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DnD editions differences

This is the story of how DnD has grown, changed, and developed over fifty years, seven main DnD editions, and two publishing companies.

A split image with cover art from different DnD Editions - on the left, Larry Elmore's illustration of a barbarian warrior fighting a red dragon - on the right, a liche in purple robes summons eldritch energy

The current version of DnD may be called fifth edition, but there have actually been seven core versions of the game since 1974. This guide examines the history of all the DnD editions and the differences that make each one unique: their particular rules, publication history, style of play, and impact on the landscape of RPGs.

DnD was the first ever tabletop RPG, and many of the tenets established in the very first edition have become staples of the genre. The concept of DnD classes, DnD races, character levels, spell slots, hit points, monsters, dungeons, and many more factors are ubiquitous in tabletop games, computer RPGs, and frankly gaming as a whole. But the way that those elements have been realised, and the play experience they produce for players, has changed dramatically – which is what this guide explores.

These are the main DnD editions differences, from 1974 to DnD 5e:

DnD editions - original DnD box and contents

Original DnD

The origin of all RPGs.

Authors: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson
Release date: 1974

The original Dungeons and Dragons game written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, also called ODnD and DnD 0e, was a messy, experimental, weird start to the RPG genre. Published as a box set in 1974, the rules consisted of three pamphlets – Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures – plus a small volume of charts. But it wasn’t strictly a complete game.

Dungeons and Dragons assumed that you had access to Chainmail, Gary Gygax’ earlier set of medieval wargame rules, to make sense of the combat system. For wilderness adventures, it suggested players pick up a copy of the Avalon Hill board game Outdoor Survival.

DnD’s origins as an extension of Chainmail contributed to long-standing elements of the design. The inverse armor class system, with low AC being better and high AC being worse, was inherited from Chainmail. The game put a large focus on rulership, building strongholds, hiring assistants and soldiers, which owe much to Dave Arneson’s home campaign, Greyhawk: that began as a multiplayer Chainmail campaign, with each player taking on a political role, until they all abandoned their responsibilities in favor of dungeon delving.

DnD editions Original Dungeons and Dragons Greyhawk supplement

The scope of the game was initially extremely small: dungeon adventures, overworld exploration, and rulership. The rules are very detailed on specific points of interest, yet open to interpretation or even inconsistent in others: so for example, while the original rulebook suggests one XP system, the Greyhawk expansion suggests another. It’s a mixture of high procedure gameplay for narrow areas of interest and GM judgement in others that has a lot in common with contemporary indie RPGs

Nevertheless, this is recognisably DnD. Players can choose from three classes, the Fighting-Man, Wizard, or Cleric, and four races, humans, elves, hobbits, and dwarves. Level restrictions on the non-human races were in place as a way to try and keep the emphasis on human protagonists – obviously, that idea didn’t pan out!

Skill checks and saves will stand out as weird for modern players. There was no single skill system: instead, certain actions had a fixed chance of succeeding, expressed either as a percentage or a chance on a D6, with certain classes and races having better chances than others. Each level of each class had different save values against specific classes of threat, like Breath Weapons, Magic, and ‘Death’, with players attempting to roll equal to or under on a D20 to save.

For every idea that is recognisable, like spellcasters having access to a limited number of spells of certain levels per day, you’ll find another that is alien, like a recommended GM to player ratio of 1:20. The original text is a mess, and retroclones and adaptations of ODnD always strike a balance between recreating the original game, and reinterpreting it.

DnD editions - ADnD players handbook revised


DnD takes shape.

Authors: Gary Gygax, Mike Carr (editor)
Release date: 1977

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons consolidated multiple rules expansions and revisions from ODnD’s lifespan to make it genuinely playable right out of the book. The first book to release was the new Monster Manual in 1977, followed by the Player’s Handbook in 1978 and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979, setting a template for the core books of the game (and many other RPGs) ever since.

Where ODnD put a tight focus on the procedures of dungeon delving but left plenty of room for GM fiat elsewhere in its rules, ADnD began to crystallise the conventions and modes of DnD as we would recognize them today.

ADnD is the origin point of player expression via character build options, adventure modules that take place in well-developed fantasy settings, and an emphasis on a heroic journey rather than the accumulation of money and land.

DnD editions - Advanced Dungeons and Dragons unearthed arcana

Huge quantities of lore, classic adventures, DnD campaign settings, unique races and monsters appeared in ADnD, as well as the first fully formed version of the DnD cosmology. Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, the Forgotten Realms, and the Drow goddess Lolth all originate in this edition.

