The Editions of Dungeons & Dragons

Like the game, the beholder has gone through some changes, too.Although the current Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks say 4th edition, the game has actually gone through many more iterations than that. Because of D&D’s complex history, many of the game’s editions are wildly different from each other. In an effort to provide a sort of score card for the various D&D games, here’s my take on each major edition, along with a completely subjective list of pros and cons.

Note that this is the “simple” form of the list. It doesn’t include the supplemental material for the original game, which drastically changed gameplay. Nor does it include Unearthed Arcana from 1st edition or the Player’s Option series from 2nd edition, both of which presented complete overhauls of the game rules but which were optional and generally not supported by the publisher at the time. This list also doesn’t include all the “retro-clones” of D&D, ranging from Swords & Sorcery to Pathfinder. The vast number of games seeking to crib their style and gameplay from old editions of D&D is another rant for another time.

The "Brown Box" original edition of D&D.

The "Brown Box" original edition of D&D

1974: Dungeons & Dragons
This is the original release of the game, also known as the brown box. It had a 1,000 copy print run originally, which sold out with remarkable speed. The core concepts of D&D got introduced here. Your character had six ability scores, one of four races (human, elf, dwarf, or hobbit), and one of three classes (fighting-man, cleric, or magic-user). Legal troubles with the Tolkein estate caused later printings to change certain elements cribbed from The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits became halflings, balrogs became balors, and ents became treants. These rules were very broadly drawn and sometimes contradictory, allowing a lot of optional rules. The game had four supplements, each which expanded the rules material to fit what most people can recognize today. Greyhawk gave us the thief class, spells up to 9th-level and allowed weapons to deal variable damage (previously all weapons did 1d6 damage, 1d6+1 for fighting-men). Blackmoor introduced the monk and assassin and also had some ill-fated critical hit tables. Eldritch Wizardry introduced the druid, demons, and psionics. Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes was the most controversial supplement, as it introduced stats for various mythological creatures, allowing powergamers to kill Zeus if they wanted to.
Pros: Very basic, very simple rules, especially if you stick to the core box set. Lots of room to expand your game. If you like having the DM fiat a lot of things at the table, this edition is built for that.
Cons: Very disorganized rules. The whole thing is strewn together with little order and no index, making it hard to find a particular rule. Also not a lot of room for character customization outside of role-playing. Your character consists of ability scores, a race, a class, and a weapon or some spells, and that’s about it.

The Holmes Basic Set

The Holmes basic set

1978: Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules
By 1978, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game was in the works, with the Monster Manual already released (the core AD&D books were put out one per year over a three-year span). This basic set was meant as a transition to allow new gamers to go from D&D to AD&D. However, the AD&D rules were apparently in a state of flux at the time, because the boxed set is actually not compatible with AD&D at all. This set includes rules for the first three levels of play, using the same races and classes from the 1974 edition, although the fighting-man has now become the fighter and the thief is now a core class. It has some idiosyncrasies that keep it from being compatible with any other edition of D&D, including a five-tiered alignment system. Originally, you could be lawful, neutral, or chaotic. This set’s alignment system allowed you to be lawful, neutral, chaotic, good, or evil. By the time AD&D was finally finished, the nine-tiered alignment system that allowed for combinations like chaotic good had become the standard.
Pros: Like the 1974 set, this is a very simple set of rules. It’s also better organized than the original rules.
Cons: There was never any continuation for these rules beyond 3rd level. After that, you were supposed to jump to AD&D, but the two games are not really compatible.

The AD&D 1st edition Player's Handbook

The AD&D 1st edition Player's Handbook

1979: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
What is often referred to as 1st edition is technically 3rd edition. AD&D tried to consolidate the D&D rules for tournament play, providing a standardized core that didn’t require as much house ruling. It is essentially original D&D with all the supplements included and even more added. The game used three hardcover books instead of a boxed set like before, and eventually expanded to having about a dozen hard-cover supplements that introduced optional items like dark elves, the cavalier class, non-weapon proficiencies, and even a seventh ability score, Comeliness. While the game added a ton of new options, it failed in its attempts to standardize D&D, thanks to some bizarre rules. For example, each weapon had certain bonuses or penalties that made them more effective against certain types of armor. The initiative system was also mind-boggling, causing a lot of people to toss it aside for a set of house rules.
Pros: The game allowed for the most options to date, but was still very easy to house rule. There is also a certain quality to be appreciated in the arcane prose that was used in the rule books.
Cons: The rules are still very disorganized, with some player-essential information left in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and very little in the way of indexes. Certain rules also made no sense whatsoever, such as the fact that a dual-classed character had to stop using the abilities from his previous class until the levels in his new class equalled his training in his old class. I get a headache from just writing that.

