A Brief History of the Edition Wars

A while back, a friend of mine asked for a brief overview on the different D&D editions; at the time (June 2012), the “edition wars” were in full swing, dominating the message boards and the communal hivemind of most D&D players. I say “most” because there’s a lot of history, baggage, and bile for a new player to walk into. So, I hashed out a brief history of D&D to show how we ended up at the edition wars of today. Originally I started with 3.x and the Open Gaming License since it was the escape hatch used to construct the OSR movement and Pathfinder, and ended up taking the history back to the beginning.


Also, since I wrote this, there’s been a lot more development that I haven’t bothered to notate or keep track of—Next seems to have generated quite a bit of attention at first, and then quiet down remarkably, but part of that is due to the insanely long lead time the dev team has given themselves. There’s also been an odd surge of “indie” elements and “storygame” variants of the traditional D&D style, ranging from 13th Age (trying to streamline the 3.x system down a more narrative focus) to the Fate Freeport Companion/Dungeons of Fate (rules hacks to run D&D-flavored Fate games) to Monsters & Magic (a fascinating experiment billing itself as “Old School Fantasy, New School Play,” OSR done via modern game design).

Given that this past weekend was, at best estimate, the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve thought a lot about the game and where it’s going. Given that I had this lying around, I figured it would make for a thematic post.

I tried to be as unbiased as possible while writing it—to be honest there are elements of each edition I think are awesome and elements I dislike with a passion. If I said something both good and bad about your system of choice, that’s about where I wanted to be. I’ll get into more “opinion” over Next and the future of D&D in future posts.

D&D That Was

1969: A man with the mythic name of E. Gary Gygax produces his own home-made game: Chainmail, medieval simulation wargaming rules. Most importantly, it includes rules for individual combat as well as the more traditional wargame mass combat. A year later, one of Chainmail’s customers, Dave Arneson, begins using the rules to replicate individuals progressing into a castle filled with inhuman monsters: roleplaying is born. Arneson’s “Blackmoor” variant rules are introduced to Gygax at some point, the light bulb goes on over his head, and the two begin pooling their material and creativity to create fantasy roleplaying. When every company turns their idea down, they self-publish their game under a new name.

1974: Dungeons and Dragons released. A few thousand self-published booklets inspire numerous wargamers to try this new roleplaying thing; they encounter a game where they each play an individual character who sets out to explore dungeons and ruins, fighting off fantastic monsters to acquire great treasure and magical items. The influence from pulp science fiction and swords-and-sorcery is clear in Gygax’s designs, as are his tactical wargaming roots. At some point, Arneson drifts away from Gygax: while he came up with many of the ideas, his interest was less in running the company and designing ongoing supplements and rules.

1977: 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) is released. A new edition of the game, inspired by but unrelated to the earlier versions. The rules increase tenfold from the earlier editions, with tighter and more focused rules, yet stay in Gygax’s mold: heavy medieval simulation, a focus on combat and tactics, pulp-inspired fantasy dungeon crawls. The company moves towards hardback books as their market erupts through the ’80s, bringing D&D to the forefont of gaming and entrenching what would become a household name. The late ’70s and early ’80s are the golden years at TSR, whose customers increase from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. TSR introduces new games similar to D&D: Metamorphosis Alpha, which was dungeon-crawling on an abandoned generation ship; the post-apocalyptic, mutant-heavy Gamma World; and Boot Hill’s western gunfighting. In its wake come similar role-playing games from other companies, the most successful of which is Traveller by GDW.

