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

GreyLord

Adventurer
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.
Good point.

I just went with what I head it most as.

Originally I think many used it in the same way they had To Hit Armor Class Zero (Tac 0) or even T'hac 0, and then, by some, even THAC0 for those who even used the term. MOST (that i knew personally, which is definitely not an indicator of anything in application to a majority of players at the time) didn't even use the term related to T.H.A.C.0. for D&D and simply would say to hit or something else. Those who did could have various pronounciations, but later on I've heard it more often pronounced THACO instead as the term gained general use after 2e.

So, I went with what ws most common.

It may be related to where I was during those time periods as to why I heard the pronunciations that I did.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Good point.

I just went with what I head it most as.

Originally I think many used it in the same way they had To Hit Armor Class Zero (Tac 0) or even T'hac 0, and then, by some, even THAC0 for those who even used the term. MOST (that i knew personally, which is definitely not an indicator of anything in application to a majority of players at the time) didn't even use the term related to T.H.A.C.0. for D&D and simply would say to hit or something else. Those who did could have various pronounciations, but later on I've heard it more often pronounced THACO instead as the term gained general use after 2e.

So, I went with what ws most common.

It may be related to where I was during those time periods as to why I heard the pronunciations that I did.
Linguistic drift. In RPG spoken terminology :)

It's funny, broadcast media struck a blow at it but the written word, be it book or internet, is still subject to it. Its the type of thing which given time / distance / separation created new dialects and, eventually, languages. It would be interesting to see if it was regional, how much of it was self originated pronunciation or pronunciation heard from others...
 

chrisshorb

Explorer
I was at a meeting in Los Angeles where Ryan Dancey was telling all the local game store owners and managers about 3.0. We were all pretty excited. I did ask if there was ever going to be a Dominaria version of D and D.

His response was - by translating the top property to another medium, you could potentially do damage to the brand. Why? Because if your top brand is not the top brand in the new medium, you have damaged its “top-brandness”.

So therefore a MTG setting for D and D would have put MtG’s top-brandness at risk.

That was why they never did a D and D Dominaria setting for 20 years.
 

Azzy

Cyclone Ranger
Linguistic drift. In RPG spoken terminology :)

It's funny, broadcast media struck a blow at it but the written word, be it book or internet, is still subject to it. Its the type of thing which given time / distance / separation created new dialects and, eventually, languages. It would be interesting to see if it was regional, how much of it was self originated pronunciation or pronunciation heard from others...
My group, pronouncing it thack-o, self-originated our pronunciation as we didn't have any contact with those outside our group.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
My group, pronouncing it thack-o, self-originated our pronunciation as we didn't have any contact with those outside our group.
We pronounced it the same way, self origination on the west coast (of the U.S.). Until we were familiar with the mechanic we tended to say "to hit AC zero". We got lazier as we went :)

I had a simpler version of it (homebrewed) for original D&D. Called it "base to hit". One number was all you needed to know. And how to add or subtract. AC was in ascending numbers and you just added the AC # to the base # you needed to hit and "bingo"; you knew what you needed to roll. It didn't preserve the far end of the to hit charts where the same number was needed to hit some of the higher ACs, but it worked. I eventually got tired of introducing the same (simple I thought) idea to ensuing batches of players who were wedded to the original charts or, later, to THAC0.

*edit* for clarity.
 

Tsuga C

Explorer
Wait, did you just say something positive about weapon vs armor adjustments?

Comrade!
We didn't use them for every encounter, but as DM I did insist that they be used for all important fights (i.e. sub-bosses and bosses). Also, I kept track of how much space was available for the players and their opponents. Having a smaller, more nimble back-up weapon or two was necessary for my players because I didn't let them get away with swinging a two-handed sword or a footman's flail in extremely tight quarters. As I said previously, weapon selection needs to be made based upon more than damage output or else players always gravitate to the weapon(s) that generate the most damage to the exclusion of all else.
 

