Yesterday I wrote an article entitled “What Version Should I Use“. Since then, I have received more emails about that article than any other since I started this blog. I’m surprised because it was, imo, a timid, inoffensive article with no real content. My assessment must be right on the money though because that is what most people had to say as well, and that’s what they didn’t like.

I really struggled with this topic. I wrote it and re-wrote it, over and over, and every time it came out as an attack on various editions; the kind of thing you’d see from a troll in the forums trying to start an edition war.

After many attempts, I finally decided to simply give my recommendation without any supporting arguments or discussion of other editions. I wasn’t happy with it but I was tired of dealing with the topic and just wanted to move on.

Truth be told, I’m rather happy to be called out on it. I’ll take another stab at it today and try to be a bit more honest and up-front about my feelings regarding the various editions.

First off, let me say that it is okay to post such feedback in the comments. Most of the emails were basically telling me that the article wasn’t very good or helpful, and offered suggestions on how to improve it. I appreciate the consideration of making such comments in private, but I’m really okay with receiving that kind of feedback via the comments. It actually makes it easier to reply to them.

My Introduction to D&D

I think everyone feels a bit of loyalty to the edition they were introduced to when they first started playing the game. There is also the sensation of wonder that is felt when first discovering fantasy role-playing that people naturally associate with that initial version. So I think I should start by telling you about my introduction to D&D.

It was in the late 70s and I had never heard of D&D or any kind of role-playing game. I friend called me out of the blue and said they were having a game and asked me to join them. I was hooked from the very beginning.

That first game, and a great many that followed, were Original D&D. The first chance I got, I visited a local gaming shop where I was disappointed to hear that they didn’t have any OD&D in stock. But they had a boxed set of Holmes Basic D&D. I took it home and read it cover to cover numerous times. I immediately started creating hand-drawn maps for cities, dungeons, and overland areas. It wasn’t long before I started running short adventures with BD&D, while my friend, who introduced me to the game, continued to run weekly OD&D games.

When AD&D came out, we both made the switch and have both continued to run 1e-based games ever since. Each time a new edition came out I picked up the core books and read them voraciously. But nothing since 1e has really grabbed me the way that those earlier editions did.

That’s not to say that I didn’t find later editions compelling. Each and every one has introduced interesting new ideas and I have incorporated aspects of each of those editions into my home game.

Original D&D

I love OD&D! It was created by Gary and presents his initial concept of the game. As such, it offers insights into his vision that I find fascinating.

However, it is poorly organized and very difficult for the uninitiated to understand. There are three little brown books (plus chainmail, the original combat rules), five supplements, and an Avalon Hill product recommended for overland adventures (which I would dearly love to have).

Once familiar with the rules, this is an excellent ruleset. But I think it would be a poor choice as an entry point for someone new to the game.

Basic D&D

In 1979, Dr. John Eric Holmes rewrote the OD&D rules, combining the three core books and the first three supplements into one booklet and making the whole much more readable and accessible. In 1981, Tom Moldvay did the same but restricted his version to the three core books. In 1983, Jacob Franklin “Frank” Mentzer III created the final iteration of BD&D.

Holmes Basic is the first edition that I owned myself and the first edition that I ran. It is evocative and emanates a sense of wonderment that absolutely thrills me. I would highly recommend this edition to anyone, whether they are new to the game or a seasoned veteran.

Other than reading through Moldvay and Mentzer, I have no direct knowledge of either, but both have great reputations and a strong following. I would recommend either of these based on all the good things I have heard about them over the years (and their similarity to Holmes Basic).

B/X and BECMI

In 1981, Dave “Zeb” Cook created the Expert Rules. These were designed to expand upon the Basic Rules in order to allow characters to progress to level 14. Combined with either Holmes or Moldvay Basic, these comprised B/X (Basic/eXpert).

Since Basic D&D didn’t have rules for high level characters prior to this release, naturally I invented my own (as did everyone else back then). When Expert Rules came out, I incorporated them into my game. I was very happy with them and would readily recommend them to anyone running a Holmes Basic or Moldvay Basic game.

