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Original ‘D&D’ and 5th Edition, Some Side-by-Side Comparisons Part I

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been doing some investigations into “classic” Dungeons & Dragons for an upcoming Adventurers League three-week (six hours) session. Way before Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and even before the Basic Set (1977) that was my starting point with the game. I’m talking about what many folks refers to as Original D&D or OD&D. Depending on who you ask, OD&D consists of three books or seven books, and sometimes more.

I love the history of my favorite RPG, and I won’t even try to do justice when there are so many other sources that provide the information. I cannot recommend Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World enough–that’s your place to start. It’s well-researched, unbiased, and amazing in its scope. Be warned–at times it can read like a PhD candidate’s thesis submission, and I mean that in the most complimentary manner.

While I can’t (yet) explain the reasons I’m digging into older documents (some of my players DO read my posts, and I can’t give them any hints of what’s to come), I can share with you some fun stuff that you may or may not know about OD&D. As I’ve been reading and diving into these books and documents, I’ve also been doing a mental comparison with the 1974 version of the game and the 2014 release of the 5th edition game. It was a fun and interesting side-by-side review that I thought might interest some readers.

I’m going way back here. 1971. Before OD&D, there was Chainmail rules for medieval miniatures (and yes, the subtitle wasn’t capitalized–as you’ll discover if you dive into older D&D books and documents, grammar and spelling were a bit lax in the 1970s and 80s). The rulebook was written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren and published in 1971. These were rules for conducting medieval war-games using miniatures. Think knights and archers and castle sieges. The rules would go through additional revisions and printings, and I won’t go into that level of detail here. Instead, I’ll add that the rulebook also contained a chapter/section called “Fantasy supplement” (yes, a mix of uppercase and lowercase again). This fantasy-related section provided basic rules for substituting wizards and orcs and dragons for the traditional miniatures used by most war-gamers of the time.


Long story short, a fan of Chainmail named Dave Arneson used these basic rules in Chainmail to create a much more detailed and on-going fantasy campaign that impressed Gygax enough that discussions began about turning Arneson’s custom rules and settings into a more polished game. Game… not role-playing game. Yet. (Again, consult Playing at the World for a much more thorough account of how this partnership developed over time.) That game would be released by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. in 1974 as a boxed collection of three books:

Volume 1: Men & Magic
Volume 2: Monsters & Treasure
Volume 3: Underworld & Wilderness Adventures

Note: While the game was called Dungeons & Dragons, do check out the game’s subtitle description: “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures.” Quite a description, huh?

Volume 1: Men & Magic

These three books provided much more detail than the “Fantasy supplement” section in the Chainmail rulebook, including additional races, spells, and many more monsters among other things. New charts and rule clarifications were provided for features missing in Chainmail–for example, combatants in Chainmail did not “level up” so Volume 1: Men & Magic provided the information players would need to increase their skills and survive longer.

With these three volumes, players and the referee (the term “Dungeon Master” wasn’t yet being used) had all they needed to play Dungeons & Dragons–plus Chainmail if they wished to have rules for miniature combat. To distinguish this early version of the game, today it’s often referred to as Original D&D, or OD&D.

As the game’s popularity grew (and it wasn’t overnight), additional rulebooks were added as supplements. Four in particular have come to be included in the OD&D set (depending on who you ask):

Supplement 1: Greyhawk
Supplement 2: Blackmoor
Supplement 3: Eldritch Wizardry
Supplement 4: Gods, Demi-Gods, & Heroes

Note: Another booklet was produced titled Swords & Spells, but it was not released as Supplement 5. This booklet attempted to provide more updated rules for miniature combat in the D&D setting (than Chainmail offered) but was not well-received by D&D gamers.

These books formed the foundation of Dungeons & Dragons. Today, these booklets are rare and can be expensive to obtain if you’re a collector. Back in 2013, Wizards of the Coast (the company that bought TSR and the D&D brand in 1997) released a wooden box filled with reprints of the first seven booklets. The booklets came with new artwork on the covers, but the rules and artwork inside the booklets were kept. It’s these reprinted seven booklets that I’ve been reading and enjoying over the last few weeks.

