3E and the Feel of D&D

For 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the big picture was to return the game to its roots, reversing the direction that 2nd Edition had taken in making the game more generic. The plan was to strongly support the idea that the characters were D&D characters in a D&D world. We emphasized adventuring and in particular dungeoneering, both with the rules and with the adventure path modules. We intentionally brought players back to a shared experience after 2E had sent them off in different directions.

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To keep the focus on adventuring, we eliminated several elements from 2E that, we thought, tended to take players off course. In particular, we removed evil PCs, individual XP awards, strongholds, and the class name “thief.”

Thieves were renamed “rogues” to take the emphasis off of them going off on their own to steal random items from NPCs. Doing so usually amounted to stealing spotlight time and the DM’s attention away from the other players. If thieves stole from other PCs in order to be “in character,” that was even worse.

Starting in original D&D, top-level fighters and clerics could build strongholds, and we dropped that. If you have had fun playing your character as an adventurer for level after level, why would you suddenly want to take on non-adventuring duties at 9th level? These strongholds were styled as benefits, so if you didn’t start one, you were losing a bonus that you’d apparently earned. Running a stronghold was also an individual activity, not something a party did. Worse, if players wanted their characters to run strongholds for fun, why force them to adventure until they reached 9th level first? In my personal 3E campaign, I gave the party the option to rule from a fort on the frontier when the characters were 6th level, and they took it. It was a project that they undertook as a party, like the rest of their adventuring careers.

We got rid of individual XP awards, which rewarded different classes for doing different things. Fighters got bonus experience for killing monsters, for example, and thieves got experience for stealing things. It looked good on paper, but it rewarded characters for pursuing different goals. We were trying to get players to pursue the same goals, especially those that involved kicking open doors and fighting what was on the other side.

Evil characters in D&D can be traced back to Chainmail, a miniatures game in which playing an evil army was routine. Having good and evil characters together in a party led to problems and sometimes hard feelings. In a lunchtime 2E campaign at Wizards, an evil character sold fake magic items to other characters; the players who got scammed were not amused. During a playtest of 3E, one of the designers secretly created an evil character who, at the end of the session, turned on the rest of us. It was a test of sorts, and the result of the test was that evil characters didn’t make the experience better. 3E established the expectation that PCs would be neutral or good, one of the rare instances of us narrowing the players’ options instead of expanding them.

Personally, one part of the process I enjoyed was describing the world of D&D in its own terms, rather than referring to real-world history and mythology. When writing roleplaying games, I enjoy helping the player get immersed in the setting, and I always found these references to the real world to be distractions. In the Player’s Handbook, the text and art focused the readers’ imaginations on the D&D experiences, starting with an in-world paragraph to introduce each chapter.

In 2nd Ed, the rules referred to history and to historical legends to describe the game, such as referring to Merlin to explain what a wizard was or to Hiawatha as an archetype for a fighter. But by the time we were working on 3rd Ed, D&D had had such a big impact on fantasy that we basically used D&D as its own source. For example, 2E took monks out of the Player’s Handbook, in part because martial artist monks have no real place in medieval fantasy. We put them back in because monks sure have a place in D&D fantasy. The same goes for gnomes. The 3E gnome is there because the gnome was well-established in D&D lore, not in order to represent real-world mythology.

We also emphasized adventuring by creating a standard or “iconic” adventurer for each class. In the rule examples, in the illustrations, and in the in-world prose, we referred to these adventurers, especially Tordek (dwarf fighter), Mialee (elf wizard), Jozan (human cleric), and Lidda (halfling rogue). While AD&D used proper names to identify supremely powerful wizards, such as Bigby of the spell Bigby’s crushing hand, we used proper names to keep the attention on adventurers, even down to a typical 1st-level fighter.

For the art in 3E, we took pains to have it seem to illustrate not fantasy characters in general but D&D adventurers in particular. For one thing, lots of them wore backpacks. For the iconic characters, we wrote up the sort of gear that a 1st-level character might start with, and the illustrations showed them with that gear. The illustrations in the 2E Player’s Handbook feature lots of human fighters, human wizards, and castles. Those images reflect standard fantasy tropes, while the art in 3E reflects what you see in your mind’s eye when you play D&D.