Between 1983 and 1985, Mentzer created five rule books: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortals. The first letter of each of these rulebooks give you the acronym BECMI.

I am far less familiar with the last three rulebooks in this group. I glanced through them many years ago and my failing memory doesn’t bring much of them back to me now. My vague recollection though is that I wasn’t very impressed. I suspect that this is largely due to them being different from what I was familiar with (Holmes/Cook). It also may be that while reading them I was fixated on the fact that they take high-level characters all the way to demi-god status. I’ve always enjoyed lower-level characters more than higher level ones, and BECMI (as a whole) provided rules for (imo) ridiculously high-level characters.

I would recommend Mentzer Basic/Expert to new DMs but would caution them to ignore the last three books in the set, at least until they are well seasoned and extremely familiar with the game.

Rules Cyclopedia

I would love to have a physical copy of this! I think I have a PDF around here somewhere, but I’ve never really enjoyed reading books in PDF form.

Rules Cyclopedia is a compilation of every BD&D rule. Having not read it, I shouldn’t say anything beyond that. I would not recommend it to new DMs for the same reason I would suggest (initially) staying away from the last three books in the BECMI line. Additionally, I am making the assumption that, as a compilation, rules may be presented in a way that puts some of them out of context and thereby may make them confusing or misleading to new DMs. In other words, I suspect that it would be an excellent reference book but not necessarily a good tool for learning the game. Again, having never actually read it, this is purely conjecture.

Race as Class

OD&D and BD&D allow characters to be: Fighting Men, Magic-Users, Clerics, Thieves, Dwarves, Elves, or Halflings. I’ve never cared for this idea of treating non-human races as classes. This is one of the core differences between these editions and later ones. The house rule I implemented, with the greatest impact back then, was to strip these non-human races of their race-as-class abilities and allow them to become any of the four classes available to humans (just as was later implemented in AD&D shortly thereafter). For anyone who would balk at using one of these editions solely because of the race-as-class rules, this is a simple change to make that removes that difference. Note, however, that many gamers who embrace these editions truly enjoy race-as-class as one of the defining aspects.

Limitations of These Early Editions

Complaints you hear from people on the forums, as to why they don’t play these early editions of the game, generally focus on the limited ruleset, low number of spells and monsters, and limited character advancement.

There has always been, and will always be, a division between those that prefer rules-light versus rules-heavy games. A rules-light game may not cover every situation, forcing the DM to come up with solutions on the fly. Rules-heavy games may better support the DM by covering more situations, but imo they can also exacerbate the problem with rules lawyering due to the expansive rules appearing to become the final arbiter, opposed to the DM having the final word.

Character advancement is limited in the Basic rules, but the Expert rules extend advancement to level 14 which, imo, is more than ample.

The limited number of spells and monsters is, to many, part of the charm of these early editions. By restricting monsters to those that players are already familiar with, from legends and myth, players are given a stronger connection to the fantasy world by fighting the monsters they remember from their childhood. Limiting the number of spells certainly reduces the burden on those playing spell casters, who don’t have to memorize the vast number of spells and effects available in later editions.

Although I run a 1e-based game, I too restrict monsters mostly to the familiar ones, as found in OD&D/BD&D and vastly restrict the spells available to spell-casters as well.

Having fewer monsters and spells also reduces the amount of information the DM needs to master, making a strong argument for starting with one of these editions.

Advanced D&D (1e)

While BD&D expanded upon OD&D (to differing amounts based on version), AD&D represents the first large-scale change to the game since its inception. Written by Gary Gygax, it retains its creator’s vision of the game while incorporating a number of changes forged from years of feedback and playtesting.

New races and classes were added. Spellcasters gained a vast number of new spells. Forests and dungeons were overrun with a myriad of new monsters. Many rules were modified, many more were added, and still more appeared in order to aid DMs in handling various unusual situations.

I particularly like the way that information is separated between the PHB and the DMG. Players get only the information they need in order to create and run their characters, while DMs get the mechanics and suggestions on how to moderate the game. This may seem like an obvious approach, but every edition after this progressively moves away from this model, shifting more and more of the mechanics of the game from the DMG to the PHB, while transitioning the DMG from a reference book to a training guide. 1e is the only one of the “newer” editions that maintains this separation.

