Dungeons & Dragons has been around for 38 years. This is a LONG time. It’s older than me, almost all of my friends, and some of their parents. It’s outlasted wars and whole political administrations. It’s stayed fairly popular through media firestorms, scandals, changing fads (anyone want to reminisce about 90’s fashion?) and a whole host of cultural changes that have swept away hordes of other pop-cultural milestones. It’s here to stay. But just as it is unusual in its tenacity, it has its own set of problems. It’s true that most of these problems are common to roleplaying games, but as D&D is by far the most popular and well-known system these unique challenges are most strongly apparent among its dedicated community.
Foremost of these challenges is the concept of an “Edition War”. Every decade or so, TSR (now incorporated into Wizards of the Coast, itself a subsidiary of Hasbro) would revamp the ruleset, fixing a number of fans’ longstanding gripes with the current rules, and invariably creating a new set of gripes once the fans had a chance to kick the new rules for a while. This also had the happy-for-TSR side effect of rendering a great deal of the books these gamers invested in obsolete. As with any large group of people, audiences inevitably split when faced with the possibility of change. Some groups chose to stick with the system they’d grown comfortable with, while others would try the new version and see if it worked better for them.
Remember how I said D&D was a long-runner, lo a whole paragraph ago? Well, D&D is officially on its 4th Edition, but by my count it’s at least had 11 revisions over the years. (And that doesn’t include 5th Edition, in development as I write this!) That’s a LOT of disagreements. To this day you’re likely to find people still running adventures and whole campaigns in the old 1974 rules, for a variety of reasons. Each new edition has had to balance the inevitable splitting of the fanbase that exists with drawing in new players. The more the edition skewed toward courting one group, the more the other shied away. Case in point: the transition from 3.5 edition to 4th. (Hah! So even by the system’s own count there are at least 5!)
For the record, the D&D releases have been tied to the following edition changes, in order:
· Dungeons & Dragons (classic, purely a child of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, inspired by the Chainmail fantasy combat system) (1974)
· D&D Basic Set 1st Revision (1977)
· Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1977. Yes, I know. There was a split in rules-heaviness.)
· D&D Basic Set 2nd Revision (1981)
· D&D Basic Set 3rd Revision (1983. This was to be the last Basic set. The Basic Sets were discontinued after this stopped selling well, the devs reasoning that there was no reason to split the fanbase further. Predictably, the later editions split the fanbase even more.)
· AD&D 2nd Edition (1989)
· D&D Rules Cyclopedia (1991)
· D&D 3rd Edition (2000, also the first edition published and developed by WotC rather than TSR, which was acquired and discontinued in 1997)
· D&D 3.5 (2003. A more incremental update, a far cry from the radical changes made before and since, and the most significant base-breaker in D&D history, until…
· 4th Edition, the (current) most controversial RPG system on the planet. (2008) This was followed up in 2010 with the beginning of D&D 4E Essentials, which was part simplification and part attempt to draw in older players who might have abandoned 4th edition over the radical changes.
We’ll get into just WHY 4th was so controversial in my next post in this series, which will compare it with and contrast it against the edition that came before it.