ADnD introduced a memorable experience system: as well as XP for killing monsters, treasure was worth 1XP per GP of loot retrieved from a dungeon and brought back to civilization. This is a fantastic roleplaying prompt, provided you want to roleplay as amoral mercenaries. To be clear, wargamer think that this XP system is fantastic, given an appropriately challenging adventure.

While ADnD was a more coherent package than ODnD, it is still a grab bag of different systems. As in ODnD, players roll to attack, save, and for skill checks, in totally different ways. The books, while clearer than ODnD, are still erratically written. This is still a difficult edition for modern readers to parse – but if you want to try and get into this style of play with an easier to use ruleset, there are many retroclones.

DnD editions - Basic DnD Holmes edition

Basic DnD

A parallel evolution.

Authors: John Holmes
Release date: 1977
Revised in: 1981 (Basic by Tom Moldvay, Expert by David Cook), 1984 (BECMI by Frank Mentzer), 1991 (Rules Cyclopedia by Aarron Alston)

While Gary Gygax and the TSR team worked on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, a parallel project was in the works, under the pen of John Eric Holmes. Basic DnD was intended to be a new beginner-friendly product. Just like ADnD it streamlined and updated the ODnD rules to be more comprehensive, readable, and usable out of the box.

Unlike ADnD, it retained ODnD’s laser focus on dungeoneering, made non-human races into class options, and only went up to third level. Compared to ADnD 2e, which it ultimately ended up being published alongside as a parallel line, Basic prioritises GM rulings over rules, and direct player participation in the puzzle or challenge rather than deferring to stats and abilities on a character sheet.

DnD editions, basic DnD Moldvay edition book cover art

While Basic DnD had been planned as a one-and-done affair that would lead players onto ADnD, it proved so popular that the line was retained and expanded on with adventures, and then revised versions. In 1981 Tom Moldvay released a revised Basic set, followed immediately by David Cook’s Expert set, which took players up to level 14.

From 1984 there was a new version of the line, this time Frank Mentzer’s BECMI. This five-box series included sets for Basic, Expert, Companion (levels 15-25), Master (levels 16-36), and finally Immortal level play. This last saw players transcend physical reality and begin to progress through 36 Immortal levels as interplanar entities.

DnD editions - Basic DnD Mentzer edition, back cover

The BECMI system was finally consolidated into the Rules Cyclopedia in 1991, written by Aarron Alston, though the Immortal levels were separated out into a distinct supplement.

Basic DnD has been incredibly influential on the old school renaissance movement. Retroclones and adaptations of Basic DnD often draw on it as inspiration for the procedural mode of play. Where ADnD and later editions focus on combat resources mediating player progress through a heroic narrative, Basic doubled down on light, food and water, rope and pitons to mediate progress through a physical location.

DnD editions - ADnD 2e players handbook

ADnD second edition

The quintessential DnD.

Authors: David ‘Zeb’ Cook
Release date: 1989
Revised in: 1995 by Steve Winter

ADnD second edition does not fundamentally rewrite the ADnD game system, but tweaks it in hundreds of ways, large and small. The books are more carefully and thoughtfully written, and are a lot easier for a modern gamer to get their heads around – though the negative AC system remains a pain to deal with.

Some standardisation of systems creeps in. The “Open Doors” check moves to a D20, rather than a D6, and NPC reactions and retainer loyalty similarly hop to a D20 rather than a D100. But most classes still have a 40% to successfully climb a wall, rather than an Athletics skill.

DnD editions - ADnD 2e splatbook

Perhaps the most modern feature of ADnD was the incredible proliferation of supplements, also called ‘splatbooks’, it received. Every DnD class and DnD race had a softback expansion, and the extended Dungeon Master’s Guide series alone contained twelve entries – as many supplements as ADnD had received overall.

ADnD2e ditches the experience point reward for reclaiming treasure and adds entries for XP based on other achievements, as well as for killing monsters. This shifts the tone away from tomb robbing and towards monster slaying and heroism.

The rules for Stronghold building – which got a whole section in the ADnD DM’s guide – become the focus of a separate supplement, giving them more depth for those interested in them, yet moving them to the periphery of the system.

DnD editions - 3rd edition Player's Handbook cover

DnD 3rd edition

The new face of RPGs.

Authors: Monte Cook, Jonathan Tweet, Skip Williams
Release date: 2000
Revised in: 2003 (3.5 edition by Andy Collins)
License: Open Gaming License

DnD third edition is a landmark RPG, arguably the single most impactful game released since the original DnD itself. Published by Wizards of the Coast, who had acquired the DnD brand from the failing TSR in 1997, it was a highly successful modernisation of DnD.

