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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

ddaley

Explorer
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.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
Note from Morrus: This is the first article in a monthly column from WotC alumni Jonathan Tweet.

Here, here!

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.
More fuel for my 3e reboot theory...

Folks bemoan THAC0 (and they will do so in reply to this comment) but I never had an issue with it. . .
Was 2E perfect? Nope.
Oh, gods! Not THAC0! That was horrible! SUBTRACTION? Argh!! ;)
2e wasn't perfect, but that didn't stop me from keeping a 2e monster manual for use in every game (including non-D&D) since. That was a worthy investment.
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
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.
I still love Omega world. My favorite of the Gamma world types.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Oh, gods! Not THAC0! That was horrible! SUBTRACTION? Argh!! ;)
It does have serious usabilty problems but, don't forget, it freed us up from using a look-up table to determine if an AC was hit or not. It was definitely an advancement, but the stronger usability enhancement was turning AC around altogether.
 

Greg K

Adventurer
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.
It is always interesting to see people with different experiences. Where I am from, we used the Complete Fighter's Handbook, the Complete Thief's Handbook, The Complete Priest's Handbook, Complete Bard's Handbook, The Complete Druid's Handbook, The Complete Ranger's Handbook. Now, we did not, necessarily use everything from those books. The kits in the Fighter's Handbooks were ignored or altered on a kit by kit basis. The Bard kits were completely off limits as were most or all of the Ranger kits (the Greenwood Ranger was always forbidden). As for the Complete Priest's Handbook, that was always limited, primarily, to being a DM tool for campaign building.
 

Greg K

Adventurer
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.
I didn't like weapons reduced to Simple and Martial Weapons categories. I preferred the weapon groups from 2e (from Complete Fighter's Handbook, iirc) and 3e's Unearthed Arcana. However, I don't want to see AD&D "to hit" modifiers return. Even Gary didn't use the one's that he included in AD&D 1e. On the other hand, I am for differentiation of weapons by giving them different properties such as has been done in EN5ider and various other third party products.
 

StevenOs

Villager
I remember thinking AD&D was certainly good enough and not wanting to go into 3e. What really changed my mind when when Dungeon Magazine made the switch in systems so I needed the new system if I wanted to continue to get the most out of my subscription. When DnD moved from 3.5 to 4e that same thing did NOT happen and with it my pursuit of DnD mostly ended although I have recently picked up some 5e again.
 
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).
Now, this is some interesting and totally unexpected piece of history! I still think Spellfire is awful, but that's just me, I guess.
 

Tony Vargas

Adventurer
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.
Thank you for having the courtesy to specify that it was only the combat system that was a boardgame-like, rather than calling the whole TTRPG 'a board game' as so many people seem to shortcut to doing.

But, to be fair, most of the grid-enabled range/area, movement/positioning innovations in 3e were built on 2e's C&T, and most of those were trying to make the wargame-like combat system of the earlier TSR era easier to use.

(Or maybe that was your point. Old-school wargamers could get snippy about games that used a mere folding paper map and cardboard chits rather than a proper sandtable with terrain features and miniatures.)

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
Hey, adventurers wander around a dangerous world, fighting monsters, and they gain levels. A merchant transporting goods around a dangerous world is going to have to fight monsters, and bandits, and adventurers if he doesn't hire them to be his stereotypical caravan guards (and maybe even if he does).
 

Aaron L

Registered User
Speaking as someone who never played 1E (went from BECMI to 2E), I personally loved 2E. I did have the 1E DMG before I had the 2E one, so I used the magic items from that, but I loved the flavor of 2E. However, I definitely understand how they hung themselves with supplement after supplement... 3E and even 4E had a lot of books being churned out as well, but they didn't cannibalize each other like 2E did.

Though I do love all of the settings and supplements of 2E and mining what I wanted from them...
If you've never read the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, you should track down a copy as soon as possible and read it cover to cover. Every RPG player, no matter what game they play, should read that book. So much densely packed information!
 

DEFCON 1

Hero
You can do so, just make sure you've added your local taco delivery service to your contacts list. You'll be needing it. Repeatedly.
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! ;)
 

kenmarable

Explorer
I really like these articles! Thank you mr. Tweet!

However - and I must be the only one thinking like that - I really liked AD&D 2e’s take on the demons and devils. I like their names, I like DiTerlizi’s uniform looks, i like 2E’s attempt at rationalizing them with (somewhat) consistent lore. I like that demons and devils were just the names that mortals gave them

[edit] hum, apparently I’m not the only one...

