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. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Quote Originally Posted by GreyLord View Post
      /snip
      From another Thread....whether THAC0 was Tak Zero, or TAKO...depends on whether you were a 1e gamer or 2e gamer.

      It was from To Hit Armor Class Zero and thus was Thack Zero for the DMG and 1e.
      /snip
      We always pronounced it thaco, as in rhyming with taco. Why would anyone pronounce a "TH" as anything other than the "TH" sound? Unless you talk talk like Tweetie bird I suppose.
    1. Vyvyan Basterd's Avatar
      Vyvyan Basterd -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      We always pronounced it thaco, as in rhyming with taco. Why would anyone pronounce a "TH" as anything other than the "TH" sound? Unless you talk talk like Tweetie bird I suppose.
      We always pronounced it THAY-CO, rhymes with Waco (Texas).
    1. Darren Richardson's Avatar
      Darren Richardson -
      Quote Originally Posted by GovernmentBacon View Post
      I would love to hear Jonathan's thoughts on the D&D Chainmail game that was resurrected briefly in 2002......... In retrospect, what worked and what didn't with this game? Why did it get cancelled so quickly, and what lessons could be learned from it?
      I'd like to know about that too. I've spent 1 and a half decades slowly building up a collection of those miniatures here in the UK, where the game was hard to get hold of, set 1 mini's being the most common, set 2 very hard to find, while set 3 damned near impossible! Not to mention how bloody hard it is to get the 3.0 metal mini's released for the start of 3rd editions run, the boxed set's are almost non existent here in the UK, while blister packs are easier to find LOL!
    1. DerKastellan's Avatar
      DerKastellan -
      I think each edition of D&D has its virtues and its original sin.AD&D 1e collected the rules in a more organized manner and explained how to run games BUT it abandoned the spirit of "It's your game, make it your own." and moved strongly toward "Play it like I write it, that's best for you." (This is rather well-described in "Dave Arneson't True Genius".)AD&D 2e re-balanced many parts of the game and cut down the rules hodge podge of 1e where e.g. individual monsters had their own (and in my opinion, "improvable") rules. Just as 1e was more designed than original/classical D&D, 2e took it a lot more towards a well-edited game... BUT it changed the fundamental flow of the game by rewarding killing monsters and made it the main activity. (It also introduced feat/proficiency/kit creep but at least it was optional.)(Many people commented that they removed stuff like demons and depictions of summoning circles, making the game bland. I personally wouldn't miss that because it doesn't feature much in my games, YMMV.)D&D 3e introduced, like the AngryGM recently wrote, the single central resolution mechanic. Quite cool stuff and most people would not want to go back before that... BUT it made feats part of the central game, making mechanical building of characters and pre-planning their advances part of D&D. In my opinion it did not add that much to variety because many options were discarded over more powerful ones, and the slew of prestige classes and feats, etc... just too much, just too mechanical. Etc...I personally don't like 3e or Pathfinder much. They certainly did matter for the evolution of D&D and RPG game design but also go away from anything remotely simple. I doubt anyone ever spent as much time looking at their character sheet before 3e as ever after. That's why I call my "BUT"s original sins. You were stuck with them after, they never went away. Monster-killing is now core and center in D&D. Thanks 2e. And no edition since 3e has dared to keep characters even remotely as simple as before 3e. Dungeon Crawl Classics is a good example how the raw power of 3e's core can be combined with a select few mechanics to create a slim D&D experience powerhouse. Because it's 3e without exploding feat-mania on top. (Except magic. Every D&D-like game has broken magic. And 6e won't fix that.) Every such lesson is learned the hard way. I'm glad people can take from OGL 3e and 5e what they need to build new games because many good ideas are contained within the history of D&D.I might not like playing 3e (simply because tastes vary), but I'm glad it was made and exists.
    1. Matrix Sorcica's Avatar
      Matrix Sorcica -
      Quote Originally Posted by DerKastellan View Post
      >snip<
      What level spell is Wall of Text?
    1. DerKastellan's Avatar
      DerKastellan -
      I gave up on the forum interface after it ate my formatting the third time. What CR is it? :P
    1. Vanveen's Avatar
      Vanveen -
