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1st Edition: There were various renditions of the original dungeons and dragons game. Notable among them: a wood-grain box which is now seriously overpriced on Ebay, a white box ‘collector’s edition’ which is the same without references to Ents and Hobbits, and the regular box which I have no comment on.
1st Edition Basic: Pretty much the one everyone remembers about, most of them came in a red box. Yes, I know there was some other one, but whatever. The advantage of this edition was the fact it was nearly impossible to power-game because you were so weak-ass and random, you could put random junk in the game box and lug it around with you, and everyone remembers it.
Among the disadvantages: randomness, being weak-ass, and lack of irrelevant rules to clutter up the game system with.
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Advanced: These were the last of the books written solely by the game creators. They had kick-ass advice, added pretty much everything modern D&D now has, and they were filled to the max with stuff you could power-game.
Among the disadvantages: weirdness in multi-classing rules, crazy xp system, convoluted rules, bigger books requiring more strength to lug around, and a lack of a box to put things in.
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2nd Edition: Not only did this edition function on THAC:0 which was ridiculous, it also had the weirdest skill proficiency system ever. It’s possible that if you ever managed to read all the rules on weapon speeds that you could actually play a game. Thankfully, you were still weak-ass enough to die all the time and there were enough rules to make power-gaming a viable option. Multi-classing is still weird.
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3rd Edition: Long after everyone thought D&D was dead, a new crew took over and came out with 3rd edition. Simpler and easier to understand than second, stealing everything from advanced, and implementing ‘skills’ along with characters who didn’t instantly die at first level: 3rd edition was a major comeback. Only in retrospect as a game designer do I now notice that 3rd edition also had the beginnings of the foul ups to come. Skills actually don’t work; starting out decent at first level leads to an ever-escalating numerical war which will eventually ruin a game; and removing THAC:0—which at the time I thought was brilliant—actually screws up a lot of the numbers which make the game function properly. Did I mention you could still power-game the crap out of 3rd?
3.5 Edition: What the heck? A partial decimal edition doing nothing more than replacing good rules with miniatures ones so they can sell you all the books you already bought over again? Did I miss anything?
4th Edition: Unwittingly, this edition continued the flawed trend of ‘more power is better’ allowing people to get higher ability scores, more whacked-out multi-classing, a stupidly balanced power system, and an escalating ‘arms race’ of numbers which would make many a nation’s nuclear weapons division jealous. On the pro side, 4th edition tried to be different which is a fine thing. They also took a stab at ‘balance’ forgetting that: 1. the more stuff you add to a game the less balanced it is, and 2. who cares about balance anyway? The major fluff in spells which made the game cool was also missing. Yes, those same spells wreaked havoc with overpowered sorcerers (a wizard with more power), but oh well.
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5th Edition: Actually asking the fans instead of randomly doing stuff is a nice move. This edition isn’t out yet, but I’ve heard from a few people saying they don’t care anymore. Others are hopeful. I have the feeling they’ll fail on some really basic fundamentals, but at least they’re trying which is always a good thing in my books. By Jove, if I was in charge, I’d ruin the game, but I’d ruin it with style.
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Pathfinder: While technically not D&D, Pathfinder really is D&D. Basically, it’s 3.75 edition. It keeps all the elements of power-gaming we’re so fond of, adds more, gives you more things per level, and generally makes a mess of things in the grand style of 3rd edition. While many fans appreciate this game, I can’t help but worry about its future. What are they going to do next, and are they allowed to? Also, it suffers from the same flaws as 3rd edition, but nobody noticed them there either.
Summary and Prattle
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I don’t mean this article to say that D&D is bad, or that any one edition or game is fundamentally better or worse than another. Though I ridicule them all, it’s with the heart of a kindly parent yelling incessantly at his kids. I’m fairly sure I missed some of the finest and worst points of the editions, but hey, I’m writing this in four hours on my only day off.
This article also doesn’t cover the OSR movement, the many fine indie games out there, or the great game companies who put out such classics as: GURPS, Savage Worlds, and so forth.
Also, one might readily wonder about how technology is affecting the market. After all, there wasn’t much in the way of electronic entertainment when the original D&D came out and now there is. The aging demographic of the original game players is another consideration. What do these older gamers like to play? (if anything). It’s reasonable to assume that what might have pleased a 13-year-old won’t have the same appeal to a 30-year-old family man. Possibly, these older gamers are teaching a new generation to game, but teaching them what? Random RPGs designed for little kids? I think we’re forgetting that RPGs in general were what ‘we’ as little kids were after, no need to make them ‘little kid’ RPGs (no offense to any out there).
I’ve heard on multiple occasions of people who think it would be brilliant to have ‘online’ versions of their favourite RPGs. Sadly, most RPGs function better face to face. While message boards are cool, they’re a whole different experience. Video-chat and other tools can only go so far, but it’s an interesting conundrum nevertheless.
So, what are your thoughts on the pros and cons of various editions of D&D? How do you think the market has changed in the years since the original game came out? Do you think D&D has been getting steadily better or steadily worse? Perhaps, every edition has pros and cons. How do you think technology is affecting the market? When you’re in the nursing home, which game will you be playing?
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