Nearly 10 years ago, during the early stages of running what grew into an epic, 4-year D&D campaign that I ran for my friends, we faced a crucial decision. I had been running what I had envisioned as a narrative miniatures campaign using a very light set of rules (along with the setting) adapted from Reaper’s miniature game, Warlord. However, a few games in, because of the strong storytelling aspect of the games, as my players naturally started approaching the scenarios with more of an RPG mindset rather than one geared for a miniatures game, I realized it made more sense to transition to a bona-fide RPG rather than continuing to wing it using the rules-light system that I had cobbled together. The question was, which system to use?
Interestingly enough, the timing of this transition coincided with the end of 3.5, and the impending arrival of 4e. Pathfinder was also in its nascent, pre-published form, having recently been announced as well. Other than my wife and myself, everyone involved in that campaign had little experience with tabletop gaming, and none at all when it came to D&D, so I had the luxury and privilege of deciding essentially on my own which system our group would use. I decided relatively early on that it would be between 3.5 or 4e. Pathfinder looked interesting, but I wanted to go with something that was already (or about to be) published rather than waiting another year before being able to get my hands on printed versions of the core books (I did ultimately adopt a few of Pathfinder’s mechanics for sorcerers into the campaign, however).
Like many other gamers, some of the things I had seen in previews for 4e had me concerned, but overall, I thought it looked promising, so I kept an open mind before its release. I was eager to try it out and got to play in a demo game with my wife and one of our friends shortly after its release. My response at the time was that I thought it was ok. We had fun with the demo and had a couple of memorable story moments, but it felt like too much of the focus of gameplay was on the mechanics themselves rather than having the mechanics facilitate the gameplay experience that is unique to tabletop RPGs.
Another 4e demo game sometime later, plus some forays as an observer in the edition wars confirmed my initial thoughts. I’m not offering any new insights here, but for the record, my thoughts about 4e can be summed up this way: it was a radical departure from previous versions of D&D. This didn’t make it a bad game, but one could arguably say that this did make made it a bad D&D game. I think the description of it being essentially a tabletop version of an MMORPG, with its emphasis on powers, even for things like basic melee attacks, and the frequency at which they could be used, is a fair one. That being said, while it may have been a bad D&D game, it excelled at what it was designed for: gameplay that focused on small-scale, tactical combat.
Had it been marketed as something other than the next edition of D&D (or possibly even as a spin-off game based on D&D), there would probably have been little controversy. Of course, the trade-off would’ve been not being able to lean on the D&D brand to help market the game and boost sales — not to mention the logistics and potential problems involved in supporting multiple product lines (which TSR had already experienced previously in its history). Then again, while WOTC/Hasbro were able to leverage the D&D brand to boost sales, it’s reasonable to question whether or not the resulting damage to the brand from the controversy surrounding 4th Edition was worth it.
I decided to go with 3.5 for the campaign. It had officially come to the end of its life cycle, but it was a new system for me and and my gaming group. My friends and I switched the campaign over to the new rules. It successfully ran its course over the next several years, with the PCs going from low-level fledglings to 15th-level heroes by the end. At the same time, I saw my collection of 3.5 books fill out from the three core books to taking up a decent amount of space on my shelf. Since that time, 4e also ran its course, and we’ve seen the advent of 5e. I’ve picked up many of the 5e books and even added a smattering of 4th edition books to my collection — but not the core books themselves.
A year or two ago, I decided that although I’m not terribly fond of 4th edition, given that D&D has been a part of my life for so long, I wanted have at least the core books as part of my collection. to own a copy of every edition of the game. I would occasionally search online and at Half Price Books, but I was never thrilled with the prices I saw for the condition that the books were in — for a relatively unpopular edition, the books still seem to be steadily climbing in price as time goes on.
I actually hadn’t thought much about them in a while, but as luck would have it, I recently came across someone selling a brand-new set online for a steal, and I jumped on it without any hesitation. The books have since arrived and found a new home on my shelf, and I now own a set of core books for every edition of the game.
Well, complete except for the 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual that I lent out to some old friends over a decade ago… And everything starting from AD&D 1st Edition, anyway; I’ve never actually owned a Basic set – Red Box, White Box, original, reprint, or otherwise. Not yet, at least.