Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Praise of D&D III

One of the more absurd bits of misinformation I've seen mentioned in reference to myself is that I hadn't been playing D&D for many years prior to Gary Gygax's death in March 2008, the implication being that my current love affair with OD&D is, at best, a passing fancy or, at worst, a put-on. The truth of the matter is that, as I've explained here numerous times, Dungeons & Dragons is my perennial roleplaying game. Since I first entered the hobby in late 1979, I've gone through several periods during which I dropped D&D for a time, sometimes in disgust at some aspect of it, but I've always returned to it later, often with a better understanding of just why I so strongly enjoy it.

My longest stretch of not playing D&D occurred during the 2e era. Between about 1996 and 2000, I didn't play D&D at all, after having been involved in a long-running campaign since Summer 1992. The end of that campaign was partially due to external factors, but a good part of it was unhappiness with the way TSR was shepherding the game. Even the best D&D products of the 90s have an "autumnal" feel about them -- brightly colored leaves whose beauty signalled the inevitable coming of winter. And the latter half of the 1990s definitely was a "winter" for D&D, at least as far as I am concerned. I gave up playing the game entirely and might well have never returned to it at all had it not been for a wholly unexpected turn of events.

That turn of events occurred in 2000. At the time, I was writing for the now-defunct InQuest magazine and was given the opportunity to produce an article on the then-upcoming Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons from Wizards of the Coast. As part of my research for the article, WotC sent me a large number of playtest files for the game, including the entirety of the Player's Handbook. I was initially quite unenthusiastic about the assignment, but, reading through the files WotC sent me, I slowly found myself becoming rather impressed with the way that my favorite game of old had been given a revamp. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to start a D&D III campaign once I was given the OK to share the files with my friends, several months before the game was released. I was thus what you'd call an "early adopter" of 3e.

And so it was that I was reunited with my first love, thanks to Wizards of the Coast. Lest anyone find this implausible, let me reassure you that, from the first, there were things I disliked about D&D III -- the unified XP table, ascending AC, and, most of all, its obsession with "balance." I learned to live with the first two and simply ignored the other one, running the game the way I'd run 1e and 2e in the past. Unsurprisingly, I had few problems with this approach. Indeed, it was remarkably easy to use old materials with the new edition; hardly any conversion was necessary.

was what I found most impressive about the new edition, actually: though it was clearly rebuilt from the ground up, the old foundations were still there, as were a myriad of little details. I once did a comparison of spell descriptions from OD&D through 3e and what's amazing is just how much continuity there is, not just in conception but even in verbiage. D&D III contains a surprising amount of Gygaxian text -- not mere echoes of his words but the actual words themselves. That's why, for me, despite the dropping of the word "advanced," I still look on Third Edition as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. There's simply too much continuity, both mechanically and, especially, flavor-wise to think differently.

This isn't to suggest, by any means, that 3e is the game Gary would have written had he retained control over the game into the 21st century. Given the direction he was already taking the game in the late 1e era, I'm not certain I would necessarily have enjoyed what he'd have done with latter day AD&D anyway. But I think it's important to point out that, for all the clear deviations from what had come before, D&D III still recognizably possesses Gygaxian "DNA." I thought that in 2000 and I still think that now, after several years of examining and playing the original game. This is an undeniable truth, as anyone who's used the 3e-derived D20 SRD to retro-clone old school rules can tell you. If there weren't a lot of similarity between D&D III and its predecessors, games like OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord would have been impossible.

Which brings me to another important point: the Open Game License and SRD. Together, these two things "freed" D&D forever, making most of its core concepts and ideas the property of us all. Looking back now, a decade later, as piles of D20 shovelware clogs up bookshelves and (no doubt) landfills across the world, it's hard to remember just how amazing things felt back then. To a lot of us, it felt, if only briefly, like we were on the cusp of a new Golden Age, one where gaming was every bit as vibrant, varied, and imaginative as it had been back in the heady times of my youth. Sure, there was a lot of junk being made, but there was also a lot of amazing product being released and, best of all, shared. For several years, it was 1979 again, at least for me, and I'm glad I got to experience that.

But it was no new Golden Age but rather a Gilded one. The advent of v.3.5 -- even its self-designation is awful -- presaged a shift in tone, content, and business plan that slowly lost me. I continued to play D&D, of course; I was involved in two very lengthy campaigns, including the continuation and conclusion of the one I'd begun in early 2000. I had a lot of fun and my love for D&D had been successfully reignited. And thank goodness for that, because, if my love had not genuinely returned, I probably would have again dropped the game, thanks to the endless churn of splatbooks, rules expansions, and increasingly ridiculous material WotC was producing in the wake of v.3.5. I stopped buying D&D books entirely and felt ever more strongly that many of the things I first disliked back in 2000, particularly the obsession with balance, would be the death of what was, at its roots, a very good iteration of Dungeons & Dragons.

During 2006-2007, I started casting about for alternatives, a path that ultimately led me to where I am today. Had things been different, had D&D IV not shed its Gygaxian heritage and fixed the things I actually thought were wrong with 3e, I might well have never taken up OD&D. Consequently, I feel I owe a debt of thanks to D&D III, first, for having restored my love for D&D and, second, for having taught me what it was I loved about it in the first place. Without 3e, I probably would never have played Dungeons & Dragons again at all. And while I now look back on it as a game I would never choose to play again if other alternatives are available, I cannot say it was a bad game. It's a game with some serious flaws, chief being its balance fetish, but I enjoyed it for quite a few years and whose design does more than pay lip service to the game's past.

So, here's a tip of the proverbial hat to Third Edition.


