My first introduction to D&D was the PC game Baldur's Gate, a truly excellent game based on 2nd Edition AD&D. Subsequently, I played Icewind Dale, which captured my attention (and heart) by allowing me to create all six members of my adventuring party. I spent hours creating character after character, party after party ("Ooh, I could make a party based on the Justice League! Or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! or the cast of Farscape!" etc.), all with only the barest of grasps on the underlying mechanics. I had no idea what 18/00 strength meant, why a warhammer's damage was cryptically listed as "1d4+1," or what in the world THAC0 was. All I knew was that I needed to slay awesome monsters and acquire a spectacular array of magical items. I needed to read every book I came across, pick up every gem I found, learn every magical weapon's backstory, and talk to every NPC. I needed to explore every inch of that world.
Looking back on it now, I'm really surprised it took me so long to get into tabletop RPGs.
Anyways, having been exposed to it before even knowing what D&D was, 2nd edition holds a very special place in my heart/RPG-bookshelf. Today I thought, seeing as it is relatively early in my time as a blogger (blogist? blogomancer?), that I would talk about the various editions of D&D and what experience I get out of them. And I guess I thought correctly, because here I am doing just that!
I've only played this a few times, and never from behind the screen. I am mainly interested in it for historical purposes. I feel it is essential to have at least a passing understanding of past editions of D&D to really tap into the legacy and "feel" of a game, even if you are playing something as far removed from AD&D as Pathfinder or 4th Edition. But most of the things I like about AD&D are also things I like (or like better) in 2d. Ed., so I might as well move right on to that.
2nd Edition AD&D
I really love 2nd Ed. Every class is so distinct from the others, lacking the syncretism which finds its way into later editions, especially Pathfinder and 4E. While later editions were all about letting you create the character you want, 2nd Ed. wanted you to become an archetype: barbarians are Conan, thieves are the Grey Mouser, paladins are Sir Gawain or Roland. There was, of course, still ample room for roleplaying and even further character customization with the introduction of the Nonweapon Proficiencies system and the "Complete" series of books, but the main rule set was very much geared toward archetypal characters.
I love that many of the classes gain a building and/or followers as they progress in levels. Fighters attract a retinue of men-at-arms and soldiers at 9th level, 10th level rangers attract 2d6 followers ranging from bears and falcons to treants and werebears, 9th level clerics can build an abbey or convent and attract followers, thieves gain a band of roguish followers, and even bards can attract a retinue of soldiers and construct a stronghold at 9th level. This kind of thing could be a real headache for a GM, but it could also be a great opportunity. Having followers and strongholds ties the PCs to the world in a new way: they may now have to undertake quests to defend or improve their lands; they may show their true nature in the way they rule, changing the party dynamic; they may even get involved in local politics and make a play for the throne. If you've ever played Mount & Blade, you've dealt with this kind of stuff before.
One very interesting mechanic is balance-by-rarity. When you roll up your character, you are essentially creating its soul, and depending on the resultant scores you determine what race and class you can play. The races are generally less restrictive, though if you have 18 wisdom, you have too much wisdom to become a halfling, and if you've got 10 constitution, you don't have enough to become a dwarf. With classes, some are very easy to qualify for: fighters only need a strength of 9 or better, and the situation is the same for mages and intelligence, clerics and wisdom, and thieves and dexterity. But outstanding classes like paladins, rangers, and bards are more difficult to qualify for. A ranger needs 13 strength and dexterity and 14 constitution and wisdom, and a paladin needs at least 12 strength, 9 constitution, 13 wisdom, and 17 charisma. If you're rolling up 3d6 or even 4d6-drop-one (especially if you are rolling up in order), this makes such classes a rarity. It is rather restrictive on the players, but gives an interesting flavor to character creation.