There are a couple of complaints that I hear regularly about 1e though. First, is that 1e is “an organizational mess.” Second is that the language is “rather arcane” or “Gygaxian”.

Let me address the second complaint first. Gary was extremely well read and used a number of words and phrases that not everyone hears every day. What some people refer to as “arcane language” was, imo, simply someone who was quite well educated who was using a literary voice that spoke to equals. I took it as a sign of respect that Gary spoke to us in such a manner, instead of dumbing it down, as I feel so many authors do, in order to appeal to the masses. As a teenager, I certainly encountered a number of terms with which I was unfamiliar. So I looked them up. As a result, I later had more than one instructor commend me on my vocabulary. I have no doubt that Gary is very much to thank for that. I would consider it a great compliment to be thought of as a “Gygaxian” writer.

As to the “organizational mess”, I believe that complaint is both warranted and, at the same time, unfair. The 1e DMG incorporated a great deal of unrelated information. Each small piece was a category all its own, which made presentation a challenge. What resulted was large sections containing a couple paragraphs on this, and a few paragraphs on that, with no clear thread pulling them all together. Given the nature of the informational tidbits, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better method of presentation.

What truly makes this complaint unfair, is that later editions never improved this organization; they simply removed all these little tidbits all together. Given a choice, I’d rather have a section of disorganized presentation than to have all the information simply deleted.

I would add though that the section on combat seems very chaotic. Once understood, it is quite usable as a reference, but when first reading through it, this section can be confusing. I suspect this is largely due to the author’s wargaming roots, as much of the combat section resembles rules I have seen in numerous wargames.

Overall, I like the layout and presentation very much. This edition is attractive, is enjoyable to read, and maintains the magical feel that I felt when I first discovered the game.

No assessment of 1st Edition AD&D would be complete without a nod to the artists. Darlene, Dave Trampier, David Sutherland, Erol Otis, and the rest have contributed amazing works of art that, to me, epitomize Dungeons and Dragons.

This is, by far, my favorite edition and I unequivocally recommend it to anyone (new or old).

2nd Edition AD&D (2e)

Gary left TSR and had nothing to do with the creation of 2e. It shows. The writing style is bland. The layout and design are uninspired. The artwork (with a handful of amazing exceptions) is awful. This edition lost the magic that its precursors possessed. I was greatly disappointed.

There were no sweeping changes. Little differences appeared here and there. Magic-Users became Wizards and wizard specializations were introduced. Clerics became a subclass of Priests (although priest isn’t actually a defined class) and had their spells somewhat restricted by what Spheres of Influence their deity allowed.

Probably the most significant change was the addition of Proficiencies (which in later editions led to skills).

Oops! Let me amend that. The most significant change was the introduction of the infamous THAC0! It’s unfair that 2nd Edition should be so condemned for introducing THAC0, for a number of reasons. First, 2e didn’t actually add it. THAC0 was always there, just not by that name. Secondly, because THAC0 isn’t the problem. A standard method of resolution in D&D is to roll 1d20, add modifiers, and compare the result to a DC. That is EXACTLY how combat works with THAC0. The THAC0 table provides the base DC (determined by class and level) needed to hit AC 0. You then apply modifiers to get the actual DC (i.e. subtract the actual AC). Because of the decreasing AC system (opposed to the increasing AC system used in future editions), this often meant subtracting a negative number which confused people which led to the misplaced hatred of the THAC0 system. (See my post on THAC0 for more information.)

Although the core books were (to me) a great disappointment, there were a great many campaign settings released during 2nd edition’s reign, and a vast number of supplementary books. Since the changes introduced were so minor, it was an easy matter to convert all these accessories to work with 1e as well.

I would not recommend 2nd edition to anyone. There were no significant improvements added while it feels that a great deal has been lost (mostly in presentation and aesthetics).