  1. I like 3rd edition, never played 3.5. After finally reaching 10th level, over a nearly 10 year long campaign, I can say that the combat gets verrrrry long. That's it's chief downside.

    Minor things I don't like are the skills, which eliminate a lot of opportunities for player innovation, since it all boils down to a roll of the dice in a skill you may not have many points in. I also mourn the loss of save-or-die poison. There's just no worries about getting poisoned anymore - it's just a few hit points lost.

    It's pretty much D&D with feats & skills pasted on, and works pretty well, aside from hours-long combats.

    4th edition, the game designers decided they could "do better" and rewrote the game from scratch. I don't think you can reasonably call it D&D, it has so little resemblance to what came before.

  2. I didn't play D&D for around five years, got excited at the news of a 3rd edition, purchased the books and played it from 2000 until 2005. Right after that, it was all Old School, but you're right: 3rd Edition revitalized the hobby.

  3. Since older editions of D&D use a roughly quadratic XP formula in their leveling tables, separating them by class really only matters in the first few levels. As a campaign progresses, PC levels should clump together given any typical spread of XP awards, making the variation among leveling rates much less meaningful. And if you aren't concerned with fine-tuning "balance" between the classes anyway, then you might as well consolidate the tables for ease of use (IMHO).

    In light of these facts, I think keeping supposedly different rates of advancement is one of the few cases where tradition and nostalgia are primary motivators. Of course, there's always an opportunity cost involved in adding house rules to a campaign, so keeping the tables in order to be "by-the-book" isn't unreasonable, but I'd use a unified XP table in any edition of D&D, especially if new players are involved.

  4. You're still not a "true historian" of the early TSR days. ;-)

  5. I also hadn't played D&D for a few years prior to 2000, but I had basically the opposite reaction to 3rd edition. I bought the three core books as soon as they were released, sat down and read them all through, and then actually laughed out loud at the idea that I would ever actually run or play that thing. I hated 3rd edition thoroughly and comprehensively with a sense of revulsion that continues to this day. I got rid of the books on Ebay within a week and never supported WOTC with any more purchases of anything, nor will I ever run or play anything they publish. I despised 3rd edition that much.

  6. Thanks for sharing the memories James. For me the biggest thing about 3rd edition was the OGL and the abundance of material it encouraged. Since I have never played any version of D & D, all of it is just resource material for Dragonquest. Real life kept me away from much material during the 2nd edition era, but I did end up buying a lot of Starjammer & Planescape stuff just to read. 3rd edition ushered in a lot of new magic colleges, professions and skills to Dragonquest.

  7. Interesting, James, my D&D history is somewhat similar. I started in '79 as well and ended up quitting for a while around the time of 2E. This was in part due to life circumstances, but also the way TSR dealt with my hero Gary Gygax. I got back into the game with 3E and indeed stuck around for 3.5E (because my friends bought me the books). I also feel the third edition has the flavor and feel of D&D despite having qualms with some of the iterations of the rules. Having said that, our group still uses 3.5E as our D&D ruleset and I doubt we will go back to an older edition (or a clone thereof). Most of our group is happy enough, and I have found a release for my grognardian ways with a 1E Gamma World campaign.

  8. Agreed 100%, James. An excellent entry with excellent observations about the game.

  9. It's funny, as I was first brought in to the hobby through AD&D 2e, and being the newb that I was, I think 3e was just like 2e, only better (heck, it was a higher number!). After player in a 3e campaign for two years without any fun, I quit, and ran a highly successful AD&D 2e game.

    I later tried my hand at running a 3e campaign, and it failed miserably in the first session. I gave away my 3e books the next week to another player.

    I still love old D&D, and was pretty "meh" over 4e, but I'm starting to get in to the Essentials line that is coming out. It's certainly not the "same" D&D; but to me, neither is BECMI/LL D&D, or LotFP. They are all different nuances of the same basic game, and I must say, I am getting rather fond of this variety.

  10. Really? Really, James?

    If any WOTC-era game owes anything in its actual functions to AD&D it's 4e.

  11. Third Edition did much the same thing for me. I'm sure that without it, I probably wouldn't have gotten back into gaming either. I think the SRD was the BEST thing that has occured for the hobbyist gamer since the early TSR/Judges Guild days. The offerings of the 90's just felt like a wasteland for gaming to me. I might not agree with all of the choices made by the 3e team, but it felt like a corner was turned.

  12. You will be unsurprised that I mostly agree. I thank 3e for helping me understand what I want from D&D by giving me what I thought I wanted. Indeed, the fact that I used to call (A)D&D "too combat oriented" is hard to believe in the face of what it became in 3e. ^_^

    So many of us trod such similar paths here. This is--I believe--what puts the "renaissance" in OSR. Yes, there are grognards who never stopped playing classic D&D or AD&D--who "got it" the first time, but a lot of us have found our appreciation for the older games through having earnestly tried many of the alternatives.

  13. Its strange that I personally mirrored your experience nearly the same, from late 2e to 3e then fell away at 3.5, only to find a rejuvenation from the OSR.

    Funny how these common threads work out.

  14. Yeah... I don't get that comment from Rach's Reflections. 4E is so far from the origins of AD&D that if you took a person who had never seen a 2E or 3E/3.5E book and then showed them a 4E rulebook with the D&D name obscured, I doubt they'd recognize it as the same game.

    I started playing around '81 or '82 with Moldvay Basic and AD&D (we didn't know at the time that you weren't supposed to combine them), and, like James, had a LONG absence from the game from about 1989 until 2001. I actually purchased a lot of 2E stuff to read but never played or ran a campaign during that time.

