As I stand at the cusp of the release of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition (4E), it is only fitting that to look back at the previous three editions. Or previous five editions. Or previous eight or nine editions, depending on how you count.
Hang on, if the new one is the fourth edition, how can there be more than three previous editions?
Like many things involving D&D, it's complicated. So here's the (not-so) short tour. Each edition had its own strengths and weaknesses, and was written with different intentions and goals. It is in many ways the history of our hobby for the past thirty years.
First off, the predecessors. Yes, the "Fantasy Supplement" of the Chainmail Rules was a key, but I've seen people make a case of Fight in the Skies, a WWI flying game, as an ancestor as well, in that you gained experience for your character (ace) over several sessions. But nothing springs completely formed, and I begin with the original appearance of Dungeons & Dragons.
The first D&D was the D&D Boxed set, known as the wood-grained box or the white box, more recently as original D&D or OD&D. It contained three pamphlet-sized books and some tables. This was the standard size for miniature rules, and indeed, even the name of the game would not look out of place next to other miniature games of the era - Cavaliers & Roundheads and Wooden Ships & Iron Men. It was written primarily with the terminology of miniatures as well - distances in inches, combat in equivalents of the hero. Indeed, most of us playing the game in those days (and I date back to 75, the year after it came out), quickly embraced the "alternative combat system" which compared level against AC. Even the concept of THAC0 was years in the future.
The game was written by hobbyists for hobbyists, and assumed that shared knowledge base. If you had a question, you either knew somebody or knew somebody who knew somebody and information disseminated leisurely. The original set saw five supplements - Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, Gods, Demigods & Heroes, and Swords & Spells, though the last is often dropped from the list as an attempt to bring the cycle full circle and back to miniature games (There would be a variety of such attempts over the years, of varying degrees of success).
So we had OD&D and it was good. And in 1977 TSR released a new, larger boxed set, which is known as Blue Box Basic D&D by the long-timers. It was different from the original version which we were happily playing, in that it was a teaching tool. It was intended to instruct people how to play the game. It covered much of the ground of Original, with a LOT of the pieces filled in, and was aimed at people who were not miniature gamers. It was a boxed set, in part, because the polyhedral dice that it relied on were not yet ubiquitous, and needed to be included. it deserves being called out as its own edition. It didn't go up more than a few levels.
Now the D&D Family Line splits, and let me follow one branch, then the other. The boxes named "Dungeons and Dragons" went through several revisions, with a major revision in 1981. This usually gets the designation "Red Box Basic" though the first version of this was not red. The thing in the Red Box Basic kicked in a large expansion that extended the number of levels for the game, through Expert, Companion, Masters, and finally Immortals, known as the shorthand BECMI. This was an expanded, multi-box version, and its campaign setting, originally just called "The Known World" and later "Mystara" saw a great deal of worldbuilding in the years that followed. Call this version, which was now looking forward to further expansions, as edition three.
Finally in this line there is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia of 1991, a hardbound book with a white spine. The goal of this one was to gather together all the disparate rules of BECM (though not so much I) under one roof and remains the best single-volume D&D rulebook for completeness and playability. After this, the line dies out, though the name will reappear in the other lineage. But call this version the 6th Edition, only because the other line of descent for D&D had a couple editions before it. If you want to play "classic" D&D with none of the "A" versions in front of it, this one really shines.
Let's go back to 1977 and the release of the first Monster Manual for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Over the next two years, TSR released one new hardback a year, Player's Handbook in 1978 and Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979. I mention that there was a two year space between the first book and the last of these core books, such that we were playing with MM and earlier editions, despite it being a new game. Compare that to the instant gratification of getting all three books in one weekend (young whippersnappers!)
While D&D was supposed to be a little more fast and loose, AD&D was aiming at complete, and added a lot of things that got beyond the typical dungeon delve, like aging tables, types of government, and the infamous random prostitute table. It was also the first edition to be entirely in hardbound book form - the book trade was having problems with "shrinkage" involving the boxed sets (that is - people breaking them open in the store and taking the dice). It was supposed to be complete, but it was also expandable, and we saw that expansion with both more hardbacks and with expanded game worlds. AD&D was the system of early Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, and the game I was designing for early in my TSR career. Call that Fourth Edition.
The Fifth major version of the game was called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition, and all three books were released in 1989. I remember saying at the time that our intention was to reduce the need for players to use their "official D&D Forklift" to carry around all their official D&D books. In reality, as time has shown, such an attempt was like trying to get rid of gods in the Forgotten Realms - despite your best efforts, when all was said and done, you end up with more of them than when you started with. Such was the case. One of the original ideas was to embrace an idea that the fans had suggested - a ring-binder for the monsters instead of a hardback. Great in concept, not so good in practice, as ring binders are notorious for jams and rips. Hey, we tried. This one definitely aimed at a more mainstream market than its predecessors, and was notorious for renaming its demons and devils.
The rules were changed in appearance, though just shaken up a bit in mechanics, with a version released in 1995. Now called AD&D 2.5, it attempted to lay the groundwork for the Player's Options. Generally and unfairly reviled, this all-color edition is usually what the next generation was complaining about, but it merits being 7th edition (#6 was the D&D Cyclopedia, above). Versions 5 and 7 though did represent trying to push back the envelope of "what was D&D" into more related genres. But just to add to confusion, somewhere along the line, we stopped calling it AD&D2 and just went back to AD&D.
And then 3rd Edition (1997), which by this count is 8th edition, but you might by this point just despair of any rational numbering convention. Third Edition was the first edition that did a complete overhaul - there was no guarantee that previous edition stuff would work (There were dramatic changes from 1 to 2, but they could generally be papered over - this was a firm and determined break). It also represented an attempt to remake the system around a coherent, central mechanic. I always describe 1st edition AD&D as an accumulation of various rules, and 2nd as an attempt to make them function together. Third Edition was the attempt to weld the AD&D system into a whole, so that a change in other stat could affect several others. It was the most holistic approach so far to the game.
And to complete our naming confusion, 3rd edition got rid of the A entirely, and went back to being just D&D, the once and future game. It also saw the launch of the system as base system for the industry in the d20 license, though that is a long story for another day. Breaking the system away from its fantasy roots allowed it to apply to new licenses (Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu), new eras (D20 Modern), and for others to embrace it, some in mild ways, some is amazing permutations (Mutants and Masterminds is the most exotic, and to my mind brilliant, turning the system on its head while maintaining it basic strengths).
Then there was 3.5 in 2003, as much of a housecleaning and tightening up of the rules for 3rd edition as the unofficial 2.5 was for 2. However, this was announced as such, and in part showed the evolution of the game both in its depth and its complexity. The jump from 3 to 3.5 was not as dramatic as 1 to 2 or 2.5 to 3. (Update:If 2.5 is an edition, then this one should be the 9th Edition, and is so noted).
And now we are at 4th edition, which is 10th edition by this accounting, though your mileage will vary. This edition is, in my opinion, the most radical one yet, such that attempts to bring over campaigns of the past will be more in spirit of the rules than in mechanics. In many ways, it gets back to basic core of the original as a game of miniatures and tactics, focused on direct actions, but by the same token benefits from everything that has come between then and now. I have a couple things to say about 4th, but for the moment, I recognize it as a new dawn in the industry and whole new ballgame.
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