D&D Edition Comparison


Note: This is part of the D&D 101 series designed to help players learn more about how to play the game. To start reading from the beginning, click here.

D&D has a long history spanning back to the 1970s when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson together collaborated to write out rules for the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Since then, there have been a dozen different editions and spin-offs, and it can get pretty confusing for new players.

So, here is a brief overview of all of the different D&D editions:

1st Edition (1e, 1.0, ODAD, OD&D)


Also called “Original Dungeons & Dragons, the 1st edition was published as an alternative to the war games that were popular at the time. It was followed a few years later by an advanced version, and some other books including the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, which became standard.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Experience comes from treasure – rather than focusing on killing monsters, players gain experience (and level) by collecting treasure, taking the focus away from killing things, and instead encouraging looting.
  • Low-level characters are fragile – low-level characters don’t have a lot of health and dying will happen pretty quickly. Characters will often have to run away from battles.
  • No separation of class and race – Different races are geared towards specific classes, which means that elves are usually rangers, dwarves fighters, halflings thieves, etc. There is no separation between them.
  • DM rules – There are not rules for everything, leaving the Dungeon Master to come up with rules on the fly, and his/her word is law, literally.

2nd Edition (2e, 2.0, AD&D)


Written as a follow-up to the success that was the first D&D edition, 2e clarified some of the rules, and included a variety of add-on books and supplements that the first edition lacked.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • More polished rules system – While the DM still has the ultimate rulemaking power, this system was a bit more fleshed-out and there are more rules for things.
  • More character customization – Classes and races are no longer tied together, leading to more character customization.
  • High-fantasy style – campaigns are more geared towards Lord of the Rings style epic campaigns, powerful quests, and big bad guys.
  • THAC0 introduced – Acronym for “To Hit Armor Class 0” players would subtract this score from the target’s armor class in order to figure out the goal for attacking. This was considered needlessly complicated and dropped from later editions.
  • Dungeon crawls – This edition brought about the fabled dungeon crawls that became the heart of the game, and characters would often go through one dungeon for the whole campaign.

3rd Edition (3e, 3.0)


This edition was notable as it introduced the D20 system (characterized by the use of the 20-sided die to resolve conflicts and checks). That system, which was open sourced, is used in many modern tabletop games.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Mini grid battle system – The combat system was revamped and geared towards using miniatures on a grid, opening a new system of revenue as players purchased miniatures for every campaign.
  • Even more character customization – The former restrictions on class and race combinations are removed, feats are added, and new classes including Sorcerer and various prestige classes, are introduced.
  • Rules are more friendly – This edition simplified some of the unnecessary math in the previous edition.
  • DM plays rulekeeper vs rulemaker – Instead of making up all the rules as in previous editions, the dungeon master merely is the one who is in charge of remembering and enforcing the rules already in place.

3.5 Edition (3.5)


Released only a few years later, this edition is very similar to the 3rd edition, and is one of the most popular editions. It balanced out corrected some of the complaints of the previous edition, and features dozens of supplemental volumes and settings.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Rebalances the edition – Classes, including Barbarian, Ranger, Druid, and Monk, are slightly reworked.
  • Casters are key – high-level casters are really powerful in this edition, and are very important, although they are also very squishy at lower levels.
  • Death is looming – Due to the high-level magic mechanics, and the way saves work, a single bad die roll could potentially kill a monster or a player, no matter how powerful

It should be noted that the alternate Pathfinder system was released around the same time, and is pretty similar to this edition. In fact, it uses many of the same rules and concepts—it was simply published by a different company.

4th Edition (4e, 4.0)


One of the most controversial editions, the 4th edition was designed for new players, with a simplified rule system. It was generally poorly received by players used to previous editions, and despite multiple attempts to provide supplements, it was not as successful as previous editions.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Classes customizable, within perimeters – Every class is given ‘powers’ instead of magic, but the classes are designed to fit certain specific roles, making customization simpler but constrained within roles.
  • No more ‘dead levels’ – Unlike older systems, every level up features new abilities, scores, or something to look forward to.
  • Emphasized combat – non-combat skills are de-emphasized, making roleplay more difficult with a smaller skill list. Focuses on hack ‘n’ slash roleplay.
  • Some core aspects changed – Bards were not originally included in the books, and Dragonborn replaced Gnomes, but later editions corrected these oversights as players complained about the changes. However, combat and other checks are also slightly different. These changes make it difficult to convert between 4.0 and older editions.

5th Edition (5e, 5.0, D&D Next)


Unlike the (arguably) unsuccessful 4th edition, this edition was widely playtested prior to release, and new editions are still coming out slowly.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Emphasis on ability scores – Ability scores are used for everything and are intensely more important than previous editions
  • Class customization via Paths – Each class features multiple ‘paths’ which represent the different stereotypes of each class, including one with magic abilities for each class.
  • Roleplay-centric skills return – This edition allows for more roleplay than the previous edition, and even features an Inspiration system designed to reward it.
  • Combination of rules, and DM discretion – Rules remain slightly simplified, and while there are many listed out, there is more wiggle room for the DM to pick and choose what they want to do. Features from previous editions are included (and optional), such as backgrounds (2e), feats (3e), and hit die (4e).
  • Magic items less emphasized – Magic items are less important for the success, and are considered rare. Magic spells, by contrast, are shifted around a lot and, in many ways, a little stronger.

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