Delving into Dungeons & Dragons

December 2, 2014

When deciding which edition of Dungeons & Dragons to play, there are a lot of factors to consider. The biggest one to think about is which will give you (and your group) the most fun. That is, after all, the point of games. Fun. We sometimes forget this, getting obsessed with better stats, character secrets and killing as many monsters (or town guards) as quickly as quickly as possible. Fun. For the whole group we’re talking about.

So, with that said, here’s a brief introduction into what the more recent editions (the ones I’m familiar with) have to offer.

3.5

This is what I started on (I know, heresy, some may cry, not the original D&D from the good ole days? No thank you, I like my characters alive, and not called fighter man).

Character Creation
More complicated than other editions, there are millions of options; hundreds of magazine, dozens of books, and list after list after list. Unless you have someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the edition (and an even bigger collection of the books), character creation can be longer than some players want as they try and hunt down that particular feat that lets you fight prone in melee without a penalty (it’s in Complete Warrior, by the way). While more advanced players, or players who intend to be a bit more intense on the role-play side of the RPG spectrum will find this fun and worth the hours that can be spent pouring over different books looking for outrageous combos or silly synergies, newer players aren’t going to be as big a fan. Combine that with so many skill points your head hurts, this is the least fun a newer player is likely to have when building a character from scratch.

Game Play
Simple concept, you say you want to do something. You roll a die. You add numbers to the die. You look at the DM while they hold you in suspense until he lets you know that you either succeeded or failed based off whether you met a certain number or got under it.

This gets more complicated when you have a Dex bonus, skill rank, luck bonus, divine bonus, and a circumstantial penalty all needing to get added up. It’s really never that bad, but again, newer players may find it a bit heavy in the rules department.

Hack’n’Slash vs. Role-Play
This game gives you the best of both worlds. While all characters are designed to be able to do something relevant in combat, they can all be role-played just as well outside of combat. Plentiful feats, races, prestige classes and other options for customization make every character completely unique and make role-playing much more fun (even in combat).

Hack’n’slash works just fine in this format too. All those things that I mentioned for making characters unique also (often) makes them better in a fight as well. 3.5 is perhaps the most versatile of the editions I’ve played. It can do so much.

Why is that? Because it existed as the dominant form of D&D for a long time, combine that with off-brand products, Pathfinder, and 3e (old-school, baby!) and you have vast quantity of options and abilities that no other edition has. I love it because of that. Why settle for an edition that has less when you can have it all?

4th Edition

The video game version of D&D.

If my sub-title didn’t give it away for you, I’m not the biggest fan of 4th Edition (4e) Nevertheless, I’ll try to be fair. It is a good launch point for players who have never played a role-playing game before to get their toes wet before jumping into more complicated, open-ended systems. It teaches players the basic mechanics and provides precise rules on what can be done and what can’t.

This, however, is not the best option for veteran players, especially those who’ve played older editions before. The pathway-like systems that are in place for creating characters (and even running combat) often inhibit the creative side of the player’s mind. Players are almost forced to pick certain abilities just to keep the character congruous.

This in many ways feels like a video game. I have a skill tree and I need to keep going down my tree or I’ll end up under-powered compared to my fellow players.

Character Creation
Easy, the characters are practically pre-generated. The skill tree approach is awesome when dealing with players that haven’t played often. They can easily understand that ability one and ability two work together, and only by getting those two can they get access to ability three, meaning they obviously want that one too.

Players that want to create a break-dancing monk, or an Indiana-Jones-like character will be disappointed, they can’t mold the format to fit their image, instead they have to accept what the system can give to them.

Game Play
Again, simplicity is the name of the game. It’s very codified and there is little that is left to the imagination in my experience. The rules for the most part are designed for combat, and as such, I found them somewhat lacking. I’m not the biggest fan of hack’n’slash, and that’s definitely what this edition was designed for, combat.

Hack’n’Slash vs. Role-Play
Hack’n’Slash works better in this format. It’s the video game version, remember? Combat rules are intense, complete, and simple to understand. Rules for role-play are practically ignored (it is often the case where characters barely have any abilities that aren’t combat actions).

5th Edition/D&D NEXT/Whatever they want to call it now

Fairly new to the scene, 5e and I had an unfortunate introduction, but have since warmed to each other.

I first played 5th Edition (5e) during its playtest several years ago. I didn’t enjoy it. It felt under-powered and just didn’t strike me as much of anything. It felt bland. I could tell, even then, that the team designing it was trying to somehow morph 3.5 and 4e into some sort of hybrid thing… at the time, it didn’t seem to be working.

When 5e came out, within the last few months, I was excited and scared (to quote Sondheim). I remembered my less than satisfactory first encounter, but loved the look and feel (that back cover, though) of the new edition. I wanted to test it out…

I was offered the chance to run an event here, at Board Game Barrister, as such I figured I ought to learn the system.

It has the best of both worlds, in many ways. Combining the simplicity and streamlined feel of 4e, the design team allowed players to use backgrounds, feats, and other things to individualize each character.

Character Creation
Simple and fast, character creation allows players the option to put a character together in minutes (ideal for new players) or gives players the option to take their time and bring their concept onto paper.

The biggest part of this is backgrounds, where the character came from and how she reacts to the world. It gives them equipment, skills, and a sense of who they are. Combine that with race and class, and a character is good to go.

Feats, while not available at first level (unless you’re a human, of course), are far more powerful than their 3.5 counterparts. They still make each character unique and focus each character into a different area of expertise.

Game Play
You say you want to do something, you roll your die, add your bonuses (just a proficiency bonus and a ability modifier, there aren’t a hundred different numbers to add together) and see if you beat the DC, if you did, you succeed, if you got under, you fail.

Fairy similar to 3.5, it has a bit of that stream-line feel that makes it slightly less clunky. The main difference in play is that you’ll be at either advantage or disadvantage instead of getting a plus or minus to a roll. This means you roll a second d20, if you are at advantage, you take the higher, disadvantage, the lower.

Combat is less codified than 4e was, and has the feeling of 3.5 to it as well. A word of warning though, most of the DMs I’ve talked to (and myself included) don’t trust the challenge system. Many creatures that are supposed to be challenge 1 can take on and easily defeat a party of characters. As such, make sure you’re extra careful with what you put opposite your players. I haven’t played enough at high level to know if this is just a downside to being low-level or not though.

Hack’n’Slash vs. Role-Play
I think that role-play is better suited to the game than combat. As I just mentioned, the combat rating of monsters is a little wonky. Not to mention character creation lends itself to making a character that will be more interesting to role play than to fight with.

Conclusion

I’ve played D&D for about ten years, *grumble grumble curmudgeon grumble* and I’ve played all three of the above editions enough to get a good sampling of them. While I like to think that I have a pretty good idea of what a party might want, and therefore a good idea of what edition to play with, it comes to personal choice. I like the ability to make a character that’s a bit out there, not totally following any particular path and maybe doing some goofy things that weren’t originally intended. Other groups like simple stuff, or might like to a more rule-intensive game.

Ultimately, like I said, it’s about having fun. So go do that. Whatever edition you decide on, have fun with it! D&D is a great game, full of adventure, thrilling heroics, and suspenseful twists and turns for the party and DM alike. So go out there, explore a dungeon, kill a dragon (or at least steal from it while it’s sleeping) and have fun.

Hugh B.

Hugh B. is a writer, actor, and gamer who just graduated from college. He is currently involved in a web series called Lucky Shot, the debut project of his film company Lost Star Films, LLC. Hugh's favorite games include Smallworld, Takenoko, Gentlemen Thieves, Magic and Dungeons and Dragons.

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