There seems to be a lot of fuss being raised about 4th edition verses previous editions which I'm surprised to see it's still on going on strong despite 4th edition being out for, what, a year now? I remember the transition from 1st to 2nd edition being mostly viewed as positive but that could have been because the complains didn't have the same sort of forum as available today; the web still hadn't been invented yet. I think that 4th edition is mostly a positive thing but I do have many criticisms of it as well. Rather than just throwing those out there, I thought it might be interesting to look at the history of edition changes and comparing what was lost or gained with each and get a feel for contexts that has shaped the rules. I've been playing the game long enough to have experienced most of these first hand and I have a sound insight into the history of the game before my time to make this worthwhile. This is a pretty big topic and I won't go into great depth, just a few general observations. (Actually, it looks like I may split this into a few posts; it's getting a bit long.)
OD&D, 1st Ed. AD&D and BECMI D&D
For anyone who's had a chance to flip through the original D&D (OD&D) small box booklets and suppliments or the J. Eric Holmes blue box compilation of them, it's readily apparent that the rules are a mess by today's standards. The now ubiquitous character ability scores are there but it's not quite obvious why, they have little to no effect on gameplay, at least as presented in the booklets. (I have been fortunate enough to have met Gary Gagax a few times at Gen Con and asked him about this. He said in his games, he would have characters occasionally make d20 checks against their abilities but it was his view that the abilities in OD&D should mostly be ignored unless extremely high or low and thus he did not make ability checks official.) Rules lawyers and other pedants, beware! OD&D is a pretty loose game in which players and DMs have to negotiate the terms of play as they go with little help from the outside world in terms of the "correct way" of doing things. Much of it seemed like after thoughts bolted on the Gagax's earlier Chainmail miniatures rules but the role playing aspects of the game were largely unexplored territory. You might not have even gotten a table at which to sit: A friend of mine once recalled participating in an OD&D tournament at an early Gen Con where the players sat in a line of chairs facing a DM installed behind a podium. The players were not permitted to address the DM directly, they had to deliver their characters' actions to a player designated as the "Caller" who would then relate the party's intentions to the DM. One player was the chosen as the "Mapper" and had to transcribe the DM's verbal description of the environment onto a piece of graph paper; any errors in plotting out the party's trek through the dungeon were not the DM's concern. And things like maintaining balance in proper party advancement and power level? All subject to intense debate. I remember a short time as a ten year old DM when my players abandoned me for a rival DM who convinced them I was a "Monty Haul" style DM. (For the record: Lies.) In general, nobody knew what they where doing but it was fun.
I started playing in 1982. At that time, TSR was in the works of providing more structure for players and D&D had bifurcated into two distinct games, 1st edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and the D&D of the Moldvay set. (There were many reasons for this but I'm going to disregarding the copyright and royalty issues going on behind the scenes at TSR and just focus on the rule design considerations for now.) AD&D, in keeping with Gagax's rules heavy wargaming background, set out to clearly define the actions a character could undertake and indulge in what was clearly a love of charts. In short, something the rules lawyers could get behind. Moldvay's red box was a more direct continuation of the OD&D lineage.
Moldvay's rules were not just a clean up of OD&D, but new edition of lighter more unified rules that retained the spirit of OD&D in a more playable form. Moldvay's contribution was fairly short lived however as Frank Mentzer rewrote the basic box set rules in 1983. Mentzer would go on to finish what Moldvay started in what should be considered another edition of the D&D rules with his series of boxed sets. (Often referred to as BECMI D&D after the sets titles: Basic, Expert, Companion, Masters and Immortal.) As this system matured, it really began to reach the same depth of play that 1st edition AD&D had but in a more organized and accessible form. It lacked the choices AD&D offered in character creation but expanded options for character growth and development particularly for nonhuman characters and it handled its proto-prestige classes in a more streamlined matter than 1st edition AD&D's odd ball Bard. It had integrated mass warfare and domain and stronghold management rules compared to 1st Ed. AD&D's price lists for spearmen and 10' sections of stone wall. Gameplay was far more balanced across the system and levels of player advancement, something that AD&D lacked particularly after the introduction the Unearthed Arcana supplement with it's overly powerful new class choices and tacked on new rules like double weapon specialization. Neither did BECMI D&D bog down with rule that didn't really contribute much to the over all enjoyment of the game like dividing rounds into segements while worrying about spell casting times nor did it have the need to consult non-sensical charts for weapon attack modifiers against certain armor classes. (Not against armor type, but against the AC number, regardless of how the defender of obtained that number.)
The BECMI rules lived on in several reprints as the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in 1991, as the Classic Dungeons & Dragons Game in 1994 and ended in 1999 with the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game box set. Wizards of the Coasts acquisition of TSR finally put an end to that product line after years for playing second fiddle to TSR's flagship AD&D line. While it's often overlooked, the BECMI ruleset is much closer to OD&D in both rules and spirit than the current line which holds the Dungeons and Dragons title. When I read about the 1st Ed. AD&D diehards out there proclaiming the superiority of the edition it gives me a bit of a chuckle. I split my time somewhat evenly between the two concurrent systems and in hindsight I think it's not hard to argue that from a design standpoint BECMI D&D is a much more considered game. But in a way, it's perhaps the shortcomings of 1st Ed. AD&D that gives it a je ne sais quoi appeal as if the rules that aren't there capture the spirit of OD&D better than the rules that are.