This is mainly my gut reaction and personal experience, rather than a grand overview of the history of D&D.
Basic D&D: Ok, it’s actually Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortals D&D, but I like to call it Basic D&D because it’s what it was described as on the purple box with the Erol Otus picture on it, which was the first D&D product I owned. It is very simple, and I still like it because of its simplicity. I am glad that its retro-clones are doing well, and I personally enjoy using Labyrinth Lord. This summer I used the Rules Cyclopedia to introduce my nephew and niece to Dungeons and Dragons, and it went very well – after the first session they were the ones asking me to play. Although I can be a bit frustrated by the lack of official options (only one class per race except for humans?) the rules system is simple enough that I have created a number of homebrew racial classes to fill the gaps that I think need filling. Simple rules, but the potential for lots of additions (new classes, monsters, spells, magic items and the like) seems to be a good philosophy for an RPG in my humble opinion.
1st Edition AD&D: Varying between brilliant and eccentric, Gary Gygax’s creation broke new ground with its combination of race and class, and new alignment system, plus the huge new range of monsters, magic items and spells that dwarfed Basic D&D (or BECMI D&D). Some parts I am not so sure about, like percentile strength, and Unearthed Arcana introduced two very unbalanced, overpowered classes (the Cavalier and Barbarian), but this was kind of mitigated by the assurance that the DM, not the rulebook, had the final say in any game. I feel that the DMG could have been organised and explained a bit better – at first I went through it from the start and came across the tables for diseases very near the beginning. Not quite understanding the context, I rolled the dice and found that my character had a chronic kidney disease. Bummer. But the random tables at the back for dungeon dressings were full of flavour and were inspiring, especially the city encounters with the notorious random encounter table for prostitutes.
2nd Edition AD&D: Some people say it lost the flavour of 1st Edition, but I liked it because it was better organised and ironed out some of the wrinkles. Looking back, I can say it didn’t go far enough but at the time it seemed a big improvement. Optional rules were marked as optional, morale was sorted out as was surprise rolls, and the ranger and bard became much more plausible. Non-weapon proficiencies gave an idea of stuff that could be done outside of combat. It’s a pity they got rid of (or put on hold) the half-orc and the assassin. The emphasis was shifted away from the dungeon and towards more story-oriented games, which may or may not have been good in the long run, but at the time I was not keen on the move. Heck, it’s called DUNGEONS and dragons for a darn good reason! I have many good memories of this edition, because at the end of my time at boarding school it was what we were playing together (albeit with 1st edition modules – the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Slavelords and Against the Giants were all tackled with varying degrees of success). The splat books were good fun as well, and they always said at the front that they were optional. The dark red series for players and characters, the blue-grey ones for dungeon masters, the green ones for historical settings and the black ones for the Forgotten Realms were all good fun, and I bought most of them.
3rd Edition D&D: When I first read the 3rd Edition PHB, I thought it was brilliant. The way that levels in different classes stacked meant that multiclassing was easy, at least in working out stats. And they sorted out saving throws! and they introduced feats, which were cool. And they made the barbarian playable! And they brought back the half-orc! I wasn’t sure about the skill system (too much maths for my liking), and the expectation that monsters should be constructed like characters, with skills, feats and correct saving throws just annoyed me (whatever happened to DM discretion and judgement?). The biggest problem I found was when playing it all got rather too complicated. I managed to run one particular Forgotten Realms campaign using 3.0/3.5 rules. For the most-part it ran well, but during combat various things would be forgotten or would slow me down. And I found grappling and attacks of opportunity quite difficult to deal with. There were also various small things that just annoyed me enough to make me want to tweak the rules. As a DM, the Challenge Rating made it easy enough to judge what sort of single monster encounter would test a party of adventurers and then calculating the XP, but with multiple monsters, perhaps some of different levels, working out the Encounter Level and then the XP for the characters just seemed like hard work, especially for on-the-fly encounters. The splat books were bigger and heavier, but still optional – although it was not very clearly stated, a DM could always use the SRD as the benchmark for what was core.
The biggest thing that 3rd edition D&D did was to open up the market to anyone and everyone able to copy and paste the OGL into the back of their product. Even I had a go, though my attempts didn’t get anywhere near being published. But I loved the various game supplements and adventures from third party publishers. My favourites were Swords and Sorcery “Scarred Lands” series, especially the Creature Collections, the Tome of Horrors series from Necromancer Games, and Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics, and there were others (Mongoose Games deserving an honourable mention for its Encylopedia Arcane series and Hunter’s Guides series)
An unexpected side-effect of the OGL was the emergence of retro-clones – as I mentioned before, Labyrinth Lord is my favourite at the moment, but I also have OSRIC. There is also Basic Fantasy Role Playing Game, and I am sort of tempted to include Pathfinder, as it is a clone/variant of 3.5, which is now an “older edition”, even though it’s the edition that the OGL was intended for.
