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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.

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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.
 
Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Great article! It's refreshing to take a break from the "what's new" mindset and take a look back at the history of our hobby. Regarding future articles - I would love to hear Jonathan's thoughts on the D&D Chainmail game that was resurrected briefly in 2002. I played this game extensively in college and was crushed when it got cancelled after just one year. 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?
 

Travis Henry

Villager
Great to hear from JT! Thanks to Morrus for lining up these great stories.

BTW, if WotC would simply scan the M:tG RPG in-house documents and release them as PDFs in the D&D Classics section of DMsGuild, charging a few bucks for them, they'd probably make a ton of money. And could serve as a gauge of interest - or even as playtest documents for a full-blown Dominaria 5E, beyond the existing Ravnica etc.

Missed one: "TSR released Forgotten Realms, Maztica, Al-Qadim ... "...and Mystara!*

*(Jeff Grubb wrote a Mystara 2E campaign setting book which would've converted the BECMI D&D Known World setting in one go. But in a cash grab, the book was cancelled, and replaced with an unwieldy series of boxed sets, which only covered one country at a time, and which was quickly canceled.)
 
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jmucchiello

Adventurer
LARPs: LARPing represented a new point of entry into the RPG hobby, one that was apparently more popular with slightly older (college age seems so young now) fans, and less boys-only than D&D's traditional entry-level demographic (who were, again, all playing M:tG).
LARPing is as old as writing. I've seen many TV shows where people dress up in Victorian garb and pretending to be Intellectuals sipping tea and discussing Phlogiston to show these people are different. My friends in colleges were into LARPs (and Ren Faires) in the 80s. (I have very little taste for theatrics.)
 
LARPing is as old as writing.
As is any sort RP, in retrospect, if you interpret it broadly enough.

But, in the 90s, LARPGs became relatively popular (for a nerd thang), and brought a somewhate different demographic into TTRPGs, thanks to Mind's Eye Theatre and Storyteller both being WWGS products leveraging the same oWoD franchises.
 

collin

Explorer
On the converse, my gaming group back then was pretty oblivious to any disgruntlement over the removal of demons, devils, half-orcs, and assassins. We were young enough that we just thought it was cool that there was a new edition, with interior color art, even!

I had lapsed from gaming when 3e came out, and got back into gaming not long after 3e came out (like many, I think, the release of Fellowship of the Ring kindled my interest again). These days it’s pretty easy to forget how revolutionary some of the simple design decisions were. Something as simple as allowing all races to play all classes had my brain exploding with all-new character concepts.

I find it interesting that from the get-go, Wizards was trying to find a way to integrate it with Magic. It only took what, about 20 years to finally get The Guildmasters Guide to Ravnica.
I had a similar experience. I had not done any RPGing over about a 10-year period. I had enjoyed the professional look of the 2nd edition books, but the system seemed even more wonky than 1E and severely lacked elements that Jonathan Tweet mentioned. My old college buddies and I had just gotten back into AD&D about 1 year before 3rd edition came out. When 3E appeared, I was hooked once again. I bought all the books (something I had never done before) and I was all in. We have since continued playing on a semi-regular basis (opting for Pathfinder instead of 4E). I am sure that had 3E not come along, I and many other RPGers would have probably just given up the hobby and moved on to something else. For me, probably computer or on-line gaming.
 

Ath-kethin

Explorer
I would be interested in hearing about the period between 3 and 3.5 There must have been some interesting discussions with only 3 years between them.
3.5 was planned well before 3e was even released; Monte Cook wrote about it at some length back in 2003 and I believe the article was published or reposted on this very site. There was no "necessary revision," just a long(er) game marketing strategy.
 
I am sure that had 3E not come along, I and many other RPGers would have probably just given up the hobby and moved on to something else. For me, probably computer or on-line gaming.
2e lost me with the proliferation of Complete _______ books, settings I had no interest in, and the _____ Option books. It just bloated and drifted, I guess.
But, I had been a fan of Champions! for years and I was well into Storyteller, by then. 3e brought me back to D&D, but I wasn't about to leave the TTRPG hobby.

3e also shook up the hobby. It put D&D back in the industry-leader position, not just in sales but in head-space. Everyone jumped on the d20 bandwagon, rival systems & companies died on the vine.
 
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Good stuff.

As someone who grew up on 1E but didn't really explore "alternate games" until the early 90s, I remember being struck by how anachronistic 2E felt by the time we got to the 90s, especially compared to Tweet's own Ars Magica and also Talislanta. The dX + modifier vs. target number just made more sense than AD&D's THAC0.

But probably like a lot of folks who grew up on D&D, I mostly stuck with 2E because, well, it was D&D - I grew up on it and while I dabbled with other games, I always found my way back "home."

3E provided the best of both worlds: It was still "home" but with a modernized game system.

That said, the 2E era remains the Golden Age for settings - for sheer imaginative, fantasy goodness. I realize that it was simply not a lucrative approach, but the riches of the early 90s in particular was something to behold.