Keep in mind, this is not going to be a comprehensive comparison–a page-by-page analysis could itself be a complete book. Instead, I’d like to point out some of the larger differences as well as areas where the game has held strong over the years. Between OD&D and 5e D&D, there were a number of versions–D&D Basic, AD&D, D&D Expert, and on up through versions 3, 4, and then the D&D Next beta. Longtime fans will know that D&D has expanded and contracted, gone back to its roots and moved out into experimental methods of play… but today we have 5e, so that’s the version I will explore side-by-side with OD&D, starting with the 35-page Volume 1: Men & Magic (M&M).

OD&D vs 5e

I’ll start on M&M page 3–recommended age states 12 and up. I looked over the new 5e DMG and Player’s Handbook, but couldn’t find any recommended age. I also checked on WotC’s website… nothing. Then I remembered I had the new D&D Starter Set, and there it is on the box cover: 12+. I think all of us who play D&D know players who are much younger, but if I had to hazard a guess as to recommending an age to parents, 12 would probably be about what I’d suggest.

Back in the mid 70s, there weren’t a lot of D&D boxes in circulation. (The first print of boxes was limited to just 1000!) For this reason, it wasn’t unheard of for one referee (DM) to be running either multiple groups on different days OR much larger groups of players all at once. On page 3 of M&M, I found this interesting suggestion for a ref-to-player ratio that might give today’s Dungeon Masters a slight panic attack:

At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.

A ratio of 1:20?! Obviously our grandfather DMs were made of stouter stuff, huh? I put a limit on my own table of maybe 8, and prefer a max of 6. The 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) doesn’t even offer a ratio or suggested number of players, although it does suggest a 1:1 player-to-character ratio which is typical.

The M&M also recommends a number of dice, but noticeably missing is a d10. This is probably because early d20 dice were typically made using only the digits 0-9 (twice) and players were meant to use a crayon or pen to darken (or fill in) one set of 0-9 to indicate 9 through 20. Otherwise, d4, d8, d6, d12, and d20 were all on the recommended equipment list (page 5) for OD&D.

OD&D Dice List

We don’t start to get into any real noticeable differences until page 6, and they’re big ones. Page 6 of M&M covers classes, and with OD&D there were just three–Fighting-Men, Magic-Users, and Clerics.  Continuing through to page 8, we also find that OD&D also offered only four playable races–human (which the booklet refers to as “men”), elf, dwarf, and halfling. With OD&D, the Cleric class was limited to men, Magic-Users were limited to men and elves, and Fighting-Men had no limitation. One interesting item appears on the bottom of page 8 and states that players should be allowed to play at any race, including:

… a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as, let us say, a “young” one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.

Assuming a referee did keep players to just the classes and races listed in the booklet, this was extremely limiting–four possible races of Fighting-Men, two for Magic-User, and only one for Cleric. Seven variations of class and race. It should also be noted that the OD&D rules also put limitations on how far a character could progress based on race–Halflings, for example, could not progress beyond level 4 with the Fighting-Man class. Elves were also limited to level 4 for Fighting-Men, but could progress to level 8 as Magic-Users.

Referencing the 5e Player’s Handbook, players now have a total of twelve classes–Barbarian, Bard, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Ranger, Rogue, Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard. Races offer nine options–Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Human, Dragonborn, Gnome, Half-Elf, Half-Orcc, and Tiefling. While there are drawbacks to pairing certain races with certain classes, there’s nothing preventing a particular match up, so this offers 108 possible variations just with class and race. Go 5e!

Let’s now talk about Alignment for a moment. The OD&D rules only specified three options–Law, Neutrality, and Chaos. While “men” could select any option, Halflings were limited to Law and it’s interesting to note that Dwarves could select Law and Neutrality. Gnomes weren’t described as a possible race, but were grouped with Dwarves as “Dwarves/Gnomes” in the alignment listing on page 9; I hope this doesn’t upset all those Gnome fans out there who might not like that a distinction wasn’t made between the two races.

