When I started playing D&D, the rules were a bit different than they are now.

It occurred to me that a great many people playing today probably started with one of the more recent incarnations of the game. They may never have had the chance to find out anything about how the game used to be played or what changes it has gone through.

Some of what was lost was wonderful. Not everything that was added was for the best. I think every DM should know a little bit about where the game came from so here is a brief overview of the various versions since I started playing.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules (1974-1981)

There were the same six abilities: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Their scores were determined by rolling 3d6, ONCE for each ability, in order.

There were four races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling.

There were four classes: Fighting Man, Magic-User, Cleric, and Thief. The prime requisite ability for these classes was Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Dexterity, respectively.

A Human could be any of these classes. Halflings and Dwarves were automatically Fighting Men. Elves were both Fighting Men and Magic-Users, splitting experience between the two classes.

Their initial abilities could be adjusted as follows:

  • Magic-Users and Clerics could raise their prime requisite by one for every three points that they reduce their Strength.
  • Fighting Men, Clerics, Halflings, and Dwarves could raise their prime requisite by one for every two points of reduction in Intelligence.
  • Fighting Men, Halflings, and Dwarves could increase their prime requisite by one for every two points of reduction in Wisdom.
  • Thieves could raise their Dexterity by one in exchange for lowering Intelligence by 2 and Wisdom by 1.
  • Constitution and Charisma could not be altered.
  • Dexterity could not be reduced.
  • No ability could be reduced below 9.

Armor Class started at 9 (no armor) and went down, as armor improved, to 2 (for Plate & Shield).

Attacks were handled by rolling 1d20 and required a roll of 10 or better to hit an opponent with AC 9. Attacks required a roll of one higher for each point of opponent’s AC below 9.

Hit Points were determined by rolling 1d8 for Fighting Men and Dwarves, 1d6 for Clerics, Halflings, and Elves, or 1d4 for Magic-Users and Thieves. A Constitution score of 15-16 gave you +1 to your HP roll, a 17 gave you +2, and an 18 gave you +3.

The entire rulebook was 46 pages long and covered character progression through level 3.

Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules (1974-1981)

The Dungeons & Dragons expert rulebook was not a standalone rulebook but an extension of the basic rulebook. It covered character advancement through level 14. Although Halflings were limited to level 8, Elves to level 10, and Dwarves to level 12. In addition, there were suggestions on how to deal with leveling characters past level 14 and a reference to an upcoming supplement that would detail character advancement through level 34. This supplement never materialized.

There weren’t any significant changes to the rules. They were just expanded to allow for higher level progression. That included new spells, new monsters, and new magic items.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977-1979)

Unlike Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules were split into three parts and printed in hardbound books. The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) was 238 pages long and was strictly for the DM. It contained all the information about the game that the DM needed but players did not need and should not see. Players instead had the 128-page Player’s Handbook (PHB) to tell them all they needed to play the game. A third book, the Monster Manual (MM) was also strictly for the DM and contained descriptions of all the monsters. The MM was 112 pages long and contained over 350 monsters. Combined, these three books represented over ten times the content found in the basic rule book.

The method of generating and modifying ability scores was dropped in favor of a new system. There were now four methods by which a player could generate ability scores.

  1. Roll 4d6 and retain the highest three dice. Do this six times and assign the scores to the six abilities as desired.
  2. Roll 3d6 twelve times. Retain the highest six scores and assign them to the six abilities as desired.
  3. Roll 3d6 six times. Retain the highest score and assign it to strength. Repeat for the other five abilities in order.
  4. Roll 3d6 six times and assign the scores to the six abilities in the order rolled. Repeat twelve times. Select one of these twelve sets of scores.

Abilities were expanded and secondary abilities were created. You would look up each ability in a chart and it would tell you what your secondary abilities were that were based on that ability. There was no numerical relationship between the primary and secondary abilities and most of the secondary abilities were used so rarely that they weren’t worth all the fuss it required to keep track of them.

For some insane reason, if you had a strength of 18, you then rolled percentile dice (1d100) to determine your exceptional strength. This effectively put 5 or 6 increments between 18 and 19 strength and was nothing but a headache.

Races were expanded to include Gnomes, Half-Elves, and Half-Orcs. All the non-human races received expanded abilities such as infravision and the ability for Elves to detect secret doors and for Dwarves to detect depth underground.

