D&D Edition Comparison

Originating in the 1970s, Dungeons & Dragons is available in six different editions, many of which feature off-shoots and additional settings including modern settings, futuristic space settings, and even specific realms like Star Wars.

This blog is focused primarily on what is often referred to as 5th Edition, the most recent version of the game. However, there are still benefits to the older versions including expanded world and class options. Below is an overview of each of the editions.

1st Edition

Published 1974

phbAlso known as “Original Dungeons & Dragons” this edition was designed by Gary Gygax as an alternative to the strategy war games that were popular at the time (and continue to be so through games such as Warhammer 40K). Unlike the strategy games where players would control an entire army on a battlefield grid, players only controlled a single character and delved more deeply into storytelling as they explored dungeons. The Dungeon Master, however, controlled a vast numbers of characters.

The game was so successful that eventually a more advanced edition was released. The advanced edition also saw the release of the first Dungeon Master’s Guide and Monster Manual, both of which would become standard in later editions.

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. This was designed to take the focus away from killing things, and instead encourage looting and rewards for high-risk adventures.
  • 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 always rangers, dwarves fighters, halflings thieves, etc. There is no separation between them.
  • DM rules – Rules are vague and sometimes nonexistent, leaving the Dungeon Master to come up with rules on the fly. In this edition, the DM’s word is law. Literally.

2nd Edition

Published 1989

2nd editionCreated as a follow-up to the successful previous edition, this edition was the beginning of the intense expansion of the game to include more than simply fantasy elements. With a staggering number of other worlds to explore, this edition features tons of supplements to choose from.

Due to the intense number of rules (a pullback from previous editions where DMs were expected to make it up) this is jokingly referred to as the “least-loved edition” by many players. Regardless, there are still some good things in this edition.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • More rules – While the DM still has the ultimate rule-making power, this system is more fleshed-out and there are rules for pretty much everything, provided you are willing to dig through the right book to find them.
  • More character customization – Classes and races are no longer tied together, leading to more character customization options.
  • Additional setting options – campaigns can be geared towards whatever you want to play, but focus on epic battles, powerful quests, and big bad guys.
  • THAC0 and more math 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 is one of the many complicated math-centric rules which was considered needlessly complicated and (thankfully) 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

Published 2000

3rd editionThis edition was the first one published under Wizards of the Coast after Gygax’s company, TSR, went into bankruptcy. While this edition improved upon the previous, it was considered to be ridiculously unbalanced and its successor, Edition 3.5, was definitely the more popular of the two.

This edition was only available for about three years before being usurped by 3.5 and so there are not as many supplements available. Below are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • 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. Yay!
  • Return to grid combat systems – Although D&D originated from a game that focused on grid combat, previous editions were designed for “theater of the mind” where players could resolve combat verbally and with dice. This edition introduced more precise rules for combat which required a grid and miniatures.
  • D20 System streamlined – Although 2nd Edition does use a d20, 3rd Edition streamlined the process and a d20 is used for nearly all checks. The D20 System rules were published under the Open Game License, which paved the way for other RPGs to be created using the same system.
  • 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.

3.5 Edition

Published 2003

dungeons_and_dragons_dd_players_handbook_3.5_editionAfter getting feedback from players, Wizards of the Coast released an ‘update’ to the previous edition with a .5 moniker to appease players who purchased the new materials only three years prior. While the two editions are compatible, if you have to choose between them, 3.5 is definitely the way to go.

Although it’s not perfect, the newer version fixed quite a few of the issues in the previous edition. It modified skills and abilities of nearly all of the classes, reworked skill options, improved feats, and added or reworked dozens of spells.

In the footsteps of 2nd Edition, 3.5 has literally dozens of offshoot handbooks and settings which can be purchased to add additional rules or features. This edition is probably one of the most universally-popular editions and many gamers still play some form of this edition.

Here are some of the characteristics of this edition:

  • Rebalances the game – Spells, classes, skills, and rules are all slightly tweaked or reworked to provide more balanced gameplay as opposed to the previous edition.
  • Casters are key – high-level casters are really powerful in this edition due to the ramp up of spells. However to balance it, they they are also very squishy with low health and damage 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.
  • Magic items are necessary – While magic items are important, they are more tools than luxuries when it comes to mid and upper levels. Characters are expected to have plenty of magic items in order to survive.

It should be noted that among other gaming systems, the popular Pathfinder game was released around the same time as 3.5. This game was published by Pazio and features the D20 System as well as other similarities, although the two games are not compatible without adjustments.

4th Edition

Published 2008

dungeons_and_dragons_dd_players_handbook_4th_editionThis is, without a doubt, the most controversial edition of D&D to be released to date. Created only 5 years after the wildly popular 3.5 edition, 4th Edition was not compatible with any 3.5 materials. Older gamers, who had already invested hundreds of dollars in dozens of 3.5 supplements which were no longer supported by the new edition, reacted with outrage. As a result, this edition from a business standpoint was not a success and several expansions that had been planned were ultimately cancelled due to poor sales.

Many of the design and rule changes implemented in this edition were met with mixed reviews as well. Overall it was designed to make the game more approachable and easier for new players to start, and in that aspect it was fairly successful.

Here are some characteristics of this edition:

  • Classes customizable within perimeters – Every class is given ‘powers’ instead of magic, but all the classes are designed to fit certain specific roles. This does allow for easier customization, but players are constrained to a small set of 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. The edition focuses on hack ‘n’ slash roleplay and grids are mandatory for combat rules to make sense.
  • 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. Core changes to the rules made it extremely difficult to convert between 4.0 and older editions.

5th Edition

Published 2012

Originally touted as “D&D Next” this edition was extensively playtested by the community prior to release in the hopes of avoiding the backlash of the previous edition. Much like 4th Edition, this edition is not easily backwards compatible, but it still received an overall positive reaction from gamers.

5th Edition is a mishmash of everything that worked in editions 3.5 as well as 4.0. As a result, anyone familiar with either edition should have a fairly easy time adjusting. Because it is the newest edition, there are not as many supplemental books available yet, although the list is quickly growing.

Here are some 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, although the rules for Inspiration are frustratingly vague.
  • Combination of rules, and DM discretion – Rules are simplified, and there is more wiggle room for the DM to pick and choose what they want to do. Features from previous editions are all blended together, 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, are a little stronger.

There are benefits to each of the editions, but if you’re just starting out, 5th Edition is the one that we recommend. Not only is it the newest, but it’s the most streamlined and approachable of editions by far. As a note, the articles that refer to specific rules, stats, and spells on The Dungeon Hacker are all geared towards 5th Edition.

If you’re ready to dig deeper, check out our next article comparing the different classes from 5th Edition, or head back to D&D Basics or the Archive for more articles.

Next: D&D Class Comparison →