The 2nd Edition was the first I ever played, not counting a session or two with one of the 90's versions of basic D&D. Opinions about the 2nd Edition are mixed, with me liking it and every other gamer alive considering it abysmal. To their credit, the rules as written are unplayable. But that's not what AD&D 2nd was about. The rules were (at least somewhat) intentionally contradictory. It wasn't a system of rules, but a system for building rules. It was an overdue acknowledgement that "house rules" weren't exceptions to playing D&D, but rather a defining aspect of the game, at least at that time. 2nd Edition was a series of recommendations, suggestions, and options for ways those house rules could be compiled and customized. The downside was that a lot of those recommendations were messy. DM's had to monitor new kits (sort of sub-classes) carefully or risk watching players exploit poorly written manuals and become extremely powerful.
The 3rd Edition attempted to correct this by coalescing the many rules into one set that could actually be played. Essentially, they wanted to distill the essence of the game down to something that worked, was fun, and captured the feel of the game. It was a good direction; too bad they failed miserably. The rules were usable, but too many issues from prior editions remained. In addition, the "essentials" they boiled the game down to were narrowly selected. In the tug-of-war between a system used for narrative story-building and a dice-driven war-game, 3rd Edition took a major step towards the latter. I've never disputed that D&D should work as tactical rules if desired, but I believe strongly that any D&D edition that can't also support a narrative story-building fantasy game is a failure.
Of course, this was only a harbinger of what was to come. I don't know if its fair to call the 4th Edition the worst, but it's definitely the least D&D Edition to bear the name. To the designers' credit, it was also the most ambitious. They threw out an unprecedented number of rules and rebuilt from the ground up. For the first time ever, the game was somewhat balanced. It was also extremely dull. The class abilities boiled down to different combat tactics. Characters were less fictional people with desires, goals, and skills than a collection of combat powers. And those combat powers were all astonishingly repetitious. Regardless of your class, every round you selected a power, made an attack roll, dealt damage, and had some other simple effect that could always be defined in terms of movement, position, or status. Fantasy elements like enchantment and illusion were absent or reduced to these same principles. There was nothing in the core rules that couldn't be programmed into a spreadsheet. That's fine for a war game, but like I said before, Dungeons & Dragons needs to be able to support more than that.
So. Let's talk about the 5th Edition.
A few disclaimers first: I just got a copy of the new Player's Handbook a few days ago. I've gone over all the basic rules, more or less. I haven't read through the spells yet, and I skimmed over or skipped a lot of the flavor text and descriptions. Also, I haven't actually played the game, so this is all theory, not practice.
All that being said, I'm cautiously optimistic that this could be the definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons, a system capable of running games heavy on narrative, focused on combat, or both. It contains a sense of freedom for DM's looking to modify the system, while simultaneously providing a set of rules that work out-of-the-box. In short, this is damn near everything I'd hoped for and maybe a little bit more.
The Player's Handbook has 4 core races (eight counting variations, like mountain dwarf and drow), and five optional races (plus a variant on the gnome). The four main races are elves, dwarves, humans, and halflings. All of these contain significant features and abilities, as do the subdivisions. The other races include gnomes, dragonborn, half-orcs, half-elves, and tieflings. The variations are significant, including additional bonuses (and occasionally penalties). None of the races feel under-powered, including humans (does +1 to every ability score sound interesting?). The optional races include a disclaimer that they're not all in every campaign world, in case you want to disallow dragonborn without an argument.
Oh, and speaking of campaign worlds... the PHB talks about Ravenloft, Forgotten Realms, Krynn, Greyhawk, and Sigil, so fans of those settings probably have a lot to look forward to. Here's hoping they include an updated Spelljammer down the road.
For those keeping track, you've got fourteen races, counting variations. The class rules leave that number in the dust. There are twelve classes, each of which includes specializations you pick up around 3rd level. I count 40 in all, though a large number are Wizard schools and Cleric Domains. But even these are extremely versatile and include specialized abilities and traits. Hell, Diviners are awesome in this edition.