The Moldvay/Cook Basic Set

The Moldvay/Cook basic set

1981: Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert Sets
Running parallel to AD&D was a simpler D&D game that was intended for beginners. This game retained some elements from the original system, while taking some material in another direction. Initiative was simply a d6 roll to see who went first, and alignment options were lawful, neutral, and chaotic again. There were some odd differences, though, such as the base Armor Class being 9 instead of 10. You didn’t choose a race – you were assumed to be human unless you chose the elf, dwarf, or halfling class, which combined racial features and class features into one. Like the 1978 basic set, these rules were initially released with only levels 1-3 outlined. The expert set came soon afterwards, however, which game rules for advancement from level 4-14.
Pros: These two sets represent a well-organized, complete game. The rules are also much more straightforward and, in my opinion, better than the AD&D counterpart.
Cons: If you like a lot of options, you’d have to house rule a lot. There are no multiclass characters, no dwarven priests, not even any halfling thieves.

The Mentzer basic set

The Mentzer basic set

1983: Dungeons & Dragons Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal Rules
Gary Gygax apparently wasn’t happy with the way that the 1981 boxed sets had turned out, so he gave Frank Mentzer the job for revising and expanding those rules. This is the edition of D&D that I got started on, so I’m super nostalgic about it. The game contained most of the standard features of the 1981 set, including the races-as-classes rule. However, the basic set was targeted toward someone who had no idea what a role-playing game was. You learned the rules through a pair of solo adventures before trying them out with a group. Again, the basic set had rules only up to 3rd level. These rules were supposed to cover dungeoneering and beginning adventures. The expert set had rules for levels 4-14 and was meant to expand the scope of the game to wilderness adventures. It also included details on the Known World, which would eventually become the Mystara campaign setting. If players still wanted to go on after that, there was the companion set, which went from levels 15-25 and dealt with world-shattering epic quests. The master set took players from levels 26-36, dealing with extraplanar threats and the quest for immortality. Finally, the game totally changed with the immortal set, which allowed players to continue their adventures as gods. These rules were re-released several times, including the 1991 The New, Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game and the 1994 Classic Dungeons & Dragons set. The basic, master, companion, and expert sets were all consolidated in the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which still stands as the only one-volume set of rules that allowed you to play the full D&D game (unless you wanted to play gods, in which case the immortals rules were translated over to the Wrath of the Immortals boxed set).
Pros: Probably the easiest edition to get new players into, even if they’ve never gamed before. The tiers are also terrific, allowing a natural progression to an adventurer’s career that could take years to go through. If you don’t like the higher-level tiers, you could always stop at expert or companion levels.
Cons: Still a lot of the problems that plagued the 1981 release. The races-as-classes is something that you either love or hate. The lack of options led a lot of people to migrate over to AD&D at one point or another.

The AD&D 2nd edition Player's Handbook

The AD&D 2nd edition Player's Handbook

1989: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition
TSR changed hands in 1989, and the AD&D game changed as well. 2nd edition sought to clarify and condense the vastness of 1st edition back into the original three books. At the same time, it also strove to make the game more family friendly, stripping away demons and devils, eliminating half-orcs, and doing away with the assassin class. Many of the more complex optional rules, such as psionics or weapon versus armor type modifiers became optional rules or relegated to supplemental books. Ironically, while one stated goal was to initially make the game more manageable than the dozen rule books of 1st edition, 2nd edition suffered from massive rules bloat, expanding to dozens or possibly even hundreds of supplemental rules. The quality of the books varied wildly, and many modules references supposedly optional materials as necessary. This is the only edition of D&D to get outsold by another role-playing game, as White Wolf’s World of Darkness books managed to briefly overtake AD&D in the 90s.
Pros: While the rules are of questionable quality, the campaign settings were terrific in this era. 2nd edition provided settings that broke from the standard swords and sorcery tropes to give us things like Planescape, Dark Sun, and Al-Qadim, among other imaginative settings.
Cons: While the rules got clarified, a lot of them still didn’t make sense. Why couldn’t a halfling become a bard? Why were thieves the only class that could try to pick pockets? The quality of supplements also took a huge nose dive by the mid-90s, and many source books were written with the assumption that you bought a multitude of other products, making attracting new players more difficult.

