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Timeline of D&D Editions (History)

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When did Dungeon and Dragons come out? Is Pathfinder Dungeons and Dragons? Find out in our massive post on all the D&D editions over the years…

D&D Before the Beginning

As hard as it is to believe, there really was a time before Dungeons and Dragons. In the dark days before the mid-1970s, there existed a set of influences that would eventually come together and create the worldwide phenomenon.

The most obvious influence was war-gaming. These tactical games involved miniature armies and codified a number of the rules that would come to define D&D combat. In particular, Jeff Perren’s rules for Siege of Bodenburg were a direct predecessor to the game that would become Dungeons and Dragons.

Beyond mechanics, it’s clear to see that Dungeons and Dragons borrows heavily from early/mid-20th century fantasy literature. It’s got clear allusions to both The Lord of the Rings and the Conan stories, some of which are so direct that legal action has been threatened. It also owes a great deal to sword-and-sorcery films and pulp novels.

If you’re looking for direct antecedents, though, you must first look at Chainmail. Created by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, this game started as a set of rules for medieval war gaming. D&D would get its true beginning as a variant of this game.

Though early iterations of the concept that would become D&D focused on miniature combat, it’s still easy to see the concepts that would later become the game we all know so well.

Original D&D Boxed Set Game (1974 to 1979)

It’s hard to say that Dungeons and Dragons got off to a spectacular start. By today’s standards, the original box was amateurish and almost needlessly convoluted. Nonetheless, it would go on to become a classic.

The original D&D box set was really just a collection of three pamphlets. It was assumed that anyone playing the game was already familiar with miniature war gaming, and most copies were sold to college students in wargaming societies. The first two years saw about four thousand copies sold.

By 1975, Dungeons and Dragons was already growing. It had a number of supplementary settings, including Greyhawk and Blackmoor, and went back to the printers several times for minor updates.

1977 saw the release of the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, which would clean up the rules and make the game a little more suitable for the general public. It was this version of the original game that would actually go on to become a legitimate hit in the gaming world.

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It’s important to note that a huge component of the success of the Basic Set was in the packaging. Because everything came in a box, it could be stocked in toy stores. This helped to spread play of the game to younger players and those who couldn’t find specialized game stores.

D&D and AD&D Years (D&D in the 1980s)

The late 1970s and early 1980s would see the beginning of what TSR would consider a “two-pronged” strategy. Dungeons and Dragons would be divided up into two editions and targeted at two separate audiences.

While players today tend to look at the progression of the game from D&D to AD&D, the truth is that both games were true successors to the original version. In fact, each catered to specific demographics within that original fan base. Figuring out which one was a real sequel was difficult, to say the least.

Looking at how the two games were different is a good way to understand how D&D would continue to develop.

D&D

Basic Dungeons and Dragons was the continuation of the original game, though the original boxed set would stay on shelves for years. This game was meant for players who preferred an overall lighter tone and didn’t mind a bit of improvisation when it came to rules.

This version of the game would continue to be sold in boxed sets. It was assumed that people who were new to the game would prefer the more novice-friendly rules. For many players, this is the D&D they think of when they think about the original version of the game – Red Box D&D – something that probably aligned with the intent of the publisher.

AD&D

If D&D targeted novices, AD&D was meant for the hardcore crowd.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons took the rules of the original game and evolved them. They became more complex, but also allowed players to do more within the framework. This is the game that started down the path to become the modern game. This is the true D&D 2.0.

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons started the practice of creating core rulebooks and expansion materials. These books were sold in dedicated gaming stores and set the standard for many other games. It’s hard to say if it was as popular as D&D at the time, but this is the game that has tended to endure.

Mazes and Monsters (TV Movie 1982)

Despite its relative financial success, Dungeons and Dragons came very close to being destroyed by a television movie.

At the height of its popularity, Dungeons and Dragons came under attack in much the same way that video games would come under attack in the 1990s. Moral guardians pointed to supposed occult influences and sexual art in the game, declaring that it would corrupt children.

It’s important to remember that this was at the height of the so-called “Satanic Panic”, in which numerous people came forward with “repressed memories” of cult experiences. Dungeons and Dragons was considered just another symptom of the same sort of influences.

Mazes and Monsters brought this panic to the television, starring none other than a very young Tom Hanks. This game posited that players couldn’t understand the difference between reality and the game, and that tragedy would come to anyone who tampered with the evil game.

Mazes and Monsters would help push D&D out of the toy store and bring the roleplaying hobby underground. Perhaps unintentionally, it also brought the game into the public eye for a brief time. Many players first heard about the game through moral panic.

Though Mazes and Monsters didn’t kill the game, it certainly drove roleplaying games underground.

The Legend Continues (D&D in the 1990s)

While D&D had taken a hit in the public eye, the 1990s were very good to the game. Not only would the two-pronged strategy continue through the decade, but the game would start to take on its final form.

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The 1990s also brought with it a wide exposure for D&D in other formats. Some of the most beloved video game adaptations of the game system would be released in the 1990s. There were also a number of legitimate spin-offs from the game that would become just as beloved as the original version.

Gamers of the 1990s also began to observe the game store as a central meeting place and sales area. The sheer number of supplements would gain Dungeons and Dragons a significant amount of square footage in these stores.

D&D

D&D took the biggest hit from the scandals of the 1980s, but it still went strong. It continued to sell its boxed set, but as the 1990s began this version of the game also began to change.

By 1991, D&D had become a game for incredibly powerful characters. All of the earlier supplements for more powerful play would be collected in the Cyclopedia, a massive book that really codified the D&D’s place in the gaming pantheon.

