Is There a Best Edition of D&D? Absolutely
Dungeons & Dragons editions questions and conversations come up quite a bit. Much more often than I would expect, that’s for sure. Whether it’s someone on Twitter asking what everyone’s favorite edition of D&D is, the impromptu discussion I had with Nerdarchist Dave earlier tonight, or the person who tasked Nerdarchy with convincing them to switch editions from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to fifth edition D&D that inspired the video below, I’m always up for a trip down D&D memory lane. Me? I’ve enjoyed every edition of D&D more than the previous one, and I love them all. Is there a best edition of D&D? Absolutely.
D&D editions to last a lifetime
Like Nerdarchist Dave says in the video, if you’re having a great time playing your favorite edition of D&D, why switch to something else? Sure, you’ll likely find more people playing the current edition of the game if you’re seeking to expand your player group, but beyond that, if you’re happy with first, second, third, fourth or even basic D&D, enjoy it! Over time, your group probably makes enough house rules and personalized tweaks to any of the D&D editions to consider them your own special game system in a lot of ways anyway.
I’ve been playing D&D since the mid-80s, starting with borrowing my brother’s red box and later first edition AD&D books, then starting my own collection and continuing to play right on through to today. Every new edition is a breath of fresh air for me and my friends. In fact, each of the new D&D editions revitalized our gaming habits — something shiny and new to explore always gets the band back together.
The benefit of a new edition is the blank canvas for adventures. As time goes on and experience grows, games in any edition tend to become more complex and intricate as we experiment with rules and add to the collection of resources with official and unofficial content, tweak systems and then become more freeform when we get comfortable with the mechanics. Also, at every milestone on the timeline on the history of D&D editions, players are naturally older and more experienced in real life, and that maturity gets reflected in our adventures and gaming habits too.
Spoiler alert: brevity is not my strong suit. So if you’d rather bypass a trip with me down memory lane, visiting the timeline of D&D editions, you can skip to the end and discover the TL;DR for the best edition of D&D
Red Box eraWay back when all my friends and I had was the red box, our games were classic dungeon crawls and we loved it. Discovering this new hobby was thrilling, and we were more than satisfied to roll up simple adventurers and delve into dungeons. We mapped our way through on graph paper, checked for traps constantly and searched for gold and treasure. Our characters didn’t have complex backstories or motivations other than being adventurers in a generic world riddled with ruins full of monsters. One of my most vivid memories from this era was making our way down a long hallway. My character, Zorax the thief, carefully crept ahead scouting for danger while his adventuring buddy Mordecai the fighter followed. At the end of the hallway was a chest (locked but not trapped). Zorax did his thing, and out came a white dragon! We were astonished. “How can a white dragon be inside a treasure chest?” Our Dungeon Master shrugged; it was magic. We perished. But it was fun — we were in third or fourth grade at the time and just enjoying the game. Time to roll up new characters!
Red Box takeaways
The simplicity of this system was great. Game designers to this day cite Tom Moldvay, who revised the D&D Basic Set in 1981, as a major influence on their own work. As I understand it, the Old School Revival/Renaissance (OSR) movement in D&D draws inspiration from these early days, with a focus on rulings not rules and less emphasis on linear plots and ongoing narrative campaigns. If I’m honest, even though I enjoy a narrative style campaign, there’s a distinct appeal to the classic show-up-at-the-dungeon-entrance playstyle I wouldn’t mind getting back into.
Graduating to AD&D
When we graduated to the more robust first edition AD&D, we revived Zorax and Mordecai. No longer content to simply descend into dungeons, these two characters spent time in town, made friends, allies and enemies with NPCs and got involved with longterm plots. But we were young and wild. Mordecai and Zorax leveled up frequently without earning legit XP; we were doing milestones before it was a term! Not really though, we just leveled them up for no reason. During this period, our group was often just me and my friend, so one of us was the DM and played our character simultaneously. Yeah, yeah, I know, DMPC is bad. We were kids and having fun though. Eventually we worked our way through the Monster Manual to the archdevils and demons, traveling to the Nine Hells where they were all having a big conference together. We busted into the meeting hall and fought all of them. If I recall correct, at that point we’d integrated the Immortals Set into our game, making Zorax and Mordecai demigods.
We also played through the entire series of Dragonlance modules, which was a ton of fun. We particularly enjoyed Dragons of War, which could be played as a standalone wargame that came with a big map and a bunch of tokens to represent troops. We played that one many times.
This stuff was dense! Gary Gygax had a very distinct writing style, and the rulebooks were packed with verbosity. Looking back through the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual from this edition of D&D, I am astounded we muddled through it. The weapon speed factor rules alone are kludgy as heck, and I am certain we totally ignored them along with tons of other complex rules. For all that folks cite D&D 3.5 for having a rule for everything, I’m going to go on record and say AD&D was more complicated. There might not have been as many sheer rules for specific things, but the rules there were are not for the faint of heart if you want understand and implement what’s in the books. That being said, I had a ton of fun during this era. My favorite books were Unearthed Arcana and Legends & Lore. This phase of D&D editions is when I started reading rulebooks for enjoyment.
