Which Dungeons & Dragons Edition Should I Play?

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DND Editions

The following is a list of the different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, some key differences between them, pros, cons, etc.

Keep in mind that every aspect of an edition is secondary to the rules of your individual DM, set of homebrew rules, and the general style of your playgroup.

Each edition offers very different bases for your group, and can affect the feel of the game.


First Edition D&D [1e]

This edition of the game introduced many of the staples of the game that have entered popular conscience. If someone was playing Dungeons & Dragons in an early 80’s sitcom, they were likely playing this version.

This edition introduced the race/class system, the alignment system, and the system of releasing supplemental books to expand the ruleset.

Pros

  • Easy to houserule as few rules are interconnected
  • Combat is very simple
  • Doesn’t require miniatures, grids or maps to play

Cons

  • Unforgiving in combat; there’s no shame in running as often as you fight
  • The non-combat skills system is poor
  • You won’t have rules for everything, so ad-hoc rulings are required
  • Attacking using a rather cumbersome matrix based on your level and the monsters level: requires that the attack tables be constantly open during combat

Other Stuff

  • Group initiative: all members of a side act together including PCs
  • Save or Die effects aren’t restricted to high level foes
  • Experience from Gold – You get far more xp from loot than from killing stuff; engaging in combat is less of a priority

Second Edition D&D [2e]

This edition was produced as a way to consolidate all of the previous rules and supplements into a unified game. This edition mainstreamed out of combat skills, the infamous THAC0 system, and magical “schools” and “spheres” for spells.

Pros

  • As 1e but…
  • More polish on non-combat skills.
  • Class kits allow for greater customization.
  • Easily back compatible: 1e and 2e changed very little fundamentally so you can take rules and items straight from one to the other with little consequence.

Cons

  • combat is still harsh and short: very easy to die.
  • Race limitations. Some races are limited to which class they can take.
  • “multi-class” vs “dual class” properties. Can be confusing to understand the nuances.

Other Stuff

  • See 1e
  • Less combat centric
  • Lower HP
  • Life as an adventurer is often short
  • THAC0: “To Hit AC 0”. The targets AC is subtracted from your “THAC0” value, giving you the number you need to roll on the die in order to succeed. This is fairly similar to later Armor Class rules, but many people find it to add unneeded math
  • XP for gold.

Third Edition [3e]/[3.5]/[3.x]

This version of Dungeons & Dragons introduces the famous d20 system, in which basically every action can be resolved with the roll of a twenty-sided die. In addition, the system for minis on a grid-system is standardized, with movement and combat now less subjective. Additionally, tons of character customization options were fleshed out, including easier multi-classing, prestige classes, and the feat system.

3rd edition is largely ignored compared to 3.5, as 3.5 fixed a lot glaring flaws in the original 3.0 rules. All content published for 3.0 is largely compatible with 3.5, but may require updating to reflect updated mechanics.

These aren’t really separate games so much as different takes on the same game. 3.5 is a revised edition of 3.0, and Pathfinder is a third-party edition based on 3.5 using the very generous license introduced by Wizards of the Coast. 

Third Edition, Revised (3.5) – A decidedly small update to the D&D world, and largely interchangeable with basic 3e, this edition was meant mostly as housekeeping for D&D. Most classes were slightly reworked for balance and standardization reasons (especially rangers, druids, monks, and barbarians), monsters were changed to allow greater customization, and spell-casting was unified.

pros

  • Highly customizable characters
  • detailed skill system
  • Huge variety of unique classes and races
  • Spells allow for an incredible range of creativity
  • Customizable magic weapons/armor/shields
  • Huge library of “prestige classes”: Classes which you can multiclass into after meeting pre-requisites

cons

  • Balance issues between spellcasting and non-spellcasting classes, especially at higher levels
  • “Save or suck” spells; players/monsters frequently die due to a single poor roll
  • “5 round day”: Spellcasters quickly expend their highest level spells, and many parties rest after only one or two very brief encoutners
  • game balance is very poor at high levels
  • Numerous one-off combat rules which are difficult and slow to use (particularly Grapple, which many groups refuse to use because it slows down the game so much)
  • “Dead Levels”: Many classes have many levels at which they only receive a numerical increase to one or more stats

Pathfinder [PF]/[Pathfinder]

Developed as an open-source revision to Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, Pathfinder’s goals were to flesh out basic classes (encouraging single classing over multi-classing), make leveling more rewarding, increase the number of options players have in any given situation (increasing the numbers of spells, abilities, and feats for all classes), and provide more options to further differentiate characters.

pros

  • Published under the “Open Gaming License”, so the rules are available for free on the Pathfinder SRD
  • Currently in print
  • Built on 3.5’s strengths, and attempted to patch many of its weaknesses
  • No more “dead levels”; every class gets something cool at every level
  • Single-class characters are unique and interesting
  • Class “Archetypes” allow customization of classes with alternate class abilities without needing to take a prestige class
  • Improved caster/non-caster Balance: Spellcasters are a bit more survivable at lower levels than in 3.5, but non-casters can keep up at high levels because non-casters have more options available
  • “Save or Suck” spells slightly improved: spells which outright kill something with one roll are limited for very high levels
  • Monters have flat XP values, similar to 4th edition, which makes writing encounters simple for the DM
  • Backwards-compatible with a lot content from 3.5 with very little conversion
  • The “Pathfinder Beginner Box” is an excellent introduction to both Pathfinder and the Dungeons and Dragons hobby as a whole.

cons

  • There are still “Save or Suck” effects
  • Casters are still king

Other Stuff

  • You gain a hit point/skill rank for leveling in your favored class. This makes single-class characters much more viable, but it also discourages “creative” multiclassing. This isn’t necessarily bad, and is more of a matter of taste.