    When 3E came out, a bunch of us got together to play, and two of those campaigns are still going strong. I actually still like the system. We've successfully converted our campaigns to Pathfinder but everyone seems happy. We like the customization and the skills and feats and the unified XP tables and ascending AC. None of that bothers us.

    But, thanks to this blog, we've also gotten back into some "Old School" play and are currently playing through "Expedition to the Barrier Peaks" using OSRIC. It's a blast!

  15. It strikes me that while the OGL effectively opened D&D to the world, it ultimately killed D&D at WoTC. After the OGL experience WoTC decided that going back to tighter control and separating the D&D product from the now-open roots was the way to profit.

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  17. [removed the previous post due to typos]

    3e felt more old school to me than 2e, despite the differences in mechanics. Half-orcs were back, assassins were back, and dungeon crawling was re-embraced. Hell, by many of the current definitions, my current 3.5 campaign is more old school than my AD&D games ever were.

  18. I ran D&D in middle and high school with 2E, with 3E coming out the summer after I graduated. My new college buddies and I (who are still the guys I game with) started up a 3E game, ran by our group's main GM. He hadn't been too much into D&D, or fantasy in general, but he had a blast running it. It lasted nearly a year, which is pretty long for our attention span. There were a lot of house rules, to the point that some people might think we were 'doing it wrong' - biggest one being, level-ups were done much more arbitrarily, when we were ready to 'fight tougher stuff' - but we had fun. Personally, though I'm sure there are 4E people who will dispute this, it feels like 4E just doesn't leave enough room for a DM to change up his game.

    We'd stopped playing long before 3.5 came around the bend, but I was a bit sour about what I saw - attempting to jury-rig something to hold together what felt like a critical mass of extra classes and rules. Admittedly, my biggest complaint about 4E is more a matter of aesthetics, and I've recently discovered that the roots of that shift in tone and theme started during 3.5 (and were supported by Paizo - see the execreble 'Savage Tide' Adventure Path - which is why I have no interest in Pathfinder).

    But, yeah, I'll agree that 3rd Ed. was fun, but squandered its promise in several ways, eventually going off the rails. The few times we've tried 4E, we had fun, but in a board game kinda way, and never really had an interest in continued play. I'm actually going to be playing in a 4e beer-and-pretzels game tonight, which might involve the 'Essentials' rules, so we'll see if maybe I'm wrong about it.

    Oh, and one last thing - quick shout-out to Inquest! My best friend in Middle and High School had a subscription in the late Nineties, and I was a big fan. Among other things, it was the first place I got to hear about guys like Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, and Elric, so I owe it for that, even if there were a few too many Pokemon covers.

    Word Verification - Sishazom, which is awesome.

  19. This really resonates with me. I too abandoned D&D during 2nd Edition's reign, and when 3E came out I was instantly curious, wondering what had become of the game. I wondered if the game had been able to shed any of the aspects of 2E that had caused me to leave the game behind. I never actually played by 3.0/3.5 rules, but I certainly used it as part of my house rulings when I gamed again. Ultimately, it did for me what it did for you: brought me back to the game...even if I never really played that version. And like you, I will be eternally grateful to 3E for that!

  20. This post is spot-on.

    WotC absolutely revitalized the moribund AD&D, and if it wasn't for their efforts, which were obviously and genuinely made out of love for RPGs and for the D&D their staff started with, D&D would only exist now in the hands of the older generation of gamers; and only a small subset of us would be playing it.

    Most of the retro-clones directly owe their existence to WotC's love for the game and desire to see more people playing it. And (arguably) their generosity in allowing the OGL to be interpreted in such a way that it covers rules much closer to OD&D in form than to 3E.

    In disagreement with Rachel, I personally think 4E draws as much from RC, Mentzer & Moldvay D&D as it does from AD&D, and that 3E is the obvious descendent of AD&D. 3E is very much akin to AD&D, but fleshed out, rationalized, and systematized. In 4E there's a clear drive for simplicity and a greater relation to wargames.

    Obviously both games are complicated by the layers of additional "support"/detail that the nature of being in the publishing industry more or less forces them to endeaver upon.

    Many grognards dislike and disagree with the design choices WotC has made for 3E and 4E. Some of them are so passionate in their love for the old and antipathy for WotC's designss as to use words like "hate" and "revulsion". Posters on Dragonsfoot use acronyms for The Edition That Shall Not Be Named & The Abomination That Shall Not Be Named.

    All that said, and their feelings not discounted, they are in error when they attribute ignoble motives to the designers at WotC. And even they, even the ones who have managed to keep an ongoing game of an older edition since the pre-3E days, owe a debt to WotC for the renewal of interest in D&D and for the emotion and impetus WotC has given them too, even if it is a reaction to their dislike of 3E & 4E, and a determination to show the fun of and expand the appreciation of older D&D.

  21. P.S. Also, the art for 3E and the design of the books were a breath of fresh air for me. For the most part I hated the art for 2nd Edition. Tom Baxa's work, in particular, I found to be horrible (IMHO). And just the fact that the 3E books were in color was a huge thing for me as well!

  22. "Since older editions of D&D use a roughly quadratic XP formula in their leveling tables, separating them by class really only matters in the first few levels. As a campaign progresses, PC levels should clump together given any typical spread of XP awards, making the variation among leveling rates much less meaningful."

    The only version of the rules I have with me at the moment is Labyrinth Lord (which is of course a B/X clone) so I'll use those numbers.

