While I thought the D&D system was rather awful when compared to the elegant and realistic system of games like Runequest and Call of Cthulhu, AD&D had two main selling points. First, it was so simple that even a high school stoner could roll up a character in the same time it would take them to roll a joint. Second, it had a level system that people loved. The idea of getting more an more powerful while playing has a tremendous appeal and the level progression system has become an essential aspect of almost all RPGs (computer and traditional).
I did try the 2nd Edition of D&D, but did not like it very much. To be rather vague, it did not have that “D&D feel.” I did try to run a game or two, but the magic was just not there.
When D&D 3.0 came out, I ended up giving it a shot. While it was a different sort of game (that is, it had fairly coherent and rather playable rules) from AD&D, it had the D&D feel. When 3.5 came out, I upgraded to that. When I heard that 4.0 was coming out, I looked forward to it. However, when I read the books and heard stories of people playing, I decided that it was not really D&D. I’m not going to go into the details, but the gist was that D&D 4.0 seemed more like a video game made into a traditional RPG. Crudely put, it was a bit like trying to play WoW as a tabletop RPG. While some folks like that, 4.0 lacks that D&D feel that is important to me. Some folks love the system, and I have no more to say against them than I have to say against folks who like Windows Vista.
I had looked at the Pathfinder beta (put out by Paizo) when it first came out, and had mixed feelings about it. However, when I actually played a campaign based on the rules, I realized that I rather liked it. The folks at Paizo took the 3.5 rules and revised them to address various weak points in the game. For example, they retooled the grapple rules from a mess to a workable system. They also revised the core classes in a way that gave players reasons to stick with one class from level one to level twenty. Best of all, they kept the D&D feel alive.
Of course, Pathfinder is not legally D&D, but rather a D20 system released in accord with the Open Gaming License. D&D was first owned by TSR, then it was bought up and it now belongs to Wizards of the Coast. WoC is, of course, owned by Hasbro.
This, as I see it, shows once more the downside of corporate ownership of such iconic entities. Since D&D is owned by a company, they can do pretty much anything they please with it and it will still legally be the D&D game. Of course, the fact that a company owns D&D does not entail that they own the “essence” of what it is to be D&D or that they are even fit to keep that essential nature going. The same sort of thing happens with movies. For example, Alien and Predator started off as cool and awesome movies. But, the corporate masters degraded the franchises into horrific parodies of their original awesomeness.
Naturally, I am not claiming that 4th Edition D&D is a horrible degradation on par with the Aliens vs. Predator movie. However, I am saying that it is unfortunate that the 4th edition D&D is the legally official D&D simply because the company making it legally owns D&D.
While Pathfinder is not legally D&D, to me it is D&D. It is, as I see it, the true spiritual successor to the Basic Edition I played all those years ago. So, I still play D&D, only the book sitting on the table in front of me says “Pathfinder.”