Did you hear the big gaming news last week? Paizo announced they’re working on a second edition for Pathfinder. Cue the Sturm und Drang of the conflicting excitement and irritation that the announcement of a new edition always elicits. Have they released another wave of the endless Edition Wars upon us?
I am avowedly polygamerous. My passion for superhero RPGs is almost legendary, you can pry my science fiction games from my cold, dead hands, and don’t even think of trying to stop my monster hunting inclinations in modern paranormal games. While not every indie game hits my interests, I’m always excited to see what developers are coming up with. Thing is, though, when it comes down to it, D&D still provides a solid backbone for my gaming life. I never seek it out at conventions, but it and its variations are still a staple of my regular group. Currently, one of the less experienced GMs is running a 5e game, and we have several other 5e and Pathfinder games on seasonal hiatus.
For the new or the sheltered, what are the Edition Wars? Essentially, it’s the conflict that happens between the people who are excited for a new version of a game and the discontent of those that are perfectly happy sticking with what they already play. The extremes of both sides often get vitriolic and adamant that their preferred edition is the only correct choice.
Before I go any further, let’s talk a little bit about the history of the editions of D&D, as these are momentous events in the history of the game:
In 1977, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released. While the original version of the game arrived in 1974, a large number of gamers in the late 70’s and 80’s experienced AD&D as their first taste of the game. There were a variety of ‘Basic’ versions that came out in the intervening years, but AD&D seemed to be regarded as the main version of the game. By the time I started playing in 1986, there was even edition-war-like grumbling about the changes introduced from Unearthed Arcana the year before.
1989 saw the arrival of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. I was still new to the hobby, but this was huge. Do you have any idea how excited I was to be able to play a bard without having to go through the ridiculous path laid out in 1e materials? My group even converted our characters from 1e to 2e so we could play with the new hotness. Beija Tavelar, my scrappy, red-headed, lute-playing mage-thief became the bard I had always wanted her to be. Then she died in a stupid pit trap with everyone else in the party and we had to make new characters anyway.
TSR, D&D’s original publisher, was struggling financially in the 90’s and was bought by Wizard of the Coast in 1997. It would take three years, but Wizards finally released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000. This was BIG. If you want a more detailed look at the impact this edition (and its OGL – open game license) had on the industry, I highly recommend diving into Designers & Dragons entries on TSR and Wizards of the Coast. At the time, it had been way too many years since I’d been able to play regularly but even I heard about the arrival of 3e. While the d20 boom was changing the lives of many game companies and designers, it helped me realize that I needed gaming in my life and I couldn’t wait around for my old gaming group to suddenly find time and motivation to game again.
In 2003, things took a left turn as Wizards abruptly released Dungeons & Dragons v 3.5. The edition addressed a few different problems that existed in the previous edition while still retaining the same core concepts. Unfortunately, it caused a huge problem for many of the third-party creators of d20 products. Again, take look at Designers & Dragons entries on Wizards. It’s a fascinating read. This was also around the time I found a new group to play with and it doesn’t take a genius to guess we started playing 3.5.
Only five years later, Wizards released Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Edition Wars had existed since the grognards of old complained about 2e back in the late 80’s, but 4e almost instantly developed a troubled relationship with the fanbase. While the bones of the game were still D&D, some of the concepts and mechanics went in a different direction meant to attract a new generation of player. The feel was often described as being more ‘video game’ than anything like previous editions. I actually thought 4e was fun. One of my favorite campaigns was run in the system and it actually did make it easier to introduce new players to the hobby. That said, there was still a lot of animosity towards this edition. I’m still irritated at some of my friends who would gleefully make fun of the game every time I mentioned a 4e game I was playing in. Not cool, folks.
At the same time as 4e was being released, Paizo released Pathfinder, a fantasy game based around the OGL of 3.5. Calling the game D&D 3.75 isn’t completely out of bounds. It tried to fix a few different rules problems from the original edition and worked to make the classes interesting at every level, but the game was still obviously an evolution of 3.5. Many of the players who were irritated at 4e flocked to Pathfinder helping the game become a huge success. In late 2011, when I started my Eberron campaign, the group was a bit tired of 4e, so we decided to use Pathfinder. The SRD available online provided most of the material I would need to run the game.
In 2014, Wizards released Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition and quietly let 4e fade into the background. Work on the new edition was announced in 2012 which raised some eyebrows, but they did some serious playtesting and player surveys before they released their final results two years later. Honestly, the results of their work showed. While plenty of folks stayed loyal to Pathfinder, 5e rejuvenated interest in the D&D brand and has proven to be super successful. My group jumped into 5e headfirst (as we do with any game that catches our interest). We have one beloved 5e game we’ve been playing in seasons and I’m about to start a 5e game with the teens I’ve been GMing for once a month.
I can’t even get into all the OSR (Old School Renaissance) retro clones that exist out there. They’re not exactly in my wheelhouse, so I haven’t had an opportunity to play any of them (which I would with a GM I trust), but they’re out there. Everything from Dungeon Crawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry, and many, many more.
To tally up, there were 12 years between 1e and 2e, 11 years between 2e and 3e, 8 between 3e and 4e (with an intermediary road bump with 3.5), and 6 years between 4e and 5e. Paizo waiting ten years to announce they’re working on a second edition isn’t really that extraordinary. Even if I can remember when Pathfinder was shiny and new, it has been a mainstay for a decade now.
I have my thoughts and preferences on the various editions, but I’ll mostly play whatever the people I want to game with want to play. Mostly. Anyone that gets all pretentious about which edition is best gets an eye roll from me. Play what you want and what makes your group happy, but don’t be a dick about what makes someone else happy. You won’t find me participating in any battles about which edition is king other than to tell people to chill out and stop telling people they’re having bad-wrong-fun.
That said, I do experience type of Edition War, but this one happens solo, inside MY BRAIN.
I’ve been gaming with a regular crew for close to 15 years now and in that time, we have started, finished and abandoned multiple games of at least four different versions of D&D (Pathfinder included). There’s only so much room for rules in this head of mine and I imagine it’s the same for most of us. It’s not that unusual for us to suddenly pause as we confuse the specifics of various rules between editions. Does flanking matter in this edition? How long does that spell last in this version? How many dice do I get to add to my sneak attack?
What do we do about the limited rental space for rules in our brains while playing multiple different variations of D&D? (Or any game system, really.)
Cheat sheets of the major and common rules is your friend. There are plenty of these out there if your google-fu is strong enough, but I always like creating my own when possible. It helps cement the info into my brain and is usually laid out in a way that makes sense to me. GM Screens often provide a great resource even when you don’t really feel the need to hide your rolls from your players.
Keep pertinent rules to your characters handy. Whenever I play a spell caster, I always keep a full list of available spells handy so I can quickly know the rules of whatever spell I’m about to use. The same goes for any special ability you’re going to use. Say what you will about 4e, but the ability cards the character builder created were damn handy.
Relax and just roll with it. Sometimes you or someone else at the table gets a rule wrong, and that’s okay. As long as no one is abusing the confusion to benefit themselves over everyone else, it’s okay to just roll with the mistake keep going with the game. No one wants to play a game constantly interrupted by rules lawyers, so unless everyone is cool with pausing the game to discuss a rule, just go with the GM’s call and discuss the issue after the game is over.
The confusion does get a little annoying, but in some ways, it’s a problem with an abundance or riches. We have a vital, thriving hobby with a version for almost everyone. I’m honestly looking forward to seeing what Paizo comes up with in their next edition of Pathfinder, even if I know it’s going to add a whole new set of rules to the jumble already in my brain.