Jonathan Tweet: Prologue to Third Edition
  • Jonathan Tweet: Prologue to Third Edition


    The story of Third Edition D&D starts, perhaps, with Peter Adkison reading 2nd Edition AD&D (1989) and being sorely disappointed. For one thing, he felt the new system left several underlying problems in place, so players didn’t get much benefit from the effort it took to switch to a new system. For another, 2nd Ed stripped away all the charm and character of 1st Ed. No more half-orcs, arcane sigils, monks, or assassins. Demons and devils were renamed to avoid the ire of superstitious parents. The new AD&D was tamed and genericized.



    Peter wasn’t the only one to dislike 2nd Ed. When it came time for Mark Rein•Hagen and me to release a “second edition” of Ars Magica, our collaborator Lisa Stevens warned us that there was a great deal of hostility around that word at the time. She was involved in TSR’s RPGA program of organized play for AD&D, and the members were unhappy with the changes. As for me, I had stopped running AD&D round 1979, switching to RuneQuest and then a home-brew hack instead. D&D seemed to be behind the times, it was interesting to see TSR stumble with their 2nd Edition.


    Note from Morrus: This is the first article in a monthly column from WotC alumni Jonathan Tweet. You'll know him from Ars Magica, for being the lead designer on D&D 3rd Edition, and for co-designing 13th Age, amongst many other things. Upcoming articles include My Life with the Open Gaming License, and Origins of Ars Magica. Let us know in the comments what stories and topics you'd like to hear from Jonathan! Also, don't miss Jim Ward's excellent column!


    TSR’s goal in creating a generic version of AD&D was to allow an endless number of settings that could use the same basic rules system. For 2nd Edition, TSR released Forgotten Realms, Maztica, Al-Qadim, Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Masque of the Red Death, Dragonlance, and Greyhawk, not to mention one-offs like Jakandor. All these incompatible AD&D lines split the market so that each line sold less and less. How did things go off-track? At TSR, the people who did the creative work did not coordinate with the people who did the business planning, and the owner of the company was an heiress, not a gamer. From outside, some of us could tell that the business model was a big problem. At Wizards in 1994, we reviewed a science fiction RPG for possible acquisition, and it featured an AD&D-style business model of one ruleset and many worlds. I said no way because that model would be a huge negative. TSR managed to hide how bad things were for years—until it all came apart in 1997. When TSR couldn’t pay its bills, Wizards of the Coast bought them out.

    In 1995, two years before the acquisition of D&D, Wizards cut all its roleplaying game lines. I moved off the defunct “Alter Ego Games” team and started working on card games. Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner are two of my favorite games, and I got to work on both of them. One bright side to roleplaying lines being cut, my boss pointed out, was that I could now do my own roleplaying design on the side and it would not be considered competition. So it was that in 1997 I was working on a faux-Greek-myth RPG, inspired in part by Xena: Warrior Princess. The idea was that the gods were all oppressive jerks, and the player-characters were all rebel demigods, the half-mortal children of the bullies they’re fighting. Half-gods as player-characters seem like a good niche—powerful enough to feel formidable, aligned with the common people against the elites, connected to a recognizable deity such as Ares or Zeus, and hailed as heroes while being outsiders to everyday life. But before I got anything up and running, Wizards bought D&D and the game of Greek half-gods got shelved.

    After acquiring D&D, Peter Adkison traveled around talking to AD&D players, especially RPGA players. He would ask whether they would like to see a new edition, and they all said the same thing. They did not want a Third Edition. Then he would ask what changes they might like to see if there were a Third Edition. In response, the fans talked at length about all the problems with Second Edition and what a better rule set would look like. The fans didn’t want a Third Edition, but they needed one.

    We knew that the game needed a major overhaul, and we knew that players didn’t want a Third Edition. We explicitly discussed the prospect of losing players with this new edition. We figured that even if we lost 10% of our players up front, the benefits of a better game system would accrue year by year and eventually would be glad we did the Third Edition. In 1999, however, Ryan Dancey started rolling out publicity for Third Edition. He did such a good job month by month that we could see the enthusiasm build. By the time Third Ed released, we knew we had a major hit on our hands, and all thought of losing players in the short term was forgotten.