The core of DnD 3e was the new ‘d20 system’. This replaced all the many task resolution systems that previous editions of DnD used with a single style of roll: roll a D20, add all relevant modifiers, and try and roll as high as possible.

Complementing this, armor class values were switched so that higher AC was better, and class saves became functionally identical to skill checks. Thousands of THAC0 apologists were outraged, but most of them eventually saw the light.

DnD 3rd edition Dungeon Master's Guide

While DnD 3e retained the race, class, and level progression system of DnD, it was a more open-ended system. The modifiers provided by statistics were now generalised: a +2 Dexterity modifier applied to ranged attacks, Armor Class, but also to Stealth checks and Reflex saves. The task resolution systems was now uncoupled from DnD’s theme of dungeoneering and heroic adventuring, and could be used for just about anything.

This fed into the other key factor in DnD 3rd edition’s legacy, the Open Gaming License. Inspired by the open source software movement, the OGL allowed third parties to freely create their own games and supplements compatible with the rules of Dungeons and Dragons, provided they didn’t impinge on the copyrights for classic settings and monsters.

What resulted was a tidal wave of new d20 System products from a myriad of other companies. Unofficial campaign settings, character options, monster manuals and adventures for DnD 3rd edition abounded, as did brand new RPGs derived from the core rules engine.

DnD editions - 3rd edition compatible Sword and Sorcery creature collection, published under the OGL

Third edition was also a min-maxer’s paradise. While ADnD certainly allowed players to create better or worse builds, 3e was so open-ended that unforeseen interactions between unrelated expansions – even official ones – could create hilarious, game-breaking builds.

Our favorite is the Jumplomancer, a theoretical character that could make a jump check with a modifier of over +350, use the result in place of a diplomacy roll, and cause every onlooker to immediately become a fanatical adherent of their cause.

Over DnD 3rd edition’s lifespan the game became increasingly bloated and fragmented. The game had a powerful and open-ended simulation engine – a focus on adventures packed with tactical combat – and the legacy of DnD as a dungeon crawler.

High simulation could make combats onerous: lengthy combats would interrupt both classic adventures and more narrative experiences: and the open-endedness of the rules was at odds with a core game loop based on dungeoneering.

Paizo Press’ d20 system game Pathfinder (and later Pathfinder 2e) would go on to push further into this design space, aiming to create the best version of that specific game. But the designers of the next DnD edition decided to rebuild, almost from the ground up.

DnD editions 4th edition cover art

DnD 4th edition

An ill-received sideways step.

Authors: Wizards RPG Team, led by Rob Heinsoo, Andy Collins, James Wyatt
Release date: 2008
Revised in: 2010 (Dungeons and Dragons Essentials – essentially a slightly simplified beginners edition that ran alongside the line)
License: Game Systems License

DnD 4th edition was a radical shift from third edition, in its tone, presentation, gameplay focus, and even licensing. It’s a fascinating design that was badly received at the time, though it has defenders – we’ve added videos by YouTuber, game designer, and Critical Role contributor Matt Colville below with his take on some of its systems.

DnD 4th edition aimed to streamline and standardize the experience of playing DnD. If tactical combat was pulling focus from the rest of the game, then every class should always have something interesting to do in combat. If the rules system made combat clunky, then it needed to be streamlined around just those actions that actually mattered for dungeon delving.

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DnD 4e repackaged everything. Rather than a list of class features, every class – from Rogue to Wizard – has a list of powers, divided into At Will, Encounter, and Daily abilities. This was the origin of Cantrips for spellcasters, who in previous editions would be totally out of magic once their daily spell slots were used up. At higher levels, players would cycle out old powers and cycle in new ones.

4e has a reputation for being extremely combat focused. We think it’s fairer to say that its presentation made the focus that DnD puts onto combat very noticeable – other editions obscure how robust the tactical layer of DnD is by intermixing its rules with other systems, but it’s still the mechanical heart of the game. 4e class powers explicitly reference a combat grid for use with DnD miniatures, and classes are explicitly delineated into Leader, Defender, Striker, and Controller: raid leader, tank, DPS, and control caster.

DnD 4e may not have been any more or less “gamey” than previous or later editions, but it made its game-iness more visible. As an example: the number of magic items players were expected to receive by a specific levels was listed explicitly for the DM. In ODnD, magic items were tools for gaining leverage over the dungeon: in ADnD, they were a tacit component of a player’s power progression relative to monsters. DnD 4e made this explicit – sound game design, perhaps, but it also dispelled some of the mystery.

