I am presently a 4e player, and I love the game. But I am also interested in the other editions of the game, and would like to be able to get a good overview of them. By overview I mean a good look at their rules and mechanics, not just short summaries like the ones presented in the otherwise great question 'what are the differences between the D&D editions'

Unfortunately, until now I've been unable to do so. Buying all the books is obviously out of the question, as it would bankrupt me. I tried the internet, but there I found mostly flame wars, and the resources on the rules themselves were scattered. As for summaries like the ones previously mentioned, they are enlightening, but never sufficient by themselves to get me to invest into an edition.

Where, or how, can I find good resources on the different D&D editions to help me choose which one I want to try next? (if any)?


6 Answers 6


As excerpted from earlier question How do I learn to become a good GM?, for each game you are interested in, go watch it be played (or participate in playing it). The actual differences in 'the rules' are less important than how the combination of rules, adventures, and common approaches particular to those games actually come out in real play.


In your question, you mention wanting to see more examples of real play. There's a number of ways to do so.

Actual Play Resources

  • Podcasts capture the entire play session. There's video podcasts too. See Where can I find actual play podcasts for RPGs?
  • Session Summaries (aka Actual Plays, Story Hours, Campaign Journals) usually are severely abridged, but leave out a lot of the cruft. See Where can I find transcripts of actual game sessions? and Where to find game session reports?
  • Blogs. There's a million blogs about how to GM. Start with the RPG Bloggers Network. Go to the blogrolls of blogs you like to find more like them. Focus in on blogs about your chosen game(s) and play style(s).
  • Play by post forums. If you want to watch people actually play in text, there's a million of these too. Many dedicated sites, specific forums on RPG.net, ENWorld, Paizo, etc. In fact, RP-by-post is very popular even when not affiliated with a proper RPG/ruleset.
  • Sit in. There are plenty of other people running games, some in public places like your friendly local game store (D&D Encounters, Pathfinder Society) and conventions. See below under "Play" though, if you're going to the effort of being there you need to stop being a wallflower and get on in and play.


In the end though this is not the most effective approach. Watching games is less of a useful learning experience than actually being in one. Have you considered playing in those games before running them to learn from other GMs? It's reasonably easy to find other gaming groups, you don't have to abandon yours to play in another. Where can I find other RPG players?

Go to RPG conventions, find games at gaming stores, play on forums or G+ (see also Finding online RPG players for a play-by-chat RPG Campaign?) - just get more experience. Being a GM is often called a "judge," and in the legal world you need to spend a lot of time being a lawyer before you make a good judge. You need to spend some time playing to become a good GM. If you can't think how the players will proceed in a given situation, you need more play time.


Nearly every early edition has a free clone or near clone. Lists mapping the retro-clones to editions are easily found. I would look at several of those and based on that pick one or two early editions to pick up. I would note most early editions are available at DriveThruRPG and core books are reasonably priced. You could sample Moldvay, and Mentzer for $9.98.

If I was recommending exact choices I would run with:

  • Labrynth Lord: A mix of Moldvay and Mentzer.
  • Swords & Wizardy White Box: Original boxed D&D
  • Swords & Wizardy Core: OD&D plus some supplements...Complete also does this but more supplement stuff. Core is also a good representation of Holmes
  • OSRIC: AD&D1

I'd recommend getting those four (all are free in PDF) and reading them. Play the 2 that interest you most and then pick up PDF rulebooks if you really want TSR products.

Finally, I'd read some of the blogs that self-identify as OSR. Blogs, especially if you avoid the comments, are a bit less flame warring although you still need to pick and choose wisely.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Don't forget about your local game store! Find a comic book shop, and you'll likely find a D&D section. Staff at such stores are usually players, know players, or run game nights. You could experience different editions (and more!) firsthand! \$\endgroup\$
    – PipperChip
    Apr 17, 2014 at 17:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did consider adding a bit about meeting local players but I get the impression he's talking pre-WoTC editions and book and group availability might not be high. \$\endgroup\$
    – HerbN
    Apr 17, 2014 at 19:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PipperChip I think your comment is the best of the bunch, and would gladly upvote it if you turned it into an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – lisardggY
    Apr 17, 2014 at 19:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Exactly! I would add that the core of 3e and 3.5 is available for free from a bunch of places. I happen to like d20srd.org Sadly, no ideas for 2e, which have their own baroque charm. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 18, 2014 at 22:11

Wikipedia has a page about the different editions of D&D, and also pages for each edition, which should cover the most important parts.

If you want to know more about 3.5e, the SRD has all the rules on it - and it's completely free and legal. Sadly most editions of D&D aren't freely and legally available on the Internet, and if you want to learn more about them you'll need to buy the books. Wizards of the Coast (the owners of D&D) have a section in their downloads page which says it is for older editions, but sadly there's nothing there and clicking the link redirects you to the homepage.

You can, however, buy pdfs of older editions for a low price on D&D Classics, owned by WotC. A pdf of the Basic Set Rulebook is $4.99, for example.

If you are looking for a certain feature in an edition of D&D, you can also always ask another question about which edition of D&D is best for that.


There's four main kinds of DnD played at the moment, by my understanding. I'll try to give a brief overview of where you can look for resources for each of the three you don't know about.


The SRD for 3.5e is free to read and hosted on several internet sites. Additionally, people write about it a lot. Unfortunately, the SRD is missing a lot of explanatory text and the like, making the PHB and the DMG vastly better if you don't understand what it's talking about.

