Geotrickster’s Official Ranking of D&D Editions

No matter how tenuous the justification for putting it here is, having written about the importance of table top role playing games in understanding macro-scale events exactly one year ago, I feel it is perfectly fine in light of the announcement of a new or upgraded edition coming in 2024 to have a post ranking Dungeons and Dragons editions. I promise, given the order I plan on ranking them in, that nobody but myself and a few others I personally know will be happy with it.

Before starting, I want to point out that DnD is not my first, second, or even necessarily third favorite game. This is specifically a ranking only of official DnD editions lest we get bogged down in Old School Renaissance discussions (my preferred way of playing the game). We will start with the best and decline to the worst as if heading from the safety of town into perpetually gloomier bowels of peril much like that of a dungeon. Now, with that out of the way…

1. First Edition

This is no grognard nostalgia at work here on my part. The one edition that predates my very birth into the real world is actually the last edition I ever got to start playing. I am recent convert to its simplicity, deadly peril, and extremely evocative amateur art, having only begun to experience it about three years ago. (Something worth noting is how much of the art has a party quaking in fear, dying or running away rather than looking like confident superheroes like they would in the art of all subsequent editions, more on this later). Coming in both advanced and basic versions, and easy to house rules (a necessity for anything DnD), it is the first official rendition of the game that gives the best play experience all these years later. Characters do not start out as superheroes. A lot of them will die embarrassing and miserable deaths. Loot gets you experience points, not monsters slain. This coupled with the greater emphasis on player (rather than character sheet) agency and cleverness really brings forth what a tabletop game should be-and shows how much more fun it is when not structured around the limitations of what computer game-influenced expectations have imposed on the genre. Creative and unconventional problem solving rule when rules are tough but not omnipresent. What you get is a game whose rules play like how Sun Tzu conceptualized warfare; something to be avoided whenever possible but, if unavoidable, need to be gamed with clever and unexpected thinking. This worked well considering the game’s culture was all about constructing the strangest most mind-bending adventures possible.

This is real tabletop gaming from a time of non-Euclidean interior décor, hideous jellied party food, and ‘fancy’ overcooked dinners at the Steak and Ale®. Jimmy Carter might have made it famous as the ‘Malaise Era’, but there was nothing but the bounce of a vibrant disco subculture in those deadly dungeons. It is a style of play that, outside the old school modern spin off scene in TTRPGs, is best encapsulated by PC games like Darkest Dungeon-or it would if that example had zany roleplaying and psychedelic funhouse settings.

The Basic versions are to be preferred over Advanced, for what it is worth.

2. Fifth Edition

Having 1rst and 5th both at the top end is enough by itself to make this list controversial. The oldest and the newest editions fans tend to view each as the polar opposite. How fast things change. When 5th first dropped it was often hailed as a welcome return to old school sensibilities for its simplicity and cutting away of the endless amounts of math fat that had grown in the intermediary editions. And rightly so. The game is popular for a reason. In fact, its only real mechanical flaw compared to the first is both a greater amount of mechanical bloat (gotta sell those splat books!) and the lack of danger. Without house-rulesing its almost impossible to kill a player character without breaking the game’s balance, ruining the dramatic tension of encounters. This ties into a questionable design philosophy of starting out the PCs as de facto superheroes that began back in 3rd and was never stopped up through the present day.

The real drawback of 5e is really in its generic nature. Trying to be everything for everyone means it is kind of for no one whose tastes expect more than the generic. Though no fault of the game itself, this does mean it has the (second) worst fan base of any edition. Being a Zoomer-hugbox-friendly game, it tends to attract a fandumb very much integrated into the present Postmodern-Protestant monoculture and its ever-shifting labyrinth of zeitgiesty-yet-sterile human resources department derived ideologies. Most annoyingly, this tends to manifest as people caring more for lame podcasts about playing the game than, you know, actually playing the game themselves.

A Carelord Paladin character about to advance from level one intern to level 3 lanyard at daddy’s NGO.