The D&D 3rd edition Player's Handbook

The D&D 3rd edition Player's Handbook

2000: Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition
If they wanted to be accurate, Wizards of the Coast could have named this version of the game 7th edition. In truth, however, it should have been called AD&D 3rd edition, since it is a descendant of that line rather than the simpler D&D line. For marketing and licensing reasons, however, the new owners of the D&D trademark decided that it would be best to keep only one brand name rather than confusing people with two similar but incompatible systems. 3rd edition was a huge departure from older editions of D&D, redesigning the system from the ground up to make it streamlined and intuitive. Everything now revolved around a d20 roll to determine success. THAC0 was eliminated, higher ACs were better, and there were now only three saving throws. Class and level limits were gone, and each race and class was balanced against the others in an attempt to make all choices equally appealing. The game had quite a bit of complexity to it still – the difference was that it all now fit into one mechanic instead of many. This edition also won back some old disgruntled players by reincorporating devils, half-orcs, and other adult-themed content into the game.
Pros: A very intuitive core mechanic with plenty of options for those who always wanted to play a dwarven druid or the like.
Cons: Some of the rules are needlessly bulky. Attacks of opportunity, grappling, and other fiddly rules are a pain. And, since the design team liked magic, spellcasters are king.

3.5: Same look, different rules.

3.5: Same look, different rules.

2003: Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 edition
While 3rd edition was wildly successful, the designers felt the need to rebalance certain options. Coupled with the fact that D&D was now owned by Hasbro, who realized that core books sold better than supplements, the game was relaunched with the 3.5 edition. This edition retains most of the 3rd edition core, but with some changes here and there. The haste spell was rebalanced, the ranger class became useful again, and so on. The designers also made sure to make the battle mat and miniatures the standard style of running a combat, going so far as to include a battle mat in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Pros: Some of the changes were legitimate improvements over 3rd edition. Rangers are a useful class again, epic level rules are now available in the core books, and there are more feats, spells, and other options for the game.
Cons: I freakin’ hate playing with miniatures, and I hate having designers trying to cram their plastic cash cows down my throat. 3.5 also has the worst rules bloat from supplements since 2nd edition, with the sheer number of races, classes, and prestige classes approaching unmanageable.

The current Player's Handbook

The current Player's Handbook

2008: Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition
And we finally reach the end of this little journal with D&D 4th edition. Wizards of the Coast decided that 3rd edition and 3.5, for all its benefits, was way too complex. They took a page out of the Magic: the Gathering trading card game and decided to build an exception-based rules set, where any spells, feats, and other abilities allow players to break the rules in a certain way. The core races and classes were torn into, introducing some newbies like dragonborn to the Player’s Handbook while tossing half-orcs, gnomes, and druids, among others, into supplemental material. Rather than just the spellcasters having magic, every class gets something like spells, be it combat maneuvers, special feats, or so on. The core mythology was also overhauled, as designers tore apart the planar system that had been in place since 1st edition to create something that was easier to understand. Whether this edition is a success or not probably won’t be known until 5th edition rolls around.
Pros: Simplified rules, but still lots of options. The spellcaster is no longer the be-all and end-all of high level play.
Cons: In many ways unrecognizable from the D&D that came before. The game is also more focused on combat than ever, with effects that can’t be shown on a battle mat being either de-emphasized or eliminated entirely.

And that’s that. No wonder there are so many edition wars among online fans. For a game that has had one title for over 35 years, there sure are a lot of different ways to play it.


5 Responses to “The Editions of Dungeons & Dragons”

  1. […] – also a great article on different versions of (A)D&D. This entry was posted in Pen&Paper and tagged AD&D. Bookmark the permalink. ← Faces of Conan #1 – Margaret Brundage […]

  2. Sammy Grimes Says:

    You forgot to talk about the Player’s Option series for AD&D second edition.

    • True, but that’s not an official edition, just the same as Unearthed Arcana for 1st edition. Maybe at some point I’ll do a rant about the “half” editions of D&D, including Unearthed Arcana, the Player’s Option series, and D&D Essentials.

  3. I kind of like the 4th edition rules, but I also HATE using the stupid little minis, and I would also like the grapple rules and stuff back. Can you suggest one of the editions that does something like this? Even a custom fanmade edition.

    • From my understanding, the Essentials line for 4th edition brought back some of what people wanted from 3rd edition, although all editions of D&D currently assume the use of miniatures. Trailblazer, a fan-made supplement, takes the Pathfinder rules and makes them more like 4th edition D&D. Other than that, it might be worth waiting to see what the next edition of D&D looks like, whenever that comes out.

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