Yesterday, roleplaying game publisher Wizards of the Coast announced the development of a new edition of D&D. This revision comes less than four years after the release of the last edition of the stalwart RPG. For years, D&D players have drawn battle lines over which edition of the game they prefer, and Wizards is now hoping this new version will lead to a cease-fire. But how will they reunite these various D&D tribes after 40 years of rules revisions?
The latest edition of D&D doesn't have a name yet, though everyone's calling it 5th Edition (or 5E), mainly because the last edition was 4th (not unlike Led Zeppelin IV). The announcement was heralded by articles at mainstream media sites like Forbes and the New York Times –- Wizards flew a bunch of media folks out to their Renton, WA headquarters to unveil the game and even run them through a play session with D&D R&D head Mike Mearls as the dungeon master. Details are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements for the time being.
There are two important things to note in the official announcement of the new edition. First, Wizards will "crowdsource" the design to some extent by releasing parts of the rules for gamers to test and play with, then offer feedback on. It's essentially an open beta, and a method with proven success –- Paizo Publishing used it when developing the Pathfinder RPG in 2009, and that game now reportedly outsells D&D. Second, in the words of Mike Mearls, "We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game."
Is edition unification even possible? A trip through the convoluted history of D&D's editions will show us how we got here, and if there's a way out.
D&D debuted in the mid-1970s as a boxed set, with rules based on Chainmail, a tactical miniatures game. A few digest-sized supplements were published, too. Copies are fairly rare. This version of D&D could be considered "0th Edition." In the late 70s, the D&D rules were compiled, reworked, tweaked, fixed and altered significantly, incorporating many of the new rules from the supplements. This version was published as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) in 1977, and enjoyed a fairly robust life with a lot of supplements and adventure modules. When someone says, "I only play 1st Edition," this is what they're talking about.
Here's where things get slightly complicated. Simultaneous to the development of AD&D, game publisher TSR put out a series of boxed sets simply called Dungeons & Dragons. These were intended as introductory products to make it easier for players to learn the game and eventually move up to AD&D. Many gamer have fond memories of the "Red Box" basic set released in the 80s, so much so that Wizards put out an introductory set with a nostalgic reuse of the Red Box's cover in 2010. These sets remained in production from 1977 through the mid-90s, when they were combined into a single book called the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. For all intents and purposes, this is a completely separate game from AD&D, although it obviously shares many rules and concepts.
The 2nd Edition of AD&D was published in 1989. This is the edition that stripped out all references to demons and devils to sidestep the Satanic panic that was in vogue at the time. It changed the rules significantly, most famously for creating a strange system for figuring out what you needed to roll to make a successful attack, known as THAC0. Combat was much more tactically detailed in this edition.