Descriptions of weapons in 2E referred to historical precedents, such as whether a weapon was use in the European Renaissance or in Egypt. With almost 20 different polearms, the weapon list reflected soldiers on a medieval battlefield more than a heterogenous party of adventurers delving into a dungeon. We dropped the historical references, such as the Lucerne hammer, and gave dwarves the dwarven warax. And if the dwarven warax isn’t cool enough, how would you like a double sword or maybe a spiked chain?

The gods in 2E were generic, such as the god of strength. We pulled in the Greyhawk deities so we could use proper names and specific holy symbols that were part of the D&D heritage. We knew that plenty of Dungeon Masters would create their own worlds and deities, as I did for my home campaign, but the Greyhawk deities made the game feel more connected to its own roots. They also helped us give players a unified starting point, which was part of Ryan Dancey’s plan to bring the D&D audience back to a shared experience.

Fans were enthusiastic about the way 3E validated adventuring, the core experience that D&D does best and that appeals most broadly. We were fortunate that by 2000 D&D had such a strong legacy that it could stand on its own without reference to Earth history or mythology. One reason that fans were willing to accept sweeping changes to the rules was that 3E felt more like D&D than 2nd Edition had. Sometimes I wonder what 4E could have accomplished if it had likewise tried to reinforce the D&D experience rather than trying to redesign it.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Jonathan Tweet

Adventurer
Strongholds - funny they dropped Strongholds as disruptive while including the vastly more disruptive Leadership feat! An optional free 'benefit' wreaks far less havoc than a Feat that specifically entitles a PC to a horde of followers and a Cohort who may be more powerful than some of the other PCs... :p
Yeah, strange. 3.5 didn't make me happy in every way.
 

Greg K

Adventurer
While, in general, I thought many of 3e's underlying core mechanics (e.g., unified mechanics, , unified experience progression, 3 saves, skill points) were an improvement, I disliked the fantasy that they put on top of them. I had to house rule out halfling riding dogs, elven thinblades, spiked chains, orgosh, sunrods, tanglefoot bags, thunderstones, etc.. I also had to make it clear to new players that many of the PrCs such as the Shadowdancer were banned. These things were definitely not the D&D fantasy that my friends and I played using 1e or early to mid 2e (before dropping D&D) or even the fantasy that we wanted to play). I had to turn to optional rules and variants in the 3.0 DMG, 3.5 Unearthed Arcana,, and third party material to "restore" the fantasy and some of the mechanics of D&D as we played it, but were rejected by the 3e designers. I also had to ban most WotC supplements to maintain that fantasy and cap the game around level 10-12 (I still do, if and when I run, 3e). To be fair, I also dislike the default fantasy feel of 4e and 5e WOTC.

I had other non-mechanical issues with 3e. There was the art which has been mentioned by others (I prefer the art on the cover of the original G series modules, the original 1e PHB by Trampier, and many of the 1e Dragon Magazine covers from issue 45-100 (and probably some after) , the artwork of Caldwell and Parkinson)
I was also disappointment with the 3e Greyhawk pantheon in the core rules which was mixed Gygax's Greyhawk pantheon with Len Lakofkas' Suel pantheon while leaving several of the Gary's Greyhawk deities by the wayside (until a 3.5 supplement).
 
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Bacon Bits

Adventurer
At this point it's easy to look back at 3e and it's easy to see the flaws. But I remember when the game first came out and it was such a vast improvement to gameplay. d20 was nothing less than a revolution for TTRPGs. Gone were the thousand little systems that each functioned totally independently. We lost how arcane the game felt, but it turns out that arcane feel wasn't to the game's benefit. The game didn't feel arcane because it was special; it felt arcane because the rules didn't make any sense. There was no way to get a feel for what the game's expectations were in AD&D. You just did what the book said because the book said it. With 3e, you started to get a glimpse behind the curtain into how the mechanics should work. Suddenly you could take experience and insight that you got from playing the game and translate that into how new things should work.

For the most part, I liked the art. I don't think it will be as enduring an art style as 2e AD&D, but it was interesting in it's own way.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
The strategy to refocus the audience on a shared experience was an important part of turning the game around, but I agree that we lost something in the process.
I think the publisher pretty much always has to do that at an edition change, while it's in the interest of individual campaigns to move into their own directions, particularly the kind of long-running and heavily customized campaigns many of us here do, and, of course, many other folks don't. You guys did a pretty massive undertaking!

The PH rules apply to NPCs, too. We used Craft and Profession primarily as ways to rate NPCs.
That makes a lot of sense. One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of 3E was the degree to which everything ran according to the same sets of rules. This was really cool in a way, but also got to be a real burden if a DM felt that everything needed to be run in a book-legal fashion. It also encouraged things like item creation that made items feel very blasé. (4E had issues in different respects but ended up making items feel even more blasé.)
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
We did this for 1e and 2e as well. If my THACO was 13 and I rolled a total of 15, I would announce, "I hit AC -2" and let the DM tell me if I hit or not.
That's exactly what we don't do.

Why? Because saying it that way adds a degree of complication for the DM, who instead needs to know what number you added up to; so she can then apply any unknown bonuses/penalties (very common) before even getting to the target's AC.

Put another way: I don't care what AC you think you hit, I only want to know what your roll adds up to. I'll do the rest myself. (this is also why we've never ever used THAC0 - it adds an unnecessary layer of complication as the DM then has to unpack the AC you say you hit into actual numbers before doing the normal arithmetic on it)

Also, the combat matrix isn't player-side information.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That makes a lot of sense. One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of 3E was the degree to which everything ran according to the same sets of rules.
Agreed; it baked in the idea of the setting being consistent with itself and the PCs by extension being consistent with the setting. Should have been (and still be!) this way all along!

It also encouraged things like item creation that made items feel very blasé.
This is a completely separate issue.

Putting item creation into the realm of something PCs could (relatively) easily do isn't related to having everything run on the same chassis. Instead, IMO it's an error in the chassis itself: item creation in general should never have been made so quick and easy. If you-as-PC want to make anything more complicated than a common scroll or potion then you're faced with a choice: take half a year or more off from adventuring to create it, or carry on without it.

This way, item creation can be put in the background as something only NPCs do; and if PCs want customized items they can commission an NPC artificer to build it/them while they keep on adventuring in the meantime.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Agreed; it baked in the idea of the setting being consistent with itself and the PCs by extension being consistent with the setting. Should have been (and still be!) this way all along!
As with everything there are tradeoffs.

Having monsters build with the same rules as PCs adds a whole lot of burden to the DM or else the DM just ignores it. I know when I ran 3.5, I tended to ignore a lot of the stat block quite a bit, but I know someone else who felt he really had to work every monster out according to the rules, which seems to me to be... a lot of work.

Every other edition of the game had a gap between monster and PC rules.

Putting item creation into the realm of something PCs could (relatively) easily do isn't related to having everything run on the same chassis. Instead, IMO it's an error in the chassis itself: item creation in general should never have been made so quick and easy. <...> This way, item creation can be put in the background as something only NPCs do; and if PCs want customized items they can commission an NPC artificer to build it/them while they keep on adventuring in the meantime.
That's one way of handling it. However, I do think item creation really was a way to have the rules be stated explicitly. I get what they were trying to do and in many ways support the idea, but it, unfortunately, did have the effect of trivializing many items.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Every other edition of the game had a gap between monster and PC rules.
Monsters are one thing - particularly the non-humanoid ones can be different just because of what they are, no real problem there.

What's important is having NPC Elves and Dwarves and Humans etc. and PC Elves and Dwarves and Humans etc. be consistent with each other.

That's one way of handling it. However, I do think item creation really was a way to have the rules be stated explicitly. I get what they were trying to do and in many ways support the idea, but it, unfortunately, did have the effect of trivializing many items.
That was a general trend with 3e, to be sure: take things that had previously been vague and-or DM-side and both hard-code them and put them player-side.

In some instances, this worked out OK. In others - of which item creation is one - it didn't; be it due to an error in the hard-coding (as noted earlier) or by not leaving it DM-side and thus malleable by table.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Monsters are one thing - particularly the non-humanoid ones can be different just because of what they are, no real problem there.
Of course that's not what happened in 3E.

What's important is having NPC Elves and Dwarves and Humans etc. and PC Elves and Dwarves and Humans etc. be consistent with each other.
I agree, though only to some extent. One could always use the PC creation rules and, in fact, we often did exactly that with important NPCs back in the day.

