One of my friends likes to tease me these days when I mention D&D. Back in the days when we spent hours and hours in our FLGS chatting about games and pontificating upon the merits or flaws of different games, I had some strong opinions about D&D. Some of these I now get to hear again, directed as questions and friendly sarcasms. I think I probably deserve it.
Even though I spent a lot of money on source books and adventures for AD&D, I never played the game, but I did have a grasp of the game mechanics. I had played the AD&D computer games from SSI, so I knew how things worked. Whatever you thought of D&D, it made sense to know a bit of it considering the amount of stuff you could then pick up and salvage for other games. The diversity of things like Al Qadim, Planescape and Birthright amazed me, and I bemoaned the fact it was written for this system which I despised. Back then I usually called AD&D a "bad combat system, masquerading as a roleplaying game". In a way I still see the flaws, but some developments made me change my general attitude toward D&D
A few years back someone at WotC wrote a very immodest piece on the history of the game. It all boiled down to the fact that D&D had tried to become a generic fantasy system and until 3rd ed came around it just made the game gain weight until it was too heavy to dance to all the different tunes played. Anyone who read Planescape probably remembers all the hairsplittingly complex changes to the magic system to account for the relations between caster and differently aligned planes. All the settings seemed to have similar changes and you could tell the game was a square peg being pushed into a round hole.
Now, when 3rd edition was published we had a very different beast. With a very expressive system of skills, feats and prestige classes you could tool the game to match your setting. It was designed to do it. Because of that I still think third edition is the "best" D&D published so far. It could do whatever you wanted it to. Needless to say the author of that history piece congratulated himself and WotC for their accomplishments, which felt a bit much.
Since WotC decided to publish their new edition very cheaply I picked it up, "for reference", and was charmed. Not too long after that I had started my first D&D campaign and my friends could quote my old digs to me and wonder why I was playing a "bad combat system, masquerading as a roleplaying game"? Maybe a valid question.
I don't think that the best edition for getting a classic "D&D experience" actually has to be the third edition. Having read a bit more about the history of the game, and understood how it once was a game of pulp adventure and sword and sorcery, I now have come around and prefer the so called B/X and BECMI editions of the game. This have been a journey I've been on a few years. Now I am in the midst of the Old School Renaissance, championing Tunnels & Trolls and happily buying games like Swords & Wizardry. One thing I understand now which I didn't when I was making fun of AD&D, is that the game I saw was trying to do something it was never originally intended to do. Not so surprising if it looked like a failure.
Then we have the next step in my evolution, when I learned to love the idea of dungeons. Maybe I'll post about that at a later date.