When I started this blog, the goal was to document my rediscovery of D&D in hopes that my findings might help others, just coming to the game, to get started more quickly and easily. Now that I am returning again after a two month hiatus, I think it is appropriate to re-embrace that goal.
The most fundamental choice any new DM must make is the selection of which edition to use.
OD&D, BD&D, and Clones
Original D&D consisted of a set of three core books (plus the Chainmail combat rules) and an optional set of five supplements. For a new DM, I would not recommend this edition. First off, they are long out of print and rather costly to acquire through eBay. Secondly, the layout and presentation is not the best. A new DM will have to put in a lot more work to become proficient at running a game based on these booklets.
Basic D&D (Holmes, Moldvay, Mentzer) did a great job of reorganizing the material and presenting it in a fashion that is much easier to follow. These are far less expensive but are also out of print and only available through eBay and used book (and comic book) stores. I very much like all the basic D&D rule books, but I don’t think it is the best place for a new DM to start.
It should be noted that there are third party publishers that have created clones of both Original D&D and Basic D&D. These are excellent choices but I don’t think they are the best starting place for a new DM either.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
1st Edition AD&D is both a compilation and reimagining of everything that came before. I think it is, hands down, the best choice for any new DM. Until recently, it had the same availability problem as its predecessors. However, WotC have recently decided to reprint these three books. They are scheduled to hit the stores in July. Whether you plan to use this edition or not, I strongly recommend picking them up. They are a very entertaining read and offer a glimpse into the mind of the creator of the game.
2nd Edition AD&D was rather a disappointment. A few new ideas were introduced, various mechanics were modified, but imo there were no improvements over 1e.
3rd Edition D&D included a vast array of changes, some good, some not so good, followed by an endless line of supplemental books. After some time, errata was gathered together and a few improvements that had developed were incorporated in 3e which was then re-released as v3.5. I’m not a particular fan of 3.x but there is one powerful factor it has in its favor. A slightly truncated version of 3.x was released as a System Resource Document (SRD) in electronic form. This is a free download from WotC that contains everything a group needs to play D&D. It is poorly formatted and a bit bulky to use in this form, but it is usable. In addition, WotC gave permission for it to be redistributed so a formatted, searchable version is available on the internet.
As I said, I am not a fan of 3e but I understand being strapped for cash. A free download is certainly more appealing than a substantial investment in books. Starting with 3e and then later moving to another edition, as funds become available, is certainly an option. Keep in mind though that transitions are never easy. If you start with 3e, you will certainly encounter some resistance from your players when it is time to change.
When WotC dropped support for 3.x in lieu of 4e, a new company emerged to create a 3.x clone called Pathfinder. It is well supported and I have great respect for the company and admire the quality of their products. If I were to play a 3.x game, I would certainly embrace this option.
Dungeons & Dragons, 4th Edition is D&D in name only. It may be an enjoyable game in its own right (in fact it has a tremendous following) but every aspect of the game has been changed and play is so vastly different from any other edition that it now has little in common with its namesake.
5th Edition (currently named “D&D Next”) is expected later this year. Clearly its main goal is to bring the editions together. There is quite a rift between fans of each edition and, as a result, only a small percentage are handing money over to WotC. As a business, this is a situation that they would like to remedy. However, the work they have done so far actually looks like 5e may be interesting in its own right. I will certainly buy it when it comes out. But I will do so out of curiosity and to see if there are any tidbits I can scavenge for my own use. As a starting point for new DMs, I will give it a thumbs down sight unseen.
Start with 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The reprints will become available in less than a month. Imo, it is the best edition to date. It was written by the creator of the game and contains the spirit of the game which has been dulled in the years since. After becoming familiar with 1e, look at the other editions, offshoots, and clones and see if any of them better suit your play style. But start with 1e. You’ll be glad you did.