Well, I shall attempt to be brief, but that's going to be hard with today's topic, gentle readers. There are, at last count, 6 editions of D&D (more depending on how you count!) and numerous clones and licensed properties that use the D&D "engine." I also will not mention Chainmail as that is not D&D per se. If I miss some, please chalk it up to a headache I have today!
First up is the edition that started it all: Dungeons and Dragons, also called variously 0e(dition), O(riginal)e(dition), and the LBB (Little Brown Books). The core classes and races as well as statistics are there: Clerics, Men of Magic, Fighting Men (Thieves were added in the Greyhawk Supplement); elves, dwarves, Hobb...er, Halflings; experience points; etc. Some things are noticeably different from later editions, such as d6 damage for all weapons. This version is not "new player friendly;" it assumes a previous experience with wargaming. One of things to like about this edition is the lack of defined rules. Imagination was key. There were also no hard limits: science and sorcery were mixed in Castle Greyhawk as well as in Blackmoor.
On a sidenote, the impact of D&D was felt in other games. Traveller when it came out, arrived in a LBB (Little Black Book) Edition with a similar division of books: Characters and Combat, Starships, and Worlds mirroring Men and Magic, Creatures and Treasure, and Underworld and Wilderness Adventures.
I'll talk about the next two together. It was quickly apparent as D&D sold rapidly across the country that a hit was on their hands. The deficiency about a lack of instruction was noted. As AD&D was prepared Holmes D&D, a primer on roleplaying that took eh character to 3rd level was introduced as a stopgap measure. Alignments went from three (L, C, N) to 5 (LG, CG, LE, CE, N). Holmes was never intended to be a truly stand alone game but more of a "gateway" game to introduce the game to potential players. After AD&D was published, D&D Basic and Expert (B/X or Moldvey/Cook D&D) was introduced. My impression is that D&D was supposed to become the home game that one could tinker with to one's content. AD&D was the framework for the "international" and tournament game, a framework that would allow for greater precision in competition. This is to some extent conjecture, but is the feeling I have. I also like to point put that the blurb on the back of the Basic Book touts it as "family entertainment." Way different from being a smelly neckbeard basement-dweller game. There are some important things in B/X: race as class, a return to the 3 alignments, and a less technically precise combat. It is, in many ways, divorced from its wargaming roots; not so AD&D.
I'm using a pic of the current reprints because they are so sweet! For me, this is AD&D. As much as people deride 3.0/3e for becoming a minis game, it is still an important component of first edition as well. All of those fiddly numbers: weapon speed, armor modifiers, the confusing initiative. It is apparent that Gary never really left his wargaming roots. He's the lead author here. B/X and the later BECMI had different leads and therefore way different feels. Here we gain the 9 alignments (LG, NG, CG, LN, NT, CN, LE, NE, CE); more races (gnomes, half orcs and a plethora of elves and dwarves); more classes (assassin, monks, cavaliers, etc.). It can be argued that, like minis, 3e's fascination with "a class for anyone" can be laid at Gygax's feet. And what are the bard and thief-acrobat if not proto-prestige classes. The introductions of skills as "nonweapon proficiencies begins here as well in Oriental Adventures. We also gain most of the campaign worlds: Greyhawk, Toril, Kyrnn, and Ravenloft (as a module, true; it is in 2e that it would become a world).
Basic had a facelift in the mid 1980s. It was truly its own game and a very playable one as well and is termed BECMI (Basic-Expert-Companion-Master-Immortal) by fans. BECMI's lead author was Frank Mentzer. The game took characters from 1st to 36th level and then beyond to Immortal levels. The expanded game setting of the Known World (to become Mystara in 2e) had its own line of gazetteers. No other D&D campaign world has really had this level of attention to detail.
With the ouster of Gary from TSR, the company continued on. In 1989, second edition hit the scene. Love it or hate it, it is still the longest in print version. And, boy, were they prolific! Splat books for the classes and the addition of kits to customize classes. Humanoids as viable PC races (The Complete Humanoid). Even Psionics was revamped into an arguably workable system (although it works best where magic is not present). Planescape, Ravenloft, Mystara/Red Steel, Dark Sun for new campaign worlds as well as revamps of Toril, Oerth and Kyrnn. There was much crying over the loss of many of the core classes like moinks and assassins. However, it was a return to those core four classes (Warrior/Mage/Priest/Rogue) seen in 0e. The other problem players had was with the "unbalancing" kits. I believe that's due to a poor DM, but opinions vary. I don't play this edition enough. It is a complete system, still readily available with reprints of the core books arriving in May. And it is well integrated and planned out.
In the mid 1990s, we got the Player's Option books or 2.5. It did not supplant or replace 2e, but it allowed for point buy character creation, spell point systems and the like. It was really more of a D&D "toolbox" that had "official" ways to change the rules. I never knew anyone to play this; I did own it and wanted to run or play it. The idea of a creating a wizard who could use a sword or have thieving abilities was novel.
Enter the 21st century and the acquisition of the brand by Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook. Third edition. D20. There has been much written about this over the years. This version focuses more on the mins and the tactical nature of combat. One could argue that was true of 1e as well; it was really B/X and BECMI that were roleplaying focused without the need for minis. I won't go into the mechanics of 3.0/3.5. Suffice to say, though, that it is still recognizably D&D. The strength and weakness of d20 are the same in my opinion: the OGL. The Open Game License allowed third party publishers to use the engine to create games and supplements. That is good in that we got some really outstanding games such as Mutants and Masterminds and Castles and Crusades. The flip side is that there is A LOT of material for players and especially DMs to wade through, some of which is sub-par and mediocre.