4th Edition D&D: I have left this alone as I have said in my first post in this blog. At first I had a knee-jerk reaction of contempt for some of the new ideas it brought in (healing surges, doing away with Vancian spell systems, powers at will and per encounter) and though I am not entirely comfortable with these changes, I’ve got a grudging respect for it. A lot of people enjoy it, and it seems to be doing well. Maybe not as well as 3rd edition when it was first released, but that was a real phenomenon. When 4th edition was first released, I reckoned that WOTC had sabotaged the D&D line, and that published and WOTC-supported D&D would die out, leaving only the fanbase to carry the hobby on. I’m not so pessimistic now, but I am still not tempted to actually play it. Leaving out certain classes and races out of the PHB1, and then saying that PHB2 and subsequent books are “core” makes me feel that the DM has to deal with players with more and more options and combinations, while the DM has less and less discretion and authority about what goes on in the games he runs. And third-party publishers seem to be far less enthusiastic – Goodman games is the only company of note that I can remember offhand producing stuff according to the GSL. I am not a lawyer, but from what I’ve heard, the GSL is nowhere nearly as publisher-friendly as the OGL was.
It makes me wonder whether the guy who introduced the OGL deliberately took the right to make D&D products out of WOTC’s hands and put it into the hands of fans and 3rd party publishers, with the unspoken instructions of “Listen, if WOTC totally screw up D&D, you’re the back-up plan. If necessary, you can use the OGL to keep D&D alive even if WOTC stops the product line.” I hope that doesn’t happen for a while, but it’s reassuring to know we are not entirely dependent on one company’s strategy.
And finally, a
word massive rant about Edition Wars. I can get quite annoyed with people who get arrogant and self-righteous about their preferred edition. Although I prefer some editions more than others, and can quite easily point out things I don’t like, I try to be respectful about both the people who play the different editions and the work that went into creating them, and assume they are created in good faith, and people have fun playing them. The most annoying instance I’ve encountered was in “The Delver’s Dungeon” forum, where the webmaster insists that the only D&D that is “proper” D&D is those that were written by Gygax himself (i.e. the brown/white boxed set and 1st edition AD&D). He is dismissive of both Basic D&D (both the Holmes and the Moldvay editions) and of 2nd edition AD&D, and then to my surprise he declared that 3rd Edition doesn’t really count as D&D at all! At this point I have to assume he is being a troll (forum troll – deliberately provocative, rather than D&D troll, rubbery, carnivorous and regenerating). I reckon he is being deliberately antagonistic – nobody would be such an arse as to honestly believe that crap.
There is also the Knights and Knaves forum, which declares itself unashamedly Gygaxian, and goes on to explain that the forums on that site are not for either 2nd Edition AD&D or Moldvay-edition Basic D&D. The last one really irks me, because it was my first D&D product and my introduction to this great hobby back in 1982, when I was 9 years old. For some elitist snob to say that it isn’t old-school enough just pisses me off. Nonetheless, they point out that this is a private forum and therefore it is their rules. Fine, but don’t expect me to join.
I have to say, I admire Gary Gygax and his massive contribution to this hobby. He and Dave Arneson created D&D and thereby created pencil-and-paper roleplaying games as we know them. I was lucky enough to correspond with him in a few emails in the late 1990s, and he seemed really friendly, if a little opinionated. I also met him briefly at GenCon UK 2000 at Manchester University, and he signed my copy of Descent into the Depths of the Earth. I have been a little bit awestruck, but at the same time I am not afraid to disagree with him. When I heard that he referred to the Forgotten Realms as “The Rotten Realms” I was kind of disappointed. I am a bit worried when people venerate him as a saint and hold his word as law - “This is how you should play because that’s how GARY played it!” has never been a convincing argument for me. What about how Dave Arneson played it?
For me at the moment I am happy playing and writing stuff for Basic D&D. There is an element of nostalgia of the old days with the Erol Otus pictures, the excitement of working out how to play (and how to keep your character alive), but increasingly it is about keeping it simple, fun and fluid. For me, the two websites above are warnings about not getting too snobbish and elitist about being old-school. I should also be wary of swinging too far in the other direction and assuming that newer stuff is automatically an improvement. Not necessarily. Whatever edition you play, I hope you have fun with it, and maybe pass it on to someone else who would appreciate it.