    The first work I did with the new D&D system was for an unpublished project, a roleplaying game set in the world of Magic: The Gathering and using streamlined rules derived from the AD&D rules. We experimented with ways to use cards, such as putting monster stats on cards and constructing random encounters by selecting from random draws. In one version it was a board game where the characters turned off mana nodes as they pressed deeper into the dungeon, one raid at a time. In another version, it was a light RPG with D&D-style rules set in the world of Dominia. I gave characters three types of saving throws and made Armor Class the target number for your attack roll. Other game designers had independently come up with these same common-sense ideas. My work on these games turned out to be good practice for later when I ended up on the 3rd Edition design team.

    The rule I really liked from the Dominia RPG was that the characters had to stick it out exploring the dungeon until they had accumulated a minimum amount of treasure. If they retreated to town to heal up before reaching the treasure milestone, they were penalized XP. Years later at Wizards, I would experiment with similar milestone rules for random dungeon crawls, another experimental design that never got published. 13th Age has a similar rule based on battles rather than treasure: the group suffers a “campaign loss” if they take a full heal-up before they have defeated a minimum force of enemies.

    Gradually my involvement with the new D&D edition grew, from working on a parallel project to being assigned the beginner version, to landing on the design team itself and then finally getting assigned the lead role.
    Comments 143 Comments
    1. cbwjm's Avatar
      cbwjm -
      Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one that liked the names Tanar'ri and Baatezu. Having started with basic D&D and moved into 2e, I missed out on 1e. I've since had a look at the rule books and I generally feel like I dodged a bullet, they just seemed to be a mess. Wasn't a lot of 2e about backwards compatability? I think I recall reading something in Dragon that TSR would have preferred to move away from Thac0 to an ascending attack roll but because they wanted the transition to be as smooth as possible they kept it. I could be miss-recalling it though, for all I know it was someone writing about 3e saying how they wished 2e had made the change.
    1. Giltonio_Santos's Avatar
      Giltonio_Santos -
      There you had a game company that was: overproducing collectible dice that nobody asked for, insisting with a bad TCG, publishing five different flavors of Tolkienesque fantasy (FR, DL, GH, Mystara, and Birthright), ordering new print runs of products that were still widely available on the shelves, and spending a lot of money on bad litigation. Those are just from the top of my mind.

      Somehow, in the middle of all of that, people still appear sure that having a planar setting, a gothic horror setting, an apocalyptic setting, and eventually publishing offbeat experiments like Council of Wyrms or Jakandor, was the reason why TSR failed. I've never seen anyone say that White Wolf failed because they created their own competition by also publishing Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension or Dark Ages versions of their popular lines.

      In my opinion, 2e made D&D greater than it ever was by adding a depth that didn't exist before and will probably never exist again, because we can look at post-WotC D&D and see that experimenting with their game is not where they want to be these days. 4e was probably their last move through uncharted waters, and it didn't end up the way they wanted it to be.

      They can keep repeating until 2050 that publishing innovative campaign settings that moved D&D in unique directions was the financial downfall of TSR. As long as this is presented as Adkinson's or Dancey's opinion, and not a detailed report from the likes of Deloitte or PwC, I'll just choose to believe something else...
    1. osarusan's Avatar
      osarusan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Tsuga C View Post
      Whoever made the call to simplify the weapon selection seriously blew it. AD&D's "to hit" adjustments made weapon selection more than simply looking for which weapon of a particular class did the most damage. That's something that ought to be revived
      YES!! Absolutely 100% agree.

      While I love a lot of the simplifications that have been put into D&D, some of them just really bug me. Simplification is good for streamlining play, but not at the expense of vital flavor. In 2e it really mattered what weapon you chose. There were benefits and penalties at certain times. I feel that since 3e it has became so simple to just crunch the numbers and get a "this is the only correct choice" kind of result. This goes both for weapons and armor, but also for feat choice, subclass choice, and even things like what animal you polymorph into. 3e+ D&D and Pathfinder were revolutionary, but so much of them has become a game of running the numbers and finding the actual best choice.

      I feel like simplifying the monsters and the rules for DMs was great (I *love* the 5e Monster Manual), but in oversimplifying things on the players' end, they lost a lot of the flavor of the game.

      That's why I prefer Hackmaster 5e to D&D these days. It may be a little over-crunchy at times, but it doesn't feel like you're competing with yourself to make the absolute "best" build for your character.
    1. Greg K's Avatar
      Greg K -
      The only complaints that I recall , initially, having had with the 2e changes was the renaming of demons and devils to pacify the complaints of right wing conservatives such as the self labeled "Moral Majority". I, personally, did not care about the removal of the Assassin class or half-orc.

