So this long weekend granted me by the school board gods has allowed me to put together a somewhat rough and dirty spreadsheet comparing many of the predominant D&D inspired systems. First and foremost I make no claims as the greatness, completeness, or even perfect accuracy of the information contained in this file. It needs lots of clean-up and still lacks comparison of several factors present in all systems. I have just decided that enough is enough for right now. I think my basic answer was attained in this preliminary look via the information included here. (This file is an Excel file hosted by Mediafire--it's the first one I've done this way. Let me know if it works or not.)
Most notable for it's absence is the expansion or change of combat rules. I simply didn't have the time to go in depth there yet. And I wanted to get this posted before the weekend was up and I had to get back to work. And I also managed to get a couple Labyrinth Lord sessions in with my kids and their cousin too.
My motivation here is simply to get a handle for myself on the development of systems over time and what clones and simulacra have tried to hearken back to. For me this is now fairly clear--and not only that another thing became clear that wasn't as to me clear beforehand. And forgive me for this if it seems to start up an edition war or something--it's just what the data says. Presented as it is, in chart form, here--even in this preliminarily rough form--the conclusion is inescapable. So here I present the most surprising thing, to me, in bold and hi definition color:
The d20 systems are NOT the same game we grew up playing.
Dungeons & Dragons was built upon an identifiable and distinct system designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.
All that changed with the development of the d20 system by Jonathan Tweet, Monte Cook, Skip Williams, Richard Baker and Peter Adkinson.
There it is, with the culprits clearly named. A spade called a spade.
Now, the d20 system is elegant, smooth and efficient. About the only way it could be made more simple is to make saving throws just a one mechanic role. I for one might import C&C's Siege engine into d20 and you would have a system so snot-slick-smooth that it would freakin' reflect four pointed ninja stars. Yeah, don't get me wrong--d20 is a shit-slick system, well designed. But it is NOT the system we grew up playing. You can shout all day that it's better, it's quicker, it's more intuitive, it's faster and I couldn't really argue with you much at all--except maybe of the definition of "better". But one argument you can't win is that it is the same game we were playing back in the day. It simply is not.
Now I suppose you might say it's a lot like playing cops and robbers with different kids. But the kids in your new neighborhood play by different rules, but that in the end it's still cops and robbers. But by that definition every fantasy game with elves and dwarves and classes is Dungeons & Dragons. Sorry bucko--it just don't quite wash that way. The D&D name doesn't lay claim to all fantasy RPGs. even tho' it might have inspired them. Cops and Robbers under your rules is another thing entirely compared to cops and robbers under my rules.
The d20 system changed the game. That is clear to me now. Notice I'm not saying anything about this being good or bad--it is just a fact.
Also, something else that became clear to me is that the main change in the game (what I am going to call the actual D&D system) was in player options. Now to a degree this also includes combat maneuvers and mechanics, but principally involves addition of classes, races, proficiencies and the like. The actual expansion of the game centers around PC development. And unfortunately in some cases this led to a rule heavy system designed to incorporate all of these changes.
The most noteworthy, and honestly the last development of the actual D&D system was with 2e. The basic system was still in place, but options went through the roof. I feel like they had made an effort at curtailing this by consolidating classes under a four archetype system, and developing PCS via kits. They tried to make the combat system more intuitive via THAC0, and then developed an entirely new approach to the game via their options line. And although there were adherents to certain of these changes they could actually all be counted as dismal failures. Some might blame the splatbook phenom which 2e initiated as reason for their demise, and they wouldn't be totally wrong. But 2e was the first to begin to take the system in new directions, and in so doing they began to lose, what Gary himself had said was so solid that little should be changed going forward. And then the 2e TSR team did just that.
Which in my opinion leaves AD&D as the last incarnation of true D&D commercially published. And truthfully, AD&D was actually a very specific and personal sub-manifestation of D&D engineered by Gary. The game as presented in Original D&D, and later cleaned up some for the Classic D&D line (B/X) was the heart of the system. A system that could be expanded upon endlessly by those playing the game. AD&D was claimed to be by Gary the ultimate expression of the game, but obviously this was only one possible manifestation of what D&D could be in the hands of the creatively imaginative player and DM.
The crux of expansion in the game really seems to center around offering the player increased options. Which is open ended in the actual system itself. Even AD&D continued this trend in its supplements and magazines. None of which bogs down the system much. What tends to bog down the game is increased combat options--which didn't really occur much until 2e. But what increased player options does do is introduce power creep. We can see this across the development of the actual D&D game and its d20 variants. Each one more powerful than the ones before.
All of which brings me to how one can meet the expectations of increased player options while avoiding power creep and keeping the game lite and flexible. And I think Gary answered this question quite nicely in his last game--Lejendary Adventures, which we'll explore some next time.