    At 10,001 XP a cleric is 4th level with a little way to go to get to 5th. A dwarf, fighter, or halfling is 4th level with a fair way to go to get to 5th. An elf is 3rd level and still needs quite a few points to get to 4th. A magic user has just barely reached 4th level and has a long way to go to get to 5th level. A thief has just barely reached 5th level and has a long way to go to get to 6th.

    At 100,001 XP a cleric or thief is 8th level. A fighter, halfling, or dwarf is 7th level and has a fair way to go to get to 8th. A magic user is 7th level with a long way to go to get to 8th. An elf is 6th level with a long way to go to get to 7th.

    The spreads of levels (three) is the same in both cases, and the relative levels of the different classes is nearly so. At 12,501 and 100,001 they are exactly the same.

    "In light of these facts, I think keeping supposedly different rates of advancement is one of the few cases where tradition and nostalgia are primary motivators."

    To reach "name level" (9th) a cleric needs 200,001 XP. A dwarf needs 280,001. An elf needs 400,001. A fighter needs 240,001. A magic user needs 300,001. A thief needs 160,001. Thus the thief needs the least, a cleric needs 25% more than a thief, a fighter needs 50% more than a thief, a dwarf or magic user needs almost double what a thief needs, and an elf needs two and a half times what a thief needs to reach ninth level. Maybe it's just me, but that seems like a pretty big difference to just shrug off as irrelevant nostalgia. 240,000 XP (the additional amount an elf needs compared to a thief to reach name level) is a lot of monsters killed and treasures seized. And by the time the elf achieves this, the thief will be 11th level. When the elf reaches his maximum level of 10th at 600,001 XP, the thief will be 12th level and well on his way to 13th. The different in the rate of advancement between the two classes remains about two levels until the elf maxes out.

    I don't have my first edition books with me, but the cleric, thief, fighter, magic user, and elf (assuming the elf is a fighter/magic user) have about the same rate of advancement in those rules. If anything, the multiclassed elf advances a bit more slowly. Dwarves and halflings actually get treated a little more favorably, assuming they don't multiclass, because they still have racial abilities not shared by human fighters but advance at exactly the same rate. I think this is why no one ever plays a human fighter in my AD&D campaigns - they either play a dwarf fighter or a ranger.

    So basically I would disagree on two counts: the difference in rate of advancement in older editions is real, not supposed, and it remains more or less constant through name level rather than becoming irrelevant at higher levels.

  23. I am a DFer who only ever uses TETSNBN out of respect for the fact that 3e is mostly off-topic there. And because I find it funny. I still like 3e and still happily play it. (I'm just unlikely to ever DM it again w/o major house-ruling, which may be more trouble than it's worth.)

  24. It must be our ages, but my experience was roughly similar. I was so burned out on *D&D by 1994 or so that I gave up on it. I bought Ravenloft materials, but that was it really. I was ready to quit it completely till I was also given a set of the play test rules for 3.0. It was February and 3.0 was out that later September and I was there at my game store when it was released.

    3.0 saved D&D and the OGL kept it going.

  25. I started with the Basic box in '81 or '82 and quickly moved on to 1e. 2e lost me fairly early on, about 1991 or so, for a variety of reasons. I dropped it in favor of the BECMI version of D&D.

    When TSR dropped (non-A) D&D as a supported line in 1993, they lost me as a customer. I wasn't going to buy more 2e products. I kept playing with what I had happily enough for quite some time.

    At some point in the early '00s, I started checking the Internet for some ideas on a Known World campaign I wanted to run and found the Mystara Mailing List. I quickly realized, after seeing all the various conversion to 2e and conversion to 3e threads, that what I really loved wasn't the setting, but was the old rules.

    That realization got me to look back at the B/X rules and 1e, and also got me to acquire a copy of OD&D, and really got me interested in the older stuff. So much so, that I completely missed 3e when it came out.

    Later, right when 3.5 was coming out, a buddy of mine wanted to run it and I went out to get a copy of the PHB. My first reaction was, "This is D&D written by someone who didn't like D&D for people who didn't like D&D." I mean, it was D&D, but it seemed to emphasize all the wrong things, make all the wrong choices.

    When 4e came out, I came to a shocking realization. I was holding the PHB in my hand in the game store thumbing through it and thought, "I just don't care." I realized then that I would never buy another multi-volume core book rpg again. I just had no interest whatsoever in another 800 pages of FRPG rules. I just couldn't be bothered. I didn't want it. I didn't need it.

  26. While I started a bit earlier (77), and my time away from the game was a bit shorter (about 18 months), my experiences were similar. Except...

    I did play a bit of 3.5. While I never bought the books, I DM'd and allowed my players to include any 3.5 content that they found interesting. Which, btw, was a sure recipe for disaster. Eventually though, the game became completely much too cumbersome.

    Like 2e (near the end) the splat books put out were effusive and never seemed to end. Which eventually caused me to throw my hands up in the air and call it quits. I've never DMd a 3.X (or Pathfinder) game since. Nor will I ever again.

    I have since played Pathfinder. And am even now currently playing in a Pathfinder game (Kingmaker), which, if truth be told, is quite fun. I'm trying very hard to ignore the rules and "just play".

    But I couldn't agree more with your statement that 3.X and the SRD opened the door to the current OSR resurgence. (Is that repetitive?) I would not now be playing AD&D w/ my eldest daughter, nor Swords and Wizardry w/ both my daughters, if not for the SRD and WotC's generous decision to open source the rules.

    I've played all versions of the game. Inclusive of LBB...and I can truly say that 4E is as far removed from the original "spirit" of the game as chess is from Chutes and Ladders. I'm not attempting to denigrate the game in any way, but after a year and a half of playing it, I can attest to the fact that it is truly a game of a different stripe.