At the same time, D&D would see one final boxed set released in the 1990s. It was another introductory set and another attempt to bring in novice players.

AD&D v.2

The second revision of AD&D moved the game farther afield from the original version of the game. This was a version of D&D that was focused on evolving the mechanics to make a better game, with a bit less attention paid to the tone that was generated.

AD&D2 took note of the scandals of the 80s and made some changes to its materials. It left behind its old sword-and-sorcery roots and instead embraced a combination of history and mythology. Sexuality and violence were toned down, while deeper systems were embraced.

AD&D2 brought some of D&D’s most-loved settings to the fore. This is the version that introduced Spelljammer and Ravenloft.

Wizards of the Coast (D&D in 1997)

While Dungeons and Dragons was inarguably one of the most popular roleplaying games on the planet in the 1990s, it wasn’t the only kid on the block. There were other games competing for market space, and some of them were innovating faster the D&D.

TSR, the company that had published D&D almost since the beginning, wasn’t in great financial shape in the 1990s. Its two-pronged strategy wasn’t necessarily bringing in more players, but rather dividing its own player base. Its reliance on supplements also bled dry a player base that only had limited funds.

Dungeons and Dragons had also become a game that was so complex that it scared away new players. The sheer amount of material out there made it hard to figure out where to start. Since the boxed sets were being removed from toy stores, it was hard for a new player to begin.

The Collectible Card Game (CCG) was the last nail in TSR’s coffin. These games were simple, yet required a continuous cash supply. The games gobbled up a huge share of the market, leading the financially mis-managed TSR to eventually reach the end of its rope.

Wizards of the Coast, the company behind Magic: The Gathering, would buy the D&D property from TSR in 1997.

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition (D&D 3e in 2000)

After three years of ownership, Wizards of the Coast released its own version of Dungeons and Dragons – 3rd Edition. Combining some of the best influences of D&D and AD&D, this version of the game was meant to be both more player-friendly and more universally usable.

3rd Edition was not just a simple game, though. It was the release platform for the d20 system, which was meant to be a universal roleplaying system. The d20 system could, and would, be exported to many other franchises. The easy mechanics helped it to become a major player in its own right.

This version of D&D relied heavily on player customization. It was this version that introduced feats as a concept, as well as the reliance of out of combat skills. Players were able to use various new supplements and articles to create new prestige classes, or to customize their base classes in a way that made them more fun to play.

3rd Edition was a renaissance for the property. It brought D&D back into the spotlight and arguably back into the world of modern roleplaying.

Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5 (D&D 3.5e in 2003)

3rd Edition was not, however, a perfect game. There were a few glaring issues, some of which impacted the fun of the game. In a fairly surprising move, Wizards of the Coast released a new version of the game just three years after its initial offering.

3.5 was not an entirely new version of Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, it was a collection of rule changes and expansions, many of which were taken from supplements or play-testers. While the changes were not radical, they reinvigorated the player base.

The minor changes helped to improve playability considerably. A series of new rulebooks and supplements came out, most of which were geared towards giving players more options. All the while, the system managed to stay true to the d20 vision – even if D&D had changed, none of the other games in the system had to follow suit.

For many, D&D 3.5 would become the definitive version of the game. It was finely tuned and put the needs of the most hardcore players first. Even so, the game was still fairly friendly to novices – it was easy enough to pick up in a single play session.

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It was the decision to move away from 3.5 that precipitated the biggest split in the D&D community.

A Path Diverges in the D&D Woods

When Wizards of the Coast announced a new version of D&D, not all in the community were happy. Some decided to bud off and continue the innovations they thought were most worth in 3.5.

The best known game to iterate out of 3.5 was Pathfinder. While largely influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, it is very much its own game. It took 3.5 as a starting point and began to create a version of the game that carries much the same legacy.

Pathfinder took what was in 3.5 and trimmed much of the fat. There are fewer dead levels, better progression, and a more tightly-balanced set of combat rules. While it’s not preferred by every player of 3.5, it presents an viable option for many.

Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition (D&D 4e in 2007)

By the mid-2000s, it was very clear that D&D was no longer just competing with other roleplaying games. It was now competing for space against MMORPGs and other, faster-paced games. It was time to innovate again.

Amidst great controversy, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. A truly complete reboot of the game, it simplified and streamlined the game for newer audiences. It also sped up game play significantly, making combat a bit more intuitive.

While not appreciated by everyone, 4th Edition did help to make some major changes to the franchise. For the first time in years, combat was at the forefront again. Miniatures became an important part of the game and in many ways it was moving back to its wargaming roots.

At the same time, Wizards of the Coast was embracing new technology. There were fantastic software tools that could be used to enhance game play. Even the publishing of the rulebooks in .pdf format would change how players interacted with the material.

4th Edition wasn’t always well-received, but it does still have a fairly strong player base. It stands as a testament to the changing times and Wizards of the Coast’s attempts to keep the game relevant.

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Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e in 2014)

Even a few years after release, it’s difficult to describe Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

In some ways, one can look at the game as an attempt to get D&D back to its roots. It certainly embraces much of the complexity that was lost in the transition to 4th Edition and it brings back a certain sense of legacy that was lost at the same time.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this is another attempt to reinvent D&D adventures for a new generation. There are enough mechanical and setting changes to make it clear that this isn’t a roll-back to something earlier. It’s just another iteration, albeit one that feels familiar and different all at once.

Released in time for the 40th anniversary of D&D, 5th Edition does show that Wizards of the Coast cares deeply about the property. It’s yet to be seen if this edition will be as popular as 3.5 or will be the relative flop like 4.0. What’s important, though, is that the legacy of D&D continues.

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