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.
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
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!
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.
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.