Of course, it didn’t take too many more years for D&D to mature into the current options that balance Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic with a Good and Evil twist. This hasn’t changed and 5e still uses this familiar group of options.

Note: With OD&D, characters could change classes, but it was extremely limited. An unmodified primary Ability Score of 16 or higher. Magic-Users were forbidden, however, a switch to Cleric… and vice-versa. 

Page 10 of M&M dives into Ability Scores. I began playing D&D with the Basic Set around 1979/1980, and back then character sheets listed the Ability Scores in a very specific order–Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. This order was so locked into my memory that my jump back into D&D with 5e stalled there when I first encountered it… something was wrong and I couldn’t put my finger on it until I realized that the order had changed somewhere in a previous version. I’m fine with it, but it just goes to show that even a simple list such as Ability Scores has a history if you go back far enough.

For all of you players who enjoy rolling your Ability Scores, check out this little rule from Page 10 of the M&M:

Prior to the character selection by players it is necessary for the referee to roll three six-sided dice in order to rate each as to various abilities, and thus aid them in selecting a role.

Thats right! Your DM would roll only three dice for scores (in the order of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, Dexterity, and then Charisma) and then you’d have to select a class that best fit these predetermined rolls. I have no idea how well this went over with players, but since they probably didn’t know any better, it was likely just an accepted manner for handling the task. (Can you imagine telling players these days that the DM will roll just three six-sided dice FOR THEM for each Ability Score and they are rolled and assigned to the various abilities in a SPECIFIC ORDER?)

Later versions changed this, of course, and with 5e players can choose between a few different methods for calculating Ability Scores. The most basic method lets you roll four six-sided dice, not three–and you toss out the lowest roll. Once six scores are generated, a player can then assign the values to the various abilities based on what class he or she wishes to create. The other two methods allow players to assign scores using the [15, 14,13,12, 10, 8] set OR use 27 points to “purchase” Ability Scores from a chart on page 13 of the 5e PH.

Note: Sometimes a rule in OD&D sounds pretty cool–the Charisma score, for example, defines how many hirelings a player may employ (immediately!) and even controls their loyalty to the character in question.

With OD&D, you can also see the beginnings of the Proficiency Bonus; in 5e, this is level-based, but with OD&D, there were various bonuses that could be applied to a character based on Ability Scores. For example, a “prime requisite”–the defining Ability Score for a class like Strength for a Fighting-Man–of 13 or 14 would grant a bonus 5% to an Experience Point award. A Dexterity score of 12 or higher automatically applied a +1 to all missile To Hit rolls.

Languages? While 5e offers a mix of options with each race having some specific languages it speaks by default, the OD&D linked known languages to Intelligence. For every point over 10, a new language could be selected. Also of interest, the three alignments, Law, Neutrality, and Chaos, all had their own private language that would be known to a player of that alignment.

I’m going to jump over equipment/supplies costs in OD&D and return to them shortly because I want to stay close to character development for a bit. On page 16 of M&M, players could see how the three classes could progress using Experience Points. One of the things I’ve always disliked about earlier versions of D&D (including the Basic Set and the AD&D rules I played most often) was the advancement of the various classes based on different XP values. With OD&D, each class (Fighting-Man, Magic-User, and Cleric) didn’t have level numbers; instead, they had titles. Fighting-Men, for example, didn’t start at Level 1… they began as a Veteran. With 2000 XP under his belt, a Veteran would move up to Warrior. And so on. What would be considered level 9 was called Lord, and for each 120,000XP earned beyond that the title used the “level” term–Lord 10th Level, Lord 11th Level, etc.

OD&D XP Chart

Magic-Users had 11 different titles that ended with Wizard, and then for every 100,000XP beyond that could move to Wizard 12th level and so on. Clerics had only eight titles, ending with Patriarch and additional 50,000XP increments would allow that player to advance. This might not sound so bad for Magic-Users and Clerics since they need much less XP at higher levels to move up in rank, but at lower levels it was somewhat unbalanced. A Cleric could hit the equivalent of level 5 with just 12,000XP, but a F-M was only halfway to level 5 and a M-U had just crossed the level 4 threshold.

