Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?S

Yesterday, roleplaying game publisher Wizards of the Coast announced the development of a new edition of D&D. This revision comes less than four years after the release of the last edition of the stalwart RPG. For years, D&D players have drawn battle lines over which edition of the game they prefer, and Wizards is now hoping this new version will lead to a cease-fire. But how will they reunite these various D&D tribes after 40 years of rules revisions?

The latest edition of D&D doesn't have a name yet, though everyone's calling it 5th Edition (or 5E), mainly because the last edition was 4th (not unlike Led Zeppelin IV). The announcement was heralded by articles at mainstream media sites like Forbes and the New York Times –- Wizards flew a bunch of media folks out to their Renton, WA headquarters to unveil the game and even run them through a play session with D&D R&D head Mike Mearls as the dungeon master. Details are hidden behind non-disclosure agreements for the time being.

There are two important things to note in the official announcement of the new edition. First, Wizards will "crowdsource" the design to some extent by releasing parts of the rules for gamers to test and play with, then offer feedback on. It's essentially an open beta, and a method with proven success –- Paizo Publishing used it when developing the Pathfinder RPG in 2009, and that game now reportedly outsells D&D. Second, in the words of Mike Mearls, "We want a game that rises above differences of play styles, campaign settings, and editions, one that takes the fundamental essence of D&D and brings it to the forefront of the game."

Is edition unification even possible? A trip through the convoluted history of D&D's editions will show us how we got here, and if there's a way out.

Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?

D&D debuted in the mid-1970s as a boxed set, with rules based on Chainmail, a tactical miniatures game. A few digest-sized supplements were published, too. Copies are fairly rare. This version of D&D could be considered "0th Edition." In the late 70s, the D&D rules were compiled, reworked, tweaked, fixed and altered significantly, incorporating many of the new rules from the supplements. This version was published as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) in 1977, and enjoyed a fairly robust life with a lot of supplements and adventure modules. When someone says, "I only play 1st Edition," this is what they're talking about.

Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?

Here's where things get slightly complicated. Simultaneous to the development of AD&D, game publisher TSR put out a series of boxed sets simply called Dungeons & Dragons. These were intended as introductory products to make it easier for players to learn the game and eventually move up to AD&D. Many gamer have fond memories of the "Red Box" basic set released in the 80s, so much so that Wizards put out an introductory set with a nostalgic reuse of the Red Box's cover in 2010. These sets remained in production from 1977 through the mid-90s, when they were combined into a single book called the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. For all intents and purposes, this is a completely separate game from AD&D, although it obviously shares many rules and concepts.

Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?

The 2nd Edition of AD&D was published in 1989. This is the edition that stripped out all references to demons and devils to sidestep the Satanic panic that was in vogue at the time. It changed the rules significantly, most famously for creating a strange system for figuring out what you needed to roll to make a successful attack, known as THAC0. Combat was much more tactically detailed in this edition.

3rd Edition came out in 2000. At this point, the D&D boxed sets were discontinued, and this main branch of the D&D product line did away with the "Advanced" prefix. 3rd Edition did away with THAC0, brought fiendish monsters back to the game, and made several other major changes. A revision of 3rd Edition was published in 2003. Known as D&D 3.5, it angered many players who felt it forced them to rebuy all the core rulebooks so shortly after they were first published.

The really important thing about 3rd Edition is that it was published under the Open Gaming License, or OGL. The core mechanical rules of the game, known as the D20 System, could be used, expanded upon and republished by third party companies, much like open source software. No one needed permission from Wizards of the Coast to publish something based on the D20 rules, resulting in an explosion of third party supplements, adventures and entirely new games.

Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?

As the publishing life of 3rd Edition ended and 4th Edition was developed, the D&D story took some twists and turns worthy of the most devious dungeon master. Wizards had licensed their two flagship gaming magazines, Dragon and Dungeon, to Paizo Publishing. In anticipation of 4th Edition, they revoked that license. Paizo in turn used the OGL to revise and refine the 3.5 D&D rules and create their own role-playing game, Pathfinder. Pathfinder is essentially D&D 3.75. Paizo recently started claiming that Pathfinder is the best-selling RPG in the world, and while I'm not sure what the claim is based on (Wizards doesn't release sales numbers), I don't doubt that it is true or very nearly true.

Why is the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons a big deal?

What of 4th Edition D&D? It's the most drastic change in the rules yet, such a thorough reworking of the game that characters made with older editions are virtually impossible to convert for use in 4E. All character classes are balanced, giving everyone "powers" to use in combat –- wizards have spells, fighters have elaborate attack moves, and so forth. 4E is deeply polarizing among D&D players –- many accused Wizards of dumbing the game down, or trying desperately to appeal to World of Warcraft players. There are many positive and innovative aspects to 4E, but the numbers don't lie, D&D isn't healthy right now. You could write entire articles about why Wizards stumbled with 4E – in fact, I have.

This brings us back to 5th Edition. There's no possible way to literally unify the various editions under a single rule set. It would be like trying to build a car that can use parts from a 2010 Mustang, a 1950 Packard, and a tractor. And the edition wars are a serious problem for gamers, as RPGS are social games. You need a group to play, and if this girl prefers 2nd Edition, this guy only plays 3rd and those two dudes are only into Pathfinder, none of them get to play.

It seems like Wizards is aiming for a thematic unification, One System to Rule Them All, a version of D&D so perfect, so adaptable and so in tune with the game's ideals that it will win over every gamer. That's impossible too, of course, but it pays to aim high. If you're interested in being part of the 5E open playtest, you can sign up at the bottom of the official announcement.