The four of us sat around in the living room of a friends house with scraps of paper, pencils and dice, and not a proper rulebook in sight. Just a few scattered remnants of random campaign books; Menzoberranzan, The Horde, a couple of Spelljammer sheets. Assorted Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplements along with a few crudely drawn maps. Later we would upgrade to a nicotine soaked used copy of the Players Handbook, missing most of the index.
"Three goblins approach with curved blades as you are walking down the trail."
"Hold R and L, R and L!"
We all laughed at the childish video game reference to "run away" and carried on our adventure; for a further six hours.
This was D&D as I remember it, at its best, in its prime. With no extensive rules, with mostly your imagination and everything fudged along the way. A game you'd play with friends when you were all tired of Nintendo, or playing outside. And it was nigh endless, even if you didn't have a single piece of published material to your name.
We stuck with 2nd edition. It was the edition I played the most and after going a few of years of D&D drought after moving to Calgary, I eventually found a friend who was willing to try it. So I gathered up whatever spare cash I could and invested in the brand new edition of the game, aptly titled 3rd Edition. Not 3.5 which would come later, but a broken, unwieldy ruleset that was confusing and convoluted.
It didn't matter much. It was my first time acting as a Dungeon Master, the ruler of the game world, responsible for ensuring the players had an interesting journey to go on. And much like our makeshift games of the past, I tossed most of the ruleset to the wind and focused on the good stuff; maps and monsters, trinkets and world building. I developed a rough, linear world, one where the population was largely draconic. I let my players stray off the beaten path but made sure that the landscape kept them largely restrained in artificial ways. It wasn't the greatest campaign ever played, nor was I the most adept DM. But while fundamentally flawed, we had a good time and played it over the course of several weeks.
Now, I TRIED to understand the rules of the game. The base was there, but it was just so ungodly complex and big that my fourteen year old brain couldn't hammer it all together. Partially it was the fault of the designers who would go on to revise the ruleset shortly after in 3.5. This would eventually inspire and spawn the game Pathfinder which is now a direct competitor with the Dungeons and Dragons brand. And rightfully so; after Wizards adopted the brand they have attempted to reinvigorate it over and over. Sometimes with little success.
What 3 improved on was simplifying combat, to a degree. They got rid of descending Armor Class. So a -10 AC was now not considered high. This bizarre feature of original D&D meant that the combat of To Hit AC Zero, or THAC0 was introduced. Here is a diagram explaining the calculations needed using THAC0 and AC to determine if you were able to hit an enemy or not.
Anyways, it was just sort of convoluted and unnecessary. So it was welcome to most to see it gone. What it was replaced with was a clustercuss of a skill tree, broken classes, and a myriad of other poorly written rules that made the game difficult to work with. It was certainly written better in terms of introducing new players; the original prose (and it is prose) by Gary Gygax in the first edition of AD&D was muddled, confused, and needlessly wordy. They are fantastic, wonderful books to read for fun today, but the rules were organized poorly and sometimes completely non-sensical. Considering there are still holdovers today who prefer first edition, it's proof positive of the power of the game. That despite having often incomprehensible rules, people were still able to power through and put millions of man hours into a game where you sit around and pretend to be a dwarf for a few hours on a Sunday while scarfing back Dominoes pizza.
Eventually the 4th edition of D&D would be released to a massive outcry from fans of the traditional system. 3rd edition made some attempt to explain grid based combat, but was still largely playable in the style of Theater of the Mind; players imagining their position on a battlefield and acting things out logically rather than strict measurements of distance guiding the flow of combat. Dungeons and Dragons was originally based on this sort of strict, regimented play style. Being inspired largely by the medieval combat system Chainmail, its combat was meant for miniatures at heart. But as time went on, it evolved to see this being omitted by the majority of players and became its own unique experience of free form roleplaying. Now, Wizards wanted to reintroduce these combat mechanics, probably to make millions on miniatures, map tiles, and other accessories.
Looking at it strictly as a combat system, it's actually fairly solid. It homogenizes all of the classes, making the game feel very much like an MMO in terms of the tight balance of its mechanics, and the almost dogmatic devotion to party structure. You NEED a tank, a healer, and a damage dealer in order to survive; nothing else will suffice. These systems led to a system that covered roleplaying itself very little, almost assuming that players would nearly always be in the midst of combat. And it wasn't necessarily wrong; since combat took so much longer with this system, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that an entire session might be comprised of just two or three major encounters. I played this for awhile with a group, and personally found it to be a slog. It felt more like a video game than a role-playing system, and it lost my interest pretty quickly. They attempted to simplify and revive it with D&D Essentials which was all but immediately abandoned. And it wouldn't be long before Wizards would go back to the drawing board again, and create which is in my opinion, the best version of Dungeons and Dragons to date.
D&D 5 feels like a compilation of the best D&D rules and concepts. You get the streamlined, more user friendly system of 3rd edition with major improvements. You get the balance factor of 4th without making classes all similar or having all of your powers and abilities be combat related. And they did something I feel is unprecedented by removing grid based rules altogether and practically defaulting to a Theater of the Mind style of play, while still making the game completely viable for play on a grid. Endless modifiers have been reduced and gave way to an Advantage system, whereby characters who have an advantage or disadvantage during specific situations are now made to roll two dice rather than one, and take either the best one in the case of an advantage, or the worse in the case of disadvantage. It's simple, elegant, and reduces bloat for new players.
After 4th edition, I tried going back to the original D&D books. I even tried Pathfinder, which I felt was far too big overall and difficult to introduce to brand new players. This weekend, I'm starting a new campaign using the fifth edition rules with a mix of new and veteran players. It will be the first time I've played the game in years without a mix of figures and grids, and it has made preparation far easier.
And the books, oh glory me, the books! I love flipping through roleplaying books just for the art and the layout. My compliments to every single edition of the game for having such fantastic, classic fantasy artwork. From the more cartoonish, World of Warcraft style of 4th edition, to the crude doodles of first edition, every book is a treat to poke through. I'd love to look at the thing with rose colored glasses and say the original books are the best, but for me, 5th wins the prize. The art is the best so far in my opinion, and peppered throughout the manuals a perfect amount. It's truly fantastic, and even the covers have done away with the more minimalist approach of 3 and 4, and now fill the entire front of the book with grandiose wonderment. Truly a beautiful set of tomes to add to the collection.
Wizards has been criticized over and over for constantly trying to renew the system, but it appears to have finally payed off. We now have a Dungeons and Dragons that is simple to understand for old and new players alike, and that has plenty of room for both speculative and more combat oriented players. The cynicism of demanding players investment in Wizards branded accessories is gone, as are the admittedly confusing and convoluted rules of the pre-Wizards Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons has taken two steps forward and one back for a long time, but it feels like they really nailed it this time. Hopefully this version sticks around for awhile, but if they decide they want to reinvent it in a few years, I will likely do what I always have; scrounge up some spare bucks, run to the book store and get my hands on the latest rules to see what they have in store, and what sort of adventures they have to offer.
Even though I only end up using a fraction of the rules in my own campaigns, they seem to be getting better year after year. Dungeons and Dragons is a game that is always changing and evolving, and overall, it has certainly gotten better with age.