Ability scores were adjusted by race. Dwarves gained one Constitution and lost one Charisma. Elves gained one Dexterity and lost one Constitution. Half-Orcs gained one Strength and one Constitution but lost two Charisma. Halflings gained one Strength and lost one Dexterity.

Classes were expanded to include: Druids, Paladins, Rangers, Illusionists, Assassins, and Monks. The basic rules promised a Witch class in the Advanced rules but that class never appeared.

There were ability requirements for each of the classes and some racial restrictions as well. Also, non-human races had restrictions on how high a level they could attain in the various classes.

The “number needed to hit an opponent with the listed armor class” was renamed “To Hit AC 0” or simply “THAC0”. This was the minimum number you were required to roll, on 1d20, to hit an opponent with AC 0. You would then subtract your opponent’s actual AC from your THAC0 to determine what you needed to hit. For instance, if your THAC0 was 18 and your opponent was AC 5 you would need 13 (18 minus 5) on 1d20 to hit. If your THAC0 was 12 and your opponent’s AC was -4 you would need 16 (12 minus -4) to hit. It wasn’t nearly as bulky as it sounds and some people prefer it still over the system used in more current versions.

Psionics and multi-classing were introduced along with a few other things but most of these were unfortunately treated by most people like the red-headed step-children that no one talks about.

A great many aspects of the game grew and died in this version. No matter what version you play, I think that everyone, DM and player alike, should grab a set of these books if they can find them. Reading them allows you to discover a sense of the game that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson developed. No version since has come close to capturing the feel of the game that is presented here.

Lastly, the artwork is a treasure by itself. All black and white, hand drawn art. Every piece is more imaginative than anything presented in later versions.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Version 2 (1989)

After paging through the original books, I then picked up the version 2 PHB, with the battleaxe wielding warrior in a loin cloth on the cover. This must be how SCA folk feel about seeing barbarian couples, dressed as Conan and Red Sonja, show up to events. They just don’t get it. This picture, I think, is a perfect example of the cause of the rift that grew between those that play earlier versions and those that player newer versions. Overall, this version didn’t introduce any earthshaking changes but it was definitely a sign that change was coming.

Abilities remained the same. A few more ability generation methods appeared. It might be worth noting that prior to this point, abilities were always listed as: Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con, Cha. From this point on the books started listing the abilities as: Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha. Read what you will into that subtle mindset shift.

Half-Orcs were removed from the list of races. The racial level limits were removed and other racial restrictions were eased up on. The racial modifiers to abilities remained the same.

Assassins and Monks disappeared. Bards and Specialized Wizards were introduced. A type of Clerical specialization was introduced. But otherwise, classes remained fairly stable.

Optional rules for weapon proficiencies and non-weapon proficiencies (the precursors to skills) were introduced.

The age of the black and white, hand-drawn art has ended. Quality has been replaced by color. Wit has been replaced by muscles and gore.

Dungeons & Dragons Version 3 (2000)

Wizards of the Coast has taken over D&D. The word “Advanced” is removed from the name.

We are rid of the silly exceptional strength along with the secondary abilities. Instead we now have ability bonuses. They have a direct numerical relationship to the abilities (ability score divided by two, rounded down, minus five). Most activities that you perform are associated with an ability and the appropriate ability bonus is then added to your chance of success. A far better system than the secondary abilities.

The various ability generation methods were all scraped and only one is presented now. However, DMs and players alike have found methods that they prefer and a new edition isn’t going to stop them from using those methods so what is presented is pretty much irrelevant.

Half-Orcs were brought back. Racial abilities were doubled (+/-2 instead of +/-1).

Monks were reintroduced. Barbarians were added. Specialized Wizards were renamed and redefined.

Non-weapon proficiencies grew into skills.

Feats were introduced. Sadly this also introduced the concept that characters could craft their own magical items. In my opinion this de-mystified and de-valued all magic items and in one fell swoop drastically changed how DMs and players viewed the game.

THAC0 goes away. The combat system is replaced by a number of modifiers that are added together and that sum added to a 1d20 roll to determine what AC can be hit. AC now starts at 10 and increases as it improves. This alone, in my opinion, made the game as a whole more accessible to the general (math-challenged) public.