1982+: The company braves stormy weather as public controversy surrounding D&D erupts in 1982; flak from evangelical Christians and concerned parents doesn’t diminish the game’s growth, but it does give it a lasting stigma. Gygax goes to Hollywood, giving D&D a broader market thanks to the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in 1983 and the introduction of BECMI and the iconic Red Box starter set; things keep heading up, but that has to stop eventually. Returning to find TSR in financial distress after the market reached its full potential—and stopped growing—Gary Gygax brings in Lorraine Williams to handle the company, cutting out Gygax’s earlier spendthrift partners and getting TSR back on track. Gygax ends up out-maneuvered, locked into a lack of a future at the company; Gygax leaves TSR in 1985. In the meantime, Williams begins to expand the company again. While the cartoon ends in 1985, a new market emerges: DragonLance, a product line with tie-ins between setting, adventures, and novels. TSR begins growing again. Hoping lightning strikes twice, Williams picks up the Forgotten Realms setting in 1987, an expansive world created by gamer Ed Greenwood; with plenty of source material and history to build from, it’s a natural choice for further novel tie-ins.

1989: 2nd Edition AD&D is released. For the most part, it’s similar to 1st Edition and keeps most of its mechanical concepts intact, but has many rules clarifications and simplifications designed to streamline the system, moving it a ways away from earlier games. Its focus is more on character and story; many of its adventures have heavy metaplots, intensive stories, and the game line sees an explosion of new and unique settings. Dark Sun takes D&D into a barren post-apocalyptic fantasy world wracked by magic; Ravenloft introduces atmospheric Gothic horror; Birthright is a kingdom-creation simulator and excursion in playing nobility; Al-Qadim involves a lush Arabian setting; Planescape takes place in the realm between the different D&D dimensions and planes, with a heavy mid-90s anarchic aesthetic. Following the late-1e boom of tie-in novels, the TSR fiction department emerges with an expansive output. The problem is clear when this huge output fragments the D&D market: someone interested in Planescape won’t necessarily buy Dragonlance novels or Birthright adventures.

1992: Gary Gygax releases a new fantasy RPG, Mythus, through one of TSR’s contemporaries, GDW (Games Designers Workshop, makers of science fiction RPGs Twilight 2000 and the venerable Traveller). TSR sues for copyright infringement, despite Gygax’s bloated system having little or nothing to do with D&D, but to a court and jury, “it’s a game of imagination taking place in a fantasy setting” has plenty of similarities. In the end, the lawsuit helps deplete the coffers of both TSR and GDW, leaving TSR a barren husk and the once-mighty GDW in the grave. Gygax’s game, which wasn’t that great to begin with, is shelved, and he moves on—cautiously; the lawsuit left him gun-shy—to work on other products (namely Lejendary Adventures, which—as a very rules-light system—is almost the complete opposite of Mythus).

1997: TSR, bankrupt and broken, unable to pay its freelancers and artists, is saved from oblivion by Peter Adkison when his small company Wizards of the Coast (WotC) buys TSR. Wizards, best known for its card game Magic: The Gathering, reinvigorates TSR with a needed cash-flow and new direction; the new products made in the late-90s see their quality and production values increase. Wizards begins moving the game towards a new edition, taking player feedback into advisement.

D&D That Is

2000: 3rd Edition D&D is released by WotC; their parent company, Hasbro, does away with the TSR brand and merges it under the Wizards banner. 3rd Ed unifies rules under one d20 system instead of having a variety of differing sub-rules; it has a character-building focus thanks to new mechanics which give players a wealth of choices and options to choose between, increases tactical combat options, and adds in a true skills system. Overall, it goes over well with the gaming public; while there’s some complaints from fans of earlier D&D editions, it’s lost in the hoopla of the product rollout.

Probably the most important element of 3e is its Open Game License (OGL), which releases most of the core d20 System rules to the public for other gamers to use. On top of this is the d20 license, allowing publishers to tie their products directly to the D&D game. It opens up a realm of third-party support, whose customers will need to buy Wizards’ rule books to use the third-party d20 license rules, as the d20 license prohibits a company from reprinting certain elements like character creation. (Using the d20 license allows publishers some d20/D&D logo and brand usage, while using the Open Game License limits branding tie-ins but allows publishers to come up with replacements for core rules like character creation.) The d20 license is envisioned as a win-win for everyone involved.

