Dungeons & Dragons players have seen five editions plus a few versions that fall outside the count. We tend to see the release of a new Player’s Handbook as a clean break from the last, but each new edition received a preview in a book or two that appeared for the prior edition.
In a convention appearance, TSR designers Dave “Zeb” Cook and Steve Winter talked about how the first-edition books that reached print in 1985 led to 2nd edition. “Oriental Adventures was the big tipping point because Zeb Cook put a lot of really cool stuff in OA,” Winter said. “We felt like, wow it would be great if this was actually part of the core game, but it’s not.”
“Because of the way we had to treat those books, you couldn’t actually consider them canon when you were writing product or doing modules,” Cook explained. “You always had to assume that players only had the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Player’s Handbook.”
Oriental Adventures brought a taste of skills to D&D in non-weapon proficiencies. Characters gained skills such as calligraphy, etiquette, animal handling, and bowyer.
“One of the things dreadfully lacking from AD&D was any sense that your character had a real life beyond class skills,” Cook wrote. Non-weapon proficiencies “gave players a way to create a more culturally-informed background for their character.”
Ability checks reached AD&D in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986). Although this book’s title suggests a focus on player strategy, this guide previewed rules innovations that appeared in 2nd edition. The non-weapon proficiencies from Oriental Adventures became options in the primary game. When players used non-weapon proficiencies, they made proficiency checks to determine the outcome. These checks operated like ability checks, but proficiency improved the chance of success. For more, see Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D.
In a D&D podcast episode examining the 2nd edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in 3rd edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with 2nd edition.”
TSR’s management required that AD&D stay broadly compatible with the original version, but other games allowed more innovation. Gamma World took D&D’s play style into a post-apocalyptic Earth. Crumbling buildings replaced dungeons, mutant powers replaced spells, mutated creatures replaced monsters, and so on. The 1992 edition of Gamma World took the current D&D rules and made changes from the 2nd-edition designers’ wish list:
- Ascending armor class
- Skills called skills
- Attribute checks
- Attribute modifiers similar to those that would appear in 3rd edition
- Health and Mental Defense saves that resemble 3rd edition’s Fortitude and Will saves
This 4th edition of Gamma World set half of the blueprint for 3rd edition D&D. The other half came from Player’s Option: Combat and Tactics (1995).
Player’s Option: Combat & Tactics introduced the gridded battle map to D&D. In the Foreword, Skip Williams promises that, “You will find plenty of ways to make combat more than a dice-rolling contest or an exercise in subtracting hit points from your character’s total.” Combat & Tactics reads like an early draft of the 3rd edition combat rules, complete with rules for opportunity attacks, reach, cover, and critical hits. Combat & Tactics probably scared more players away from battle maps than it converted. The supplement moved deep into wargame territory, with over 250 pages of rules for facing, fatigue, and things like direct and indirect bombardment. However, the 3rd-edition designers chose the best of the innovations.
In 2005, work on 4th-edition D&D started as a project codenamed Orcus. In Wizards Presents Races and Classes, lead designer Rob Heinsoo wrote, “Our instructions were to push the mechanics down interesting avenues, not to stick too close to the safe home base of D&D v.3.5.” The project team developed eight classes built around powers and giving every character some interesting action to choose each round.
Early in 2006, designers Rich Baker, Mike Donais, and Mike Mearls “translated current version of the Orcus I mechanics into a last-minute revision of Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. It was a natural fit, since Rich Baker had already been treating the Book of Nine Swords as a ‘powers for fighters’ project.”
Tome of Battle: Book of the Nine Swords presented new martial classes for 3rd-edition D&D. The additions blended the unreal, cinematic stunts of Far-East action games and movies with a typical D&D game. Warriors gained maneuvers that worked like encounter powers in 4th edition.
Now, used copies of the Book of Nine Swords command high prices, a scarcity which might stem from meager sales in 2006. Nonetheless, the book offered a prototype for 4th edition.
Many fans of D&D felt the 4th edition no longer resembled the game they loved. A few years after the edition’s release, sales of the 3rd-edition D&D spinoff Pathfinder surpassed D&D. In an interview, Mike Mearls said, “No one at Wizards ever woke up one day and said ‘Let’s get rid of all our fans and replace them,’ that was never the intent. With 4th Edition, there were good intentions. The game is very solid, there are a lot of people who play it and enjoy it, but you do get those people that say ‘hey, this feels like an MMO, this feels like a board game.’”
Aside from a barely-noticed sample in the Book of Nine Swords, 4th edition came from a secret project. Rather than ask D&D fans what they wanted in D&D, the design team made assumptions and built a game based on them.
When Mike Mearls took control of the D&D team, he worked to reverse course. “We want D&D to be the best roleplaying game it can be. We’re always open to change, to reacting to what people say. The past is in the past, there’s nothing we can say or do. If you are a disgruntled D&D fan, there’s nothing I can say to you that undoes whatever happened 2 years ago or a year ago that made you disgruntled—but what I can do, what’s within my power is going forward, I can make products, I can design game material, I can listen to what you’re saying, and I can do what I can do with design to make you happy again.”
Just two years after 4th edition’s release, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t ask players to adopt another new edition. Instead, the D&D team tried to win back some unhappy players with the D&D Essentials line. A new, red-box starter set built on nostalgia for the game’s most-popular introduction. Essentials aimed to recapture “that core of what makes D&D D&D, what made people fall in love with it the first time, whether it was the Red Box in 83, the original three booklets back in 74 or 75 or even 3rd edition in 2004. Whenever that happened, to get back to what drew you into D&D in the first place and give that back to you.”
When Mearls gained time to create a 5th edition, he stuck with the same strategy of listening to the game’s fans. In another interview, he explained that he launched the open playtest “to get a sense of what people actually wanted out of D&D. The only real mandate was to make sure that we captured the essence of D&D. It was important that anyone who had played D&D in the past could play the new edition and have a clear sense that this was D&D.
“We were also committed to analyzing and using the playtest feedback to guide our decisions. Those might seem like fairly simple mandates, but it can be difficult for game designers to take a step back from their work and treat it with a cold, ruthless editorial eye.”
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition hardly resembles 4th edition, but Essentials showed the way to the current game’s success.