That was a general trend with 3e, to be sure: take things that had previously been vague and-or DM-side and both hard-code them and put them player-side.
Yep, this was very much what was going on. 4E went even further, of course, although it backed away from having everybody in the world being built on the same stats.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
Of course that's not what happened in 3E.


I agree, though only to some extent. One could always use the PC creation rules and, in fact, we often did exactly that with important NPCs back in the day.


Yep, this was very much what was going on. 4E went even further, of course, although it backed away from having everybody in the world being built on the same stats.
well a 100 year old elf may be very different from a 1000 year old. There may be things Other than character class to factor in.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
well a 100 year old elf may be very different from a 1000 year old. There may be things Other than character class to factor in.
Good point, although one can often handle that simply by making them higher level and/or have more items. I was thinking more of peers or near-peers of the PCs.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Why? Because saying it that way adds a degree of complication for the DM, who instead needs to know what number you added up to; so she can then apply any unknown bonuses/penalties (very common) before even getting to the target's AC.

Put another way: I don't care what AC you think you hit, I only want to know what your roll adds up to. I'll do the rest myself. (this is also why we've never ever used THAC0 - it adds an unnecessary layer of complication as the DM then has to unpack the AC you say you hit into actual numbers before doing the normal arithmetic on it)
See, if they told me -2 and there was a penalty of 3, I'd just do a quick adjustment and apply AC 1 to the critter. Them doing the first portion made my life much easier. I'm already tracking a bunch of things they don't know about and the less extra stuff I have to do, the better.
 

Celebrim

Legend
That's exactly what we don't do.

Why? Because saying it that way adds a degree of complication for the DM, who instead needs to know what number you added up to; so she can then apply any unknown bonuses/penalties (very common) before even getting to the target's AC.

Put another way: I don't care what AC you think you hit, I only want to know what your roll adds up to.
I went further. I don't care what you think your roll added up to. Just tell me what you rolled.

I made up charts for each PC showing what a particular roll would hit with all their bonuses factored in. This saved the inevitable repetitive math of going, "I rolled a 7, +1 for my strength bonus, that's an 8, +1 for being specialized, 9, +3 for my sword 12." The only bonuses that needed tracking were any transient ones from spells and the like, and those tended to be rather rare compared to 3e because direct attacks were so much more profitable in 1e compared to buffing allies.

Thus streamlined, it was by far the fastest combat I've ever run.
 

Hussar

Legend
Huh, I found having the characters announce what AC they hit to be the fastest. Made things very simple. Write down your bonuses with that weapon, WITH that weapon and then just roll. Easy peasy. So, my longsword+1 with specs and Str bonus had a +4 attack bonus, so, just compare to Thac0. Means that the DM doesn't have to do anything.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Putting item creation into the realm of something PCs could (relatively) easily do isn't related to having everything run on the same chassis. Instead, IMO it's an error in the chassis itself: item creation in general should never have been made so quick and easy. If you-as-PC want to make anything more complicated than a common scroll or potion then you're faced with a choice: take half a year or more off from adventuring to create it, or carry on without it.
There is a bigger problem. By putting item creation in the hands of the PCs they effectively made item creation a subsystem of character creation. But D&D had never before cared about 'accurate' prices for magic items that properly weighed their exact worth. Once item creation was in the hands of the PC's, they needed a highly balanced, well tuned system for gauging the impact of an item on game play, and what instead they had was a rough estimate based on some gut checks and little in the way of actual play testing or thinking things out. What was needed was to actually spend just as much time play testing magic item creation as was spent on all of character generation, but that was not going to happen.

Compound the problem with the fact that as part of its 1e emulation, 3e had more or less imported spells from AD&D in a way designed to be as familiar as possible to former players, which meant not adjusting the level of problematic spells like Invisibility and Fly. Add to that that as an oversight, they allowed the creation of divine wands (something that didn't really exist in earlier editions) and you had the recipe for widespread abuse of the system.

While adjusting the difficulty wholesale might seem like a fix to the issue, all you are really doing is trying to metagame the problem away. You don't actually fix the problem unless you scale costs to benefits.

As one example of what the system fails to account for, it fails to account for the fact that spells have different duration so converting spells with short duration to items which have long duration, is a massive benefit compared converting a spell that already has a long duration into an item.
 

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