Needless to say, the market explodes; start-up companies emerge by the dozen to jump on the d20 bandwagon. Existing publishers start switching their award-winning but under-performing games to the new system: Pinnacle moves Deadlands to d20, AEG introduces Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea to the d20 license. E-commerce sites like RPGNow open up the field even more to third-party publishers, who can use the OGL to produce cheap and accessible new material. Between the e-commerce sites, and later print-on-demand ones like Lulu, offer gamers easier ways to self-publish their creations. The d20 boom years see a glut of new material, more than the average gamer can afford to buy. One of the first third-party early-adapters is Necromancer Games, who releases the first non-WotC adventure in early 2000; the company’s motto promises “third edition rules, first edition feel.” While their products are generally high-quality, they don’t quite capture the “first edition feel”… though they prove there’s a market for it.

2002: Dragonsfoot comes online. Previously, fans of TSR-era D&D products had to communicate via in-store post-it boards, face-to-face, or on TSR’s website. The launch of Dragonsfoot and similar online message boards changes that, giving the old-school crowd a place to share ideas and material and promote the early D&D style of play. For the most part, the focus is on pre-1983 D&D material, though pre-2000 editions become more and more acceptable, as are discussions of newer D&D rules. Actual old-school legends—Gary Gygax, Tim Kask, and other ex-TSR employees—start showing up in force to share war stories. The roots of the Old School Revival (OSR) start to grow now that it has a home (or three) on the internet.

2003: d20 market crash and 3.5 Edition. After years of a market boom, Wizards makes many fixes to the game and re-releases it as D&D 3.5; while the changes are relatively minor, it’s seen as a cash-grab. More to the point, it’s a way to purge the d20 market, bloated with low-quality and questionable products (The Book Of Erotic Fantasy), and to revitalize Wizards’ direction since its “evergreen” products were more like “nevergreen” ones, selling poorly compared to superior third-party products. Overnight, the huge market of OGL products is made obsolete and collapses, leaving many publishers with outdated material they can’t sell.

Many of the smaller companies disappear, others stop producing in volume, and the biggest ones begin to move away from D&D-dependent games: exchanging the d20 license for the Open Game License to make stand-alone games: Spycraft required 3.0 D&D books, Spycraft 2.0 cut the cord and created its own rules for things like character creation and advancement. Many of these lines—Spycraft 2.0, True20, FantasyCraft, Mutants & Masterminds—start taking the game system in new and interesting directions… part of the point of having an open source product. Moving away from Wizards to their own proprietary license shows the beginnings of the OGL’s greatest addition to gaming: games can use the D&D mechanics as a foundation or framework which is then heavily customized, but their companies can produce these games without paying licenses or royalties.

Also in 2003, a small company called Goodman Games—formerly known for its fantasy-mecha DragonMech hodgepodge and similar odd niche products—starts a new adventure line: Dungeon Crawl Classics. The game line takes heavy inspiration from the earliest days of D&D, with the tagline “Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level?” Again, not a complete hit with old-school gamers, but proof that traditional D&D game style was a growing market.

2004: Castles & Crusades releases. One of the first stand-alone OGL products was another attempt to return to the game’s roots; while it uses the same game mechanics as 3.5 D&D, it does away with newer rules additions as it simplifies the game and tries to recapture the AD&D feel using stripped-down new-D&D mechanics. Support from Gary Gygax helps the system appeal to old-school gamers.

2006: OSRIC and friends. Some disillusionment with both core D&D and Castles & Crusades leads a splinter group to create OSRIC: the Old School Reference and Index Compilation. Essentially, it uses the open game license to create rules which are compatible with the earlier editions of D&D, so that gamers could continue to use their old adventures and sourcebooks without conversion. There’s a surprising amount of support for this, and the market sees the rapid-fire release of OSRIC adventures and supplements.

2007+: The Retroclone Wars. Following on OSRIC’s heels are a relative horde of what come to be called “retroclones”—games using the 3.x Open Game License to re-create rules similar to the many older editions of D&D. A short list of the most successful includes Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, Basic Fantasy, Mutant Future, and OSRIC 2nd edition. Surprising to some gamers, these many retroclones aren’t struck down by Wizards’ legal department—due in part to use of the OGL.