      A lot of roleplaying history debates can be settled by looking at demographics, something nobody's really mentioned so far. Situate yourself, reader, in terms of when you were born and your roleplaying history. 1e's boom coincided with the teendom and early maturation (to mid-20s) of the Late Boomers, born say in the late 1950s to the end of Boomerdom in 1964. While this group wasn't as large as Early Boomers, the ones who went to Woodstock and Gary Gygax's basement, it was still huge. I think one unexamined issue here is that this group began to age out of 1e starting in the mid-to-late 1980s: kids, jobs, less silliness about running around pretending to be elves. Now, Generation X was right behind them, ready to take up some of the slack, but confusion over 2e and then the double whammies of CCGs and "storytelling style" games, notably by White Wolf, drew a huge chunk of younger players toward those games in the 1990s. And in truth, CCGs solved a *lot* of the problems with roleplaying: portable, quick, fewer player requirements, easier to play with strangers, and a substantial amount of fun even when not playing (the "C" aspect). TSR was trying to solve the wrong problem in the 1990s, I'd argue. It shouldn't have been about improving the Dungeons and Dragons play experience. It should have been about addressing the reasons that the target demographic, now Gen X, played games. In other words, the company was acting as if the Boomer core audience, a source of so much strength, was still around and in the same circumstances as of old. They weren't. As time passed, this was a reason for the demise of Chaosium and Avalon Hill--AH even called this out specifically in an investor letter a year or two before they went under. Gen X was also a poor long-term bet, at least for White Wolf. It was much smaller than the Boomers. White Wolf's games were too tied to specific audience interests, which were themselves the product of a very narrow cultural point in time. They were also anchored in player behaviors that lessened with time. (A lot of LARPing was about rehearsing adolescent drama--who's dating whom, who your friends REALLY are--in cool vampire costumes.) When that audience got older, it paid attention to other stuff, which in turn caused the whole "90s-style" stuff to disappear. We're seeing a lot of Gen X nostalgia now--I am one, and have been running a 5e campaign for the past two years after decades away from roleplaying games--but even that is likely to be transitory. (And that nostalgia, interestingly, seems to look more like Stranger Things rather than, say, a Buffy reboot...ie., coming from an earlier point in a Gen X geek's life.)Generation Z, just now graduating college, is similar to X in terms of size. The millennials are now mostly 24-26--the biggest chunk of that cohort, even though the oldest ones are approaching 40--and I think we'll see 5e continue to grow for another 3-5 years. I'd be a little nervous about 2025, though, if I were a WOTC product manager. The first shifts in tastes and behavior--and they will come--will probably start to show up around then, typically too subtly to notice until it's too late.
    1. Joe Pilkus's Avatar
      Joe Pilkus -
      Interestingly, when 3 and subsequently 3.5 came out, I found no less than a dozen aspects of the game that we had house ruled back in the late 80s/early 90s, which became canon so many years later, including combining like-types of weapons, Bonus spells for High Intelligence, akin to the Clerics; pushing down the bar to entry for attribute bonuses; max hit points at first level, etc. Kudos to those who crafted 3/3.5 as they are the hallmark in my opinion of the D&D world. While we do not speak of 4th edition, I admire 5th Ed for its presentation and ability to get new players to the table. As a player and DM for nearly 40 years, I'm impressed!
    1. kenmarable's Avatar
      kenmarable -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vyvyan Basterd View Post
      We always pronounced it THAY-CO, rhymes with Waco (Texas).
      Same here.
    1. scourger's Avatar
      scourger -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jonathan Tweet View Post
      Omega World: It has a special spot in my heart. I guess I'll cover it.
      Me, too. Thanks. Looking forward to it.
    1. scourger's Avatar
      scourger -
      Quote Originally Posted by GreyLord View Post
      I still love Omega world. My favorite of the Gamma world types.
      Ditto.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vyvyan Basterd View Post
      We always pronounced it THAY-CO, rhymes with Waco (Texas).
      Ok. Next question: how do you pronounce Waco (Texas)?
    1. Vyvyan Basterd's Avatar
      Vyvyan Basterd -
      Quote Originally Posted by Morrus View Post
      Ok. Next question: how do you pronounce Waco (Texas)?
      Way-Co
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Vyvyan Basterd View Post
      Way-Co
      See, I saw that and thought “Whacko!”
    1. Vanveen's Avatar
      Vanveen -
      THACO rhymes with Thwack-O. Easy to remember.

