Whether you’re new to Dungeons and Dragons, or have been playing one edition for a while and are looking for a change of pace after this time, you’ve got a lot of options to go through. There are 5 editions (lumping 3e and 3.5e together) and each with their own gaming system, lore, sourcebooks, and information available to you.
But which one should you play? Is there a ‘best’ edition?
The Best Dungeons and Dragons Edition
To make a long story short – there is no best edition. Each one plays differently, and might better suit certain playstyles and desires for a particular campaign, but none is better than another.
If you have an edition that you love, play it with pride! Yes, even 4th edition.
Even if you really want to use certain locations or sourcebooks from another edition, adaption between sources is common in the DnD community. A search online is likely to find you stats and gameplay adapting your desired content. And if you can’t find it already made, you can easily adapt it yourself! You don’t even have to come up with the original ideas for it, just use the older edition as a template.
But if you’re still uncertain which edition may be the best for you, here’s my advice on each one.
Dungeons and Dragons (1e) and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2e, AD&D)
Here’s where it all began.
The first and second editions of Dungeons and Dragons are the classics that started it all. And, oddly enough, they were published semi-simultaneously (allowing for the gap in time before AD&D was created). In fact, they play mostly the same, with similar rules, gameplay, and more. Systems like THACO (which later became AC), the division between divine and arcane spellcasters, and the rolling of 7 different types of dice are all here, though.
‘Basic’ DnD was sold mainly in toy stores, and allowed for a loose, improvisational style of gameplay. It was easy to learn for both kids and adults but had a relatively tiny amount of actual content to it.
AD&D really lived up to its title as an ‘Advanced’ version of the game. It was sold in hobby stores instead of toy stores and had a lot more rules and structure to it. It embraced the wargamers who already frequented those shops, intended as a version of the game for more experienced tabletop gamers.
While it was harder to learn, it also had a lot more content available for it. Spelljammer, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, and dozens of other settings found their start in this edition.
While I have a lot of affection for these editions, I don’t recommend that people go straight into playing them unless they’re already old hat with D&D. A player who learned on later editions may find it difficult to wrap their head around the vastly different rules, and become frustrated with the outdated lore, limited character options, and sometimes-clunky concepts. Plus, these editions are collectible nowadays, which prices them out for most people.
But if you’ve somehow got your hands on one of these editions and you want to try them – go for it! It’s no surprise that they spawned a decades-long classic TTRPG.
Dungeons and Dragons 3rd and 3.5th (3e and 3.5e)
In the late 90s, TSR (the company that published 1e and 2e) went bankrupt, and sold house to Wizards of the Coast (WotC). In 2000, they released a huge reinvention of the game in the form of 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons.
3e consolidated everything back into a single game, and revamped the dice system entirely, creating what we now recognize as the standard d20 system. Customization was emphasized, with feats, prestige classes, and a more forgiving ruleset than AD&D had. It was also nestled safely under the Open Gaming License, which allowed other companies to publish content compatible with the game, exponentially expanding the possibilities for players.
There was a small problem of unbalanced monsters and overpowered/underpowered classes and races, though. So, in 2003 WotC released 3.5e. It was the same game, with the same rule system and lore, but with some of the kinks worked out. And it went over fantastically. Players can easily mesh the two versions of the edition, using the ones that they like and leaving behind what they don’t.
This is the edition that I started with, and I recommend it, or at least aspects of it, to most players. It emphasizes a more ‘problem-solving’ style of gameplay, though. Players who like to strategize and implement tactics are likely to enjoy it. Plus, the levels of customization are truly unbelievable compared to 5e.
It’s a little more math-and-mind heavy, since the customization comes with information to keep track of. But it’s more than worth it for the feeling of building your character into something truly unique to you and your campaign. Content books for these editions are a little more expensive than they used to be, but you can find almost any of them online for free with a few clever searches.
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition (4e)
After a while, for a variety of reasons (not the least because of third party content publications), WotC released another edition of DnD. And unlike 3.5e, it really was a whole new edition
4th edition is a higher-powered take on the game, allowing players to start with more abilities. And while the dice system is largely the same, these Powers were no longer permanent character effects but action-options that could be used a varying number of times each day or encounter.
4e’s release was rushed and came while 3.5e was still mostly beloved among its player base. Thus, its reception wasn’t great. Player felt it was a little unfinished and clumsy, for the most part. And D&D lost the hold that it had on the gaming community, largely being replaced by games more similar to older editions, like Pathfinder.
I don’t personally enjoy this edition very much, nor do many players (“We don’t talk about 4th edition” is a fairly common joke to hear at conventions). But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have merit! If you want to start your game as a powerful, impactful figure in the world you’re in, 4e is probably a good choice for you. Strategy and tactics are less important as well, and it can be learned a lot quicker than 3.5e. If you like this edition – good on you! Plus, since it's not very popular, secondhand stores usually have the books for pretty cheap!
Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition
After several years of complaining from players, WotC finally announced another edition of DnD. This time, though, they promised to playtest the game vigorously, and use as much feedback from players as possible. And in 2014 5th edition was released.
I cannot emphasize enough how popular this edition is, bringing in missions of players worldwide. It’s play furthers the clumsy attempts at streamlining and intuitive play that 4e introduced, but polishes them into something much more enjoyable. It’s still less customizable than 3.5e, but much easier to pick up and learn, with care taken to address some of the more problematic lore elements and encourage roleplay and improvisation (much like the original edition of the game).
If you’re a first-time player, this is probably the easiest version of the game for you to pick up and play. There are hundreds of resources, fan made and official supplements, and tons of online discussion about it. You can find resources and secondhand books cheaply and use a variety of software to make it easier and easier to pick up. If you view DnD as a storytelling game, it’s an especially good edition to start with.
Although, I don’t recommend stopping with the current edition – there are a few places where I think using older editions’ rules enhance 5e. But that’s just my own personal choice. Play as you please!
What edition do you play? Which is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below! We love to hear what you’re playing.