The D&D Editions Ranked

Most rankings of the D&D editions tend to focus on rules. My rankings weigh everything — the rules (players’ handbooks, DMs guides, monster manuals, etc.), the adventures (modules, gazetteers, campaign settings), the artwork, and the general mindset and culture of D&D gaming throughout these eras.

1. First edition (1e). 1974-1989. Of course it’s the best, and I include all the old-school versions — OD&D, AD&D, and even Basic D&D — when I talk about 1e. I used the AD&D rule books but celebrated the Basic and Advanced modules and gazetteers impartially; the excellence of those modules remains unsurpassed. This was D&D’s golden age (until 1983, at least), and the artwork alone was a clear indicator of something special. The rules were just enough because too many rules just got in the way. Haters of 1e complain that some of the rules were crude or nonsensical, and that’s true, but it didn’t matter, we just ignored those. (Is there honestly anyone who used alignment languages? I don’t remember even discussing the concept with the people I played with, it seemed taken for granted they were bizarre and silly.) Most of the rules worked fine, and they provided the framework, while adventure modules were the focus of the real excitement – pulp fantasy sandboxes left for open-ended play, in which players made autonomous decisions and DMs trained themselves for the unexpected. The focus was more on player skill than character skill, and it made the game hard, yes, but rewarding because of it; you had to really earn your experience points. Beating a dungeon or surviving a wilderness was a cause for rejoicing. The looming threat of death at any moment is what kept players on their toes.

2. Third edition (3e/3.5e). 2000-2003/2003-2008. For all its unconscionable sins of complexity, I have to doff my cap to Wizards of the Coast: they reignited my interest in D&D (it happened on a fateful day in 2005) after 14 years of not playing a single game. The 3e period wasn’t a new golden age, by any means, but it was a gilded age that reminded us why we loved D&D to begin with. The new spell system in some ways surpassed 1e: clerics and druids now had 8th and 9th level spells, and all spell casters had more to choose from. (I still use these spells in my grognard gaming scenarios.) 3e brought a darkness back into the game that we hadn’t seen since the ’70s and early ’80s, before D&D became so sissified. (I still use, for example, The Book of Vile Darkness (2002), which presents spells and devices for masochism, sadism, torture, disease, necrophilia, and demonology.) It was the most customizable of all the editions, with loads of options; you could play almost any race of any creature. But that was a two-edged sword, because with so many options — and with hundreds of skills and feats to choose from — running a character, let alone creating one, became way too complex. Combat wasn’t fluid anymore. And in the wake of 3.5, the ocean of rule books that came out was insane. But here’s the upshot: I pronounce 3e a success, because it drew me back to a hobby I thought I’d never pick up again. It snowballed into something overly complex and mechanical, but even that turned out for the better, because it pushed me back even further — to 1e itself, and made me realize that D&D didn’t need any upgrades. I fell in love with classic D&D all over again. That might have never happened if not for 3e. And as I said, there are elements of 3e that I continue to use in my 1e campaigns.

3. Second edition (2e). 1989-1999. Believe me, I wanted to rank it lower. This was the dark age of D&D, when modules were pure railroads, and the game had become sanitized in pandering to religious loons. The fundies claimed that D&D promoted devil worship, and so demons and devils were removed from the game, not to reappear until 3e. Some claim that the rules improved on 1e, but on whole I think they were actually more regressive. “THAC0”, for example, still drives me nuts when I see it. But there’s no denying 2e had the best settings of all the eras: the savage desert world of Athas, the gothic horror-land of Ravenloft, and other places far more inspiring than the artificial worlds of Greyhawk and Krynn. The problem is that the modules for these terrific worlds were shitty and as railroady as Dragonlance ever was. Also, these great settings were a source of divisiveness, as players latched on to one and wouldn’t touch any other. I played my last D&D game in 1991 (until 2005), mostly because I had graduated from college and suddenly didn’t have time for gaming anymore. But I was also very cognizant of how the game was deteriorating; I was losing considerable interest in it in any case.