AD&D 2nd Edition was “ours”
Then second edition AD&D released, and things really ramped up in our gaming group. We were right there on the ground floor with everyone else, so this felt like “our” edition. Mordecai and Zorak evolved again, and their adventures got way more complicated. A guild of thieves and assassins was causing trouble throughout the region, and many of our adventures revolved around stopping their nefarious schemes. Mordecai got himself a hawk at some point, and decades later I chuckled after seeing The Royal Tenenbaums where the Richie character has a hawk named Mordecai. Weird huh? Zorax became a Dragonlance-style dark elf — an outcast from elven society.
This was the first time we ever experimented with creating homebrew content, too. The Dungeon Master’s Guide had guidelines on creating your own classes, and we tried our hand at this process. The class we made was called a Whip Master, and an NPC we created using this class became a long-term antagonist in our campaign. Our final showdown with the deadly assassin took place on a bridge during a thunderstorm — very dramatic. In another twist of fate, the friend I built this class went on to become a renowned performer who specialty is whip artistry.
Perhaps my favorite part of the entire AD&D 2E era was the narrative tale in the PHB illustrating a party with one character of each alignment.
Outraged at the totally true but tactless accusation of cowardice, the chaotic evil character snaps back, “Look, I was doing an important job, guarding the rear! Can I help it if nothing tried to sneak up behind us? Now, it seems to me that all of you are pretty beat up — and I’m not. So, I don’t think there’s going to be too much objection if I take all the jewelry and that wand. And I’ll take anything interesting those two dead guys have. Now, you can either work with me and do what I say or get lost — permanently!”
AD&D 2E takeaways
So. Many. Books. I had more books from this edition than any other, hands down. All the Complete Guides, Monstrous Compendiums, Tome of Magic, Book of Artifacts — you name it. And the boxed sets! I miss these. Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Spelljammer…there were so many cool settings and supplements during this time, and we played them all (at least once anyway). The perfect combination of being a kid with no responsibilities and the days before the internet meant most free time was spent rolling funny-shaped dice. No one hated THAC0 because that was what we had at the time, no big deal.
Oddly enough, I don’t have many memories of specific adventures from this era. But it’s probably because we played different characters and settings constantly. We’d go on a Dark Sun adventure one weekend, and the next we’d take new characters through Ravenloft. We’d moved away from modules at the time, plus started playing tons of other games too, particularly Palladium stuff like Rifts, TMNT and Robotech, and later a lot of World of Darkness stuff like Vampire: The Masquerade.
Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/d20 System revolution
It had been several years since I’d played any tabletop RPGs when third edition D&D dropped. All my childhood friends had gone in different directions, so it was time to get my current friends hooked on D&D. During this phase I really earned my chops as a DM. We always used to rotate who ran games, but when you’re introducing people to games who never played before or enticing folks who haven’t played in a many years back to the table, the best way is to run games. It would be weird to ask someone to play D&D and then put the DM duty on them, especially if they’re brand new players.
I ran a lot of 3/3.5 edition D&D games for a lot of different people, and mostly went back to running modules for simplicity. I like published adventures a lot because they do the heavy lifting for a DM. Players will take things in different directions no matter what, so it’s nice to have a foundation of work someone else already did as a guide and reference.
With the Open Game License and System Reference Document introduced with this edition, D&D exploded with content. What TSR produced previously was impressive, no doubt, but nothing compared to all the material being created for D&D 3.5.
AD&D 2E kits be damned, this edition was all about character customization to the Nth degree. All the rules, splat books and third-party content provided enormous variety in games for both players and DMs, but over time the bloat made it too unwieldy for me.
My last days of playing 3.5 D&D were in a group of 10-12 regular players. We’d gather every Friday night for a couple of years and went through three campaigns.
And they took forever! With that many players, all of whom created characters using multiple sources and alternate rules and feats and exotic weapons and spells and abilities, combat in particular took a ridiculously long time. There were nights when a random encounter took over an hour to complete.
In contrast, I also played one of the funnest campaigns during this time with a smaller group of just two players and the DM. He’d created a really vibrant urban setting, and although we only played a handful of sessions, it was a ton of fun. I played a catfolk scout and my friend a hadozee ninja. If I recall correct, we never really went on any true adventures, but we certainly explored the city and got into all sorts of zany situations.
D&D 3.5 takeaways
Introducing the OGL and SRD were a watershed moment in the history of D&D editions. Players have always made up their own content, but the opportunity to publish and share that content with consumers created an entirely new industry within the hobby. Creative players could share their own adventures, monsters, character options and more and make a profit!
Wizards of the Coast didn’t slouch in the content creation department either. There were tons of splat books like Complete Adventurer (where the awesome scout class appears), and interesting campaign settings like Ghostwalk.
WotC did a great job revitalizing D&D with this first outing on a new edition. It drew a ton of people back to the game, and took a lot of what always made D&D great but streamlined it for the time and place. This is a practice they continue to this day.
