 5.5e, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that class developments that have appeared over time will be retroactively applied to older subclasses. 

Reworked Subclasses 

There are also a few subclasses – like the Champion Fighter – which even the designers have publicly admitted kind of stink. The Champion, when you break down the math, is mechanically underwhelming and often dismissed as the most boring subclass in the entire game.

Reworking the Champion to either be more effective as a “crit machine” – maybe granting special effects or a meta resource that charges up whenever you crit, just spitballing here – could give the subclass a new lease on life in terms of playability. 

Then you have stuff like the Assassin subclass for Rogues, which often kind of feels like it’s playing a very different, stealth and surprise-dependent game to the rest of the party.

Reworking that roguish archetype to be less dependent on a high initiative score or surprise round could make this one trick pony into a viable option again – especially when you hold it up against some of the other incredible roguish archetypes that have come out more recently like the Soulknife or Swashbuckler. 

We could also see the Zealot Barbarian, which can basically kill itself with Exhaustion levels if you enter Frenzy more than a couple of times a day.

While it’s thematically great (all the subclasses I’ve mentioned here are, actually) the mechanical benefits of an extra attack using a bonus action definitely don’t outweigh the downsides of an exhaustion level.

Reworking the subclass to either get bigger advantages during Frenzy or maybe clear a level of exhaustion on a short rest instead of a long one (again, just thinking out loud; don’t @me, Jeremy Crawford) could do a lot to bring the subclass out of the dumpster tier. 

Goodbye Inherent Racial Traits 

We’ve already seen this with the two new races (fairies and… bunny people?) released as part of the Wild Beyond the Witchlight adventure recently.

Basically, while different races may still get special abilities, innate spellcasting, and some narrative guidance, it seems pretty clear that D&D’s designers want to move away from concepts of bioessentialism (aka. All orcs are big, strong, and dumb; all elves are graceful Legolas types) that grant different races specific ability score increases at character creation. 

What we’re likely to see is every new playable race between now and 5.5e get the treatment we saw trialed in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything’s Custom Lineage system, which gives you a +2 to an ability of your choice and a Feat from 1st level (sort of like the variant human).

When 5.5e rolls around, I’d bet good money on existing races from previously released editions getting retroactively changed to look more like this. 

Our 5.5e Wish List 

The three changes listed above are all, based on the current evidence, pretty safe bets for inclusion in 5.5e. Now, onto the things that we at Black Citadel RPG either think are pretty likely to be part of 5.5e, or we’d just really like to see included in an updated version of the game. 

Branching Character Progression 

This one is a personal bugbear of mine and, based at least on the Unearthed Arcana Mages of Strixhaven, it looks like WotC may be about to answer my prayers. 

Basically, I think that character progression in D&D 5e (or any edition for that matter) is way too linear. Pick your class and then, usually a little ways down the line, pick your subclass… and that’s it: you’re basically locked into that path for the rest of the game.

Usually, by 3rd level, you cement your upgrade path all the way to 20th. Sure, you get to choose between new spells, whether to pick up a Feat or an ASI, and a few other smaller considerations, but unless you multiclass in a new direction, you have a good idea of what your character will look like 17 levels from now.

Then, if you do want to multiclass, your options are still highly limited to classes that work with your existing class. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with multiclassing between Sorcerer and Druid, but you have a lot more issues to deal with. 

Personally, I’d like to see more of a branching path. Maybe the straightforward route still gets you to your ultimate capstone abilities faster, but starting a whole new class from scratch is a huge sacrifice to make for a little variety. 

Thankfully, the Mages of Strixhaven UA just floated something awesome: multi-class applicable subclasses. “Unlike regular subclasses, the options presented here are designed to be compatible with multiple classes. The classes that are compatible with each subclass option are specified in each subclass’s entry.

When you choose a subclass for your character (a bard’s Bardic College, a wizard’s Arcane Tradition, and so on), you can instead choose one of these subclass options, so long as the subclass is compatible with your character’s class.” 

The new Mage of Lorehold subclass can be taken by a Wizard, Bard, or Warlock, and there are others that are available to a rotating combination of different spellcasters. 

Now, it’s definitely cool, but you’re still just locking yourself into a different subclass for the rest of the game. What I would love to see is (in much the same way that some Strixhaven subclasses group together Druids, Sorcerers, and Bards, for example) subclass features that are cross-compatible with other subclasses or classes.

Hitting level 14 as a Great Old Ones Warlock? You can either take your Warlock’s subclass ability or (for the sake of balance and rewarding staying on a linear course) choose an ability of a lower-tier from either another Warlock subclass or another class’ subclass altogether (maybe the GOO-lock could sync up with the Aberrant Mind Sorcerer, the College of Whispers Bard, and the Necromancy Wizard).

The depth of customization would increase tenfold and the potential for new and interesting character builds would be fantastic. 

Action-Oriented Monsters

Another big gripe I have with 5e is that high-level monsters tend, more often than not, to be different ways of flavoring a big bag of hit points with multiattack and maybe one special ability.

With Mordenkainen Presents the Monsters of the Multiverse that’s coming out in January 2022, and then later with the incoming 5.5e version of the Monster Manual, I would love to see some monsters with more diverse sets of actions, maybe with more use made of damage vulnerabilities and resistances, and just generally more stuff that leads to more dynamic combat than “all the players get to hit the monster, and then the monster hits the players or dies.” 

Speaking of more dynamic combat… 

The Wombo Combo 

There are already a few ways to make different player abilities synergize in 5e, but for the most part helping out an ally through some creative and clever ruse is typically going to be less effective than just using one of your character’s own abilities. 

It would be absolutely lovely to see some more overt game design centered around party synergy, actions that build off something another player does to produce an effect greater than the sum of their parts.

It could be rare – something reserved for boss fights or desperate situations – but being able to set up awesome combos with your allies (like the fighter being able to give the rogue – as long as they’re size small – extra jump distance and a huge buff to their initial damage) would be a great way to add some more depth to combat. 

Watch This Space

There are sure to be a whole bunch of announcements on the WotC blog as development on 5.5e progresses, not to mention the things that future adventure releases are sure to hint at.

We’ll do our best to add and update this piece as new information hits the internet.

For now, though, we’re going to get back to theory crafting while we look at our shrine- ahem, vision board of Jeremy Crawford.