That and the game system being built for cornball high fantasy over the sword and sorcery weirdness of 1rst Edition is what keeps this perfectly fine game at second place. But is still perfectly playable and has brought many people into the hobby so credit goes where credit is due.

3. Second Edition

The middle position usually delineates ‘average’, but there’s nothing really average about 2. It’s a grab bag of terrible and awesome. Mostly, the actual system is an overly complicated hot mess version of 1 but at least maintains its sense of perilous play and player agency. However, you need more types of dice than there are kinds of legos for it to work at all. Unrelated to the system but worth mentioning, this was the system that had the best PC game adaptations (Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, etc) and the best pre-made settings in general like Dark Sun and (regular) Planescape. But since I always make my own campaign settings myself this doesn’t really affect me. Sadly, it was also the first to come after the 1980s Satanic Panic that had really attached itself to 1, and thus came with this weird squeaky-clean veneer that robbed the game of much of its edge. A loss it has yet to really fully recover from even today. NEXT!

4. Fourth Edition

How many times could Deep Blue, being a hostile dungeon master and running DnD 4E, defeat a party of Gary Kasparovs?

This is a weird one. A noble experiment in some ways but just an utter failure in execution. They wanted a very tactical and well balanced game…and they got that! Its just…it came in 2008. Long after PC games could deliver exactly that far better than a tabletop game could. So…you could effectively play a computer game on the table and have to do all the math yourself. Really just misreading what makes tabletops still so good even in the era of advanced electronic gaming. This is most people’s least favorite edition and for good reason…but the fact that it was so combat focused ironically meant the non-combat portions of the game could be played old school style since they weren’t rules’d out to death. Its just a shame it took half an hour for a party to fight one small band of goblins. To add an ultimate level of irony, this system, that would have worked great in PC adaptations, never got a major PC game adaptation! But hey, it was still better than…

5. Third Edition

Do you like mass market monoculture superhero movies? Do you like character creation that feels like doing your taxes? Do you love rules-layering and meta-gaming? How about reading novels worth of ‘feats’ that ‘give you so many options’ but in so doing show how little player agency exists off of the confines of the character sheet? Than OH BOY DO I HAVE THE EDITION FOR YOU!

An average third edition player showing off simplified 3e character creation.

3E, and its different company pseudosequel Pathfinder, [more like Mathfinder, amirite?] have got to be not just my least favorite edition of DnD, but among my least favorite mechanical systems in all of TTRPG-dom. Feats? Ugh. In an action oriented game with stats and classes rather than skills as focus you should never have to read paragraphs to tweak numbers off your core stats. Do you want to be skills based 3? Then get a better system for it! Do you want to be class based? Then keep it simple! The bloat becomes offensively bad the longer you play, with both friends and foes spiraling up like a bad shonen anime power up sequence that never stops but without the entertainment value of them screaming each other’s names (though I suppose you could roleplay this if you wanted). High level characters don’t even have much in the way of random elements from the dice as modifiers make the tossing of the D20 a mere formality of turn taking. Spellcasters (that class of nerds) are even more ridiculously overpowered than usual, turning all late game encounters into WWI artillery duels between them with everyone else getting to be the obsolete and sidelined horse cavalry.

Couple that with the fact that the people who still like this system like to loudly proclaim its nonexistent virtues with a healthy side of ‘you’re just not smart enough to play my High Fantashire Turbotax Simulator’ and its just beyond me how anyone could ever enjoy this game. This game I once had to run an entire campaign in for a bunch of players despite my objections to using such a terrible system.

But I suppose it will get its second wind when future President Incel_Sniper1488 sets up a game of it in the Oval Office in order to DM for the First Waifu Pillow and the hapless members of the Secret Service who haven’t resigned yet.

The Crossroads

By both being very modern and somewhat old school, the future and whether 5.5 or 6 or what have you will be better or worse remains open to question. It won’t really matter to me, since I have already decided my ideal monster-bashing table top system is Shadow of the Demon Lord, but I do like to wonder. Will the exploding OSR scene cause the largest role playing property to take another hard look at learning from its avocado colored furniture on orange shag carpet disco original core? Or will the next iteration be in all pastel colors, replace deadly damage in entirely with ‘literal trauma’ and conduct character advancement via ‘lived experience points?’

