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Worlds of Design: To Move or Not to a New Edition?

When the RPG ruleset you use is replaced by a new edition, what do you do?

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Many tabletop RPGs besides D&D have multiple editions. How many people stick with older editions rather than move to the new one?


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Flipping & Turning Through New Rules​

I was reading an issue of Flipping & Turning (an online magazine for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, free through DriveThruRPG). A contributor to that magazine mentioned that years ago he thought no one played AD&D (First Edition, 1E) anymore, not once the Second Edition (2E) was released, but discovered many years later that Old Schoolers often play 1E.

My own experience is that I moved to AD&D from the original booklets, ignored 2E, played 3E along with 1E, played but did not game master 4E, and appreciate many virtues in 5E but don’t play it, still playing 1E.

New Editions, Other Games​

Thinking about other kinds of tabletop games, I suspect everyone moves to each new edition (there have been many) of Magic: the Gathering, because of “organized play” tournaments and the annual replacement of cards with new ones.

When an expansion for a board game is published, most people play with the expansion(s) if they can. New editions of board games are uncommon. I cite my own Britannia. In the UK people played the original H.P. Gibsons (1986) edition, in the USA gamers played the slightly different and later Avalon Hill (AH) edition (1987). When I revised the game to fix some errors introduced by publishers, in 2006, it replaced the AH edition at the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) tournament, though a few people still prefer the AH edition. The 2020 reissue of the game does not change the rules, but uses plastic pieces (and new board artwork). Many long-time players don’t like the idea of plastic figures, and I think we’ll see a mix of sets when WBC next meets. But because the rules haven’t changed, though the interface has, it’s not comparable to a new edition of an RPG where the rules do change.

The Pros & Cons of a New Edition​

If you stick with the old you don’t have to worry about official updates to the rules. Updates can vary in quality and reception; some provide new ways for players to get something in a way that seems "easier" to players, which can cause friction at the table when those players want to use the new rules, and the game master doesn't. This may not be a problem for strong personalities, but can be a problem for a GM who isn’t clearly the leader of the group. That GM will be constantly bombarded with requests to use new rules. Forty years ago I advised GMs to avoid letting players gain unearned advantages through new rules (I banned all additions to my 3E game); but that only applies to RPGs as games, not as storytelling mechanisms.

A new edition can fix problems, but can introduce new ones. I’m not sure where the advantage lies. Another consequence of staying with the old is that new players who have bought the new edition may prefer to play what they’ve bought.

By the time a new edition is released, there’s so much material available for the older edition (often free or quite cheap) that there may not be an obvious need to switch. Those sticking with older RPG editions may be more likely to make up their own material, and thus depend less on updates. Gamers sometimes accuse publishers of releasing a new edition simply to make more money rather than actually improve the game, but a company’s motivation can certainly be both (See The Dilemma of the Simple RPG).

Finally, there is the belief that new is always better, predicated on the notion that a new edition is always an improvement on the older one. That’s certainly how publishers position their new editions, but it’s not true for every player. It wasn’t true for me with D&D, but with an historian’s perspective I also see that new often isn’t better, it’s just new.

Your Turn: How many people stick with older editions of RPGs? After all, many tabletop role-playing games have multiple editions, not just D&D. So we have a poll!
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
There isn't one simple answer to a question like this. It depends what I think of the changes. I picked the second, "sometimes new sometimes old" option but that's just the most common answer. I certainly don't have the need some people do to always be using the latest and ostensibly greatest (and very few people here seem to, or at least they aren't admitting it :p ).

I must admit it. While I don't switch on if the next edition doesn't satisfy me, the idea of being struck into an old edition upsets me.

When 4th came out, I already was too involved in work to play, but I still remember the feeling of the times was: "I've stopped playing because of work but if this is what D&D is going to be, I never play again". And in effect the drive strong enough to restart playing went by 5th edition and its goodness.

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Dessert Nomad

Yeah, I never really got the resistance either, particularly since the compatibility is so high that any specific element preferred from 1e fits in with 2e reasonably well (ranger, I'm looking at you).

I and a lot of people that I know used a hybrid of 1e, 2e, house rules, and supplements. My experience was that a lot of people didn't see an "edition" as something that mattered, and never played 1e strictly by the actual rules in the first place. Attitudes like "oh, you're using THAC0 for a 1e game, you clearly never really played 1e" would strike people as bizarre, since people would pick and choose rules and shortcuts all the time. People playing "by the rules" 1e is a modern phenomenon as far as I can tell, even Gygax and Arneson didn't stick to RAW for their games.

I mean, in the OD&D to 1e transition you got a EDIT: 1eMM, but no PHB until a year later, and the DMG a year after that, but people ate up the AD&D books as they came out from what I have read.
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Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
As a side note, my answer for this differs a lot for D&D.