2nd edition (as with 1st ed.) also tried to balance the classes and races in other ways that do not fit into the modern paradigm. Not only did every class level up at a different rate (16,000 xp to get a fighter to level 5, but 20,000 for a wizard), but they earned experience at a different rate. For instance, warriors gain 10 xp/level per hit die of creatures defeated, rogues gain 200 xp per successful use of a special ability but priests only gain 100 xp per successful use of a granted power, wizards gain 50 xp/spell level for spells cast to overcome foes or problems and priests gain 100 xp/spell level, but only for spells cast to further their ethos. This is interesting, but overly complicated and, ultimately, broken. Consider the following scenario: A thief, a cleric of the god of law and order, a wizard, and a fighter, all 1st level, come upon a door. The thief detects a trap (200 xp), disarms the trap (200 xp), and unlocks the door (200 xp). Beyond are two skeletons. The cleric turns undead, causing the skeletons to flee (100 xp). The fighter charges in and cuts down one fleeing skeleton (10 xp). The wizard casts magic missile - his only spell - damaging the second skeleton (50 xp). The cleric then casts Invisibility to Undead (0 xp - does not further the ethos of law and order). The fighter cleans up the last skeleton (10 xp). In this scenario, purely from individual class XP awards, the fighter gained 20 xp, the cleric 100 xp, the wizard 50 xp, and the rogue... 600 xp. Did I mention that rogues also level up much more quickly than other classes? (only 10,000 xp to get to level 5.)
Another problem, especially for people coming from later editions, is that the ability score system really adheres to the bell-curve. This means that characters with exceptional ability scores are rare but awesome, but it also means that most characters do not get to be awesome. For example, a character with 6 strength and one with 15 strength have the same adjustment to their damage: 0. An archer with 16 dexterity has only a +1 advantage to hit over an archer with 6 dexterity. Characters from 7 to 14 constitution gain no bonus hit points. In my experience, players to not want to play characters who are just average.
One rule system I really, really like in 2nd ed. is the initiative system. First, everyone determines what they plan to do this round. Then they roll for initiative on a d10, with lower number being better. This number is modified by the specific action each PC takes this round: a PC casting a spell adds the spell's casting time, a PC using a weapon adds the weapon's speed (higher numbers for more cumbersome weapons), etc. Then all the things the PCs and the GM planned take place according to their modified initiative rolls, with equal rolls occurring simultaneously. This encourages planning and teamwork among the players. The wizard designated a spot for his fireball to go off, but by the time he casts it the field of battle may have changed. He would do best to try to anticipate the location his enemies will be at, and warn his companions not to charge into the fray. Because initiative is rolled every round rather than at the start of every combat, it can change and fluctuate, making battles more interesting and dynamic. This makes chases much more interesting. I was GMing a game of 2nd ed. last summer wherein the players bit off more than they could chew in terms of skeleton archers. After the latest volley of ancient arrows, the party decided to flee back to a tomb they had already cleared and bar the door. In a game with set initiative, they would have safely escaped because they would all move before the skeletons every single round. Tension erased. But with these 2nd ed. initiative rules, a few bad rolls here and a few good ones there could result in the skeletons catching up or a player or two falling behind. Tension builds! The main downside to this system is that the extra rolls and the extra calculations can add time to the play, but I think combat goes pretty quickly in 2nd ed. anyways.
I think, in general, 1st and 2nd editions have a brutal, dangerous quality to their gameplay. Character death is never a far off possibility, and while I try to avoid killing my players, I feel that sense of danger helps build tension and raise the stakes, making games more fun and more satisfying.
I've played a fair bit of 3.5 and feel rather familiar with it. Compared to past editions, it is downright egalitarian. Any race can play any class, which greatly improves the player's ability to build the character they want to play. Balance-by-rarity is out the window, as there are little to no ability score prerequisites for any class or race. Classes advance at the same rate of experience. Effort was made to make different classes roughly equivalent in power, and though whether they succeeded is up for debate, they do seem more balanced than in previous editions.
Another major improvement comes from simplification of the basic rules. Basically every time you try to do something, you roll a d20; no more d10s for initiative or d% for bending bars or climbing walls. And high numbers are always better; it is no longer the case that low initiative rolls and low AC are good things. Ability scores now operate on a more linear scale, so a character with 14 strength can hit significantly harder than one with 8 strength.
I am a big fan of all the character customization options available in 3.5. The addition of feats and skills opens up new dimensions for allowing players to build the character they want to play. Players are often more invested in their characters as a result. The downside is that it takes much longer to roll up a new character or introduce a new player to the system.
Pathfinder is an improvement on 3.5 in nearly every way. The races and classes have been given another run through the balance machine. The ridiculous mechanics for grappling, bull rushing, tripping, etc. have all been boiled down into the Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense, which work like a separate attack and AC. Some of the more broken features of 3.5 were re-worked.