Only time will tell.

Tabletop RPGs and Understanding Chaotic Probability

The gamemaster screen for the excellent Mörk Borg

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood by those who have never actually looked at it to be the simple triumph of randomness over order. It is in fact the natural replication of order, but in an imperfect and ever-evolving way whose specifics are unpredictable but its patterns recognizable. Outlier events dominate when they occur, but are rare. Nothing is certain but patterns exist. A humanities equivalent might be ‘History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’

It has become increasingly apparent to me that explaining the deficiencies in how dominant ideologies of the present day process events needs a simple and readily accessible analogue for the general populace. Sure, my habit of blaming the extreme and (supposedly) opposite wings of monotheism and postmodernism for being the partners of maintaining an obsolete neoliberal order in our present age of global stupidity and breakdown is something I maintain is correct, but its also inaccessible to many. To get why I have this opinion requires an explanation of historical events and materialist philosophy that most people would not be interested in, if they even have the time for it. People know something is wrong, and they know that most of the people hired to explain these concerns away are lying to them or out of touch. They also know that many of the people proposing alternatives are very intense and extreme. Thoughtful but not formally educated people generally find the extremism of wingnut rhetoric and the hollow rear guard denials of unhinged centrism equally alienating. Surely, there is no panacea for our problems. Likewise, we clearly have to start looking further afield than the presently acceptable and ascribed solutions. Absolutism and relativism both are failures when taken to be universal principles. Abraham and Derrida both have much to answer for in their own special ways. Philosophy, politics, even the ways people communicate are hobbled. As do those with money and power who patroned them for their own ends. Probability, not certainty is the most important thing that must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to have a sensible opinion.

So how do you introduce the idea of a pragmatic probability to a general audience? By talking about real life places where it applies. Where both chance and skill interact together to create a situation where preparing and improving oneself is rewarded, but always under the knowledge that the roll of the die or the shuffle of the cards has final say. You can improve your odds always, but you cannot achieve certainty even a you do so. This can be analogized in many ways. Gambling, sculpture, game theory, the study of active volcanoes, traditional wargaming, your grandma playing Bejeweled. The way it should be talked about is determined by the nature of your own audience as well as what you know best on your own terms.

For me that is tabletop role playing games. At least, outside of geopolitics. But once again, more people are likely to be familiar with the former than the latter-especially when it comes to the fundamentals of practice. These are games where someone sets up a story and other players go through it not unlike a multiplayer computer game, but with the final determinator being not a software program but the actual game master, a human as capable of dynamic response as the players are.

I was introduced to tabletop RPGs as a kid in the mid-90s with Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Call of Cthulhu. By my early teens around Y2K I was already running Call of Cthulhu games as a ‘Keeper’, better known as a Dungeon Master (from DnD terminology) and henceforth referred to as a Game Master to include all potential games. I have played, and most often ran, games ever since in a variety of systems. Call of Cthulhu remaining my constant favorite with many others jockeying for my affection right below it. I tend to prefer more tone and story driven games to ‘crunchy’ rules-heavy ones, but as my Edinburgh-based former Pathfinder team can attest, I am also capable of running the more war-gamey ones as well. But even with my less complex preferences, it is important to me to run a game where dice rolls and chance play a major part so that the experiences transcends mere interactive storytelling and predictability.

Dice go beyond just pass/fail and enter into a new realm where there are multiple kinds of successes and failures and varieties of responses. The non-mathematical storytelling element that responds to roll results allows both the game master and the player to think far more creatively than any computer game could allow. At the same time, the random element means that no one is fully in control. What emerges from this interaction between fate and human input is something neither entirely determined nor entirely free. One in which dice might doom the best prepared players and spare the most incompetent, but only as outlier events. You can never achieve certainty, but you can increase your odds through smart builds and smart play. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Over time, the proportion of players who play wisely (as well as creatively) will be the ones more rewarded. Not only in enjoyment of the game, but in material benefits to their character in the game-world.

