The Dungeons & Dragons game has been around a long time. As befitting a game with more than forty years of history, the publishers of the game (first TSR, now Wizards of the Coast) have gone through multiple editions.
And while the current edition of D&D is referred to as the fifth edition, this is not actually true. After publication of the original game in 1974, the game was split into two similar but separate lines in 1977.
- Starting with the D&D Basic Set by John Eric Holmes, this edition was a rewrite of the original D&D line that made it more accessible to those joining the hobby. A new edition in 1981 (the Moldvay/Cook edition) and another in 1983 (the Mentzer edition) kept this version of the game alive right through most of the 1990’s
- Starting with the Monster Manual, and followed by the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game was published in hardcover books and was a more comprehensive and more complicated version of D&D that opened up many more options for the players. A second edition was published in 1989, most notably removing all references to demons and devils from the game. After being purchased by Wizards of the Coast, the D&D third edition was released in 2000, with a “half-edition” update coming out in 2003. The innovative D&D fourth edition hit the shelves in 2008, with a major shift in the core design to bring something new to the table. And the current edition was released in 2014 and is notable for the anemic support for this edition from Wizards of the Coast.
Despite the moniker of the current published edition being labelled as “5th” edition, you can see that there have actually been nine separate editions of the game. And this doesn’t include the “3.5 update,” which was not marketed as a new edition due to fear of backlash from fans of the game who had invested in the third edition books, despite having hundreds of rule changes and many elements no longer being easily compatible with the original third edition.
As each edition of D&D has had certain strengths, each has also had some big weaknesses. No game system is perfect for everyone, and each edition does feel different in play.
In the old days, however, the launch of a new edition always meant support for the current edition would completely dry up. In fact, after a short time had passed, players could often no longer easily find copies of the previous edition’s books to purchase. This meant that the majority of gamers would follow along as the editions were released in order to be able to get ongoing support for their games.
However, technology being what it is, there reached a point where old editions could be made available again.
Wizards of the Coast decided to release all their old products as downloadable PDF files on the online store, DriveThruRPG. It’s an ongoing process, but right now you can purchase the core rulebooks for original D&D, Moldvay/Cook Basic/Expert, most of the Mentzer Basic line, AD&D first and second edition, D&D 3.5 (though not the original third edition core books), and D&D fourth edition.
Along with the core rulebooks, there is a huge amount of support material released, including adventures, core setting releases, and sourcebooks.
What this means is that a player of Dungeons & Dragons can find and legally purchase materials from their favorite edition. They are not stuck playing the current edition if it doesn’t appeal to them.
Of course, so far I’ve completely left out the retro-clones and the OSR games, but they have played a big part in bringing back the interest in older editions of the game. Originally designed to be a common rules framework that would allow someone to write and publish adventures and support material for an out-of-print edition, they have evolved into an ever-growing pool of games that do more than just recreate old materials.
In some cases, these OSR games are little more than someone republishing an older edition of D&D with their own personal house rules incorporated into the text. But in many cases, these games take the old chassis and innovate in different directions from that taken by TSR or WotC, creating something both familiar and new at the same time.
In an era where Wizards of the Coast has published an edition (5th) that has avoided major design innovation in favor of putting out a game that feels familiar and inoffensive to the greatest number of gamers, some of these OSR games really show what can be done when you’re not afraid to break new ground.
Despite the constant doom and gloom predictions from certain “industry leaders” and those who don’t really understand this hobby, we are actually in a golden age of RPGs.
For the first time since 1974, players of D&D can pick and choose from nine different official editions of rules, and dozens of unofficial ones. There is a resurgence of support for every one of those D&D editions in the form of adventures, settings, and sourcebooks.
And I haven’t even touched on entirely third-party games, some of which arguably do D&D-style dungeon crawls better than D&D itself (e.g. Dungeon World).
It’s a great time to be a gamer. Games long out of print (not just D&D) have become available again through the magic of official PDF releases and print-on-demand services. The choices available to someone joining the hobby are vastly superior to any other time in the history of our hobby.
And despite the tribalism, the utterly stupid and pointless edition wars, and the “my favorite game is better than your favorite game” nonsense, the reality is that all of us in this hobby are gamers, first and foremost.
So how did you get into this hobby? What was your first game? Do you still play it? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.