2007: The Winds Of Change Blow. For years, Wizards had licensed its two magazines, Dragon (game rules and variants) and Dungeon (pre-packaged adventures), to a small third-party publisher—Paizo Publishing, consisting mostly of ex-Wizards employees—who made them more viable thanks to their smaller business model. In early 2007, Wizards allows its magazine rights to lapse, leaving Paizo in the lurch; instead of taking a dive, Paizo came out with its own subscription-based product line building off years of experience. Pathfinder, successor to both Dragon and Dungeon, combined both magazines’ elements to create a linked series of adventures with extra supplemental material. Months later, Wizards announces 4th Edition D&D; thousands of gamers, from the upset to the outraged to the panicked, descend on the internet. A large group head to Paizo’s forums to ask where the company is taking its Pathfinder line; after some debate Paizo decides to build off this market, keeping its Pathfinder books with the earlier edition rules. Most of the other OGL games—Spycraft 2.0, True20—begin to fade away, though Mutants & Masterminds keeps working on the sidelines.

2008: The Year Everything Changed. Tons of attention falls onto D&D between its upcoming new edition and as a number of its early-era RPG luminaries begin to pass away, particularly Gary Gygax (2008), Erick Wujcik (2008), and Dave Arneson (2009). All this added attention gets players looking back at D&D’s history; the upsurge in nostalgia helps the Old School Revival explode on the blogosphere, so theorizing and creative output expands across the internet. The OSR is primarily older gamers—those who got into D&D from wargames in the ’70s, or those who got in during the early-’80s boom years—seeking to recapture the elements that made earlier D&D editions memorable, plus a generalized interest in old-school roleplaying games and seeing the game’s origin point.

4th Edition releases; its rules are more of a paradigm shift in how the game and its mechanics operate compared to earlier editions: where 3rd edition aimed to be the best edition of D&D, 4th aimed to be the best tactical combat RPG. It moved outside what was considered traditional “core” D&D elements, optimizing and balancing the squad-tactical combat while trimming rules content; fans of older editions perceived various flaws: the emphasis on miniatures and battlemap, a lack of roleplaying and social elements, mumorpuger-style powers and aesthetic, and a “same-y” feel from the balanced classes’ abilities. This distances large segments of the D&D fanbase, as does Wizards’ strange and self-deprecating marketing campaign.

Paizo decides to use the OGL to create a modified 3.5 edition, and after lengthy beta-testing in 2007-2008, Pathfinder becomes its own game instead of a setting. It’s largely identical to 3.5 D&D with a few minor fixes, though it sees impressive support from Paizo’s many subscription-based services and huge output of setting material. Some 3.5 fans see it as Paizo attempting to sell them books they already own, others see it as the same “wish fulfillment”/power creep as 4e, and some groups (like Character Optimization) see a culling of what interested them in 3.5; regardless, Paizo manages to build a huge fanbase. Like the earlier system variants it squeaks by under the Open Game License, and helps divide the D&D market.

For the first time in history, two editions of the same game are competing for market share (3.5 in Pathfinder garb vs. 4th Edition)—and if you include the retroclones, every edition of D&D is vying for customers’ attention, each marketing itself to different branches of the D&D fanbase. The Edition Wars have begun.

2008+: Retro-inspired games like Mutant Future and Lamentations of the Flame Princess arrive. While earlier retroclones attempt to re-create the older rules, the retro-inspired games instead try to merge the old-school style with rules that aren’t exact replications of earlier D&D editions—in other words, they include new rule designs. The OSR base grows and expands thanks to this new outlet, making it even more multifaceted and broad than it already was.

2009: For years, Wizards had allowed e-commerce sites access to sell older-edition D&D books in digital .pdf format, but over “fear of piracy” Wizards pulls its older D&D support. It doesn’t go over well with the growing OSR crowd who’d been using that to access classic rules and modules. The move created more piracy than it did away with, considering piracy became the main way for gamers to reach that material. The move is later reversed and the older .pdfs return to the digital marketplace.