With 5e, characters progress with a single XP chart found on page 15 of the PH. Of course, XP values cannot be compared directly. With 300,000XP in OD&D, you’d have a Wizard (11th level), but with 5e that same XP would have you 5000XP shy of level 19! This should make it obvious that XP values for monsters and other activities between the two versions also underwent a serious change somewhere along the way.

And speaking of XP–let’s visit combat. When not using miniatures, players could consult one of two tables for combat results. On pages 19 and 20, the M&M provides a simple Armor Class (AC) versus Level table with various d20 rolls needed for a hit. The first chart states it’s for “men versus men or monsters” and the second table is for “monsters versus men.” The table brought back a lot of memories for the To Hit tables I used in AD&D. Below you can find a photo of the first table–note that for Fighting-Men, the level columns are increments of 3–for Clerics it goes in increments of 4 (1-4, 5-8, etc.) and M-Us have an increment of 5. Note that a Level 16 or higher Fighter automatically hits any opponent not wearing armor up to AC6 (Leather and Shield)–a roll of 1 is pretty easy to make, right? It’s also a bit interesting that all hits do 1-6 damage (typically).

To Hit OD&D

Two charts for To Hit doesn’t seem so bad, but by the time AD&D rolled around there was a different table for each class. Sometimes more than one. But with 5e, To Hits can typically be calculated on the fly–just know the enemies AC and tally any modifiers (Proficiency, Advantage or Disadvantage, etc.) and roll the d20. Consider that no To Hit tables must be consulted to slow down the action.

Spells are sometimes treated different, so lets visit those next. With OD&D, Magic-Users only had six levels of spells spread across 70 spells. Clerics had five levels and a total of 26 spells. A rough counts shows that less than a dozen of the M-Us 70 spells are offensive in nature (dealing damage); most M-U spells in OD&D are more “supportive” in nature–Levitate, Detect Evil, Dispel Magic, Water Breathing, Remove Curse, etc…

Clerics, on the other hand, lack any offensive spells in OD&D. Where Clerics really showed their stuff was using the Versus Undead table on page 22. Here, a referee (DM) could simply consult the chart containing a column of eight different undead creatures (skeleton, zombie, ghoul, wight, wraith, mummy, spectre, vampire) and a row listing the Cleric’s rank. A T indicates a roll of two dice determining number turned. A D indicates a roll of two dice to determine number dissolved. An N means No Effect. At level 5, a Cleric was destroying zombies and skeletons almost instantly and mercilessly.

With 5e, things are quite different for M-Us and Clerics. First, the Magic-User class now consists of three–Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard–and nine spell levels. The Sorcerer class, for example, has 129 spells and cantrips spread over those 9 spell levels. A similar number of spells exist for Warlock and Wizard (with some overlaps). I’d estimate at least 50% of these spells are offensive in nature… moving the 5e M-U classes into more formidable opponents.

As for the Cleric class, they obtain the ability to turn undead at level 2–no chart is required, simply a saving throw for the creatures in question. Clerics also have nine spell levels (including level 0 cantrips) and total of 106 spells and cantrips. Most of the cleric spells are still non-offensive, but there’s still a noticeable increase from OD&D and because of their higher HP and AC, most clerics I’ve encountered so far in 5e are taking and dealing damage almost as much as the fighter classes.

I’m going to close this comparison by jumping back to the supplies/weapons/armor listing in OD&D on pages 14-15. Not only did supplies have a gold piece cost, but the OD&D rules also had an encumbrance value for these items that tended to affect movement speed only. Prices don’t have a large fluctuation between 1974 and 2014, apparently:

OD&D–dagger 3GP, Light Crossbow 15GP, Leather Armor 15GP, Shield 10GP
5e–dagger 2GP, Light Crossbow 25GP, Leather Armor 10GP, Shield 10GP

Of course, 5e D&D weapons all have different damage values (instead of the 1d6 for OD&D) and the 5e supply list (pages 145, 149-150) is longer and more detailed. For 5e, encumbrance is determined by multiplying Strength by 15. Armor and weapons (and equipment) all have weights in pounds (lb.) so it’s fairly easy to figure out when you’re approaching your limit. It’s a completely different method for dealing with encumbrance from OD&D, but it still exists after 40 years.


