From what I've read, despite the style changes, balance changes and the retooling of several mechanics... they will have similar depth and lend themselves to similar sorts of games.
I used to be a big fan of 3e, but now I've started leaning away from it. It's too complicated for my taste. 4e will be complicated too, I think. Just read them both and pick the one that suits you better. If you're looking for a truly dense system that harkens back to older games, 3.5 might suit you. If you want a new brand of fantasy and rules leaning more towards tactics than simulation, 4e sounds like the ticket.
Personally, I won't buy 4e, and will probably never play 3e again, despite it being my favorite version for the longest time. I switched to Mentzer BECM D&D and never looked back.
We have been playing 1e for the past 6 months and honestly. Why the freak did they change it? It's an awsome system. From what I can tell all the changes they did make in 4e was to put it back closer to what the first game was.
They're both good. 3.5 has the D&D "flavor" more than 4. The problem is that a lot of that flavor came from the addition of rules and exceptions that could bog things down dramatically. I've had the opportunity to see the 4e PHB and the rules are much easier to keep in mind. It seems as though there are fewer corner cases and special rules to remember.
So if you're new to D&D, I'd go with 4e. Most of the complaints I see are how 4e is deficient in the "D&D essence", something that you wouldn't miss. Whereas the streamlined rules are something you would definitely appreciate.
You do not give enough information to answer the question for you...
4e is targeted to a younger crowd, and from what I have seen is a simpler system, and fairly combat oriented.
3.0/3.5 has the advantage of being well tested (and to be clear, to the folks that say the rules of 4e are better, I say, wait until you try it out... there never was and never will be a perfect system) and is designed with a more classic feel to the game.
If you are really new to the hobby, your best bet might be to find a group playing near you and do what they are doing. This is not a solo hobby after all! :)
Another advantage to 4e is you are getting in on the ground floor and have a really good opportunity to get all the books as they come out. It might be hard to find some of the gems from the previous system. (check eBay for a copy of the big Ptolus book for example... a 3.0 goodie that is nearly impossible to find)
But at the same time, because of the new edition there is a lot of quality supplements to be had for really good prices. You can instantly build a really nice gaming library for not nearly what you might pay for new 4e books.
What am I doing? Neither actually... :) There is a great company called Paizo ( http://paizo.com/paizo ) that is releasing a game called Pathfinder that fixes some of the 3.0/3.5 problems and is creating a really dynamic exciting game.
A lot of people in the industry are really excited about this. It has the best of both worlds. It is a cleaned up version of the older rules that retains the classic flavor. It is just starting so you really can get all the books if you so desire. You also have a wealth of material that is a bit older that is compatible.
Better than both those of these editions though... They are letting you download the test versions of the manual for free! They are asking for you to playtest so it is the game you want it to be. There is a very vibrant and helpful community built around these products. Paizo really treats its customers well and this combined with the quality of their products will quickly sell you.
With the adventures already published I have to say honestly, this is the best stuff I have seen for the game... ever! Take a look around that site, download the free manuals. The adventure Hollows Last Hope is also a free download, so you put down no money on a chance to try the best version of Dungeons and Dragons I have ever played.
I hope this helps, and that you have many years enjoyment in the hobby, whatever edition you decide on. I hope to see you at the gaming table. ;)
I would suggest you start with 4E. Not only is the system much cleaner, it plays better at the table. Most importantly, though, you would be coming in at the edition's start and it would be easier for you to pick up any optional books as they come out. The rules are well thought out and well written and aren't cluttered like the 3E rules are at this point. 4E is fast paced, exciting, fun, and easy to run if you end up being the DM. My gaming group stopped playing DnD completely with 3E and we've started playing again now that 4E has come out.
But, as someone suggested, unless you already have a group of players to play with (ideal), your best bet would be to see what local groups in your area are playing and join up to get the feel for things. If you have a choice, though, 4E, especially at this point in time, is a great choice.
Start with 4E and ignore the hardcore dweebs (you get them in every hobby) that will give you dozens of obscure reasons (in posts that span multiple pages) on why anything other than the books created before 3E is not worth a look. At the end of the day, if you like the game and enjoy playing it during your free time that's all that matters.
It is a great place to start to get yourself immersed in the game and get comfortable in the mechanics. If you happen to become interested in the earlier versions afterwards, more power to you. Just down fall into the cabal of losers with too much time on their hands that complain that they are being "forced" to give up their characters and "hard-earned" cash for a new system that doesn't conform to their perfect view of DnD.
For someone that has no preconceived ideas or expectations, go with the 4E. There is no past for you to reference and compare with so there really is no added room for disappointment. The 4E rules are designed for simplicity of use and ease of learning.
Every edition has brought changes. In the beginning an elf was an elf, a dwarf a dwarf. Only humans had class(es). Then Advanced came along and the other races could take classes, but only humans could be paladins, barbarians hated magic, cavaliers ruled everything, and oriental adventures was a great expansion.
Then came 2E addition. Humans still held the coveted "only race that can be paladins" title, there were rules for creating your own classes, handbooks arrived to add diversity ( and the subsequent apology from the guy who created Elven Bladesinger kit), the Oriental Adventures merged with the Forgotten Realms, and dwarven clerics could do 350 point of damage a round at first level with darts thanks to a "typo" in the stupid points and powers book.