The emphasis on character customization is very heavy in Pathfinder. Characters get feats more often, you can choose traits (sort of mini-feats), there are loads and loads of alternate class features and archetypes to choose from, most classes have special abilities like barbarian rage powers or rogue talents to further personalize their character... for an experienced player, Pathfinder is a treasure trove of tricks to build a truly unique character. Unfortunately, it now takes even more time to create a new character or level up, and it is even more confusing for new players.
I have found that sometimes these customization options are a bit too cookie-cutter. For instance, many of the cleric domains or sorcerer bloodlines boil down to the same few abilities slightly re-skinned for a different flavor. I rather liked the domains system in 3.5 - each domain felt distinct from the others, and although some were clearly better than others, they were all somewhat interesting.
Pathfinder characters are ridiculously powerful, especially compared to 2nd ed. characters. This can lead to issues, but I find I rather like it: having more powerful characters means I can throw more interesting monsters at them.
Oh, and there is a lot of inexcusably bad artwork in Pathfinder. That's unfortunate. But I can overlook that because the overall game is excellent.
(Incidentally, if you play Pathfinder, you might want to check out my improved Pathfinder character sheet.)
I have never played 4th edition, but I have heard plenty about it, both from people who enjoy it and people who hate it.
The primary focus of 4th ed. seems to have been in eliminating the 15-minute adventuring day. In previous editions, once the party ran out of spells, especially healing spells, they were pretty much forced to rest. How long this took depended on how well the party managed its resources, but due to the way in which time is modeled in D&D (1 round of combat equals 1 minute in 2nd ed. or 6 seconds in 3.5), this resulted in comically-short work days for the PCs, to the point where it was certainly not unusual to have two 8-hour rest periods in a single day. In 4th edition, to solve this, characters have at-will, encounter, and daily powers. The most powerful abilities are usable once per day, moderate abilites once per encounter, and simple abilities can be used all the time. So spellcasters always have something they can do, they aren't reduced to plunking away with slings and crossbows after they've used up their weapons. Every character is also given a reserve of healing power for themselves. Between encounters, they can spend these healing surges to regain lost hit points without having to take an 8-hour nap.
This certainly solved then 15-minute adventuring day, but it has serious gameplay ramifications that threatened its essential D&D-ness. For one thing, the emphasis on combat results in some strange gameplay elements which are mechanically sound but philosophically troubling. Encounter powers, for instance: is a combat encounter a universal law of time? What cosmic mechanism allows a person to perform an ability only once per combat? It also results in increased character customization, as there are so many at-will, encounter, and daily powers to choose from. But the different classes feel then same, mechanically. Fighters also have at-will, encounter, and daily powers, so wizards, clerics, and fighters all basically have the same limitations and interact with the game in the same way. It is also troubling to attempt to justify this in-game. Why, for instance, can a fighter perform certain moves only once per day or once per encounter? The moves do not draw power from any limiting magical source - they are simply cool combat things he knows how to do. Is he only doing that epic, super powerful move once per day because he's a dick?
Powers in 4th edition seem rather MMORPG-ish or card-gamey. It may be called Dungeons and Dragons, but when I see a level 1 wizard with 20 hp rolling to hit with a magic missile, when I see a fighter saying "No, I already used that move today" or "what's my regular weapon damage? I never use that," or when I see a 1st level ranger vanish in a cloud of shadow he wills into existence, I think "Wow, they need to re-read those old Players Handbooks again, because this sure doesn't feel like D&D to me."
5th Edition/D&D Next
I haven't signed up for the D&D Next playtest, but I am sorely tempted to. Purely from their development blog posts and podcasts, it sounds very interesting. Sort of like the bastard child of 4th ed. and 2nd ed., with a lot of lessons gleaned from Pathfinder. Classes seem to be mechanically differentiated unlike in 4th ed., but there are still a lot of customization options that allow you to create a unique character that may bend or transcend those class boundaries. I don't know how well the final product will hold up, or whether it will be sufficient to unseat Pathfinder as the reigning champ, but right now it seems more likely that I would play and enjoy 5th edition than 4th.
So those are my takes on the various editions. Pathfinder and 2nd Ed. are obviously my favourites, but each edition has something to contribute to the meta-conversation. No one plays the same game of D&D, no matter what edition they are using. That is the joy of RPGs: gameplay and enjoyment are derived from the group of people you play with more than anything else.
-your opinionated d20 despot