I have some Ars Magica questions for Mr Tweet, but I'll wait until that article.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I never noticed this problem with 2E because I was writing my own adventures with the 1E mindset. It was never problem with me. A Tanar’Ri was just a type of demon. I actually though 2E monsters were an improvement on 1E.
The reason for reskinning the lower plane denizens was stupid, but I can't really complain with the results. They came up with pretty good names as replacement for devils, demons, and daemons and up-gunned a significant number of them.
 

Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
Good stuff.

As someone who grew up on 1E but didn't really explore "alternate games" until the early 90s, I remember being struck by how anachronistic 2E felt by the time we got to the 90s
Oh yeah. I had given up of AD&D in the mid 90s after exposure to other game systems made me realize how amazingly bad some od AD&D's mechanics were. It was 3e that brought me back D&D after several years. The lead up from rumors on Eric Noah's site really hooked me.
 

Mercule

Adventurer
Very interesting. I have the same opinions about 2nd Edition (that it stripped out all the oddities, quirks, and charm that made 1st Edition flavorful and fun, while not really anything to the mix that made up for the losses) and mostly loved (and still love) 3E.
I'd never really thought of it in those terms, but I think that's a good explanation for why I always said that I "Played 1E, with bits pulled in from 2E". By the end, 95+% of the material was 2E, but I still said we were playing 1E. Because 2E was bland.
 
3.5 was planned well before 3e was even released; Monte Cook wrote about it at some length back in 2003 and I believe the article was published or reposted on this very site. There was no "necessary revision," just a long(er) game marketing strategy.
3.5, certainly at the time of its release, did NOT make everybody happy. What Monte wrote about the backlash some time after 3.5 was that, yes, an update/revision to the 3E rules was always part of the plan, but not nearly that soon. However, the bean counters jumped the gun on it when 3E profits began to slip somewhat and said, "Get new versions of everything we've done with 3E so far, and get them out there ASAP, whether anyone is actually asking for them or not, and damn the original schedule along with the torpedoes. Moar Profitts ahead!" Most people will probably admit that most of the changes for 3.5 were ultimately for the better, but at the time - if you went along with it - it meant replacing a lot of books and material that was only 3 years old at most. Many reacted to 3.5 as if it were a callous, bumbling, naked cash-grab (which due to the completely disregarded planned schedule for it, it was), even though it was then an improved set of rules from 3E.
2e lost me with the proliferation of Complete _______ books, settings I had no interest in, and the _____ Option books. It just bloated and drifted, I guess.
I particularly remember, whether accurately or not, that one of the selling points of 2E at the time was that 1E had become bloated. And it's true that 1E WAS bloated. I had... was it NINE hardcover rule books for 1E? PH, DMG, MM, UA, MMII, FF, WSG, DSG, DDG... and OA would actually make it TEN. So, buy 2E and streamline your game rules! :) Truly ironic to me that 2E then became truly renowned for its uncontrolled bloat of rules supplements.

3e also shook up the hobby. It put D&D back in the industry-leader position, not just in sales but in head-space. Everyone jumped on the d20 bandwagon, rival systems & companies died on the vine.
I'd say it shook the hobby into a corner. It did seem to become a situation where if it wasn't d20 it wasn't viable; that there was simply no room for ANY game, for any IP, if it wasn't based on d20. As you say, rival systems and companies just faded away as the juggernaut plowed through. Really, I don't think that was the best thing for the hobby even if it needed shaking up, and I'm not so sure it did. Competition is what drives improvements, not one-size-fits-all. A better system to lead not only D&D but the general hobby out of TSR's demise? Sure. But not to end up sweeping all non-conforming alternatives aside with its OVER-dominance for so long the way it did.
 

MartyW

Explorer
I hard disagree about 2e. For me, 2e fixed almost everything that annoyed me about AD&D’s hodgepodge rules.

And while the setting bloat didn’t help TSR’s issues, it was largely other product lines that ultimately sank the ship — Amazing Engine, Dragon Dice, Spellfire, and other not-D&D products.
 
Most people will probably admit that most of the changes for 3.5 were ultimately for the better
Yeah, most likely. But I'm not most people, and I'll happily play 3.0 over 3.5 given the chance. (Which, hmmm... I've had maybe once since 3.5 dropped... sigh)

I particularly remember, whether accurately or not, that one of the selling points of 2E at the time was that 1E had become bloated. And it's true that 1E WAS bloated.
I don't remember that. 1e's pace of publication was pretty stately, book a year, at first - at first they'd like, use the proceeds of one book to get the next published. The quality of the later books sure weren't inspiring.
But, 1e was /very/ confused and inconsistent, and in dire need of errata for a decade before 2e.

So, buy 2E and streamline your game rules! :) Truly ironic to me that 2E then became truly renowned for its uncontrolled bloat of rules supplements.
The presentation was streamlined anyway. At first.

I'd say it shook the hobby into a corner. It did seem to become a situation where if it wasn't d20 it wasn't viable; that there was simply no room for ANY game, for any IP, if it wasn't based on d20. As you say, rival systems and companies just faded away as the juggernaut plowed through. Really, I don't think that was the best thing for the hobby even if it needed shaking up, and I'm not so sure it did. Competition is what drives improvements, not one-size-fits-all. A better system to lead not only D&D but the general hobby out of TSR's demise? Sure. But not to end up sweeping all non-conforming alternatives aside with its OVER-dominance for so long the way it did.
It's one of those alternate-history things we'll never know.