I like D&D 4E
Just as I’ve done with each of the D&D editions, I scooped up 4E when it released first as preview material in late 2007 then full-fledged book releases in 2008. Another opportunity to get the band back together, my friends were recruited to play some D&D and we all had a blast. Right away during our first game session, I remember thinking how smooth and fast combat runs in this edition. Your mileage may vary, but it was so refreshing for us to play through fights without referencing multiple books, calculating all sorts of modifiers and looking up what spells and abilities do constantly. Everything you needed was presented right there with the power.
Again, I mostly ran games during this era, but unlike my 3.5 experience I went back to creating adventures, which I recall felt really easy. Building encounters and skill challenges was simple. I also learned during this phase how much players contribute to the adventure. If you give players a few idea seeds, listen to their reactions and follow them along, running a game gets a lot easier.
When I did get a chance to play, my character Palogdu was so much fun! He was an eladrin paladin devoted to Sehanine with the Pact Initiate warlock multiclass feat. With stars in his eyes — literally and figuratively — he strove to protect travelers at night and had a soft spot for star-crossed loves.
D&D 4E takeaways
So many great things about 4E! At-will cantrips that cause damage, cool fighter abilities, skill challenges, minion monsters, player-centric rolls like attacking a creatures defenses, core book warlocks and dragonborn and tieflings…there’s a lot to love.
This era of D&D also gave rise to actual play videos. Does anyone else remember seeing Chris Perkins for the first time, running a game for the Robot Chicken crew? Or maybe a little something called Acquisitions Incorporated? I’d never seen anything like D&D play as entertainment before, and was just as surprised as the people presenting it that it’s fun to watch.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I’ve enjoyed each of the D&D editions more than the last, and that holds true here, making 4E my second favorite edition. I would love to play another 4E campaign someday. In particular I’ve got my eye on the 4E Dark Sun material…
Fifth edition is my favorite edition of D&D…
…Until sixth edition comes out anyway. This is the best time to be a D&D nerd, hands down. There are so many people playing, or open to the idea of playing, and so many ways to play. I’ve never been embarrassed to proudly state my love for D&D, but these days the cool thing is discovering how many other people play too. And because of the internet and communications technology, we can connect, play games and make new friends with people all over the world.
It is awesome.
My first experience with D&D 5E (or D&D Next as it was called) was at my first Gen Con in 2013, so pretty memorable. The scenario found the party visiting Candlekeep, which came under assault from cultists, undead, and a blue dragon! They organized all the tables (and there were a lot) to essentially play in the same adventure together. Each table defended a tower, while the blue dragon circled in the skies above and randomly make attacks on different towers. I played a ranger, and it was an incredible experience.During the event they did giveaways, and I won a copy of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, the exclusive Gen Con 2013 D&D Next preview adventure designed to take characters from 1st to 10th level. After getting back from Gen Con, as is tradition with a new edition of D&D on the way, a group was formed. We played through most of Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle using the D&D Next playtest rules that were out at the time. Eventually, the group devolved into board game night and then fizzled out.
But my dedication to 5E D&D continued. Momentum really picked up when I moved to Austin, Texas for a job and got involved with Adventurers League. That is a terrific program I highly recommend. Through AL, I made a lot of friends in a new, unfamiliar city and got to play a ton of D&D. My first experience as a player was a tiefling paladin during the Out of the Abyss season, followed up with a half-orc rogue playing through Princes of the Apocalypse. During this time is when I discovered the Nerdarchy YouTube channel, and then found their website. I got in touch with them right away to volunteer as a contributing writer, and here I am close to two years later as the editor-in-chief!
These days I get to play more D&D than ever before — even more than the halcyon days of 2E. (It’s still not as much as I’d like though!) Through streaming and online play, home groups, one shots and short campaigns I’ve gotten to play and run lots of different characters and different sorts of games. And I’ve even created or co-created several products on my own.
D&D 5E takeaways
The sky’s the limit. I am one of those people who loves the D&D ruleset so much that I will happily adapt it for any sort of genre. I’ve been playing D&D so long, it’s much easier for me to take what I know and make tweaks and changes to fit what I want to accomplish than try to learn a brand new game.
The modular design nature of D&D 5E makes it easy to create new stuff like subclasses and monsters, or find new uses for existing mechanics like hit dice. Like I mentioned earlier, players grow and mature just as the game does throughout all the D&D editions, so my approach and perspective now is more complex than when I was a kid using the Red Box. And exposure to so many different players, DMs and their games inspires new ideas and techniques to try at the table.
Probably the biggest takeaway from D&D 5E is how open to interpretation the rules and approaches to play are. I like the focus on circumstantial rulings and the flow and pacing of games more than in the past, but that’s me. It’s great to have an easy to understand ruleset, which explicitly leaves the door open for empowering DMs and players to take ownership of their own individual games.
After getting hooked on D&D in the mid-80s and loving every minute of it since throughout all the D&D editions, I can legitimately state there is in fact a best edition of D&D. And I’ll paraphrase an old YouTuber I saw years and years ago when a viewer asked about the best variety of marijuana.
“What’s the best edition of D&D? That’s easy — it’s the edition I’m playing right now with my friends.”
But what about you? What are your favorite memories from D&D history? How has your gaming style evolved? How has D&D impacted your life? I’d love to hear your stories down in the comments!
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