Even games where the players are pretty much guaranteed to be doomed the longer they play, such as Mörk Borg or Call of Cthulhu, this can serve as a kind of death analogy. We are all going to die one day so why try to maximize performance? Well, because you make gains along the way anyway-at least for a time. You’ll think back on your story of how you got there as you die, most likely. Its not about the destination but the people you met along the way. Sure, the knowledge gained in Call of Cthulhu will drive your character stark raving mad, but it is still knowledge. And knowledge can be many things from power, to a greater appreciation of the arts, to a lessening of the fear of failure. Having a character that survived long enough in that famously lethal game to become a stark raving mad and phobia-riddled savant of occult lore with an impressive library of forbidden tomes is one of my greatest accomplishments as a player.

But for most people who don’t share my pseudo-tantric black metal world view this might not be so effective. That is fine, as most tabletop rpgs aren’t like the examples above. In traditional fantasy or science fiction games one gains power and riches the longer they survive and keep adventuring. From the many Old School Renaissance games up through present day DnD Fifth Edition (the best and most accessible DnD version hence its surging popularity right now), there is enough danger and reversal to keep you on the your toes but the rewards are worth the attempt by any standard. Perhaps most interestingly, there also exists a variety of games between these poles that do a good job modeling both the power fantasy element of traditionally popular games with the more morally ambiguous and complication-riddled side of the darker ones. Here I am thinking about Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and other World of Darkness settings), Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and The Dying Earth RPG. These are games that specifically work into the gameplay immense ups and downs to create a roller coaster of experiences where the character is always growing, but not necessarily in a linear fashion or through constant victory.

The Conan game, in a great nod to its source material, actually has specific mechanics for both incentivizing winning gold and fame and also having to use these acquired resources to recover mental and physical health through debauchery and carousing. If you want to keep gaining stats you have to keep adventuring, but if you want to keep adventuring you have to recover through squandering your ill-gotten gains. On top of this is the momentum/doom system where successes lead to more die for rolls and failures compound into more counter-die for the game master to use against the players. The players and game master end up trading literal dice to increase their probabilities in rolls they want to fudge up, turning near misses to near hits (or vice versa). Fate can be played with, but only temporarily as somewhere down the line ones accumulated dice-karma will come back for them. The Dying Earth RPG takes an even more direct approach, with all rolls being based around six sided die with 1 being an critical fail and six being a stunning success, greatly increasing the odds of a ridiculous outcome in any direction. The game is built specifically so that epic failure is as entertaining and almost as desirable as epic success. The GM rewards players who play into their extreme results with a sense of panache with experience points, regardless of if those results are a failure or a success.

Even traditional games on the ends of the tone spectrum have variants that fudge the line. DnD has the Planescape and Dark Sun settings to create a darker and more surreal or survivalistic tone to its normally high fantasy system. Call of Cthulhu has Pulp Cthulhu, which adds an bit of Indiana Jones style punching out cultists and traveling the world for treasure to the staples of madness and unspeakable horrors lurking under the surface. Interwar dungeon delving with a cosmic horror tone.

The fact is that tabletop gaming still does what its more popular computer based descendants cannot do in both randomness and in player input. (There is one possible almost-exception to this rule, however). Anyone who has played-and especially ran-these games enough knows no plan for a module, be it the module itself from the game master or the player’s tactics at tackling it, ever survives fully intact upon contact with the random elements. But at the same time, a well designed module or player tactical plan is going to work far more often than a poorly thought out approach. Much like navigating life, politics, the sciences, metaphysics, the stock market, or even the overall span of societies, tabletop rpgs show in a clearly communicable way to a general audience the interplay of forces both outside and within a person’s control and how those come together to create a probability-dominated world where nothing ever turns out as you plan it. This unpredictability is part of the intrinsic nature of the game and usually makes perfect sense of even outlier events in hindsight. Dice results may disappoint or elate you, but they don’t lie. And how you respond to those stark numbers rolled out on the table can be everything. There is always an excuse for failure at something challenging, but never one for not being prepared as much as possible before the challenge roll.