  27. I really respect this blog post. I can kinda understand where you are coming from. Right now, we play 3E, simply because that is what we have. No one has any extra money for $90 in rule books. Regardless of the edition or the game. For us, 3E is an economic one, and with the amount of stuff we already have, it will take us forever to get to the end of it. So maybe in ten or twelve years, we'll start a different game, but not right now.

  28. You're still not a "true historian" of the early TSR days. ;-)

    *hangs head in shame*

  29. It looks like the Dungeon Crawl Classics game might achieve 3E streamlining and logic without all the cruft and nonsense. I really appreciate the impulse behind 3E and loved it when it came out, but over time it just got more ridiculous and encumbered.

  30. I really can't completely agree with this particular topic on all things.

    I gave 3E a chance, but something was nagging at me for some reason. Even after a play session, something didn't seem right.

    Then I remembered.

    A 20 page conversion booklet.

    That's right, 20 pages.

    Is that you're idea of "compatibility"?

    Not mine.

    What else changed?

    saving throws
    increasing AC
    Feats (UGH!)
    "balance", as in it went right into the lap of the player

    shall I continue?

    The only thing I like about it is through the OGL, it gave many people who hated 3E (like me) an opportunity to make or play something better.

    Labyrinth Lord
    Swords & Wizardry

    Yes, it revitalized the gaming industry...But in a way for many to find something else BETTER than TETSNBN.

  31. "My first reaction was, "This is D&D written by someone who didn't like D&D for people who didn't like D&D." I mean, it was D&D, but it seemed to emphasize all the wrong things, make all the wrong choices."


    "The only thing I like about it is through the OGL, it gave many people who hated 3E (like me) an opportunity to make or play something better."

    100% agree with both of these statements. The fact that 3rd edition does bear some resemblance to earlier editions just makes it worse for me - sort of an "uncanny valley" effect. Probably for that reason, I consider 3rd edition to be an actual abomination and find 4th edition merely laughable.

  32. I started with the original books a friend's brother brought back from school in Wisc. We played all the iterations through A D&D like lunatics until we discovered Dragonquest and ultimately the Hero System. The combat could drag but the adventure based experience system and the fact that a lowly kobold could kill a high level fighter appealed to some sort of vision of "reality" my group and I sought.
    But all this OSR stuff just make me long for the simple days of 1979 and a well rolled character, the cheap dice and a stack of laboriously drawn dungeons on graph paper.

  33. What Shadow said. Truth be told, after I played Runequest in 1981, I never played any form of D&D except grudging because my friends had chosen it. I checked out 3E and even 4E and neither are games I'd DM. Far from being a unifying design, the "d20" format is a formula for uncountable special case "bunny" rules (ie feats). This completely dissipate any interest on my part.
    What appeals to me about the OSR is stripping D&D back to its core paradigms and rebuilding it "as it should have been - but never was".

  34. I must have read it a hundred times, but to this day I honestly don't understand why some gamers write "3.0 is pretty cool, but 3.5 is awful." [Or vice versa.] They're like Pepsi and Coke to me--I couldn't even describe the difference if I needed to.

  35. I must have read it a hundred times, but to this day I honestly don't understand why some gamers write "3.0 is pretty cool, but 3.5 is awful." [Or vice versa.] They're like Pepsi and Coke to me--I couldn't even describe the difference if I needed to.

    The differences are subtle and are as much about tone as about mechanics, but, to my mind anyway, v.3.5 is where 3e's nascent "More! More! More!" tendencies and obsessions with balance are given full vent. Feats and prestige classes are generally much weaker in vanilla 3e than they are v.3.5, for example, while, conversely, a lot of spells and magic items are weakened in v.3.5. It's a combination that really affected the feel of the game for me, a feel that later v.3.5 supplements ran with in directions that agreed with me even less (Book of Nine Swords, I'm looking at you).

  36. One of your best posts ever James.

    As you know I am no fan of D&D in any of its forms. I have more issues with it than interest or fond memories. And you D&D 3rd Edition brought me back to it after a stretch of time perhaps a bit longer than yours.

    By the mid-80's I was already barely playing D&D and never running it myself. It wasn't until I met my ex-wife and we started dating that I realized D&D was the perfect game to get her interested in RPGs. She was already an avid fantasy fan but simply never had an opportunity to play.

    I started her with AD&D 1st Edition. Since I had long since stopped playing D&D by the 2nd Edition era, I had none of that material in my collection. It was her idea to go to GenCon for the release of 3rd Edition. I hadn't been to GenCon in years. She, and I, really liked the unified systems, the feeling that you really only needed one book to play (the Player's Handbook, mostly) and we had a great time at the convention which helped the cause a lot as well.

    3.5 was both interesting to us and somewhat unnecessary. It felt like WotC was trying to fix something we didn't feel was really broken.

    With my wife now my ex-wife and us no longer gaming together (though we are still great friends and occasionally do get to talk gaming from time to time), my motivation for playing D&D is gone as well. I stopped liking it before we met and I have no real reason to pursue it now. For a brief time inbetween, I did like playing D&D and the D&D I liked was 3rd Edition.

  37. I am with you on this one.

    Early 3rd Edition was a) exciting and b) as if all those late-2E splatbooks had never happened.

    3E felt like a return to AD&D v1 roots, but with more consistent mechanics--which I didn't mind a bit--and (well, except for the grapple and attacks of opportunity) a welcome simplification in the combat system.

    Hell, 3E brought me back from GURPS to D&D.