And while i now understand how unsustainable releasing mounds of different settings must have been, I always appreciated them in a “this is how you make your own campaign setting kids!” kind of way.
Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one that liked the names Tanar'ri and Baatezu.
Pretty clearly there are several of us. Personally, even if the motivation behind the change was dumb, I loved that change! As a teen playing AD&D, calling them demons, devils, and angels was boooooooring and they were so cliched in movies, books, etc. I still get bored every time I call them "demons" even in 5e.

But tanar'ri, baatezu, aasimon... that made them seem far more unique and interesting. Like, if they were these strange creatures, they wouldn't call themselves something as lame as "devils." :)
 

kenmarable

Explorer
Oh, gods! Not THAC0! That was horrible! SUBTRACTION? Argh!! ;)
THAC0 on it's own wasn't so bad (other than from the start looking a lot like a sensible system that was flipped upside down for no reason*). Part of the problem that, I think 3e did an incredible job in solving in an obvious way, was that the AD&D math was all over the place. To hit you wanted to roll high on a d20, saving throws you wanted to roll low on a d20, skill checks (thieves only) were d100 and (I think) you wanted to roll low? But ability checks were back to d20s and rolling low, unless it was bend bars & lift gates, which was based on your strength but rolling d100 (and don't forget that if your strength - and only your strength - was 18, you also had a percentage with it)...

A powerful character had high ability scores, low THAC0, high saving throws, negative AC, etc...

Whenever we introduced a new player to AD&D, we literally had to draw up and down arrows next to everything to help them learn which you wanted to roll high and which you wanted to roll low. The simple, consistent-across-the-board d20 mechanic is probably the greatest innovation in all of D&D (after it's initial creation, of course).



* Subtracting a negative AC by adding it to your THAC0 to find out what number you needed to roll is simple grade school math - but it was also, even obviously back then, a bass ackwards way of doing it that was more complicated than it needed to be! :)
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Mistwell

Adventurer
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! ;)
Pretty clearly there are several of us.
Just wanted to point out your post, Ken, came right after Defcons. So it looked to me like you're raising your hand saying, "Heck yes many of us want to eat tacos while reading the DMG!"
 

kenmarable

Explorer
Just wanted to point out your post, Ken, came right after Defcons. So it looked to me like you're raising your hand saying, "Heck yes many of us want to eat tacos while reading the DMG!"
Haha!

Well, I know some of my old AD&D books likely have a grease spot or three in their pages - although more likely from pizza than tacos. I do miss those high school Friday nights in my friends' basements and "everyone throw in for pizza and pop, DM doesn't have to pay."
 

GreyLord

Adventurer
THAC0 on it's own wasn't so bad (other than from the start looking a lot like a sensible system that was flipped upside down for no reason*). Part of the problem that, I think 3e did an incredible job in solving in an obvious way, was that the AD&D math was all over the place. To hit you wanted to roll high on a d20, saving throws you wanted to roll low on a d20, skill checks (thieves only) were d100 and (I think) you wanted to roll low? But ability checks were back to d20s and rolling low, unless it was bend bars & lift gates, which was based on your strength but rolling d100 (and don't forget that if your strength - and only your strength - was 18, you also had a percentage with it)...

A powerful character had high ability scores, low THAC0, high saving throws, negative AC, etc...

Whenever we introduced a new player to AD&D, we literally had to draw up and down arrows next to everything to help them learn which you wanted to roll high and which you wanted to roll low. The simple, consistent-across-the-board d20 mechanic is probably the greatest innovation in all of D&D (after it's initial creation, of course).



* Subtracting a negative AC by adding it to your THAC0 to find out what number you needed to roll is simple grade school math - but it was also, even obviously back then, a bass ackwards way of doing it that was more complicated than it needed to be! :)
You'd actually want to roll HIGH for saving Throws. Your Saving Throws at first were normally between 10 and 18, and you wanted to roll over whatever number they were (or die instantly in some cases).

As you went up in levels, the number you had to roll over normally decreased.

For Thieves skills, you got it right, you wanted to roll low.

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.

Later, I heard most prounouncing it THACKO when it was used in 2e.

The idea was basically the same for it in both 1e and 2e, but the math was different. I like the 2e math for THACO as it is easier to understand.

3e took the math of some (the fighter still changes 1/1 each level which I appreciate), applied it to a different class for others (Rogues were the ones that had a 1/2 betterment of THAC0 in 2e, that changed to be how it improved for Wizards and Sorcerers and other such classes in 3e), and overhauled for others (the 3/4 improvement to Attack Bonuses in 3e for Clerics, Thieves, and those between Wizards and Warriors and such).
 

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