In general, as the state of the industry moves forward, mechanics and such becomes more mature. There's more feedback, especially the past decade or two with the internet. So games generally improve. And I'm for that. But also, many general games don't have a huge amount of supporting material, so there's no heavy sunk investment.

This doesn't mean I'll always move forward - let's look at Hero System. I started back in 2nd ed days, and we gladly move to the BBB (Big Blue Book) and it was great. Even with the amount of small books left behind that eventually were rebought. I didn't play too much of later editions, and in 2019 we had a game that was going to run in the latest 6th ed - and I found that all I didn't like the system. Even the nostaligia was gone with changes like renaming powers and removing figured characteristics. If I run Champions again, it will likely be with an older edition. And this doesn't even talk about Fuzion, which was a radical departure.

I've upgraded through various version of Shadowrun, but I'm not particularly fond of the newest (6th).

D&D is in a differnet place. I greatly enjoy 5e and it's my favorite edition, but it's not my favorite D&D-like game. But what it has going for it is a huge player base. Be it ease of finding players, having active online communities, whatever.

Even though I ran 3.5 for years into 4e (completeing a 7 year campaign), I still played 4e and read the message boards. One of the strongest points of D&D is the immense coverage it has in the high fantasy RPG sector, and you sort of have to at least eventually change to a new edition to keep up with that.

Dessert Nomad

You’ve got that a bit backwards. The MM came out first, in ’77. PHB in ’78 and DMG in ’79.

That makes sense as the MM would work even as a standalone product for OD&D. One thing I definitely remember is that the DMG was significantly delayed, and there was several articles by Gygax in Dragon magazine explaining/apologizing for it, plus of course letters complaining about it.

Dessert Nomad

As far as the original question goes, I tend towards the latest system for games that I'm playing or running, but I don't feel any compulsion to do so. If it's an edition that you can just drop in without significantly changing the PCs and use existing modules and self-constructed adventures, I'll pretty much always move to the latest since those are almost entirely improvements. CoC and AD&D 1e-2e worked like that, plus the other games people have mentioned. If there's a major edition change (like D&D 3, 4, and 5) then I generally won't shift (or support shifting) the campaign mid-stream unless it's a new-ish campaign and we really like the new edition.

If I'm not running a game I'll generally go with whatever version the GM wants to use, unless I really don't like that version (in which case I'll just decline that game). If it's an old game that I pull out once in a while, I probably won't update unless I really like the new version.

I always buy the first three books of any editions. Then, If the edition is to my liking, I will buy more. Frome the BECMI to 5ed today I have bought quite a lot and played even more that what could be considered normal. Now I am playing a lot less as familly, friends and work are my top priority. But when retirement comes in a few ueara, I will be back to play like a mad man.

So far, all editions have had good and not so good things going for them. 5ed is so far the best one not because it is the newest but because it learned from past mistakes and took on new takes on old concepts. Some of the changes it is advocating now are not my cup of tea, and if they go all in, I might simply just keep what I have and call it a day. Or if some if the changes are really good I might jump in that wagon for the ride. Time will tell.

I do not think that a sixth edition is on the way but if there is one, with 5ed doing the job form me and and my players, it might be the first time that I will let the train pass by me without a flicker. I have enough books for three life times already...


I've never really been in the position where I'm playing through a long campaign when a new edition comes out so the changeover is generally pretty easy. I likely end up buying the core books anyway to see what the new edition is like and then can go from there, plus, I like to homebrew things so if there is anything the new version doesn't have, it generally doesn't take much for me to create it.

Originally he was quite expansive and open to all kinds of possibilities and house rules. When someone famously wrote in Alarums & Excursions (in '75, I think?) that "D&D is too important to be left to Gary Gygax", Gary wrote into a subsequent issue and agreed!

But when the market had been established, the sales really started rolling in, and he had broken with Dave Arneson and didn't want to share royalties anymore, we started seeing the much more corporate, money-focused Gary try to narrow down the vision, standardize the game, and assert more control. Some of that was related to other factors, of course. Like how tournaments were a significant early source of income, and tournament play really kind of necessitates clear rules and consistent interpretation.

Hence my winking emote. ;)

Although, to be fair, IMO, it's always been about both the money and the hobby. Even in those first heady, halcyon days, Gary was trying to feed his family. And the loan he had to take from Brian Blume to get TSR off the ground in the first place had far-reaching implications, eventually down to Gary being forced out of the company in '85/86.

Perhaps we could say that in the period where WotC first acquired TSR to save D&D from TSR's creditors, it really wasn't about the money. Although of course WotC management really didn't want to lose any more money once they had acquired that dying company.