    Sure, then it grew a bunch of baroque excrescences, but I really thought (and think) straight-up 3E was a clean and elegant design.

    Even though I play a houseruled Microlite74 now.


  38. I like 3e (3.0, actually) and I still DM it. In many respects, it brings back to the game many things which were removed from the 2e core books, like assassins, half-orcs, barbarians, demons, devils. The separate spell lists for many character classes are a clear tie with 1e. And actually, I find it easier to convert 1e stuff to 3e than 2e stuff.
    I never used any of the splatbooks and the game worked (and works) fine with just three core books. I play it when I have players who are willing to devote time to character creation and development, and are willing to cope with its complexity.

  39. - 3.5 also increased the obsession with fine tactical positioning. Just look at how much space is devoted to showing how to move miniatures on the grid; how movement is described (diagonals counted differently than horizontal/vertical spaces); the exact spell templates for placement on the grid; when I (rarely) use minis with 3.0, I use hex grids, so all that stuff in 3.5 is simply wasted space.

    - the explosion in the number of feats (many feats in 3e were split into 2 or more feats in 3.5e) and the introduction of pairs of skill-augmenting feats (whereas in 3e there was only Skill Focus). In 3e the feats were very focused, and each one addressed and augmented one specific aspect of the rules.

    - monsters are considered characters in 3.5e, so all of them have feats and skill points which strongly depend on hit dice. Instead, in 3e only a few monster types had feats, and far fewer skill points. This makes monsters easier to modify and run in 3e than in 3.5

    - In 3.5 there are no more class-specific skills, so everyone can access any skill. In 3e some skills were special, and they helped maintain a sort of niche protection.

    All these facets easily add up to make for a much more (and needlessly) complex game, without any practical returns.

    Oh, and paladins invoking their horses out of thin air? How LAME is that?

  40. 3e=ODDities. It introduced a new sub-genre in fantasy rpgs, namely "5-ft & AoO".

  41. Whatever subtle tone or feel each game had seems most likely to be completely subsumed under the much greater impact of the groups taste and preferences. In my group, there was no change from 3e to 3.5 in tone or feel.

    My dissatisfaction with the change was that, while it did indeed fix a few rough patches of 3e (a very few) it broke as many as it fixed, and it changed much, much more that was neither better nor worse; just different, so you could never quite remember what the "correct" rule was and you had to look it up all the time. And it left glaring problems like grapple and whatnot unchanged.

    Plus, I was really quite irked to have to go "rebuy" a bunch of stuff just because they were now rereleasing it all updated. I never did pick up a PHB or DMG because almost everything I'd need there is in the SRD, but I rebought the entire Complete series. Because they were much better than the books that they replaced (Sword & Fist, Song & Silence, etc.) I more or less forgave them over time and embraced the 3e->3.5 change. But I still don't see it as substantial, nor do I think it needed to happen from any design perspective.

    Of course my history was similar to the original post, and yet also radically different. I too had left D&D and came back to it via 3e back in 2000, and I too was put off by 3.5, although for different reasons. But I left D&D long before 2e came out, because I was frustrated with all the various D&Disms that "held me back" from playing the game that I wanted to. 3e still had a lot of those, and I struggled with them for a time, but one of the strengths of 3e was that it allowed a lot of flexibility, too. While many of the folks posting comments here have talked about using 3e in an old school way, what I liked about it was that I could play games that never heard of dungeons, didn't use any of the cliched D&Disms or D&D archetypes, and I found that the game was robust enough to support it still.

    Maybe too robust, as I've heard lots of people complain about feeling stifled by the rules, but I always took WotC at their word when they said "tools, not rules" (and it's my style with every game I play or run anyway; I have no problem handwaving or changing aspects that don't suit me) so to me, the robustness of a skill system and feat system wasn't stifling and out of control, it was a tool that could customize and define characters in ways that prior editions of D&D could never have dreamed of.


  42. I've always believed that AD&D2E, at its core (PH, DMG, MC - using none of the "optional rules" listed within), is a super-solid game - which I find runs as fast & as smoothly as any version of "Classic" D&D out there. If my group wants a change-up from "Classic" D&D (Mentzer/Rules Cyclopedia), AD&D2E (core) is our "go-to" game.

    Although I ran a 3.5 campaign for around a year, it just didn't feel like what I thought D&D should feel like. What it DID do, however, is brought me back to both "Classic" D&D & AD&D2E (core). I hold no animosity towards WotC, but I find that their particular flavor of D&D just wasn't (& isn't) for me. Too each their own.

    However, I DO have to give WotC credit. If it wasn't for my brief flirtation with D&D 3.5, I probably would have never have regained interest in my favorite hobby after a decade-long hiatus. Or met my wife, for that matter...

  43. @Joshua
    I agree with the "tool" perspective. This point is repeatedly stressed in the 3e DMG, in particular when it deals with campaign styles. In one of them there is the suggestion to completely scrap the combat system if it does not fit the expectations of the players!
    I suppose the main "fault" of 3e, is the fact that they provided rules for everything, so that many players felt "authorised" to quote the rulebook on the DM. Obviously they did not read the DMG, where it clearly says that the DM is the sole responsible for what enters into the game...