DnD editions - 4th edition dungeon master guides illustration

Healing, too, was rejigged mechanically. Players had a pool of healing surges, each worth one quarter of their HP, which they could spend between combats, or once per combat. Different classes had different quantities, and Clerics and healing potions allowed players to spend additional surges or receive more healing from them. This freed up Clerics from their role as the party medkit, and scaled healing received with the starting toughness of a character – but it’s a solution grounded in maths, not the established ludonarrative of what magical healing is.

The list of skills was compressed massively to focus on a few core categories relevant for dungeoneering. All players add half their level to each skill check (and to hit rolls, defences, and initiative), and training is worth a flat +5.

Coming off third edition’s colossal skill list and many different ways to boost skills, this was a huge scale back, which flattened some of the distinctiveness of characters at higher levels.

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Anew Skill Challenge system suggested a framework for building encounters not based on combat or the physical properties of a dungeon, but on abstract opportunities for interaction. The DM defines a Challenge, and pre-plans the scope of resistance it will pose to the players – how many successful Skill Checks they need to make, what happens when they pass certain thresholds of success or failure, what skills if any will work.

This moves the scope of player action out of the literal, simulated world of third edition, and instead sets them against the flow of the narrative. It’s a precursor to the “clocks” system that’s proved so popular in Blades in the Dark and its successors – but it was a big leap for DnD, not introduced with compelling examples, and contributed further to 4th edition’s reputation as the edition that was just about combat.

4th edition’s bad reception also has a lot to do with ditching the OGL in favor of the new ‘Games License System’ for third party publishers. A key clause of the GLS, at least as it was initially drafted, prohibited anyone who signed up to it from producing content under the older OGL.

But the market for d20 RPGs was still strong, with Pathfinder acting as a de-facto continuation of DnD 3.5, and publishers were reluctant to move across – or even gave up on it after dipping their toes in the water. 4th edition did receive third party support, but it was nothing compared to the torrent that attended third edition.

DnD edition 5th edition player's handbook

DnD 5th edition

Total RPG dominance.

Authors: Wizards RPG Team, led by Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford
Release date: 2014
License: Creative Commons

DnD 5th edition is the most popular edition of the game ever. While its impact on the RPG publishing industry is not quite as extreme as third edition’s, its cultural impact may be even greater. Fifth edition is synonymous with the explosive growth of DnD Actual Play series like Critical Role and Dimension 20, which have pushed it into the mainstream of nerd culture.

Fifth edition is more streamlined than third edition, less rigidly structured than fourth edition, and more legible than any of the TSR editions. Ideas from fourth edition make it across: short rests and long rests provide an opportunity to spend hit dice to heal, and refresh various abilities, similar to Encounter and daily Abilities. Spell casters keep their infinite-use cantrips.

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A new ‘proficiency’ bonus is used for calculating the modifier on D20 rolls for skills, weapons, spells, and saves that a character is proficient in. This scales gradually with player level, similar to the ½ level bonus in fourth edition, but because it’s connected to specific competences it ensures there’s a reasonable gap in capability between different classes. It allows characters trained in skills to improve in them as they level up without the weighty and totally uncapped Skill Points system from third edition.

The experience needed to progress through levels one to three is much smaller than it has ever been. The core abilities for each class are generally split across these levels, meaning new players won’t be laden with everything at once, but will ramp into them fairly rapidly.

Fifth edition has proven to be well-balanced between the most popular modes of DnD play. It works well for games with a focus on tactical combat, and for adventures with heroic storylines.

DnD editions - 5th edition illustration of a blue dragon breathing lightning at a nimble rogue

While the proliferation of supernatural powers and magic make it hard to run ODnD-style player vs dungeon survival puzzles, the rules can be used to resolve interactions as if interacting with a simulated world, as in third edition. Equally, they can be used to resolve interactions with the narrative itself, similar to 4th edition’s Skill Challenges, and can be used with a lighter touch, for campaigns that focus on a storyline or character interaction above simulation.

Fifth edition was initially published under the OGL, and generated as much third party support as third edition, though – with modern internet distribution – this comes from more, generally smaller publishers. After Wizards of the Coast attempted to push a deeply unpopular revision to the OGL and was met by community backlash, the firm backtracked, and instead released the game’s core rules into the Creative Commons.

So effective has fifth edition been that it is, functionally, not going to end. At time of writing it is already a decade old and it has only increased in popularity. Wizards of the Coast’s next planned edition, One DnD, will be backwards compatible with most 5e products. While it will update classes, races, and overhaul the content present in the game’s three core books, it is functionally the same game engine.

If all this discussion of different variants of DnD has you hungry for something different, check out our guide to the best tabletop RPGs!