The 10 Most Important D&D Expansions, Ranked

Dungeons and Dragons has been around for nearly 50 years, and its roots go back even further. Since the beginning, it has remained a dynamic game, with new editions released every few years to expand on what worked and tweak what didn’t.

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Every edition of d&d has brought something new to the table, and each has divided the fanbase to one extent or another. Looking at the history of D&D’s editions can be a fun way to examine how the current form of the game came to be, and can be an opportunity to examine which d&d darlings should remain and which ones the game might be better off without.

10 Chainmail’s Fantasy Laid The Groundwork


The second-edition rules for Chainmail, the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons

The earliest important d&d supplement actually predates the game itself. chain mail was a miniatures game written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, first published in 1971. It featured medieval armies battling it out, but it featured a 14 page supplement for using other kinds of figures, like superheroes, elves, and wizards. It was inspired by fantasy writers like JRR Tolkien and Poul Anderson, and a later expansion introduced individual character combat. These pieces would eventually be used by Gygax and a handful of others to build a new fantasy game, this time fully focused on a small group of heroes fighting valiantly against the forces of evil.

9 Original D&D Started It All


dnd original three little booklets

Dungeons and Dragons as it is known today really got started in 1974 with the publication of three slim booklets. It included concepts that would be foundational to not only d&d but to video games and other roleplaying games for decades to come, including the six ability scores, character race and class, armor class, and dungeon delving. Original Dungeons and Dragons, as it is known today, it was written under the assumption that players were already familiar with Chainmail’s rules. OD&D is a tough game to get ahold of today, and its rules are quite different from modern games. That being said, it marked the beginning of what would be a long journey.


8 Basic And Advanced Marked A Split


The Dungeons Master's Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game

After the success of the first release, D&D’s publisher TSR implemented a two-fold approach to d&d that would define future releases for nearly 20 years. In 1977, the original rules were cleaned up, edited, and somewhat simplified into the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, intended to be sold at toy stores. At the same time, a more complicated version of the game, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, was published in hardcover.

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Although this split has since been reversed, the existence of quick-start rules is a practice that has continued. The big difference was that the two versions of the game were made by different teams and were largely incompatible. One of AD&D’s biggest additions to the game’s legacy was the three core rulebooks, the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide.


7 AD&D 2nd Edition Tried To Placate Detractors


adnd 2e players handbook

While the BASIC line stuck to its roots, the Advanced line branched out significantly. With these forays into new mechanical and narrative space came a heap of unwanted attention. References to demons and devils, playable evil characters like assassins, and some sexually subjective artwork became quite controversial amidst the Satanic panic of the 1980s, and AD&D 2nd Edition sought to remove some of the more objectionable content in the game. It moved away from the pulpy, sword-and-sorcery influence of the previous versions in favor of a more mythological tone, and introduced the beginnings of several mechanical ideas that would be important for years to come. Spells were, for the first time, divided into categories like schools and spheres, and characters gained proficiencies outside of their weapons, a system that would eventually become the skill list.


6 3rd Edition Rewrite The Formula


dnd player's handbook 3rd edition

After nearly two decades of publishing two different d&d lines, TSR found itself nearly bankrupt. In 1997, it was purchased by the RPG publisher Wizards of the Coast, who themselves were acquired by toy giant Hasbro just two years later. This shift was monumental for d&d, as it marked its shift from being a game published by a relatively small team to a major brand.

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In 2000, after a three-year development cycle, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. This game merged the old BASIC and Advanced lines back together into a single game and nearly overhauled the whole thing. The structure was essentially rebuilt from scratch around the new d20 system, a framework they eventually released as open-source.


5 3.5 Outshone Its Predecessor


dnd monster manual 3.5

Though it is nominally a simple expansion and clarification of 3rd Edition, Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 is a lot more in practice. Released just three years after 3rd Edition, 3.5 made hundreds of small rules changes and expanded the previous game in lots of little ways. It added dozens of spells, altered the newly introduced skill system, and made changes to nearly every class’s core features. 3.5 is interesting in retrospect in that it has largely eclipsed its predecessor completely. When people refer to “third edition,” they are probably talking about 3.5. Despite essentially setting the game on its current trajectory, 3rd Edition is completely overshadowed by the revised edition released just three years afterwards.


4 4th Edition Was Highly Controversial


First announced in 2007, 4th Edition is undoubtedly D&D’s most controversial version. It was another full rewrite from the ground up, though arguably not quite as drastic as the move from AD&D to 3rd Edition. It represented an attempt to streamline gameplay, make it faster and more intuitive, and make it easier for new players to pick up. This was accomplished by standardizing every class’s structure, each of them relying on a list of at-will, encounter, and daily powers. 4e drove a large split in the fandom, with many players jumping ship to the newly released Path Finder, a game that positioned itself as a spiritual sequel to 3.5.




3 Essentials Rethought The Powers System


dnd essentials book

Though not officially billed as such, the Essentials line was something like D&D 4.5. Essentials books were released in hard and softcover, and represented both brand new classes, like the assassin and the vampire, and reworks of the classic classes.

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Rather than using the original power system, Essentials classes usually had far fewer powers. Fighters, for instance, had a small handful of powers they could tack on to their basic attacks. the Essentials line has largely faded into history thanks to 4e‘s poor reputation, but it is an important chapter in D&D’s history when looking to what might be coming next.


two 5th Edition Has Gone Gangbusters


Cover art for D&D Fifth Edition's Player's Handbook

Announced in 2012, 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons went through a lengthy and very transparent playtesting process. Under the title D&D Next, designers used online forums to collect feedback from over 75,000 playtesters. This process took two years, which allowed the final version of the game to be released in 2014, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of D&D’s release. 5th Edition has been wildly successful, thanks in part to its attempts to recapture players who left when 4th Edition changed the formula. In 2019, d&d had a 300% increase in sales of its introductory box sets, indicating an enormous boom in new players as well.


1 The Coming 50th Anniversary Expansion


In September of 2021, Wizards of the Coast announced they were working on a backward-compatible new version of the original three core rulebooks, to be released on the 50th anniversary in 2024. They stressed that this was not the introduction of a new edition, but rather a “new evolution.” As evidenced by 3.5 and Essentials, this kind of release has happened in both of WotC’s previous versions of the game, so it has precedence. Whether this new version will completely outshine 5th Edition, like 3.5 did to 3rd Edition, or whether it will be a fully compatible retooling, like Essentials, or maybe something entirely different, remains to be seen.

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