Ranking The Best D&D Editions
For many Dungeons and Dragons fans ranking the best D&D Editions can be heartbreaking. It’s almost like picking your favorite child since you love them all.
With Dungeons and Dragons becoming such a staple of Nerd Culture the debate is inevitable.
With that being said, there are editions of D&D that are more effective than others. Some editions focus on character building or lore, while others add depth and unique gameplay options.
The Magical World of Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons has inspired millions of players since its birth in 1974. There have been many iterations of the tabletop game throughout the last 40-plus years.
With each edition, the game has evolved and changed. Each one brought a new approach or feel to D&D but not all editions hit the mark or stand the test of time. Some editions are considered superior to others while some have never caught on with the wider fanbase.
For this ranking, we are covering just the SEVEN most recognized editions of this beloved TTRPG system.
7) Fourth Edition is NOT the World’s Best Role Playing Game
In 2008, Wizards of the Coast released D&D 4th edition. The fourth edition also introduced a subscription-based online component, D&D Insider.
The fourth edition made some of the most radical changes in D&D’s history. Miniatures were mandatory in the Fourth Edition, and many combat abilities required precise area.
One of the most divisive changes is that all classes embodied an MMO-style role (tank/DPS/support/CC). The gameplay is closer to a tactical miniatures game than any other editions of D&D, where miniatures were optional.
These changes were controversial and caused a division among players. Many felt this edition was abandoning its soul to copy the more popular World of Warcraft.
Because of these changes, the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons is widely considered the worst edition by the D&D community.
After the high praise for 3e and 3.5, Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition quickly grabbed the title of most controversial edition ever. This came down to the feeling that many considered 4e a completely different type of game.
To its credit, 4e, established and emphasized sensible choices, teamwork, novel use of abilities, and resource management. So it’s not ALL bad!
6) A Classic System That Doesn’t Stand the Test of Time
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released three separate books over three years. TSR couldn’t afford to run the company without releasing a product so Gary Gygax wrote and released one book at a time. This led to many players mix-and-matching different editions of the game to run a campaign.
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons set the stage for every edition that followed and the game we know today owes it all to AD&D.
That being said, digesting the AD&D rules is incredibly cumbersome. Gary Gygax’s writing style is a beautiful enigma that makes it harder to digest than newer editions.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adopted a more complex ruleset to better simulate an immersive game world. The game is comparable in play to the 1974 original, but with more depth.
The strength of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is its ability to embrace the sandbox and show that there are no limits to TTRPGs.
5) The Genesis of TTRPG’s Struggles to Stand the Test of Time
Dungeons & Dragons was born in 1974 as a box set of three rulebooks: Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.
This release was simply known as Dungeons & Dragons. PERFECT, RIGHT!?!
Dungeons and Dragons is basic in every sense of the word. It offers three classes: Fighting-Men, Cleric, and Magic-User. This is the genesis of D&D and set the stage for what would become the greatest Role-playing game of all time.
This basic beginning of D&D had an unmeasurable impact on nerd culture as a whole. It is NOT the best edition of Dungeons and Dragons, but it is the most important. Dungeons and Dragons has come a LONG WAY since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson introduced Chainmail to the world.
4) Second Edition is a Large Step Forward for all Tabletop Gamers
With the departure of original designer Gary Gygax from the company, TSR published a second edition of the AD&D game system. At its core 2e is similar to AD&D’s first edition. Second Edition introduced improvements to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and was much easier to understand.
Second Edition is much beloved and was the D&D introduction to many players. 2e DOES have some problems in that it was seen as an unnoticeable update to the existing 1e system. 2e’s highlights are the world-building and rich lore it embraced. Second Edition introduced fan-favorite settings Spelljammer, Planescape, and Dark Sun, while also revamping settings like Ravenloft. Second Edition is pure nostalgia for all the right reasons.
3) Third Edition Marked a Deserved D&D Renaissance
Following TSR‘s acquisition by Wizards of the Coast, the Advanced/Basic titles were dropped and the game returned to simply Dungeons & Dragons. When Wizards of the Coast took published 3e it was a game-changing moment for D&D.
It removed the game mechanic called To Hit Armor Class 0, (THAC0), alleviating the stress level of poor mathematicians everywhere. The third edition has balance issues but it does allow more complex character development.
3e introduced a new system called the ‘d20 System’ that hoped to fix the inconsistent mechanics of prior editions. Most books in the MASSIVE 3e library contain character options, including races, classes, feats, and magic items.
The emphasis on Character creation was an instant success and is the most defining thing about the edition. That says SO MUCH considering that there are so many great mechanics that came out of 3e.
2) An Impromptu Update That Opened the Door to Pathfinder
In 2003, Wizards of the Coast published an updated edition of D&D’s third edition. This was called Dungeons & Dragons 3.5.
At its core, 3.5e is largely the same as the original third edition, but it did make many minor rule fixes. This rules revision was initially controversial in the D&D community and seen as a cash grab for Wizards of the Coast. It’s hard to argue against that point of view…
For better or worse 3.5e has very few flaws. Many stand firmly that this is THE BEST edition of the game. Its ability to offer a dynamic role-playing experience and keep the character development aspect of the third edition is a HUGE selling point.
This edition of D&D is also believed to have been a defining influence in the development of Pathfinder. One downside to third and 3.5 editions is the practice of over-optimizing a character which more often than not sucks the joy out of a campaign. The Dungeon Master can easily address this with a precise session zero.
1) Fifth Edition is the Most Successful Edition of D&D for a Reason
Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition debuted in 2014 with three core rulebooks: the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. D&D 5th edition is the most successful edition of the game ever developed and hit Nerd Culture at the perfect time. With the popularity of Critical Role, Online Streaming Play, and Stranger Things all fueling interest in Role Playing Games, 5e became the introduction for countless people to the world of Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D 5th edition merged what worked best from D&D 3rd edition, Dungeon World and D&D 4th edition. The rules are less daunting than in the third edition, with less focus on character optimization. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and the supporting development system more than makes up for it.
5e is the shining jewel in the decades-long journey of Dungeons and Dragons. It encourages a grounded experience without losing the grandeur of a limitless adventure.
A common criticism is that Fifth Edition lacks originality and appropriated most of its identity from older editions. I would argue that it’s this merging of worlds that makes Fifth Edition a smooth and fun game for newcomers AND veterans of the game.
Millions of people who are embracing D&D for the first time are utilizing 5e and that is something special all on its own. From both a gameplay and a cultural perspective, D&D 5e is THE BEST EDITION AVAILABLE.
How to Win Dungeons and Dragons
Dungeons and Dragons came a long way and morphed quite a bit since the initial three booklets debuted in 1974. There is one constant throughout the years though.
The heart of D&D beats best when you gather your closest friends to defeat Monsters with a twenty-sided die. In the grand scheme – Ranking The Best D&D Editions you’re playing is secondary to the memories you make around the game table.
The best edition of D&D could best be stated as the one you and your friends are making memories with right now?
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How do you win Dungeons and Dragons?
I love this attitude, Rikh! I couldn’t agree more. Great DMs deserve to hear appreciation like that more frequently.