  44. My experience was slightly different probably because I'm younger. 2e was the first edition I played, and I got into it when it was pretty new. Though I stopped playing as much in high school, I still kept up with what was out at the time. I was excited about 3E when it came out, and I got the 3 core books and read them. I even got the starter game to try to get into it, but something about the aesthetic of Wizards just rubbed me the wrong way. "Dungeonpunk" as they call it - but not just that, the whole framing of the artwork seemed to change. As cheesy as the 2e art was, it was still a lot of small people exploring a big and mysterious world. In 3e, the art is all superhero splash pages. I think that kind of sets the tone for the style of play regardless of if the text says you can or can't leave out rules. It just sort of felt "not for me". Mind you even though I came into the hobby at 2e, I had an immediate affinity for all the 1e stuff that belong to older cousins and brothers of peers and friends. When 4e came out, I read the books, but didn't buy them. The criticism is how video-gamey it is, and I think that's a culmination of how WotC have thought of the game itself as software since they bought it (open source licensing, .5 version numbers, etc.) Again, not a bad game, just not for me.

    Another sort of unrelated thought though, I always thought the very nature of the 1e books - the density, the complexity - I found it very evocative of the "old-school" in the same way that the art in 3e was of the "new-school". You had to DELVE into the old game. It felt ancient and secret. Now it feels slick and new and plastic-y - just like a video game.

    Anyway, as usual James you create a weird mix of both nostalgia and reflection that give me a new perspective on old, unvisited thoughts. :)

  45. Over my groups 25 year D&D career we have gotten many more gaming hours and gaming fun from 3E (specifically 3.5) then any other version of the game that we have played. As many of the posters here have already indicated 3E to us was a better version of AD&D. Clearly great pains were taken by the designers to make the two games close siblings yet still make great improvements in the 3rd edition. 3E did not bring us back to D&D (we were regularly playing 2E at the time) but it felt like it brought us back to 1E in spirit and we have never looked back (or forward to 4E). To us 3E is mechanically superior to and spiritually connected with 1E, so we don't need anything else.

    As a side note I also believe that each successive version of D&D is PLAYED more then the previous. I don't mean each successive version sells more units or has a larger audience. I mean each version (regardless of sales) actually gets PLAYED more. I think every version of D&D has customers that buys and reads the products but never plays them. I think this happens less and less as each version comes out. Many people talk about what a great game AD&D was but I remember very clearly during that time that not many people were actually playing it or played it often. My group did play 1E, a lot, and we never saw any other groups spend nearly as much time as we did playing the game. Each successive version of the game seemed to move the needle more toward playing the game then the previous. I suspect today that the 4th edition crowd has the highest "buy and play" ratio of all the previous versions. I would guess the all time highest would be Pathfinder. If I had to list the percentage of people that bought AND played a D&D product by version it would look like this:

    D&D 1e---35%
    D&D 2e---40%
    D&D 3e---60%
    D&D 3.5e---70%
    D&D 4E---80%
    D&D PF---82%

    I believe for each version of D&D that came out it was LESS likely to be bought by people that were NOT planning on playing it regularly. So if you read a lot of 1E but didn't play it much you had less interest in 2E. If your read a lot of 2e stuff but never played it you didn't have any interest in 3E, and so on. The break in this pattern comes with 4e and PF. When the PFRPG was published it allowed the D&D base to fork and (I believe) resulted in the highest "buy and play" percentage in the games history. For the most part you are not buying PFRPG or 4th edition stuff unless you are actually playing the game.

    So what do I think this means? Over time I think the game has been "designed" by and for the people that were actually playing it most. I think this is why each new incarnation of the game has been thought of as mechanically superior but perceived as spiritually inferior.

  46. "Many people talk about what a great game AD&D was but I remember very clearly during that time that not many people were actually playing it or played it often."

    What on earth are you talking about? Unless you've got some kind of genuine data somewhere, this is generalizing your rather unusual personal anecdote.

    I don't believe your experience was even remotely universal, and your numbers are made up out of whole cloth.

  47. Back in the early 80's literally everyone I knew who owned any AD&D books, or even expressed the slightest interest in the game, also played. I can't speak for the rest of the world, but the idea that overall only a third of the people who owned 1st edition books actually played the game strikes me as comically unlikely. D&D was everywhere in the early days.

  48. A pattern that we've seen many times (though not very strongly among this group, it seems) is that people tend to skip an edition. People who started with 1st Ed. often skipped 2nd, came back for 3/3.5, and are skipping 4. Many who started with 2nd skipped 3rd and are coming back for 4th. Maybe people who started with 3rd will skip 4th and come back to the OSR.


  49. I started after the blogger and most of the commenters but had a broadly similar experience. I started playing in 2nd ed AD&D after the class books had been out for a while, and never did like the system (though I liked getting to play). Even as a new player I could tell that the options weren't balanced and there was an arms race going on - a kit was just flatly better than a base class, and you needed to powergame just to pull your own weight. After my initial run with 2E I played Rolemaster and considered that a better system.

    So when 3E first came out I loved it. It was a clean, "fair" version of D&D, which was something I had never seen before. Then, of course, the splatbooks came out and if you used them all you needed to powergame again just to pull your own weight. But I think core 3.0 is still a pretty clean system until you start hitting high levels. (Though I'm playing other games at the moment.)

    So I've only started to follow the OSR after the fact. I did get to play in an AD&D campaign only after 3.5 came out and enjoyed that. But my understanding of the "deep structure" of OD&D and AD&D has mainly come from reading blogs and forums about the OSR. Which I think is okay, it would not have been self-evident to me otherwise. And it did take 3.0 and the OGL to get us there.

  50. "The differences are subtle and are as much about tone as about mechanics..."

    Well that explains why I don't understand the differences; I'm tone deaf. ;)

  51. People who started with 1st Ed. often skipped 2nd, came back for 3/3.5, and are skipping 4. Many who started with 2nd skipped 3rd and are coming back for 4th. Maybe people who started with 3rd will skip 4th and come back to the OSR.