In addition to the items discussed above, the OD&D Volume 1 booklet contained a few pages on NPCs, crafting magic items and spells, and a chart for determining a character’s HP and spell quantities. Looking back through the book as a whole, I find it fascinating to think how little the early D&D RPGers had to go on compared to today’s books. The 5e Player’s Handbook is 320 pages alone. Squeezed onto pages 6 and 7 of Volume 1, the Fighting-Men and Cleric class descriptions each exist as no more than a single paragraph; the Magic-User class gets two paragraphs plus a small table containing costs on creating a handful of magic items. Compare this to the Cleric’s eight-page spread in the new Player’s Handbook–all in full-color, with dozens of options, starting equipment list, and more.

I don’t think early RPGers had any more imagination than they do today… I just think they had to be more creative (especially the referee/DM) when it came to customizing their characters and crafting adventures. There’s no doubt that when it came to resources, they tended to have to create it if they wanted it. With today’s mature 5e system, DMs (and players) are fortunate to have so many decades of trial-and-error experience baked into the current system. I believe it makes 5e much easier for novices to learn, and gives veteran players so much variability that they’re ensured a unique character experience.

I’ve still got a few additional books that I’m wanting to examine side-by-side with 5e, but I welcome your comments and thoughts on the evolution of D&D. Having read through these seven booklets and examined what was available to players in the early days of D&D, I must admit that I much prefer today’s 5e game. Still, I’d take out a small loan to have a chance to sit at a gaming table with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson during those whirlwind days of D&D‘s development. Those days are gone, unfortunately, but thankfully the early rules are still with us and can be enjoyed by true fans of the game.

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16 thoughts on “Original ‘D&D’ and 5th Edition, Some Side-by-Side Comparisons Part I

  1. Fabulous article! However, since you brought up spelling and grammar, “unbiased” is not hyphenated (as you did in the second paragraph). Also, in your note about Charisma, I believe you meant “employ”, not “employee.”

  2. Very cool…I haven’t gotten around to comparing my new 5th ed rules with my OD&D yet, but I remember those early gaming days when character generation was cut-throat and unapologetic (Oh, you didn’t want a magic-user? Too bad…) Of course, it wasn’t as bad as the original Traveler game, in which your charcter could actually die during character generation….

  3. Awesome article. I’m currently struggling with changing from 3.5 Ed to 5th. I would be very interested in your comparison in between these two editions.

    1. Mike, I’ll pass along your suggestion to one of our other writers who is probably MUCH more experienced with 3.5 than I am.

    1. Erik, I still view the rule books with that POV. Story trumps everything in my opinion.

  4. Fantastic article. I learned d&d from my father (now 60) and several coworkers and I currently play 3.5 and I’ve enjoyed seeing commentary on 5e that has surrounded its release.

    Great job comparing the editions, as I enjoyed the read and I’ll be pointing my friends towards this piece in particular.

    1. Thanks, Corwin. I’m planning one or two follow-ups to this one that will compare a few (or all) of the other books in OD&D. The Monsters & Treasure book (Volume II) is currently on my To Do list because it’s one of the best examples of how the early RPGers got by on so little information. It’s also a great example (I believe) of why the game fragmented into homebrew versions and why Gygax was so hot to create AD&D and lock down a set of rules. I’ll try to get that one up in the next few weeks.

  5. Excellent comparisons. I was wondering if you had any experience with the Arduin Grimoire series?

    1. Hi, Howie. My only experience with Arduin is reading about their amazing stuff. Shannon Appelcline just published a four-book series called Designers and Dragons and devoted a mass of pages to Hargrave and his creation. I loved reading about it. As with most RPGers, there’s not enough time and too many games to play. For me, there’s too much history to ever explore! (And not enough money to collect the best of it.)