There are some 3.5e games you can play on message boards, or on IRC, which could give you a greater understanding of the rules. Additionally, on certain forums (giantitp, minmaxboards) people talk about the rules of DnD 3.5e in discussion threads which could help to understand the flow of play etc.

ADND + Clones

There's a resurgence of some kind going on with this, with lots of ADND clone games being released. Sadly, I don't actually know of any offhand, and a google search leads only to confusion. If anyone could fill me in on this, i'll edit in information.


Released by Paizo, Pathfinder is a DnD 3.5e clone released to profit from DnD players not interested in moving on to 4e. It's very similar, with most changes having little to no impact on gameplay (although with just enough differences to make directly porting classes or characters difficult) in comparison to 3.5.

In contradiction to 3.5, though, most of its content is available under the OGL and is hosted on this website. Again, though, the explanations and art are missing - however, the book is still in print and is available as a pdf. A big part of the draw of Pathfinder is the Adventure Paths which make it easier for inexperienced or unimaginative DMs to run exciting games, and the Pathfinder Society, a 'living' campaign similar to 4e's 'Living Forgotten Realms' or 3.5e's old 'Living Greyhawk'.

Overall, Pathfinder tends to attract gamers interested in a lower-powered or more prosaic adventuring group experience, and 3.5e has retained a larger proportion of gamers interested in the more odd, higher-powered, or large-in-scope games that 3.5e excels at portraying.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd revise "ADND+Clones" to "xDND+Clones" as a lot of the close material is focused on OD&D and the B/X and BECMI families. Some, especially Basic Fantasy and LL with Advanced Edition Characters are what I've taken to calling "Intermediate Dungeons & Dragons" which was that mix of Basic methods with some AD&D stuff, mostly classes, spells, and monsters, that I remember being very common (at least in my circles) in the early 80s. \$\endgroup\$
    – HerbN
    Apr 17, 2014 at 19:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ For an overview of *D&D clones, see Overview of D&D retro-clones. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 17, 2014 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ For people, like me, who know next to nothing about that whole 'thing' 'ADND' is more evocative than 'XDND' or the alphabet soup of abbreviations that seems common when talking about it. Thanks SSD. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2754
    Apr 18, 2014 at 12:50

The actual rulebooks for certain editions are available legally in PDF.

Moldvay (B/X), Mentzer (BECMI) and Alston (Cyclopedia) are available at DNDclassics.com

The D&D 3.5 Rules Compendium also is available at DNDclassics.com.

AD&D 1E has most of the supplementary books available, but the core rules are not at present available in legal PDF. Poor condition (readable but not pretty) dead-tree rulebooks routinely turn up inexpensively on ebay, often costing less than the shipping.

AD&D 2E has the Players Option series up on DnDClassics.com, but not the standard versions; essentially, a "2.5" edition.


If you're interested primarily in learning the rules and can't find a group, consider playing video games rather than reading through books. To learn 3.5, consider Temple of Elemental Evil, which faithfully implements most of the game's core mechanics, including classes and feats from the Player's Handbook. It's slow to start, so I never got into it. However, it's gained enough of a following to have significant fan-made mods, and it does a great job of explaining where the bonuses or penalties on each roll come from.

Another turn-based 3.5 game is Knights of the Chalice. Because it focuses almost exclusively on combat, it only features three classes: the fighter, the cleric, and the wizard. The rules also differ slightly from 3.5. However, they're close enough that it provides a great introduction to the tactical side of the game and many of the feats and spells in the core books.

If you're comfortable with real-time-with-pause games, you have other options. These include Neverwinter Nights 2, which offers four-person parties, a range of classes and prestige classes (3.5's non-mandatory paragon paths), and a cast of characters to recruit.

For 3.0, try the original Neverwinter Nights, which puts you in charge of a single character. It used to have a large modding community and servers for meeting and gaming with other people, but I don't know if that's still the case.

Icewind Dale II also is based on 3.0's rules. It's a real time with pause game that asks you to create a party of six characters and guide them through a series of battles. While your characters' alignment, class and race will affect the dialogue options you receive, the focus is on combat.

For Second Edition, consider Baldur's Gate II or its predecessor. Both games use a real-time-with-pause engine, so they don't implement the rules perfectly. However, they'll still teach you about the edition's attributes, classes, magic system, multi-classing system, and monsters. Between the two, I would recommend the second, especially if you prefer to play spellcasters; it starts you at a higher level, so you have more options.

Several other games use the same engine and comparable rulesets. These include Planescape: Torment, which has a great setting, interesting dialogue and intriguing recruitable NPCs, and the original Icewind Dale, which lets you create your entire party. Like its sequel, it focuses almost entirely on combat.

For turn-based implementations of Second Edition or AD&D, consider the Gold Box Games, which allow you to generate a party of adventurers. I would also recommend Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, for its gritty setting, unusual races, and psionic characters. You can buy it on eBay as part of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Masterpiece Collection.

The Second Edition and AD&D games do a poor job of explaining the rules in game, and some of them have only vague descriptions in their manuals. Fortunately, Dan Simpson's AD&D Rules FAQ provides a great overview of the rules they use.

You should play in a game if you can, even if it's only a one-shot with a 4E group. But if you can't find a group that's interested in older editions, these games offer an entertaining way to learn about the game's history.


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