When Monte Cook returned to WotC back in September, there was a bit of buzz as to why he did. He wasn't talking, and it doesn't seem like he's working on any big 4E related projects. There was even outright speculation that he was brought back specifically to work on 5E. As Mike Mearls said in announcing Cook's return:
"It's now time to focus much more on the future of the game. Monte has an unmatched design pedigree in the RPG field, and for that reason we've brought him on board to work with R&D in making D&D the greatest RPG the world has seen. Over the next few weeks, Monte will use this column to share his thoughts about the game. As we look to chart D&D's future course, this column will continue to be a place where we share our ideas and listen to yours..." (Legends and Lore, 9/20/2011)"Future of the game," "D&D's future course." Hmmm. It's even more interesting to see what, exactly, Monte Cook's been talking about in his online column at WotC. He's invariably discussing topics relating to basic design philosophy, mechanics that have little or nothing to do with 4E mechanics, and rules organization. Very odd choices for a game whose design philosophy was decided years ago, whose mechanics are pretty solidly established, and whose rules are already published in two different forms. A few examples:
My job is primarily to explore options. It's the "research" part of "Research & Development." The goal I've been given is to make D&D the best game it can possibly be. It is and always has been the premier roleplaying game in the world, and I want to make sure it continues to be. (Legends and Lore, 9/27/2011)
Imagine... If the character's rank was equal to or higher than the rank of the secret door or other hidden thing, he could find it if he took the time, because it was easy for him. No die roll needed. He can just do it because he's very perceptive. If the rank of the hidden thing was higher, though, he could still try to succeed at a die roll. (Legends and Lore, 9/27/2011)
D&D gamebooks are like no other form of writing. Something like the Player's Handbook needs to be equal parts teaching tool, reference work, and muse. Someone is going to sit down and read that book to learn how to play. They need things explained carefully and often in detail. That same person will refer to that book over and over again while playing. Then they need everything to be straightforward and succinct to keep the game moving. They also need that book to inspire them to create fantasy characters and adventures. In this case, they need imaginative hooks, references, and ideas that send them off on their own flights of fantasy. All three of those aspects usually come in the form of entirely different books. To ask a book to serve all three at once is a real challenge. Fortunately, game designers like a challenge. (Legends and Lore, 11/1/2011)Believe me, I know what it looks like when someone is musing in order to develop ideas for a new game. And that is what I see there.
WotC also made some pretty radical changes to their release schedule this year, taking out several products that many people saw as major tentpole releases. There have been reports of product shortages among some European distributors. Both of those could be indications that WotC is trying not to be left in a position next year of being stuck with tons of 4E product sitting in warehouses (or worse, on store shelves) when they make the grand announcement about 5E.
It's also the case that rumors of 5E's imminent announcement have been swirling around select areas of the blogosphere. Margaret Weiss stated flat-out that she's been told (2nd hand) that Monte Cook is working on 5E. Normally, third-hand reports like that wouldn't be given a lot of credence, but when added to some of the other information out there, including the writings of the supposed designer, a picture gradually begins to form.
Obviously, it's far too early to even begin to speculate on what 5E will end up looking like (not that that's stopped everyone). Monte Cook is certainly saying a lot of the right things in his column; he keeps harkening back to 1E (and even 0E) for positive examples in a lot of cases. Unless there's some radical change in direction with 5E (like making online access a requirement for play, or having a collectible card system a la Gamma World), I'll give it a try. Heck, I gave 4E an honest try and ended up dropping it because I didn't like the way it played. I'll certainly give 5E a chance.
I just wish they'd come out and make the announcement already.