D&D – the Version Wars!

I’ve been playing D&D for over 20 years in its various editions, from 1st Edition AD&D Dragonlance at school, to my own 4th ed. Against the Odds. Over time, each edition has developed its’ little faults: from bad marketing to an over-abundance of rules. Not to mention some god-awful changes in the system: I’ve heard this referred to as the Version Wars – they’re on par with Kirk vs. Picard…

1st edition was pretty basic – it still has a huge following among those that first picked it up in whatever generation they were born in, leading to many OSR games now being released. I remember seeing the rulebooks in John Menzies (along with the Fiend Folio, produced by the then UK branch of TSR). Without 1st ed, there would have been no Games Workshop – and the tabletop gaming world would have been very different. GW may now be a monolithic money-grabber, but its owes its’ roots to D&D. I think there’s maybe a little too much nostalgia for 1e, and a lot of games produced since are trying to capture the feel of it: production values have changed since Gygax’s golden era. People expect more for their money and costs for books have gone up! Would I run a 1st ed or OSR game? Probably not: it’s like being given a zx81 and then expected to install Halo upon it. I don’t suffer from the nostalgia attributed to it. Dragonlance was good, yet it was gorram linear (and hasn’t worn well) – no deviation from the plot allowed. It could be argued that a lot of 1st edition was the same: kill the monster, steal its treasure.

2nd edition had a lot of possibilities and works for me, for reasons I’ll mention later. However it also fell in the 90s to the CCG phenomenon that was Wizards of the Coast. AD&D worked up until the point where TSR was taken over – after which they seemed to produce a lot of sub-standard adventures and supplements. They had too many product lines and settings and I guess this is what lead to the development of 3.5. The Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Dark Sun, Greyhawk (oddly neglected), Red Death, etc. – all were run off as production lines (and often shut down after a few years). However the system itself works, despite the whole silly fear of THAC0, I think it works better than 3.5 (THAC0 is easier to work out than OB in MERP for example). There’s also another reason I like 2nd Ed. – the Core Rules CD & Expansion. This was brilliant and years ahead of its time.: customisable and easy to export, a character generator, mapping tools, searchable  rulebooks, monster builder. And it worked – you could even export the content, bearing in mind that the OGL was still many years away too. The Dragon Magazine archive was also useful, although maybe misguided – contributors to the early magazines should have got something for it. 2nd Ed. functions well as a toolkit – the game and classes work, there’s little complexity, and you can build a fantastic game out of it. Also, the characters are balanced and you don’t need to worry about the munchkin factor to any great extent. No Feats or Powers make the game a lot more balanced, and also a lot more challenging. Rather than tweaking  stats or attacks, you can get on with what makes your character different without overpowering the game.

3rd edition (and its +1 3.5 version) are where WotC dropped the ball in my opinion. Designed for the new generation of PC role-players, they had the opportunity to change the game such that it  could work well. Non-weapon proficiencies were dropped in favour of skills, THAC0 disappeared and became Attack Bonus. Some of the core races and classes disappeared. Yet Hit Points (HP) remained unchanged – I’ve never understood why. Wound levels, such as those found in The Secret Fire work far better than some arbitrary number, and very few modern games use the process of experience levels to gain more (Call of Cthulhu certainly doesn’t!). It always feels like the game was created and any feedback ignored – the playtest list for D&D3.0 was huge, but I suspect many of those on it were WotC sycophants, or those looking to get a free game. Certainly it didn’t seem playtested (you can read my post about playtesting here), although it did have high production values! If it worked so well, why was 3.5 brought out so quickly? I know its still popular at ORC, but I’m not a big fan of how it became a collection of splat books designed to give munchkin players less opportunity to use their imagination (feats, skill ranks etc). 3.5 also saw the release of the OGL (Open Gaming License) which probably re-invigorated the RPG hobby – but also saw the release of a lot of rubbish and the occasional gem e.g. Pathfinder. And don’t get me started on the whole E-tools debacle.

4th edition is a strange beast to me. It often feels like its been dumbed down (likely at Hasbro’s insistence), yet has some ideas that obviously didn’t make it to 3rd ed: the “bloodied” concept for example.However for me, it’s less of a boardgame and more of a wargame. None of the Powers are designed to help roleplaying: all deal with combat or support combat in some way – none actually help you roleplay your PC any better! AND I’m a  bit miffed about the Dragonborn – who just resemble my own Mandragora way too much, and make me wonder who came up with them (probably sour grapes on my part)… The system itself is geared toward combat and encounters which is fine if you’d like to play that style of game, but I like my players and PCs to be able to get involved in investigation, politics and other stuff. Sales of D&D have largely stagnated yet it remains popular. One wonders whether the increased focus on miniatures and the battlemat are an attempt to break into Games Workshop’s territory of “hobby gaming”. Hasbro would obviously like a piece of that action. And one idiot who ripped off a digital edition cost most of their fans who would have bought the PDF editions of old modules and books when they pulled them.

5th editon? – Well, we’ll see it maybe in the next two years or more. I don’t hold out much hope of it being any improvement though and will likely be more wargame than RPG. It’s also likely to be marketed for the console generation and younger gamer groups – I read somewhere that most people won’t read more than 500 words these days. D&D is also pugged heavily on some of the webcomics like Penny Arcade and PVPonline.

So why do I return to (A)D&D? It’s like that cheeseburger that you know you shouldn’t eat – the one with bacon, cheese and a HUGE portion of chips (that’s French fries to the Yanks out there). It’s bad for you and you know it, yet sometimes you just get a craving for it! If I don’t like the newer version I can always go back to the old.

Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at http://orcedinburgh.co.uk and regularly play RPGs.

2 replies on “D&D – the Version Wars!”

  1. Actually 2nd edition had a whole subset of unbalancing supplements and feats were the balancing mechanism used to override the skills and powers optional/core book for 2nd edition (black books) and the plethora of sourcebooks for elves (mmm love those mithril cyberlimbs) or greeks (or how to get +1 strength) or dungeons (build a magical healing trap for less than a wand of cure light wounds) complaints about 3’s sourcebooks mirror right back to 2nd. the real problem with 3rd was that the balance structure was refavoured towards spellcasters so much that half the traditional classes had to mutate away from core concept. (thankfully pathfinder does some good work fixing this but theres still work to be done. For my money classes should independantly level or have xp costs like in warhammer frpg)

  2. The black books were reprints by WotC when TSR was in the doldrums (the original PHB had a charging horseman and had a black spine, and teh DMG was a wizard versus a dragon IIRC). They had new artwork as far as I recall – and were put out at the same time as a lot of the Skills & Powers series (and they were optional!) – the DMGR series of books were very useful though.

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