Dungeons & Dragons first premiered in 1974, and has gone through a few editions and a few changes along the way. Fifth Edition is the current edition (as of this writing!), but as it turns out, that’s not even close to accurately numbered.
Fifth Edition? Name Me Four Other Editions!
In the beginning there was Chainmail, and it was a miniatures game. Then we got Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, and it was good. By 1977, TSR had apparently heard enough nerds scream that they wanted to play evil elven clerics (as alignment, race, and class were virtually one choice), that they decided to release an entirely new game. A game that was far, far more advanced. They called it… Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It was really good. TSR pretty much kicked D&D to the curb, but they hired an outside talent to update the rules for the people who were still content to play in a party with a Dwarf, Fighter, and Mage.
Number of distinct rulesets: 2. Number of editions/revisions with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title: 3.
Getting More Advanced
In 1989, a full 12 years after the premier of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, TSR gave us Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, and it was awesome. Effectively a massive facelift and polishing of the first edition of AD&D, 2nd Edition was a much more refined version of the AD&D ruleset. In the meantime, however, there had been updates to original flavor D&D in 1981 and 1983. 2nd Edition would get its own revision of 1995 that was far less expansive and didn’t warrant a name change. D&D had two more revisions in 1991 and 1994.
Number of distinct rulesets: 2. Number of editions/revisions with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title: 8.
The “Advanced” Is Kind Of Implied
Five years later, TSR was owned by Wizards of the Coast, and in 2000, we were treated to a game called Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, and it was amazing. Despite not being Advanced, 3rd Edition was intended to be a successor to 2nd Edition AD&D. It was a radically different ruleset that we now know as the d20 system. 3rd Edition got its own revision in 2003, and while the changes were major enough to warrant a new edition number, instead of calling it 4th Edition, they decided to call it Dungeons & Dragons v.3.5. Just as 1st Edition AD&D was completely superseded by 2nd Edition, 3.5 effectively erased 3rd Edition. Despite the numbering, 3.5 is considered a separate edition in its own right.
Number of distinct rulesets: 3. Number of editions/revisions with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title: 10.
Not The One With Whales
Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, came out in 2008, and it was [redacted]. A completely new ruleset, it was met with a lot of anger due to a host of unwelcome changes and the relatively short timespan of 3rd/3.5, or less than 8 years, as compared to the 11 years that 2nd had, and 12 years AD&D had before it. It got its own revised “Essentials Edition” in 2010, which was more expansive in scope than the 2nd Edition revision, not quite as overhauling as 3.5, and therefore not considered worthy of its own edition number.
Number of distinct rulesets: 4. Number of editions/revisions with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title: 12.
Present Day – What’s Next?
D&D Next premiered in 2012 with the full release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition coming in 2014, making 4th Edition the shortest-lived of all editions. Again, it was a completely new ruleset that was not backward compatible with any previous versions.
One D&D is slated to launch in 2024, but by all accounts, it is a major revision to 5th Edition, somewhere on the scope of the 2nd Edition revision, 3.5, or the Essentials Edition. The final name could be 5.5, 6th Edition, or something completely different if the design team is feeling really bold.
Number of distinct rulesets: 5. Number of editions/revisions with “Dungeons & Dragons” in the title: 13.
So… It’s Five?
In a very roundabout way, there are, in fact, five incarnations of the game Dungeons & Dragons, if we’re counting by distinct rulesets. Counting by edition numbers gets really confusing, because the names have changed (D&D to AD&D and back), the rulesets have changed to be completely distinct but not edition by edition, and what we consider to be “Dungeons & Dragons” isn’t even accurate because at one point D&D and AD&D were contemporary but separate games.
At the end of the day, thought, it doesn’t even matter. With the exception of a few really dedicated hobbyists, people are either playing 3.5 (and likely calling it Pathfinder 1e), or 5th Edition, and they just call it D&D. Because even in the 90s, we called it “D&D,” and the original D&D was “Basic D&D.” AD&D is insurance that pays out if you go into a dungeon or fight a dragon without a cleric or a lot of healing potions.
And One More Thing!
You want to talk about weird edition numbering? Let’s go to White Wolf’s Vampire and its various editions: Vampire: the Masquerade, V:tM 2nd Edition, V:tM Revised Edition, and V:tM 20th Anniversary Edition (referred to as V20), which are all based on the Storyteller System with updates to each successive edition, and they are generally compatible with each other.
Then there’s Vampire: the Requiem, which is a canonically separate game that has an updated ruleset based in part on the Storyteller system, a completely different lore background, and very little compatibility with the other editions (as it is considered a completely distinct game). Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition is also radically different rule system with no compatibility (and wildly different game concepts), but has a tenuous lore connection to V:tM Revised. V20 and 5th Editions are produced by two different companies and are both considered the “current” edition, depending on who you ask.
I think the takeaway here is that all of these games, which are just imaginative tricks to get you to do math, are really bad at counting to five.