      Now if you'll excuse me I'll find a jif that expresses this in amusing pop-culture form.
    1. Mistwell's Avatar
      Mistwell -
      Quote Originally Posted by DerKastellan View Post
      I think each edition of D&D has its virtues and its original sin.

      AD&D 1e: collected the rules in a more organized manner and explained how to run games BUT it abandoned the spirit of "It's your game, make it your own." and moved strongly toward "Play it like I write it, that's best for you." (This is rather well-described in "Dave Arneson't True Genius".)

      AD&D 2e: re-balanced many parts of the game and cut down the rules hodge podge of 1e where e.g. individual monsters had their own (and in my opinion, "improvable") rules. Just as 1e was more designed than original/classical D&D, 2e took it a lot more towards a well-edited game... BUT it changed the fundamental flow of the game by rewarding killing monsters and made it the main activity. (It also introduced feat/proficiency/kit creep but at least it was optional.)(Many people commented that they removed stuff like demons and depictions of summoning circles, making the game bland. I personally wouldn't miss that because it doesn't feature much in my games, YMMV.)

      D&D 3e: introduced, like the AngryGM recently wrote, the single central resolution mechanic. Quite cool stuff and most people would not want to go back before that... BUT it made feats part of the central game, making mechanical building of characters and pre-planning their advances part of D&D. In my opinion it did not add that much to variety because many options were discarded over more powerful ones, and the slew of prestige classes and feats, etc... just too much, just too mechanical. Etc...I personally don't like 3e or Pathfinder much. They certainly did matter for the evolution of D&D and RPG game design but also go away from anything remotely simple. I doubt anyone ever spent as much time looking at their character sheet before 3e as ever after. That's why I call my "BUT"s original sins. You were stuck with them after, they never went away.

      Monster-killing is now core and center in D&D. Thanks 2e. And no edition since 3e has dared to keep characters even remotely as simple as before 3e. Dungeon Crawl Classics is a good example how the raw power of 3e's core can be combined with a select few mechanics to create a slim D&D experience powerhouse. Because it's 3e without exploding feat-mania on top. (Except magic. Every D&D-like game has broken magic. And 6e won't fix that.)

      Every such lesson is learned the hard way. I'm glad people can take from OGL 3e and 5e what they need to build new games because many good ideas are contained within the history of D&D.I might not like playing 3e (simply because tastes vary), but I'm glad it was made and exists.
      Fixed it for readability.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      Quote Originally Posted by DEFCON 1 View Post
      Who the heck would want to eat tacos while reading a book of that size? You're just asking to stain the pages when all the tacos stuff falls out onto it while you're eating!
      And yet even then the book would remain intact. Those things were built like friggin' tanks.

      (In a bizarre coincidence, I am right now eating tacos as I read through my 1E DMG.)
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      Quote Originally Posted by kenmarable View Post
      Like, if they were these strange creatures, they wouldn't call themselves something as lame as "devils."
      Whereas I think that any Demon or Devil worth its salt would absolutely revel in the name, and all of the historical, cultural, and religious connotations that come with it. Some rando peasant isn't going to have the slightest idea what in the Hell a Baatezu is, but he will damn well know what a Devil is and know to absolutely not cross it on peril of his immortal soul.

      The trouble with the terms Tanar'ri and Baatezu is what is known as "Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp" on TVTropes. Your characters are going out to hunt small, furry creatures with long ears and cotton-puff tails that hop around. Are they hunting rabbits? Nope, they're hunting smeerps! It's an attempt to gain the benefits of all the pre-existing cultural connotations of a known creature or mythological entity except, instead of calling it what it is, calling it a weird, made up science fiction name in a lazy attempt at "adding flavor."

      In other words, Baatezu "Not Devils" are a type of Evil supernatural entity known for being ruthlessly clever ultimate "evil lawyer" archetypes, infamous for making supernatural legal contracts with mortals who trade their souls in exchange for magic and temporal power... and they're from Hell where they preside over the souls of the damned (or Baator "Not Hell.") But they're not Devils... because.


      I did like how 3rd Edition handled the problem by making Tanar'ri and Baatezu specific subtypes, with the terms Demon and Devil referring to any native inhabitant of the Abyss and the Hells respectively.
    1. Oryzarius's Avatar
      Oryzarius -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      We always pronounced it thaco, as in rhyming with taco.
      Our “a” was flatter; instead the term rhymed with “wacko.”
    1. Azzy's Avatar
      Azzy -
      Quote Originally Posted by Oryzarius View Post
      Our “a” was flatter; instead the term rhymed with “wacko.”
      Same with my group.
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