2010: Wizards releases D&D Essentials, a line of fixes, errata, and rules clarifications meant to streamline 4th Edition games. (Some early products, such as the first Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook, had been errata’d to the point where the print products no longer resembled the rules their digital versions contained.) In an odd twist, it begins to fracture the existing 4e marketplace, with two editions of D&D to vent time, money, and opinion at. DC Adventures is released, a superhero game based in the DC Comics universe running a new version of Mutants & Masterminds, showing how far OGL games can drift from their 3rd Edition roots while retaining parts of their rules.

2011: Pathfinder surpasses 4th Edition in sales and ostensibly market share. In part this is because 4th Ed production has slowed down while Paizo’s has only sped up and gained ground, and in part because the Essentials line fragmented the 4e market rather than consolidate it. The influencing part bigger than both of those, of course, becomes clear in January, when…

2012: D&D Next is announced: a fifth edition of the game, designed to bring the many Edition War factions—OSR, Pathfinder, and 4e—back to one table. Wizards’ table. Clues had come for a while, such as the 4e team’s lack of products and their interviews and columns being more introspective of D&D’s history and direction. A massive public beta is announced, much like Paizo did with Pathfinder; it releases in May to mixed but somewhat optimistic reactions. Wizards begins reprinting older D&D rulebooks, specifically of AD&D and 3.5 core rulebooks and adventures, in trying to cater to the OSR and Pathfinder markets.

17 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Edition Wars

  1. “Pathfinder surpasses 4th Edition in sales and ostensibly market share. In part this is because 4th Ed production has slowed down while Paizo’s has only sped up and gained ground,”

    When one edition’s production have slowed down while the other gain ground, it became obvious which edition fans voted their dollars on; edition war notwithstanding.

  2. Well done on the recap. So many of us lived the whole thing, and truth be told, I’ve been teaching my sons to play Pathfinder rather than D&D. We’ll at least take a peek at 5.0 and hope for the best. I didn’t spend one red cent on 4e after reading through parts of the PHB at the bookstore.

    1. Thanks! Pathfinder was my go-to game for years, just didn’t see anything in 4th that made me want to play it. I think 5th is working really well to reverse that trend—I started with AD&D and 5th reminds me a lot of that mixed with some 3.5—but I’m not entirely sure yet if I’ll bite. They have hinted at bringing back some of the old campaign worlds, and if they get better treatment than in 4e that’ll be the selling point for me.

      1. The PHB for 5e has many hints of returns to previous worlds. Of course Forgotten Realms is there, but there are references to Dragonlance and Dark Sun as well. They have also declared a desire to reintroduce the Planes through Planescape. God willing this will all come to fruition!

      2. Here is to hoping that they don’t piss off Weis and Hickman again. Or Monte (or Zeb) Cook for that matter. They need the original minds to recreate the settings. No more advancing the timeline horseshit.

    1. Most of the focus was meant to be on the main movers and shakers. My first thought being “what the hell is an E6” doesn’t indicate it’s a huge blip on the radar. And having now looked at E6, I see a lot of B/X in both it and 5e, which I’d wager was where the influence came from… Not saying E6 wasn’t an influence since I can’t read designers’ minds, but Mearls has mentioned over the years a desire to get back to those BECMI roots.

  3. Pingback: Edition Wars |
  4. Super Thread Necromancy: When you write “For the first time in history, two editions of the same game are competing for market share” you ignore what you wrote about just a few paragraphs earlier – for a decade or so, TSR had both D&D and AD&D (either 1e or 2e) on the market. They had competing product lines, and D&D (whether the B/X of Moldvay/Cook or the BECMI of Mentzer – though Heard, responsible for running the Known World/Mystara line, and Allston, responsible for the Rules Cyclopedia, need mentioning here too) – in my my the superior of the two games(!!) survived right to the end days of TSR.

    [I came to this blog because of the interesting articles about Fate, which I am trying to grok, and ended up reading this two year old article about D&D – BECMI was a big part of my youth, and I’ve run quite a few of the retro-clones.]

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