It seemed like WWGS/Storyteller was on top of a shrinking/increasingly-niche TTRPG industry as TSR went under and CCGs dominated with the younger set. If TSR has been bought by someone disinterested in D&D (what for, who knows) and the property buried for a decade or two, what would have happened?
Well, I think the WWGS/STorteller/oWoD phenom would still have imploded. The post-9/11 zeitgeist just didn't have room for all the dark supernatural conspiracy anti-establishment X-Files angst. (I hope it's been long enough: when you think about it, some of the 'good guy' factions in the oWoD should have been jumping for joy over 9/11.)

So who would have filled that vacuum? SJG?
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
The real selling point of 2E was cleaning up some of the stupider rules in 1E. And some of them were (the attack chart with 6 20s in a row???) and some of them weren't (exceptional strength (and dex and con for the cavalier)).

Nobody I knew would use the complete books. They were completely unbalanced. Nobody I knew bought more than 2 of them before figuring out they weren't worth it. Local DMs shunned them.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
The real selling point of 2E was cleaning up some of the stupider rules in 1E. And some of them were (the attack chart with 6 20s in a row???) and some of them weren't (exceptional strength (and dex and con for the cavalier)).

Nobody I knew would use the complete books. They were completely unbalanced. Nobody I knew bought more than 2 of them before figuring out they weren't worth it. Local DMs shunned them.
You missed out. There was a lot of unevenness in the line, sometimes even in the same book early on. But some were quite good and offered useful alternatives for underperforming classes like the bard.
 
It seemed like WWGS/Storyteller was on top of a shrinking/increasingly-niche TTRPG industry as TSR went under and CCGs dominated with the younger set. If TSR has been bought by someone disinterested in D&D (what for, who knows) and the property buried for a decade or two, what would have happened?
I would say that what would have happened would still be VERY close to what did happen. Assuming the property were buried in lawsuits and nonsense for a decade or two, I think it quite likely that the guys at Wizards, being fans of D&D - and that being what led them to want to RESCUE it from burial for a decade or two - would simply have written a new RPG that looked just like 3E, and then just given it some other name. The people who had become interested in 3E as it was in development would still have been interested in it under another name. And here's the thing I've repeated for years - no rpg has an expiration date. Just because there may not have been a company formally publishing D&D stuff wouldn't have stopped anybody's game in progress, nor prevented anyone from starting another one, nor buying used books, etc. In fact, it may have been a great catalyst for unchecked internet creativity. With the IP of D&D being buried in legal limbo nobody would likely be in a position to be sending C&D's to people making their modules freely available, or character sheets, or campaign settings, or redrawing a map of Greyhawk or... I'd guess that it would have been open season, the inmates running the asylum, short of somebody just reprinting the 1E PH as-is and trying to sell it.

So who would have filled that vacuum? SJG?
Personally I'd doubt that. GURPS has its fans as just about any RPG, but my perception of SJG has always been that they're an also-ran. In the sudden absence of "official" support for D&D certainly ALL other RPG's would see some amount of benefit, but as I said, no RPG has an expiration date. Simply being forced to now create your own new D&D adventures from your own imagination rather than buy them is closer to how the game began and was intended anyway.

But, yeah. All still just speculation.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Interesting. We just kept playing from original D&D to 1E to 2E ignoring what we didn't like and including what we did. And, of course, homebrewing away. The first major change I took note of that required significant changes in my setting was for D&D 3E. And I liked large parts of it and decided it was worth the effort. 3.5 was a minor upgrade. And kept a lot of the fluff and homebrew developed over the years... 5E has been pretty easy as new editions go.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
I started Red Box basic, but never played a lot - lack of ability to find players. Then some AD&D. But I really cut my teeth on AD&D 2nd and played the heck out of it - 14+ hour marathons every weekend at times. I felt it cleaned up a lot of the crazy mechanics of AD&D, and then added a huge amount of character customization with Skills & Powers and the other Options books. But I played with a DM who swept away the blandness, and also both wanted to and was good at running high powered games.

Of course, I loved 3.0 when it came out. Started to run a game with our Session 0 (before it was cool) after the PHB was released but before all three core books were out. It eventually morphed to 3.5 (it ran 5 years0) and then had a 7 year follow up campaign in the same world, 80 years later.

4e I played multiple campaigns but never ran. 5e I played and run, but my current sweet spot for running a D&D-like game is his & Rob Heinsoo's 13th Age. Came out a bit before 5e and had a lot the the streamlined sensibilities but more narrative hooks.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
You missed out. There was a lot of unevenness in the line, sometimes even in the same book early on. But some were quite good and offered useful alternatives for underperforming classes like the bard.
It's a long time since I've thought about it but the Elves book was over the top and everyone wanted to use it. Never saw the Bard book. Those books were so uneven, it wasn't worth thinking about it.
 

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