  6. I started playing D&D in 1974 and cut my teeth on the original three books, so your comparison brought back fond memories. To address your point about rolling 3d6 in order for ability scores…yes we didn’t know any better! So it was fine with us. I will also point out that in OD&D stat bonuses didn’t start until 15+, so there was usually little difference between rolling an 8 in a stat or a 14. As well, really only your “prime requisite” stat mattered for your character. But what was really tough was trying to roll up a Paladin or Monk when they had some onerous stat requirements and you were rolling 3d6 in order. As I recall, for example, Paladins had a Cha requirement of 17 and some 13s and 14s thrown in for Strength and Constitution and Wisdom. As a result, maybe 1 character in 300 or 400 qualified for a Paladin. However, I can say that we always had the players roll their own 3d6 rolls. I never saw any DM (or referee) insist on rolling the players’ stats.

    As far as the lack of rules, keep in mind that the OD&D system came out well before any sort of published adventures. Dungeons were basically mazes of rooms on graph paper stuffed with monsters and treasure and traps with very little rhyme or reason. Such dungeons were often 30-40 levels deep and there was no real campaign world…just a generic “town” nearby. Take a look at some pdf copies of really old Judges’ Guild adventures to see what this was like. With dungeons being kick-in-the-door and kill things and take their stuff, you didn’t need a lot of subtle or comprehensive rules.

    When the Temple of the Frog was published with the Blackmoor supplement and the first cohesive third party scenario (Dwarven Glory) were published, most of we players of the game were agog at the way these scenarios presented logical dungeons with story and purpose.

    All this said, it was great fun, and all new and so exciting. I wouldn’t change my OD&D experience for the world.

    1. Concur with Devin re DM rolls. That was a passing early phase, quickly discarded when they realized how much everybody loved the dice.
      We also quickly realized that a random outdoor encounter could involve hundreds of opponents (a confusion of ‘in lair’ vs general encounters), so we outright refused to travel overland until we hit L3 or better. A lot of dungeons then quickly appeared nearby…
      (And gee, you didn’t think PVQ was… cohesive? lol, yeah, the first-ever premade dungeon was pretty random. Have run it lots, nevertheless, with tweaking.)

  7. >>Consider that no To Hit tables must be consulted to slow down the action.

    Funny you should mention that. Looking at that table, I can immediately tell that the base requirement to hit is (Defender)AC + d20 = 19 (Simple Algebra!). The other columns show a Level Attack Bonus of +2/+5/+7/+9/+12 (Levels 4/7/10/13/16 for fighters, 5/9/13/17/21 for clerics, 6/11/16/21/26 for magicians) that could be recorded on a character sheet. That makes it AC + LAB + d20 = 19. There are other situational bonuses, but those are the main three. How much simpler would things have been if the system was called SCORE19 instead of tables or arcane nonsense like THAC0? Tables with different level brackets and higher requirements to hit lower AC are counter-intuitive, while “Add it up and get 19+ to hit” is very simple.

    From what I saw of a (bad) transcript of the monster hit table, it operated similarly, based on hit dice. (+1 at 1HD+1, +2 at 2-3HD, +4 at 3-4HD, +5 at 4-6HD, +6 at 7-8HD, +8 at 9-10HD, +10 at 11HD+. I assume the overlaps are errors in what I read.)

    Further, both tables can have increased granularity when distilled:
    Monsters +1 at 1HD+1, +1/HD up to 10, then capped at +10. PCs could likewise be spread out to only gain +1 attack bonus at a level if desired.

    /Surely/ I can’t be the only one to have noticed this if I did so immediately.
    Also, I’ve no idea why 19 is the requirement rather than 20.

  8. Holy crap, Frank Mentzer wuz here to comment! I also saw him comment elsewhere about the differences between versions of the game—interesting stuff.

  9. I played OD&D with my high school friends every lunch hour–1977 to 1979 or so. Played in college, but could not find a group that was not overly serious. The game was a platform for creativity and fun and bonding with my friends. Yes, your character could die easily but that depended a lot on the personality of the referee. Most wanted you to succeed, but also bleed. Greyhawk was where the madness began. I still have my 3 books and 4 supplements.

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