When I got that giant box of D&D stuff in the mail, one of the first things I did (after reading the original owner's game notebook and the In Search of The Unknown module) was settle down with a random Dragon issue I'd never read before: Issue #121, from 1987.
There's a hilarious article by David "Zeb" Cook, trying to allay people's fears about the coming Second Edition. It's hilarious because, as an avid consumer of Fifth Edition previews, I find it so familiar.
Really, I do want to avoid having to do a Third Edition - at least having to repeat what I'm going through on Second Edition! The only way to do this is to build a set of core rules that can accommodate the inevitable changes and additions that will come. Just as the First Edition was not perfect, I know that new and better ideas will surface after Second Edition is done.
Our current plan is that we haven't got a plan. We are still looking at a lot of different ideas. Currently, all of them revolve around building a core set of rules that can be used by all players. One thought is that there would be two hardbound rule books — the Players Handbook and the Dungeon Masters Handbook (note the title change). These would present the core rules for the game, what everyone needs to know.
This sounds a lot like the marketing for D&D Next: the base 5e game will be very modular. We'll have core rules, and a bunch of room to add optional rules. That way, we can avoid having to do a sixth edition.
(Also, what happened to the proposed name change to Dungeon Master's Handbook? Was there public outcry against it?)
The article goes on to describe the "core" and "optional" rules in ways almost identical to the descriptions of the current new edition, except with the addition of a middle "tournament" rules tier:
TSR's attitude about official rules has changed. You know and I know that people create variants and house rules for use with the AD&D game. Trying to demand that they play only the official rules is pointless. Thats why we're planning on marking rules in the core set as "Standard," "Tournament," and "Optional." Standard rules are the absolute minimum you need to play something that is passably identifiable as the AD&D game - the races, character classes, attack rolls, etc. Tournament rules add the rules that will be normally used in any TSR-sponsored tournament. After all, in a tournament, you should be reasonably certain that you will be playing the same game as your neighbor, a useful thing to ensure fairness at a convention! Best of all, for all you tinkerers out there, the Optional rules allow you to make the game yours, filling your game with as much richness and detail as you want - weapon-based armor-class modifiers, create-your-own character classes, spell-casting times, proficiencies, casting components, and more. Optional rules are just that; if you don't like 'em, you don't use 'em.
Compare that to this Rule of Three article from 2012:
We want to put as many tools as possible in the hands of DMs and their players so they can tailor the game to their preferences. Part of this process involves providing a number of what you’ve heard us refer to as “rules modules”—that is, packages of optional or alternative rules that we have designed, developed, and playtested that help create a certain game play experience, either for a single player or the entire game table.
The second half of that process is one that should also make it easier for homemade rules modules: creating a streamlined base to the game that rules modules can be added to easily. With a clean, lean, and dependable core to the game, we hope to be able to communicate to players and Dungeon Masters what the basics of the game are, and then provide advice for designing your own material to work with that.
It actually seems like the spirit of the fifth-edition revision has more in common with the second edition than I realized.
I don't know if we can make any predictions about 5e based on the optional and tournament rules of 2e, but, for fun, I flipped open my new Second Edition PHB and found the items in the Table of Contents listed as Optional and Tournament:
Encumbrance (optional rule)
Basic Encumbrance (Tournament rule)
Specific Encumbrance (Optional Rule)
Encumbrance and Mounts (Tournament Rule)
Spell Components (Optional Rule)
Weapon Type vs Attack Modifiers (Optional Rule)
Group Initiative (Optional Rule)
Individual Initiative (Optional Rule)
Weapon Speed and Initiative (Optional Rule)
Parrying (Optional Rule)
Jogging and Running (Optional Rule)
What do you think? Will 5e's "clean, lean and dependable core" be leaner and meaner than 2e's "absolute minimum you need to play something that is passably identifiable as the AD&D game" (which core, presumably, included every rule except the ones mentioned above)?
There were a couple of other quotes in the article that I found interesting, not in relation to D&D Next, but to 2e's eventual replacement, Third Edition:
Now, 100% compatibility is just not possible. There are things that must be fixed. There are inevitable improvements and new ideas. These things are going to prevent Second Edition from being 100% compatible. Just what percent compatibility we wind up with, I can't say. Indeed, the need to keep things compatible results in us not making some changes that would only confuse the issue. Take the armor class numbering system. To many players, it does not make sense that the worst armor classes have higher numbers, and it would seem simple to change it. However, reversing the order of the armor class numbers would invalidate every AD&D game campaign and product in existence. For compatibility's sake, it is better to make no change, since this change is not worth the trouble it will cause.
Ascending AC was something that was done in the bolder rules changes of 3e. It's interesting that they were already thinking about it in 1987.
Ultimately, there will be people out there who will be playing Version 1.0, Version 1.5, Version 2.0, and probably even Version 2.3 of the AD&D game. Perhaps we should figure out some type of numbering system like that used on computer programs!
It would take this prediction 16 years to come true, with the publication of D&D 3.5.