    Bad breakup --> disingenuously/huffily swearing off dating for a while --> 'maybe this time it will be DIFFERENT'

    Not that complicated, really.

  52. - 3.5 also increased the obsession with fine tactical positioning. Just look at how much space is devoted to showing how to move miniatures on the grid; how movement is described (diagonals counted differently than horizontal/vertical spaces); the exact spell templates for placement on the grid; when I (rarely) use minis with 3.0, I use hex grids, so all that stuff in 3.5 is simply wasted space.

    Like the Whore Encounter table, and the ten pages of ludicrously detailed hireling/henchman information, and the obsessive compilation of 'varieties of mental illness,' all ballooning the 1e DMG to breathtaking length?

    The difference between WotC D&D's complexity and TSR AD&D's complication is night and day. Gygax didn't know the difference because there were no other RPGs to build off of. That's his excuse. People today need to find their own.

  53. Far from being a unifying design, the "d20" format is a formula for uncountable special case "bunny" rules (ie feats).

    Yeah just like how no one is able to play that Magic: The Gathering game because every single card is, like, different. No wonder that game sank like a stone.

  54. It seems to me that editions 3 and 4 tend to make D&D more of a wargame and in the case of 4th edition even more like a board game with it's obsession with balance.

    I have played D&D since 1981 and I loved each successive edition of the game, though I stopped playing in 1995 during 2nd edition because I thought that things were just getting out of hand with all the rules additions.

    I was a firm 3.5 e convert until a buddy of mine ran a 1st edition game (heavily houseruled) and we all had an awesome time playing. It was then that I realized that it wasn't the game that mattered, but rather the gamers.

  55. All these comments by people saying D&D 3 got them back into D&D suggest to me that the thing that really drove people away from D&D was AD&D. I too returned to the D&D fold through 3rd edition, having given up on AD&D and moved on to rolemaster (amongst other things). I didn't come back to D&D3 by accident either - a friend recommended it as "so much better" than AD&D.

  56. Personally I started playing with AD&D, Played some second edition. Didn't like 3E and went off to play other games. Now I play 4E and C&C. Go figure.

  57. I'm new to tabletop gaming. I was brought up on video games and exploring the tabletop game has been an interest of mine over the past couple of years, mainly because I have many ideas for games I would like to create, and D&D seems to be the perfect creative tool no matter the edition. I have haunted many "old-school" blogs and other resources such as this and found all of it fascinating. This post caught my eye because I recently bought all of the Pathfinder books, and I do own the 1st edition core books also. Long-winded intro but the point is, I get geeked on discussions like this - how this system or that one got me back into gaming, what system turned me off, etc. This is the type of discussion that will intrigue people like myself and make them want to explore the hobby. So, thanks guys.

  58. Feats and prestige classes are generally much weaker in vanilla 3e than they are v.3.5, for example, while, conversely, a lot of spells and magic items are weakened in v.3.5.

    That's something occurring across all the editions. The classes started out minimalist, but could find stonking great spells and intelligent swords made of instant win just laying about the dungeon (amongst some incredibly unfair traps).

    The editions (and sub-editions) slowly moved from OD&D's "30 second" Wizard with 1d6 hp (and a dagger doing 1d6 damage) casting a sleep spell which knocks out half the dungeon level, to 4e's "3 hour" Wizard with ~22 hp (and three pages of special-case modifiers for their useless cantrips) casting a sleep spell which might slow down a small rat or two for a few seconds.

    The numbers fool most people though, thinking a 2d6+4 "at will" 4e power better than the old 1d6 dagger, despite the target hit points being over ten times what they were.

  59. I played 1st ed when it came out, as a young 'un and can remember the astonishing vaults of possibility opening before me. However it wasn't long before the system felt cramped. We ended up adding the Rolemaster combat system to the game, which worked quite well, and then making the leap to Rolemaster in toto (ah, rolling 60 percentile dice to work out stats! ah, doing algebra to work out skill bonuses!) in various permutations.

    3e bought me back to it, just as James described, and we had a fine old time with it before running into the higher level doldrums of the game. I started a 4e game half as a joke, and it became our main game within a few months.

    It's a lovely system, made by people who deeply care about D&D's past and future. It has its flaws (long combat, mainly... a lack of flavour in magic items perhaps) but those flaws are rarely the ones identified by edition warriors.

    I think we're lucky to have so many options actually. Play on, my geeky buddies.

  60. I join those in not understanding the value of a disunified XP system, especially if we disregard balance. From above "At 10,001 XP a cleric is 4th level with a little way to go to get to 5th. A dwarf, fighter, or halfling is 4th level with a fair way to go to get to 5th." What's the victory in trying to split the difference between the cleric and the halfling in a sublevel way? Even a larger difference, like the elf, would be adjustable by tweaking the levels, instead of using a sublevel metric like XP.

    It's funny; not having unified XP and having descending AC would be two of my biggest turnoffs for a D&D. Completely unnecessary complexity, IMO.

  61. I loved reading this one, thanks for sharing. It reminded me my obsession for 3e, the waiting for its release...good times! I agree with what you say about continuity from 2e: statistics-wise they did nothing but to convert AC from descending to ascending, unifying the mechanics under the "roll the d20" and introduce the new ST (which is another merit imo) but it's AD&D at its core. I have a question if I may...when you say "running the game the way I'd run 1e and 2e in the past." I bet you mean you completely got rid of feats and found out it didn't break the game at all, isn't it so? This is my point as well btw and I'd love to find someone else who proved it true. Thanks for your time!