Saving throws, unchanged since the inception of D&D, are discarded. Fortitude, Reflex, and Will Power are introduced to replace them.

The coolest thing about this version is that the PHB came with a CD containing a character generator. I could care less about the character generator since those things never make allowances for house rules. However, as a bonus, they included a simple mapping program. It turned out to be pretty cool. Liking it, I went to the website and bought the full version. Then the windows version came out and I got that. Now, years later, that same company is still around and just released their newest version … Campaign Cartographer 3.0! That’s right. That little freebie mapping program was the predecessor to the best fantasy mapping software on the market.

Dungeons & Dragons Version 3.5 (2003)

When 3.5 came out, I wasn’t interested in yet another version. Later I took a break from D&D so I never got around to looking at it. When I returned, 4th edition had been out for some time so I started buying 4e books and still haven’t taken a serious look at 3.5 yet.

The consensus is though that 3.5 is far and away better than 3.0 and the majority of those not switching to 4e have settled in on 3.5.

Note that v3.5 is available, in its entirety, for free on the Wizards of the Coast website. There is also a website called the HyperLink d20 SRDthat has all of the information online, searchable and hyperlinked.

Dungeon & Dragons – 4th Edition (2008)

Wizards of the Coast is now owned by Hasbro. Who ever thought that a mainstream company like Hasbro would own a “devil worship” game like D&D? :)

Abilities remain the same. I think that is the only thing in 4th edition you can say that about. :)

Races include: Dragonborn, Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling, Human, and Tiefling.

Classes include: Cleric, Fighter, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Warlock, Warlord, and Wizard.

Additional books added numerous races and classes.

Skills were completed redesigned.

Feats were completely redesigned.

Spells, as we knew them, were removed.

Powers were added and, in part, replaced spells. Power were available for all classes, with each class having their own, unique set. They represented combat styles for fighters, spells for spell-casters, thief-like abilities for rogues, etc. Some powers were usable only once per day while others could be used every round.

Ritual magic was introduced.

Combat was redefined.

Magic-Items were redefined.

Everything about how we view the game was changed.

That’s not to say that it is bad, there was just a LOT of change.

There is one thing that they forgot to change though… the artwork still stinks.


Pathfinder probably belongs evolutionarily between version 3.5 and 4e. But chronologically, it came after 4e so that’s where I’ve put it.

Pathfinder is best described in relation to the other games. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons was extremely controversial. People either loved it or hated it. There was very little middle ground. No matter how you felt about it, you had to admit that it incorporated a lot of new ideas and concepts. Some of those were almost universally considered brilliant new additions to the game. Even those that hated 4e were intrigued by some of fourth edition’s new features.

Thus, Pathfinder was born. The most common description of Pathfinder is that it takes the best parts of version 3.5 and the best parts of 4th edition and combines them into an exciting fusion of the two.

Personally though, I have not looked at Pathfinder yet. But for a different reason than you might think. I have always run a very heavily modified version of the rules. I took a long break from D&D and when I returned I decided to try to embrace fourth edition. On its own, it’s a very interesting game but as it turned out it just didn’t fit my view of Dungeons & Dragons. However, I love a lot of what they have done. I’ve more or less finalized my new set of house rules that incorporates a great deal from 4e. But I want to play test it further and work out any bugs I encounter to see what works for me and my players and what doesn’t.

I want to devise my own rules first without being influenced by seeing how 3.5 and 4e were combined to make Pathfinder. When I’m finished and happy with what I have, then I’ll delve into Pathfinder and see what they’ve done. By then I’ll be in a better position to evaluate my changes versus theirs and to assess what parts of what they have done are better so that I can incorporate them into my own. I was afraid if I looked at Pathfinder too soon, it would stifle my own ideas on how to combine 3.5 and 4e and some good ideas might get lost in the process.

Summing Up

Clearly, this is a very superficial look at the various versions. I tried to cover the key differences and chart the growth of the game. I left (or hope I did) all the politics out that were going on behind the scenes between Gary, TSR, Wizards, etc and just focused on the game itself.

I hope you found it interesting seeing a bit of how the game was played in the olden days. :)

Let me leave you with one thought. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (version one) was an amazing set of books. Regardless of which version you are playing, find a copy of those books and buy them!