Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Editions of D&D

While participating in a discussion online about D&D, it occured to me that each "edition" of D&D could be reasonably well summed up in a few key points or words for what it was most "known for."  By this, I mean numbered editions; Original Brown and White Box D&D, or the Basic and Up lines were sidelines of D&D that had a lot of good points, but I don't believe anything that's particularly.... unique, for lack of a better word. 

Meanwhile, the numbered editions do.  So, without further ado, here's where I see each edition of D&D making its mark on the brand.

First edition AD&D is mostly known for being classic.  While wandering about through a type of product adolescence, D&D was gathering momentum and market and whantot until it became AD&D.  Then it was a mature product, a mature line, and it became, well the classic D&D that most people remember from the classic days of the game.  The classic PHB.  The classic Monster Manual.  The classic Gygaxian prose of the Dungeonmaster's Guide.  The classic modules.  Everything about it is classic, and in a sense, almost canonized by much of the D&D playing public.  Whatever AD&D did, it typically did it first.  The first Manual of the Planes.  The first Underdark (in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, or whatever it was exactly that that book was called.)  In many ways, it's fard to fault these early pioneers, because there wasn't anything to compare them too.

In all fairness, though, they weren't always that good.  The art and layout was often amateurish.  Gygax's prose stunk, and he needed a good editor, and someone with a better sense of organization to help him write that DMG.  So many of those classic monsters were laughably stupid.  So many of those classic modules were so poorly designed.  And the play paradigm was strongly rooted in Gygax's own miniatures wargaming background, despite the fact that much of the audience was not.

Second edition: what can you say?  Settings.  Second edition is most well-known for settings.  Some of them didn't actually launch during 2e--Forgotten Realms, for instance, started in the late 1e days--but this is the grand floruit of setting detail, setting development, and so many new settings.  Forgotten Realms was fairly mainstream, as was Mystara and a few others, but we also got a lot of really esoteric stuff like Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Planescape, Ravenloft, etc.

Second edition was also well known for increasingly bad mechanics.  Sure, it was mostly just 1e reorganized... at least until Skills and Powers and kits came out.  While not a bad idea--they needed to do something to alleviate the straight-jacket like class structure, this solution probably caused more problems than it solved.

Third edition: the OGL, clearly.  Hordes and hordes of third party stuff; some of it absolutely terrible, but some of it amongst the best stuff ever published for the game.  The setting search and Eberron.  The "half edition" update in 3.5.  Harmonized and synchronous mechanics.  It's curious to me that the mechanical simplicity that was lauded at 3e's launch was decried as a straight-jacket, as needlessly pedantic, as stifling by the time 3.5 was near the end of its product cycle.  Did the game itself actually change that much?  In my opinion, no, not really.  But somehow people's perception of it sure did.  Oh, and plastic, prepainted, randomly sorted mini packs.

Fourth edition: huge focus on miniatures and tactical combat.  Points of light.  The DDI.  Massive change to the mechanical fundamentals, many of which wooed those disenchanted with the "stifling" environment of third edition, but many of which alienated other long-time players who felt like this new game simply wasn't D&D anymore.  There was another mid-stream "half edition" of sorts, in the form of D&D Essentials.  Also well-known for having to compete with itself, in a way, in the form of Pathfinder.  Lots of internet rivalry between fans of the two editions.

No comments: