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D&D 3E/3.5 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.


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

Jonathan Tweet

D&D 3E, Over the Edge, Everway, Ars Magica, Omega World, Grandmother Fish
So how do you think of strongholds return and become content——even bonus,in some angle——of high-level character in RPG more and more recently,such as WoW,PF:KM and series of PoE?

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I must have missed the "No evil PCs" rule change. Our group has avoided them, but they aren't forbidden.

The big change from Thief to Rogue was the change from the Thief abilities table (percentage chance of success based on level) to the skill-based model. That made it possible to have a character who specializes in stealth, or city-focused skills (open locks, pick pockets (sleight of hand), etc.), or being a dungeon scout and so forth.

Thieves/Rogues get a lot of skill points but their class is so skill focused that the typical PC can't keep all of the class-specialty skills maxed or up to date. I see that as a good thing, encouraging players to select a style and specialty to master.

The same is true of Bards: Lots of skill points, but so very few that are Charisma based and in class. In another thread someone complained about skills like Perform that seemed to fragment the focus on skills. Again, I see that as a plus: "Perform", as a generic, shouldn't make a character an expert guitarist, singer, stand up comedian, orator, poet, jusggler, singer and tightrope walker. The Player has to pick a style and an area of specialty.

But all of this adds personality, which was largely lacking in 1st Ed. I could make a Fighter of just about any level in ten minutes, with five minutes to spare. Spellcasters were the same, with the only difference being which spells they had in their books or preferred to prepare.

So in that sense it changed the feel of the game.

I seem to recall that one of the early pitches for 5e was that it was intended to depend less on rules and more on maintaining the "classic D&D feel". The problrm, of course, being that you only know what that "classic feel" was if you'd played the earlier editions. New players would be left in a wilderness.

David Howery

I admit to not being totally satisfied with any edition I've seen. 1E was the classic, of course, but lord... those 'run backwards AC', screwy surprise and initiative rules, poor organization, eventual suffering from too many added on rules books. 2E was an improvement in organization, but... no change to AC, took some classes out instead of fixing/including them, and the eventual slow death from splat books. Still, 2E did introduce some neat stuff. 3E had some stuff I liked... finally fixing the backwards AC, removing level limits... but a lot more stuff I didn't like; a lot of it struck me as a slide into munchkinism. Never saw anything to do with 3.5 or 4E. I do have the books for 5E.... it's a well set up set of rules, but again, I find that it seems to be a real slide into munchkinism. That said, it does a lot of things well, some things I wish 2E had done...


Still, 2E did introduce some neat stuff. 3E had some stuff I liked... finally fixing the backwards AC, removing level limits..

I believe it was Skip Williams in an interview a long time ago that said, "Of course we thought about ascending AC in 2e design, but we wanted existing players to be able to use all of their hard earned and purchased material alongside of 2e."

I think that was the right move.

David Howery

I believe it was Skip Williams in an interview a long time ago that said, "Of course we thought about ascending AC in 2e design, but we wanted existing players to be able to use all of their hard earned and purchased material alongside of 2e."

I think that was the right move.
probably. Still, the whole backwards AC thing annoyed me the whole time in 1E, and I was hoping to see it changed...


Arcadian Knight
You were supposed to miss it. It was subtle. There was no rule, but the descriptions of the alignments implied that evil alignments were for enemies.
Some things in D&Ds evolution seem to have been the game designers adapting to what players at large were doing already in this case I seem to recall a ton of house rulings of no evil and no stealing from the party and so on back in AD&D era even.


Victoria Rules
I thought 2e had a 'no evil PCs' rule (or very strong suggestion), and I saw it as a positive development that 3e actually seemed to back off on that a bit.

Present the game neutrally, and let people play what they want within it.


Morkus from Orkus
I thought 2e had a 'no evil PCs' rule (or very strong suggestion), and I saw it as a positive development that 3e actually seemed to back off on that a bit.

Present the game neutrally, and let people play what they want within it.
Here is what 2e said about it.

"Second, the game revolves around cooperation among everyone in the group. The character who tries to go it alone or gets everyone angry at him is likely to have a short career. Always consider the alignments of other characters in the group. Certain combinations, particularly lawful good and any sort of evil, are explosive."


"Third, some people choose to play evil alignments. Although there is no specific prohibition against this, there are several reasons why it is not a good idea."

3E brought back Half-Orcs and Assassins. These were seen as having been excluded because they were too 'evil'. It also removed some alignment restrictions (you could now have evil Rangers).

So it was seen as more open to playing evil if you wanted to, than 2E. This doesn't mean it was encouraged, so much as just not so strongly discouraged.

There's also the fact that because 3E used the same rules for PCs and Monsters, there were prestige classes for things like Blackguards. So, naturally, if there were rules for playing these things then some people were going to play them.


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