Fourth Edition [4e]

A massive revamp of the ruleset which changed combat almost entirely. Every class was given “powers” rather than having a few specific “spell-casting” classes. The basic list of races was changed, to include Dragonborn and Tieflings, and splitting elves into three distinct races.

Opinions on 4th edition are heavily divided, there are definitely some issues with it that you should be aware of. Some of the controversy is caused by the willingness of the designers to slaughter some of Dungeons & Dragons’ sacred cows, or their lack of sense of what a game requires to be D&D, depending on who you ask.

While other editions of Dungeons & Dragons focus on having spells and abilities described in natural language, 4E is an effects based system that separates rules and flavour text. For some players this is jarring and kills their immersion, while others find it liberating as it allows the same game effect to be described in different ways.

The healing system is completely overhauled, introducing healing surges. Out of combat skills are de-emphasized, symbolically by removing alignments, and procedurally by simplifying the skill-system.

Free Quickstart Rules are available.

Pros

  • Though out of print, the books are easily available from used book stores
  • All characters are interesting and have many abilities; Fighters can do more than just swing a sword
  • Very few, if any, “dead levels”
  • Dungeons and Dragons Insider: For a monthly subscription, Wizards provides access to their Character Builder (which includes all up-to-date character options), the Rules Compendium (a searchable rules index), access to both Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine, and the Virtual Tabletop (NOTE: Due to recent events, the virtual tabletop has been abandoned)
  • No more “active defenses”. Fortitude/Reflex/Will are static values like armor class. Spellcasters make attack rolls just like everyone else
  • Many ways for DMs to ramp difficulty up or down, easy to make enemies to fit the party
  • Characters are very well balanced; there are few strictly bad choices
  • Writing encounters is very easy for the DM; much of the math from previous editions was vastly simplified
  • “Minions” (monsters with 1 hp) make fights with lots of one-shot enemies fun and simple
  • Very gentle learning curve, and very accessible to new players. The “Red Box” starter set is an excellent introduction to 4th edition and Dungeons and Dragons as a whole.

Cons

  • Many groups find it harder to RolePlay because the mechanics are so combat-focused
  • Combat is highly tactical, and very difficult to manage without a combat grid and miniatures
  • There are no mechanics for mundane crafting or performance

Other Stuff

  • Characters start fairly durable, especially compared to other editions
  • Dragonborn are in the players handbook, allowing players to play dragon-esque characters very easily for the first time
  • Skill Challenges“: A series of free-form skill tests working toward a common goal. Opinions on the usefulness/fun of skill challenges vary wildly.
  • “Healing Surges” introduced a new, daily-renewable healing mechanic which removes the need for “heal-bot” clerics. Some find that the healing surge system is too forgiving compared to previous editions, but this is mostly a matter of personal taste.

5th Edition [5e]

The current edition, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is a return to the best mechanics of previous editions. The rules have been greatly simplified, and public feedback has been hugely positive. Because 5th edition was publicly play-tested, the core mechanics have been thoroughly vetted by the community.

We have a number of 5th Edition class guides where we go over ways to play each class optimally.

Pros

  • The “Basic Rules” are available for free from the Wizards website. The Basic rules contain a small selection of iconic races, classes, and spells, but do not contain optional rules like magic items or feats. The basic rules are periodically updated with fixes and additional content.
  • Currently in print, and being actively supported
  • Rules are very simple
  • Fast character creation
  • Optional complexity: Characters can be customized using feats, or you can stick to ability score improvements to keep characters simple
  • Shallow power curve: Characters become much stronger as they level, but low level enemies can still be used at high levels. An Orc is and Orc, and a level 20 fighter can fight the same Orcs that he did at level 1. Low level enemies will be much easier to defeat, but not so much easier that they can simply be ignored like they could in earlier editions of the game.

Cons

  • Low power cap: Some players find that the shallow power curve prevents characters from mastering their skills. The maximum bonus to skills/attacks is generally +11 (+6 proficiency, +5 ability), so there is always a possibility that you will fail at relatively easy skill checks. Some players find this acceptable, but some players dislike it.
  • As it’s the newest D&D offering, there are a number of ‘Digital tools’ that have been given licence to sell the official material. This can create a big cost if you dive into one platform but change your mind. Some of these include: Roll20, Foundry VTT, and Fantasy Grounds.

Other Stuff

  • Optional magic items: The game is balanced to be played without magic items, which means that magic items stop being a required numerical bonus, and they become exciting pieces of rare loot
  • Hit Dice: Similar to healing surges in 4th edtion, 5th edition includes “hit dice” which allow characters to heal between encounters without requiring a cleric

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