3rd Edition D&D

Unlike 2e, 3rd Edition made a number of whole-sale changes to the game:

  • The word “Advanced” was removed from the title (a bit disappointed to see it go).
  • Exceptional Strength was removed (can’t say I miss it).
  • Exponential bonuses from abilities were replaced with linear bonuses (very easy to use and much more logical).
  • Proficiencies were replaced with a skill system (problematic but much better).
  • Clerical Spheres of Influence became Domains.
  • The decreasing AC system was replaced by an increasing AC (made many people very happy).
  • The THAC0 table was converted into attack bonuses (BAB) in each class’s description write-up.
  • Feats were added.
  • A couple of new classes were introduced.
  • Presentation was improved.
  • Standard saving throws were replaced with Fortitude, Will Power, and Reflex.
  • The artwork was vastly more professional than 2e.
  • plus a few other changes here and there.

I have to say that I am very impressed with the work that went into this edition. A great deal of thought went into identifying what they considered to be problem areas, and then those concerns were dealt with effectively.

Although a lot of the changes make sense to me, I have never gotten on board with this edition. Mostly, I think it must be a subconscious response to the overall feel of the core books. It’s hard to pin point, but some of what I can identify is the literary tone used; It feels like the author is talking down to his audience. Next is the artwork. Although it is more professional, it is just wrong. Everything is over the top. The images of the adventurers do not match at all what I envision adventurers to be.

I realize that these are pretty silly reasons to not like an edition, but something about 3e bothers me and these are the things I can identify.

I would tentatively recommend this edition except for one thing. If this edition speaks to you, v3.5 is a better choice.

Version 3.5

Not being a fan of v3.x, I would be hard-pressed to name any of the differences between v3.0 and v3.5. What I do know is the WotC incorporated years of errata into the revision and v3.5 is universally touted, by its fans, as being a superior ruleset.

It has one benefit that other editions do not have. You can download a free editable version (SRD35) from the WotC website.

I would tentatively recommend it, based primarily on the praise it receives from its fans.

Pathfinder

Pathfinder is a special case. It is not an official D&D product. When WotC discontinued v3.5 in favor of 4e, Pathfinder (based on v3.5) was created as a way to keep that edition alive. Since I don’t care for v3.x, I am not a fan of Pathfinder either.

However, I have nothing but respect for the people behind Pathfinder. What they did (and are continuing to do) is admirable. Their work is extremely professional and everything they produce is top notch.

I would not recommend it to a new DM because it is not an actual D&D product. However, I would strongly recommend it to anyone who would otherwise go to v3.x, as I think it is a far superior system and is actively supported by people who believe in it.

4th Edition

This is not D&D. The people who own the trademark may call it D&D, but that does not make it so. Virtually every aspect of the game has been significantly altered to the point that, as a whole, it is no longer recognizable as the same game.

On its own, it has some very interesting features. I am very impressed with much of what they have done and am sure, to many, it is an amazingly enjoyable game. But it is not something I am interested in playing. Nor is it, by any stretch of the imagination, D&D. For that reason I would not recommend it.

If this offends you I am sorry. Please don’t bother posting comments about why 4e really is D&D and why you think it is better than everything else. The comment will simply be deleted.

DND Next

This is the upcoming edition of D&D, expected soon™. My expectations were low when it was first announced and continue to drop every time they issue an update.

I strongly urge anyone new to the game to avoid it like the plague.

Veterans should be somewhat immunized, but I’d still recommend a good hazmat suit before getting too close.

Retro Clones

There are a number of absolutely fantastic retro-clones out there. They emulate various older editions and have done an excellent job of providing a pathway to these out-of-print games.

However, I would not recommend them for people new to the game. D&D is the first role-playing game. I think it is important for new people to experience actual, official D&D first before expanding into other RPGs. The question as to whether the clone is better than the original is, imo, irrelevant. New people will never be able to determine which is better until they’ve seen both and it just makes sense to me that they see the original first.

Where To Get The Various Editions

Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on e-Bay. WotC is currently producing all editions. Amazon usually has the best prices on these (typically 1/3 off of what I see them for anywhere else).

WotC has also started selling PDFs of most of their accessory products (new and old) at DND Classics.


Note: Inflammatory and/or offensive comments will be deleted.