The difference between Dungeons & Dragons editions
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 February 2014, 6:03 am
Yesterday a reader asked: "As a Pathfinder player (which I've read was based on Edition 3.5), I often wonder how much of a difference there is between these various editions. Is it powers that classes have? Strength of NPCs?". I couldn't resist that question, could I? Let's start the discussion by saying that of course there are myriad of small differences in the details between all editions. I once saw a "video review" on YouTube in which the reviewer spent most of the time ranting about how he didn't like what sub-races of elves the new edition offered. This is not the level of detail I am going to concern myself with in this post. Sub-races of elves would be something that I'd just house-rule in as needed. What I am going to talk about is major game systems.

So if you look at the editions of Dungeons & Dragons from this rather zoomed out view, looking at how the major game systems work, the first thing you realize is that 1st edition, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, edition 3.5, and Pathfinder are very much an evolutionary continuum. 4th edition is a break in that continuum, a revolution rather than evolution, with many major game systems completely changed. D&D Next to some extent goes back trying to be an evolution of 3.5 with some elements of 4E thrown in. The major break in how basic rules work between 4th edition and the editions before and after it explain much of the edition wars.

So how did Dungeons & Dragons work before 4th edition? I think the main point is that in earlier editions (and D&D Next), different classes worked using very different rules systems. The example that is always cited is the difference between a fighter and a wizard, but of course you could make similar comparisons between a rogue and a druid or another pair of non-spellcaster and spellcaster. The difference is that the fighter gets a rather basic rule system which consists of a few numbers: How many times per round he can hit something with his weapon, what his chance to hit something with his weapon is, and how much damage he will deal. Thus when standing in front of a monster, when the DM asks the fighter of these earlier editions what he is going to do, the fighter will most likely answer that he tries to hit that monster with his weapon. Now of course the player can always invent stuff of how he tries to swing from the candelabra to jump on the monster's back, but that is role-playing. The rules system by itself doesn't offer the fighter of 1st to 3rd edition D&D many options other than swinging his weapon. A wizard in the same previous editions works fundamentally different: While he could use the same rules system as the fighter to swing a weapon, his stats are such that this wouldn't do much. But he gets a completely separate rules system for casting spells. So the wizard, when asked what to do, will most likely respond that he wants to cast a spell.

Now let's have a look at the same fighter and the same wizard in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. The major difference is that now both of them work with exactly the same rules system. Both the fighter and the wizard are unlikely to make a basic attack, because they BOTH have spells. Only that they aren't called spells. They both have "powers". At the same level they both have exactly the same number of powers, for example at level 1 they both have 2 at-will powers, 1 encounter power, and 1 daily power. The "at-will", "encounter", and "daily" part is what is known to MMORPG players as a cooldown. The description of the different powers will be different, the fighter will have powers that involve weapon swinging, while the wizard will have powers that work like spells, for example magic missile. But the important difference between 4th edition and other editions of Dungeons & Dragons is that in 4E every class works with that same basic rules system for powers. Different classes have different sets of powers, making them play differently. But they have the same number of options. And MMORPG players will recognize that this is how pretty much every fantasy MMORPG works as well: Different classes have different powers, but the same number of them at the same level.

Whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion. Having played different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, I did consider wizards to be problematic in earlier editions of the game: Their power progression is so very different from that of a fighter. That is known as the "linear fighter, quadratic wizard" problem: The fighter gets linearly better with level, by improving the numbers that determine how much damage he can deal with his weapon every round. The wizard with each level gets not only more spells, but also spells of a higher level. So at level 1 a wizard is extremely weak, in some systems can only cast a single minor spell per day, and is killed by a single stray arrow. At the highest level a wizard can cast spells like Wish or instant death spells, and has a huge variety of spells to choose from. Meanwhile the life of the fighter doesn't change much over the levels, he just hits more often for more damage. The wizard also causes problems with other classes, for example a rogue who has the ability to sneak or open locks is overshadowed by a wizard with fly, invisibility, and knock spells. There is an argument to be made that the advantage of these earlier editions is that it offered players the choice between "easier" and "more complicated" classes. But if you play repeatedly with the same people, sooner or later nobody wants to play the "easy" classes any more, because they offer so much less options and less fun than the spellcasters. Furthermore, because in the earlier systems the different classes work on different rules systems, they also work on different resources. The fighter never runs out of the ability to hit things, so as long as he has hitpoints his performance is constant. The wizard has a limited number of spells, and will want to "rest" after they have been used up. In 4th edition you still get players wanting to rest after each fight, but that isn't necessarily the spellcasters any more, everybody uses and regains resources the same way.

While I consider the use of different or the same basic rule system for each class to be the major difference between the different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it of course is not the only one. I once joked that you could learn a lot about an edition by asking "how many arrows does it take to kill a level 1 wizard?". All role-playing combat systems work fundamentally the same way: Each side has a pool of "health", and each side deals "damage" to the other side, subtracting from that pool of health. The length of combat thus depends on the balance between damage and health. In a turn-based combat system like Dungeons & Dragons, assuming a combat which the players win, the number of turns that each combat will take is equal to the total amount of health of the monsters divided by the average amount of damage the players deal each round. This average number of turns per standard combat is different for each edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and covers a wide range. But 4th edition clearly stands out for having the most turns per combat. Which is by design, and a direct consequence of each player in 4E having more options, more powers, than in the other editions. 4E combat having more turns enables each player to use a wider range of his options, and results in more tactical movement. Again, whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion, some people like fights to be over in a turn or two and not needing a tactical map, others enjoy the tactical options of 4E. But one thing that has to be remarked is that even if each combat takes more turns and thus longer, it does not follow that in each adventure more time is spent in combat. If combat is shorter, you can simply have more fights and end up with the same ratio of time spent in combat and out of combat.

And that touches on something very important with which I would like to conclude this post: We need to distinguish between the difference between the rules systems of the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and the difference between different people applying those rule systems. A game of Dungeons & Dragons is only partially determined by the rules system; another big part of it comes from how the DM and the players run the game, how the adventure is designed, and how the players around the table interact with each other. If you take a group of fans of tactical wargaming to play with the same edition of Dungeons & Dragons as another group of fans of improvised theater, you will get two very different games. It would be fair to say that 4th edition supports the tactical wargaming crowd better, while maybe the shorter fights of other editions are better for a group that wants to spend most of its time role-playing. But if you want a balanced mix of combat and role-playing, you can in fact arrive there from any edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
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