      I thought that the 2e PHB had some nice additions (e.g. Priest spheres, Priests of Specific Mythoi, Proficiencies in the PHB, Rangers and Thieves being able to allocate points). I also liked several of the early products including the Complete Fighter's Handbook (although the actual implementation of several kits had left me cold), the Complete Thief's Handbook, and, as a DM, the Complete Priest's Handbooks. I also liked several of the early settings including Al Qadim: Land of Fate, the original Dark Sun boxed set, and Ravenloft: Realms of Terror. The only early setting that I did not like was Spelljammer (and I was fine with it existing until official cannon was revised to force it upon Dark Sun and Ravenloft).

      Now, around late 1992 early 1993, is when I started to develop issues with 2e. First, I disliked the 2e material being released. Between late 1992 to 1996, I still like a few of the releases including the HR Series, Complete Druid's Handbook, PO: Combat & Tactics, PO: Spells & Magic and a few Ravenloft supplements. After that period, there was nothing at all that I liked and Slavicsek had already ruined Dark Sun (in my opinion). Second, many of the AD&Disms that led me to nearly leave AD&D with 1e really started to grate on me around 1993. So after, walking out of a 2e Revised Dark Sun campaign, I left AD&D completely.

      3.0, eventually, brought me back to D&D. While I disliked the art, there was a lot that I really liked about the 3.0 core rules and many of the changes found within were what I had wanted. My only major disappointments with the core books (beyond the art) were the cleric, the monk and the default setting feel with its smokesticks, sunrods, tanglefoot bags, halfling riding dogs, and exotic weapons (e.g., the urgosh and spiked chain). There was also the paltry number of skill points for several of the classes. and my disappointment with the the barbarianclass being a berserker rather than closer to both the 1e Barbarian (or better David Howery's revision from Dragon Magazine and 2e's Wilderness Warrior kit). Despite these issues and my finding WOTC's supplements unimpressive (which didn't change until the 3.5 Unearthed Arcana), the core rules impressed me enough to keep an eye on 3.0 until I, finally, jumped on board following Green Ronin's release of their Psychic, Shaman, and Witch Handbooks.

      Part of why I was able to enjoy running 3.0 was Mr Tweet's discussion of the commoner standard in one of the Dragon Magazine 3.0 previews. Between that and Monte's DM's Best friend option in the DMG, I threw out almost all of the sample DC in the PHB and ran 3e skills closer to how it is done in 5.0. In my opinion, that discussion of the Commoner standard belonged in the DMG (much like Skip's information about the various monster types should have been in the DMG or MM rather than MMII).
    1. seankreynolds's Avatar
      seankreynolds -
      Quote Originally Posted by Giltonio_Santos View Post
      There you had a game company that was: overproducing collectible dice that nobody asked for,
      For the record, Dragon Dice was a very successful game. It sold 500,000 units, which is what the sales team anticipated. Unfortunately, the top level of the company insisted on making 1,000,000 units because they'd get a price break from the manufacturer if they made that many units. So half the print run was DOA, and the cost of that unsold product hurt the game line and the company.

      Quote Originally Posted by Giltonio_Santos View Post
      insisting with a bad TCG,
      I assume you're talking about SPELLFIRE, which also was a successful game. Not as successful as M:tG, of course, but successful enough that at one point Wizards actually planned on rereleasing it (although they never did).
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Heh, I was a late adopter for 3e. I had more than enough 2e stuff to keep me going for a long time. I wound up getting into 3e about a year before 3.5 hit, so, that certainly put a damper on my buying. I bought a ton of 3e stuff, but, when 3.5 came around, heck, I never even bought a DMG. I went from buying a book about a month or so, to buying maybe 1 per year in 3.5. I'm still at that rate now.
    1. Staffan's Avatar
      Staffan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Tsuga C View Post
      Whoever made the call to simplify the weapon selection seriously blew it. AD&D's "to hit" adjustments made weapon selection more than simply looking for which weapon of a particular class did the most damage. That's something that ought to be revived.
      Nah. Weapon vs armor type is too complex for D&D, and the simplified optional version from 2e (where armor types have different AC versus bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing weapons) does dumb things like put clubs on equal terms with warhammers or daggers on equal terms with picks. Also, many campaigns primarily pit the PCs against monsters, which don't wear armor and as such the whole thing becomes useless.