Structurally, these variations are similar to a blend of prestige classes and 2nd Ed kits. There are optional rules for multi-classing, too, but I can't imagine wanting to use them: the sub-divisions of classes provide an extensive range of character types. And I do mean extensive. Every class has an option to branch off and learn some kind of magical ability. You want to build an armored knight who casts fireballs? Easy. How about a thief who masters illusions and charms and can literally steal spells as they're being cast? It's in there.
The Monk class, which I've never had much interest in, has some particularly interesting builds. I can think of no better summation of this game's versatility than to point out you could create a small group entirely consisting of 7th level Monks, and have each feel more distinct than any two characters you could create in 4th Edition. You want an unarmed fighter who's studying to learn the touch of death? There's a path for that. You want to make a ninja? It's in there. How about any of the main characters from Avatar: the Last Airbender. Doable.
The magic-users are even better. Mages have been divided into three separate classes: wizards, warlocks, and sorcerers. Miraculously, this doesn't feel redundant. There's enough variation in how they cast magic and where their power comes from to justify the split. In particular, I love this version of the Warlock, magic-users who receive their power from demons, fey, or elder forgotten gods (in case there's any doubt, Cthulhu is mentioned by name). Someone really needs to tell Jack Chick.
Wizards, while remaining extremely close to their original concept, have been substantially improved. They've got a few more hit points, and damage-dealing cantrips have been added (meaning wizards will never run out of combat spells). In addition, the spell memorization system has been tweaked to retain some of the feel while correcting decades-old issues with utility and narrative flow. Oh - there's also a "rituals" system, allowing you to cast unprepared spells slowly outside of combat. This a good way to access Comprehend Languages that one time it comes up. Lastly, they've finally consolidated the extraneous "Advanced" versions of spells by allowing you to cast the original spells as if it were at a higher level. It's a small improvement, but one that's been a long time coming.
Not every class fits in as well as it should. Clerics remain tonally out-of-place, in my opinion, but I've always hated that class. Druids are now essentially shape-shifters, which feels a little odd (then again, it does differentiate them from Rangers). Meanwhile, the Bard class feels redundant, since there are numerous way to create a similar effect using other builds (historically, the class has always been more a fighter/mage hybrid than a distinct entity). But these are minor quibbles. The classes, at a glance, look much more appealing here than in any previous edition of the game.
The combat system is mostly just a modified version of the old D20 system from 3rd Edition, though I feel like there's more room for narrative-heavy campaigns to work. It's built around 5' x 5' squares to accommodate miniatures if desired, but it doesn't feel like they're required.
On the technical side, there's a new Advantage/Disadvantage system that provides characters and monsters an opportunity to heavily adjust the odds. Rather than just adding another modifier, having Advantage means you roll two dice and use the higher roll (with Disadvantage, you use the lower). It sounds like an interesting dynamic, and it seems to be well integrated into class abilities and spells.
On the role-playing side of things, 5th Edition includes some good guidelines for building up rounded characters. There's a lot of work on backgrounds and personality in the rules. While those of us with some experience with RPG's can safely ignore this stuff, it should do a good job giving new players a lesson in building a character who's more than a collection of their combat potential. I especially like the "bonds" concept, which encourages players to build characters embedded in the world.
The alignment system is still around and has reverted to the old 9x9 grid. They've cleaned up the definitions to make the alignments less constrictive, and they've also removed restrictions from the various classes. Even the Paladin description refrains from setting any hard rules, instead saying it's rare for a Paladin to be evil. Alignment is a controversial legacy element, one I'm usually eager to drop. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to have much game impact anymore.
The art is also the best I've seen in D&D at least since 2nd Edition. In several way, it's far superior from even that: the female characters aren't sexualized, and the characters are far more racially diverse than I ever remember seeing. A lot of attention has been paid to the new Edition's liberal approach to gender and sexual orientation - it's pretty clear they're betting an inclusive system will pay off for them in the long run. I can think of a few comic book companies that could learn a lot from that approach.
I'm not sure I'd call D&D 5th perfect, but after the first read through, I'm far more excited about its potential than I ever was for 4th Edition. Dungeons & Dragons has always been the most iconic role playing game out there, but it's never really lived up to its potential. I realize this is far too early to make a determination, but based on what I just read, I think they finally might have gotten it right.