The second edition of Dungeons & Dragons that reached gamers probably stayed close to the edition co-creator Gary Gygax might have designed. But later, Gary would say, “In my estimation second-edition AD&D began to lose the spirit of the original.”
What spirit did it lose?
Partly, Gary probably missed his own quirky touch. But I suspect that most of the changes he disliked arrived as the edition matured. As second edition grew, it began adding character options from new classes and kits. The design staff seemed intent on luring players to each new set of character options by making them a bit more powerful than the last. To Gary, this escalation defied the spirit of the game.
After Gary left TSR, two design trends that he resisted shaped D&D’s evolution from second through fourth edition.
Current D&D lead, Mike Mearls wrote about these directions in a series of tweets. The first trend came from “an anxiety about controlling the experience of the game, leaving as little as possible to chance. They aimed for consistency of play from campaign to campaign, and table to table. The fear was that an obnoxious player or DM would ruin the game, and that would drive people away from it. The thinking was that if we made things as procedural as possible, people would just follow the rules and have fun regardless of who they played with.
“The downside to this approach is that the rules became comprehensive to a fault. The game’s rules bloated, as they sought to resolve many if not all questions that arise in play with the game text.”
Gary saw this trend begin with third edition. He said the version’s “mass of detail” made the game “too rules-oriented for my personal taste.” Gary saw D&D leaning less on a DM’s judgement and more on comprehensive rules that made the game procedural. His play favored minimal reliance on the rules. “Generally, I just DMed on the fly, so to speak, and didn’t use the rule book except for random encounters, monster stats, and treasure.”
He advised DMs to do the same. “Do not let the rules get in the way of play. Be the arbiter of the game so that the adventure continues without unnecessary interruptions, and the immersion of the player in the milieu remains complete.”
Mike Mearls thread goes on. “At the same time, 3.5 and 4 were driven by the idea that D&D players wanted as many character options as possible, presented in a modular framework meant to encourage the search for combinations that yielded characters who broke the power curve.”
Character options never raised objections from Gary. After all, he planned skills and several new sub-classes for the game. But Gary saw D&D turn into a game centered on building characters that matched the power of comic book superheroes. This direction made him fume. He wanted an “emphasis on group cooperation, not individual PC aggrandizement.”
D&D started as a game that challenged players and threatened their characters. To Gary, later editions just offered players a chance to show off their characters with minimal risk. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.”
In many ways, fifth-edition D&D represents a return to Gary’s tastes. He would have liked the lighter rules. Mike explained the direction, “With 5th, we assumed that the DM was there to have a good time, put on an engaging performance, and keep the group interested, excited, and happy. It’s a huge change, because we no longer expect you to turn to the book for an answer. We expect the DM to do that.”
“In terms of players, we focus much more on narrative and identity, rather than specific, mechanical advantages. Who you are is more important than what you do, to the point that your who determines your what.”
Gary would have approved of these changes, but would he have liked fifth edition?
To an extent, I doubt any edition that Gary didn’t design could have earned his favor. Gary saw AD&D as his baby and kept tight control on its content. No other version, no matter how many improvements it featured, could earn the same paternal love.
Also, Gary might fault fifth edition for one thing: The edition emphasizes storytelling over challenging players and endangering their characters. Sure, you can still run a killer game. Tomb of Annihilation and its meat-grinder variant set a blueprint for that. But beyond level 4, fifth-edition characters become as durable as comic book characters. According to Mike Mearls, the edition “focuses on socializing and storytelling.” No storyteller wants to see their tale’s planned resolution spoiled when a hero dies to a fluke critical. Gary and his original co-designer Dave Arneson came from wargaming and a passion for competition. To Gary, D&D needed to test player skill to feel compelling. A storytelling exercise that glorified precious characters failed to interest him.
Still, fifth edition captures the soul and spirit of original D&D better than any other version. I’ll bet Gary would have liked it enough to write adventures for it. Except his adventures would not have let characters skate through with minimal risk. So don’t get too attached to your hero, keep another character sheet on hand, and keep playing D&D.