Part of publishing games we love, once we get out of just doing it as a hobby, does mean that the money matters and influences everything. That being said, from what I've seen there have always been passionate, hardworking gamers focused on the game itself even during the periods of worst mismanagement. Whether that was when Williams & co were threatening fansites with lawsuits and making the terrible business decisions around Buck Rogers and the Random House deal, or in 3.5 when WotC was pumping out books ad nauseum seemingly at the behest of Hasbro to sell MORE, MORE, MORE!
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Switching to a new edition depends entirely on the changes in the new edition. For instance, when Savage Worlds released their newest edition, Adventure Edition, my group and I readily embraced the changes. The system is largely backwards compatible with the old rules set, the changes to the game were extensively playtested, and almost every tweak to the rules has been well-received an overwhelmingly positive.

On the other hand, when a new edition involves drastic changes or modifications to the playstyle, I'm less inclined to embrace change. Our group initially transitioned from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, but we were disinclined to migrate to Pathfinder 2e, instead choosing 5e for the simpler ruleset. In our view, D&D 5e is more similar to D&D 3e and Pathfinder than Pathfinder 2e is. Not to mention, the DMs (myself and my husband, Ryan) are big fans of some of the design decisions, like bounded accuracy, which is something we've been talking about for years before 5e coined the term. Guess WotC will have to hire us on as the next lead developers. ;)


Podcast host, 6-edition DM, and guy with a pulse.
I started with 2nd Edition AD&D. Staying close to the core rulebooks it always worked great for us. 3.5 left a bad taste in my mouth for a few reasons which I choose not to discuss here for the sake of avoiding edition-warring, but I'll play it as a PC still. I've since gone back to BECMI & 1st Edition and enjoyed them fine. Despite its major changes, my time playing 4th ed was enjoyable; I'm not sure I'd go back to that ruleset for a long campaign again, though. 5th ed is the best ruleset I've used since 2e. I'm currently running a 2e game and was in a 1e game as a player for about a year. For me I suppose it depends on the group I'm in. I've had groups where everyone had a different "Will-Not-Play" rules set and we had to work it out before beginning. 5e & 2e were always the only ones we could all agree we would play.

But, all that noise aside, I've run all six major editions at Gen Con in years past (I called it the Edition Gauntlet Ordeal) and I stand by the statement that the players at the table make or break the game more than the rules can.

Casimir Liber

Started playing D&D in 1978 - basic then 1E - loved the speed of 1E combat and the richness of the monsters/dungeons/content etc. - hated the arbitrary level limits and class restrictions. Moved to 2E (needed after the cavalier/UA screw up), my memories are that it was okay-ish? IIRC an improvement on 1E but my life was such that I played less. Played little during the time of 3/3.5E. Restarted in 2008 with 4E - found that a complete trainwreck with no redeeming features that I can recall. Moved to Pathfinder, enjoyed to a point. Love 5E though combat still a little slow and not sure why. I would hate it if they made 5.5 or 6E within the next 5 years given how much content there is for 5E now.

Played TFT (in the labyrinth/melee) in the 80s. This was an amazingly simple game of combat mechanics that was really fun. This recently had a reboot and I lost interest in some of the rule changes, so I won't be playing that I suspect.

Casimir Liber

To answer the question, I’ve been playing D&D through two edition changes: 3.5 to 4e and 4e to 5e. The former I eagerly embraced because I had a lot of issues with 3.5, and the latter I was disappointed with because I loved 4e, but also excited for because of the open playtest process. I enthusiastically jumped on the opportunity to help shape the next edition, and found myself liking the direction they were going in more than 4e, though I still think a lot of great design ideas got thrown out simply for being associated with 4e.
I have to ask...what did you like about 4e?

Casimir Liber

My reasoning is this: New core rulebooks are cash cows and WotC would be foolish (economically) not to exploit them. If you're going to publish new books, you might as well make adjustments from 10 years of experiencing the edition, both addressing "warts" and incorporating new ideas, and once you start tweaking things there's a bit of a domino effect and you end up with a new edition.

What I hope is that they turn to new settings for big books before feeling the financial need to do 6e (and yet more core rulebooks)...Dark Sun...Gamma World....more Eastern...more Ravenloft (given that has only just made it into 5e now!)....


I have to ask...what did you like about 4e?
Heh, I'm not @Charlaquin but, for me? Pretty much every good part of 5e has its origins in 4e. From two step resource recovery (short/long rest) to the powers set up, to the standardization of classes (although 5e backed off on that somewhat), to the simplification of monsters and the separation of monsters and PC rules. There's a shopping list of "great ideas in 5e" that had their genesis in 4e.

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