      I prefer the direction they're going with weapons these days where weapons are balanced using more distinct weapon traits rather than an unwieldy table.
    1. Zardnaar's Avatar
      Zardnaar -
      2E would my edition of choice for gun pointed at head and you have to pick one edition for the rest of your life. Basically you won't get bored with all of the settings.
    1. CapnZapp -
      The rule from Dominia targets the biggest rules hole still in D&D - that the players can always game the difficulty level by choosing more or less rests, essentially trivializing any challenge if they want to. They're given plenty tricks that negate every obstacle to resting except for one "you're running out of time".

      Any DM dead tired of that trope (not to mention how time crunches in 99% of official modules are illusory, hoaxes essentially) are sold out of luck.

      A rule that said "you can only rest every three encounters" or indeed you must loot at least X gold before retreating would instantly inject some real game challenge into D&D.

      Not every group should feel compelled to use such a rule, but official modules should be stocked with monsters and other challenges with it in mind.

      Oh well, maybe 6th edition. Or more likely, 9th.
    1. Staffan's Avatar
      Staffan -
      Quote Originally Posted by Giltonio_Santos View Post
      There you had a game company that was: overproducing collectible dice that nobody asked for, insisting with a bad TCG, publishing five different flavors of Tolkienesque fantasy (FR, DL, GH, Mystara, and Birthright), ordering new print runs of products that were still widely available on the shelves, and spending a lot of money on bad litigation. Those are just from the top of my mind.

      Somehow, in the middle of all of that, people still appear sure that having a planar setting, a gothic horror setting, an apocalyptic setting, and eventually publishing offbeat experiments like Council of Wyrms or Jakandor, was the reason why TSR failed. I've never seen anyone say that White Wolf failed because they created their own competition by also publishing Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension or Dark Ages versions of their popular lines.

      In my opinion, 2e made D&D greater than it ever was by adding a depth that didn't exist before and will probably never exist again, because we can look at post-WotC D&D and see that experimenting with their game is not where they want to be these days. 4e was probably their last move through uncharted waters, and it didn't end up the way they wanted it to be.

      They can keep repeating until 2050 that publishing innovative campaign settings that moved D&D in unique directions was the financial downfall of TSR. As long as this is presented as Adkinson's or Dancey's opinion, and not a detailed report from the likes of Deloitte or PwC, I'll just choose to believe something else...
      It is rare that failure is the consequence of a single thing. Dragon Dice overproduction was certainly part of what lead to TSR's demise. So was crappy novels, and tying the game lines to events within those without overall coordination (I'm still a little bitter about Tethyr). But overproduction of settings, and materials for those settings was also a part of that.

      It's like D&D fighting in that regard. You start with 35 hp. Then you take a fireball for 12, get pushed off a 30 foot cliff for 9, get a stab with a sword for 10, and then the bard mocks you for 5. Did the bard kill you with harsh language? Yes, but if you hadn't been exposed to all that other damage you would have been fine.

      Similarly the direct cause of TSR's demise was, AFAIK, Random House returning* a bunch of unsold novels and demanding that they be reimbursed with actual money and not with more unsellable books. That's what broke TSR's back. But if TSR hadn't been churning out a dozen books per month for half a dozen differant settings, or if they hadn't overproduced Dragon Dice, or if they hadn't charged less for some books than they cost to make, they might have had the financial health to absorb that blow.

      The thing with churning out lots of books is that it's insidious from a book-keeping standpoint, because it doesn't look like a loss. The money spent on designers, artists, and printing is balanced by the inventory created. It's not until you go through the warehouse and see that you still have thousands of copies left of Valley of Dust and Fire five years after it was printed and you realize that the value of the remaining inventory is zero, that you realize the actual loss.

      * For book publishing values of returning, meaning they didn't return any physical books but just certified that those books had been destroyed as unsold.
    1. Sadras's Avatar
      Sadras -
      Being a hardcore 2e guy back then, I was pretty resistant when I heard about 3e and given that I was the primary DM of our group we didn't convert for a long time. It was only upon hearing about the 3.5e launch that I finally made the move, so I was pretty fortunate, unlike 1-2 players within my group that purchased the 3e PHB.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      The 3E launch was definitely the most exciting D&D edition launch. The couple of years before that were the first launch that took place in the Internet era, and all the scoops and speculation were such fun. That magic was never recaptured — I suspect it could only happen once. The second and third time aren’t the same.
    1. gyor's Avatar
      gyor -
      2e had aweful mechanics, but lore/setting wise it was a golden age.
    1. Ghal Maraz's Avatar
      Ghal Maraz -
      Ryan Dancey commentary on WotC's acquisition of TSR:

      https://www.insaneangel.com/insaneangel/RPG/Dancey.html

      It helps giving contest and getting insight.
      Long story short: TSR had many financial and structural problems, which all contributed to its demise.
    1. MrZeddaPiras's Avatar
      MrZeddaPiras -
      I liked the rationalizations they did in 3e, like with the armor class and the saving throws, but it all came apart for me when I attempted to play it and realized the combat system as written was a board game. That, and some oddities like civilian NPCs with levels. The merchant giving you a mission at first level got 80 hp because he's a high level merchant. o_O
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ghal Maraz View Post
      Ryan Dancey commentary on WotC's acquisition of TSR:

      https://www.insaneangel.com/insaneangel/RPG/Dancey.html

      It helps giving contest and getting insight.
      Long story short: TSR had many financial and structural problems, which all contributed to its demise.
      I prefer our version.

      http://www.enworld.org/forum/content...-Acquiring-TSR

      Lots more D&D history here:

      http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...ory-of-D-amp-D
    1. hedgeknight -
      I was fully invested in 2E and very happy with it. I didn't used the Option books, but did buy up the handbooks to flesh out characters. Even then, my group kept it fairly simple. I mixed 1E & 2E when designing my campaign and was perfectly content with the state of gaming as it was.
      I rebelled against 3E and swore I would never play it > why did I need to when we had 2E? So...why did I completely convert my long-running game to 3E? My players really wanted it. They loved the skills and feats, the new updated rules, the "shiny" new feel and look of the game, etc. So, we converted to 3E...and after I was familiar with the edition, I came to love it. 3.5 made it even better and I ran several long campaigns with that edition.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Interesting article. I do appreciate that not everyone liked 2nd edition; I had some issues with it myself. But I think there is an inordinate amount of looking back and hindsight and forgetting how many great ideas and designers were spawned by 2nd edition. The changes were not that severe; it was still recognizably AD&D. Folks bemoan THAC0 (and they will do so in reply to this comment) but I never had an issue with it. I grok'd the weird math immediately and moved on with my life. While Runequest fans (I am an RQ fan) were fetishising Glorantha, TSR was providing a diverse tableau of settings. Sure, not all of them hit or were hits, but you can draw a line from several of those 2nd Ed boxed sets to extremely successful 5E adjacent projects. And several successful cross-platform games. And more than a few successful careers.

      I suppose my point is: the 1E die hard will never accept that anything was better than their beloved, if incoherent, 1st ed design. Those who hated 1E won't see 2E as an evolution and those who love 3E+ forget there would never have been a 3E without 2E. It is easy to blame the edition for the missteps of the creators, but that doesn't mean it was not a good game. For every person who bemoaned the loss of the Assassin (again, this is me), there is someone who thought it was a horrible class with a terrible design and a terrible mechanic. And it was despite being fun as hell to play.

      Was 2E perfect? Nope. Were some of the decisions based on improving public relations? Of course they were and whatever we think of the reasons, it would not be the last time an RPG adjusted its trajectory under the pressure of public perception. However, 2E WAS a robust system that introduced thousands of people to the game, was many folk's introduction to role playing, and has had an enormous amount of influence on RPG design in the 30 years since its launch.

      Looking forward to the coming articles!
    1. Jonathan Tweet's Avatar
      Jonathan Tweet -
      Thanks for all the comments. A few followups.

      3.5: If you want me to talk about what led to 3.5, buy me a drink at a con. I don't think I'll be covering it in this column.

      To-hit bonuses by AC: One way to tell whether a rule in AD&D was a good idea was to see whether other game designers copied it. Almost no one copied to-hit bonuses by armor. See also: percentile Strength scores, level limits for demihumans, different weapon damage by size of target (?!).

      Dreamblade: I loved a lot of the minis we did, but creating that game as a painful and valuable lesson.

      Buck Rogers: The first "d20" game, but when they published it they didn't tell D&D players that the stats were compatible. An early project by Mike Pondsmith!

      Omega World: It has a special spot in my heart. I guess I'll cover it.

      Ars Magica: Already written the post, just wait.
    1. ddaley's Avatar
      ddaley -
      The only version of D&D that I didn't care for was 4e. I remember liking 4e quite a bit while reading about it... thinking "this is cool." But, when it came to running it, there was just too much to keep track of. I was trying to run it for my kids who were fairly young at the time.
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