4. Fifth edition (5e). 2014-today. Lighter on rules (take that, 3e), and less combat-focused so you can actually do some role-playing (take that, 4e), 5e emerged as the most mainstreamed edition to date, and it’s no surprise it has gained wide appeal. But this is at the expense of dumbing the game’s ass down to the umpteenth degree. 5e is ridiculously easy. You get a million hit points instead of ten, you get to roll two d20s when attacking or saving (and take the better of the die rolls), and if you do reach 0 hit points, you probably still don’t need to worry about dying. You can make death-saving throws until the cows come home, and roll hit dice during rest-stops in the middle of a dungeon. Seriously. 5e doesn’t feel remotely perilous, and for me that’s an epic fail. The adventures themselves are forgettable, the best ones being the 1e classics translated over. Worst about 5e is the tone, as it takes a high-fantasy approach that’s designed for a generation steeped in action superhero films — worlds away from the gritty (and deadly) pulp fantasy roots of D&D. On top of all that, Wizards of the Coast has been recently succumbing to woke pressures, in the same way TSR pandered to Christian fundies. Now, instead of erasing demons and devils, we have the erasure of “evil races” like orcs and drow, who have been “so terribly maligned” and should be portrayed as good, neutral, and evil as members of the human race. Newsflash to wokes: the idea that fantasy creatures like orcs and drow are evil isn’t racist, and pretending that it’s racist does nothing whatsoever to fight inequality in our world. All it does is rob the game of compelling ideas. (And if the wokes had half the sense God gave geese they would realize that ideas of evil bad-ass matriarchs encourage female empowerment if anything.)

5. 4th edition (4e). 2008-2014. The most short-lived and shit-stained. I’m sure there’s a school of thought that thinks it’s just swell, but it has no credibility in my eyes. 4e is just a tabletop MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game), in other words, a combat video game made for the table. You need miniatures, dice, and a table map — and next to no role-playing skills. It’s combat, combat, and more combat. In overreaction to 3e and 3.5e, all the complexity was chopped away so that everything had a bland generic feel too it. D&D was completely and ridiculously overhauled to favor tactical warfare over story. It was also — not to put too fine a line on it — a cash grab for miniatures. The differences between character classes were blurred to the point of absurdity; spells and abilities were replaced with powers. Why? So that everyone could feel equally powerful in combat; a fighter as much as a wizard. That may align with 21st century feelings for egalitarianism, but it’s stupid and unrealistic. At the lower levels, fighters should be more powerful than (and protective of) wizards, while at the higher levels, wizards should be the ultra-powerful ones. Then there was the one-size-fits-all “unification of worlds” theme — the eradication of various worlds and outer planes that made the D&D multiverse so fascinating and compelling. Enough said. I don’t even consider 4e to be a role-playing game. It’s a battle simulator without soul.

2 thoughts on “The D&D Editions Ranked

  1. Cool post, Loren. I really enjoyed The Lost City, which I will comment on in itself since you finished posting it. I cut my teeth on the Red Box as a kid, with my dad Dm’ing for my brother and I, but second edition was what was being released as I came into my own as a DM. I will owe 1st for setting the foundation and second for giving me worlds I love (Arias, Ravenloft, Sigil, and Cerilia). As an Mmo player 4th was an interesting experiment, but nothing that screams I need to keep playing it (although I did like what they did with the setting in Faerun for 4th). Third edition stole my heart, I moved on to Pathfinder, but I love the mechanics. As for 5th, Wizards seem to be happy with pissing off the fans who kept them afloat. I used to consider myself a liberal (indeed that has been used as a pejorative against me), but the woke crowd grabbing hold of 5E has really soured me on it; it’s made me feel like (in this particular instance) I am being pushed to the right by not embracing insanity

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the Lost City and I look forward to your reactions. It’s been well received by other readers too. I hear exactly what you’re saying about being pushed to the right. I was a proud leftist throughout the ’80s and ’90s, but in this century I’ve been edging increasingly to the right (in some ways at least). The wokes are tragic really.

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