Fourth edition....bored yet? This is the version that receives the most vitriol these days. It is arguably not D&D but a MMO with dice and minis. Some of the ideas make sense to some extent: magic-missile as an "at-will power" makes mages more survivable, but also makes it like hitting the 1 button in a video game. Alignment was simplified and the concept of "unaligned" was brought into play. There is a dearth of roleplaying material; 1e was guilty of that as well, but did have material on hirelings, sages, creation of the campaign world. This was a poor attempt to change the brand to appeal to young computer gamers and a mistake that I believe WotC has realized.
And so, on the horizon, is "D&D Next." From what I have seen of the playtest materials, this edition is going to attempt to become "all things for all people." That might work for a Roman Catholic saint, but I have my doubts as to its viability for a RPG. It would appear that it will be a stripped-down version very similar to D&D basic, but without race as class. There will be a plethora of options so one can ramp it up to something akin to 3.5 or anything in between. We'll see how that works. I am cautiously optimistic.
And, now, bring on the clones!
I want to mention first off M.A.R. Barker's Empire of the Petal. The world of Tekumel first published by TSR in 1975 and using an adaptation of the 0e ruleset. Tekumel is a non-western fantasy world and is much beloved of its fans. If you're looking for something not derived from Tolkien and Howard, this is the game for you! A reprint is available at: Tita's House of Games
The Basic Fantasy RPG was probably the first fan reaction to 3.0, if my internal timeline is correct. This is a wonderful product and I can't recommend it enough. It is essentially a B/X clone that is completely free; print copies are sold on Lulu at cost. There are a lot of add-ons for the game that are fan-produced and available for download in pdf and Open Office formats. Please check them out at: Basic Fantasy Roleplaying
One of the first professional responses to 3.0 was Castles and Crusades by Troll Lord Games. Using the OGL the Trolls created a stripped down fantasy game reminiscent of first edition and it is a great game in its own right. Ascending AC and a version of BAB is used. This game plays like D&D lite. I also enjoy that weapons have abilities reminiscent of the AC modifiers tables of 1e but with out a huge chart. For instance, a bec de corbin "receives a +2 when used against chain, plate and scale armors." Another thing that struck me was that the original printings were the same size as the 1e PHB. They also have the distinction of working with Gary Gygax in an attempt to get Castle Greyhawk (as Castle Zagyg) published before Gary died. Check them out at: Troll Lord Games
Kenzer Company's Hackmaster (fourth edition!) was an officially licensed game that used the 1e/2e core system. It was, in many respects, 1e with some 2e things (kits, wild magic, splat books) tacked on. There was even an inkling of 2.5 with their STP (Skills-Talents-Proficiencies) system that allowed some characterization of classes. As a result of the licensing agreement with WotC, KCo had to use a lot of parody in their language. Ignore that, though, and the core system is sound. WotC did not renew the license prior to the release of 4e. Hackmaster lives on in its fifth (actually 2nd) edition but the core mechanics are drastically different. However, it is worth checking out and they are offering the stripped down "basic" book as a FREE pdf (download here). They can be found at: Kenzer Company
Goblinoid Games offers the Labyrinth Lord game, another company that used the OGL to produce an older-style RPG. This is essentially a B/X emulator and is available in print at Lulu and also as a free pdf download (sans artwork). They offer the Advanced Edition Companion to make the game a bit more like AD&D. They also offer Mutant Future (a Gamma World clone) and own the licenses to Timemaster and Starships and Spacemen (in print again!). Their web site is: Goblinoid Games
Swords and Wizardry is another B/X style game and is currenty published by Frog God Games. These are the guys that produced Rappan Athuk and it is another great game. The Whitebox edition takes it back down to 0e if that's your thing. Their web site is: Frog God Games
Dark Dungeons is a another retro-clone, but this one uses BECMI as its reference point. The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the horrid Jack T. Chick religious diatribe, Dark Dungeons. In fact, the exanple character that is used throughout the work is Black Leaf, the character who dies in the first panel of the tract. It's always good to have a sense of humor about these things. It is available in pdf form for free and in print for a nominal fee from Lulu. The web site is: Gratis Games
Johnathan Becker's B/X Companion is not a true clone; rather, it is an extension of the B/X game. The public was promised a Companion book to take characters past 14th level when B/X was published, but the rebranding to BECMI meant that the world would never see it...until now. Becker extrapolated what might have been and this is a nice addition for you if prefer the Moldvey/Cook rules. the cover is obviously a homage to the original Erol Otus covers. It is no longer available in print but is available as a pdf at RPGNow. Becker recently released the B/X Adventurer that adds some new classes and magic to the game most notably gnomes, centaurs, and witches (among others). Running Beagle Games is found at: B/X Blackrazor
Finally, we come to the end....and OSRIC. I give these guys a lot of grief, I admit that readily. However, unlike some of the other clones that stay true to their source, this version is not what it purports to be. True, it is AD&D as it was played in the 1980s; but just because we didn't play with weapon factors, psionics, monks, etc., doesn't mean they're not a part of AD&D. Even Goblinoid Game's Advanced Edition Companion adds the caveat "as it was played." That said, this is a well done work. Even if I disagree with Stuart Marshall's choices, this is a outstanding product. Everything one needs to play something close to AD&D (yes, yes, I can't let it go!) in one beautiful tome with art from James Halloway. It's only $26, so if the $100+ pricetag of the 1e reprints is too much, go here. The web site is: Black Blade Publishing
And that's it! Woo-hoo, finally through. Break out the Faygo! Tomorrow, gentle readers, I shall examine some of my favorite forums!