This was followed by 3.0 which promised us diversity (and partially delivered), dropped the word "Advanced" from the game title. ditched the evil of THAC0, restructured ability scores, completely changed the skill system, added feats, returned barbarians and monks to core class status, now even orcs could be paladins, and humans where given great reasons to be played.
And close behind that was 3.5 which was basically an apology and a bunch of fixes to 3.0. No plot survives the players and neither does a flawed system which, despite it's nice advancements, 3.0 really was. 3.5 turned Dwarves into the little tanks they always were meant to be, you still wanted to throttle the elf in the party after they scolded you for using fire magic in the forest, races with special equipment could actually use it without wasting feats, and humans still rocked. It also gave us splat books which hoovered the money straight out of our wallets while giving new rules that countermanded existing rules which then required errata to clarify, and finally gave us that last good kick in the rear with the release of the rules compendium...after they announced 4E.
So now we have 4E that is streamlined for quicker combats (an idea I appreciate), gives race more meaning then "what do I get at creation" (an idea I appreciate), revamps the abilities to per encounter instead of per day (an idea I appreciate), Gnomes have been briefly sidelined as monsters (an idea I don't fully understnd, but expect to have fixed with the Forgotten Realms material), and it gets rid of XP loss (an idea I truly and whole-heartedly appreciate). No more suffering to buff the rest of your party for the casters of the group.
I bring this up for those that complain that 4E lacks the D&D essence. The essence is not in the rules system. It never has been. The rules are the structure that hold the game together, but the essence of the game is the players. Will 4E be perfect? Probably not. Will it still be D&D, of course it will. We are still D&D players and rules changes doesn't change how we role-play. Elves will still find Dwarves stoic and taciturn. Dwarves will still find Elves obnoxious and poncy. Etc...etc...etc...
3.5 was a broken RPG with heavy board game elements, 4th is a functional board game with heavy RPG elements. 4th works much worse if you're focusing on the roleplaying aspects of the game, but then again if you wanted to do that, DnD would be a terrible choice of a system. So I have to recommend 4th, but you should note that I have yet to play it.
3.5 my a mile right now. But, I will admit I've only glanced at the Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide, and have not read the whole Player Handbook yet. But right now, this is to RPGs what McDonald's is to prime rib. They've taken a great system, 3.5, and whittled it down to the equivalent of selling tourists the maps to stars' homes in Beverly Hills. Multiclassing has been all but eliminated and the wizard and cleric are shadows of their former selves. Anyone who thinks a fighter being able to heal 66 hit points damage to himself (with the human fighter I've rolled up that's what I got) is D&D, they're wrong. Clerics heal. Fighters break things. Roles are confused, classes have been emasculated... generally, it's just junk. I gave it 2 stars in my review, but half a star of that is for the art, and most of THAT's not the greatest.
I would go with Pathfinder, myself. It's under OGL, meaning anyone can publish for it, and 4e is under GSL, which is extremely restrictive and most good 3rd party companies don't like. Wizards don't write very good material themselves, and most of it more expensive than other companies. Pathfinder can be found at http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG
For Brandon Phillips post: I don't know why this was listed as unhelpful. It gives the person asking for help another POV to look at and see if maybe he'll want to play 1E. I personally think it's old and outdated, but nevertheless, it is an option.
To Henrik: Why would you post a review dumping on a system you have yet to play? Play it first, and then come out with a review that reflects on your time playing, not that reflects reviews that you have read. That's plaigarism, not writing a review.
What I would recommend is joining a gaming group with members who will help you though both systems. If you have a gaming store in your area they might be able to recommend one or check the web for a Science Fiction or Gaming Club in your area that offers gaming as an activity. Several colleges in my area have gaming clubs.
Since 4e is so new (I've only played it once but I loved it, that is if my dice would have rolled better) but I've played 3.5 since it's been out and I like that as well. With all the changes I'm hesitant to recommend one system over the other.
As I said find a good gaming group with people who are willing to help you learn the systems.
E.P. Christianson was wrong about 1e, actually it wasn't the original, and it wasn't actually quite right itself.
The thing is, 3e and 4e won't break up with you if you play the other one! It's not a marriage or even dating. Just find a group, find out how much time & money you'll need to invest. (Snacks, studying rules, buying books, whatever; it varies from group to group.) Play what they're playing and repeat any or all of the above steps as needed!
That said, I borrowed some 4e books, read them, and shrugged. I thought they made 4e because they regretted putting the d20 system on OGL, because the really good supplements for 3e were by other companies. (Sword and Sorcery, a company by Gygax, put out monster manuals that were awesome reading even if you weren't going to play the game.) [ But actually that's not true, it's probably because when you have a company that has a crew of game inventors on payroll, they're going to eventually want to invent a new game. Not that I can figure out why! ;-) ]
For me, the rules need to excite me, as well as being accessible. 4e failed, so unless somebody else is going to set up a game, I'm not playing or paying.
Sorry for the last minute post but you might want to drop in on Hypericon this weekend
Hypericon is a speculative fiction convention held yearly in June in Nashville, Tennessee. Hypericon is presented by Frontiers-Nashville, a non-profit organization dedicated to the support of the fannish community and all their myriad interests. Some of the activities during the convention include role-playing games, live action roleplaying, filmmaking panels, a room party competition, late night dances, art show and dealers' room, the masquerade, and a hospitality suite.