Tsuga C

Explorer
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 (?!).
The to-hit bonuses/penalties kept more of a combat simulator or wargame feel to the important encounters. There is no logic in a bo stick being just as dangerous to an opponent in full plate as a footman's flail--none.

Percentile strength scores? I'll agree with you there. Strength differences between male and female characters? I supported them and still do.

Level limits for demi-humans? The game, as duly noted by Gary Gygax, was designed to be human-centric and that was his solution to make it so. I would've preferred an experience point-type solution to slow down the progression of non-humans, but that's not what he came up with back then.

Different damage by the same weapon for size L or bigger opponents? I supported this and still do as a dagger should inflict less damage to larger creatures with thicker layers of fur, scales, hide, or blubber. If you can't get as much metal to the blood vessels and vital organs, you can't do as much damage.

AD&D made weapon selection matter. I'd like to see those rules revived in an on-line, optional supplement. It would force players to actually think a bit when equipping their characters.
 
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sphere830

Visitor
I hope he comments on why 3.0 was so profoundly half-baked that it was necessary to bring forth 3.5 a few short years after 3.0 hit the shelves.

Didn't the Monster Manual lack illustrations for at least half of the creatures in 3.0? How'd anyone consider that a good idea?

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 played Basic and then our group upgraded to AD&D, but I never did transition to 2E. By then I'd moved on from RPGs, but the introduction of the Neverwinter Nights video game by Bioware resurrected my interest in D&D. I began to peruse the literature once more and found that part of me genuinely missed tabletop gaming. I'd like to hear more about what was happening at TSR/WotC back then. Keep the exposition coming.
This arc of influences mirrors my (41 yrs of age) experience of 3rd edition D&D rekindling just how much fun table-top gaming had been when I was younger. In fact, one minor differences is that the infinity engine computer RPGs (Baldur's Gate, Torment, Icewind Dale, Fallout, etc.) kept me engaged in D&D-kind of gaming while I was away from traditional PnP.

I've been painting miniatures and gaming fairly regularly ever since. Although the last three years have been spent playing on virtual table-top with old friends that now live in different places.
 
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Narq

Visitor
Great Insight. I started playing in my teens 1ed and moving to 2ed and from my perspective they were compatible enough there was not much difference. The setting were great if albeit saturated. By the late 90's I stopped TRPGS as I felt it became monotonous something was lost in the flavor of the game for me. When 3ed came out it rekindled that and I felt it was offering something 2ed did not have and was closer to that experience I had playing 1st edition without the limitations for classes.

In retrospect looking back, each system as always had it charm, somethings it did better, some it did worse. However this less important than I think cultural changes that have influenced the way players and GM's play. Each of these games shifted from narrative/theater of the mind to tactical play and far more complexity which was both boon and hindrance. The things that I find interesting are how the style of the game has changed. Gone are the days were the struggle was real and death was a real threat. Survival seems to be more of a guarantee than object to achieve. Certainly from a GM's point of view the action economy this is much hard to balance or do on the fly than in previous editions.

Most players I think relish that save or die mechanics are rare or gone, but GM's struggle to provide a solid experience where it can appear as a true struggle (I.E the threat of failure) is even more an art than the science of mechanic's. I think the 1st and 2nd editions offered the most to the GM, the control to make it their game narrative wise and much simpler to do on the fly when the unexpected happens. 3.x, pathfinder are great systems, but I think this is why 5th has regained its popularity, not because the mechanics are better but it offers a good balance between crunch and narrative/on the fly.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The to-hit bonuses/penalties kept more of a combat simulator or wargame feel to the important encounters. There is no logic in a bo stick being just as dangerous to an opponent in full plate as a footman's flail--none.
In principle I agree, but I ditched weapon-v-armour-type mostly because I just didn't have the patience for it. :)

Percentile strength scores? I'll agree with you there.
We actually found an elegant way to both keep this and fix it at the same time. At roll-up you still roll the % just like before, but instead of 6 different gradations between flat 18 and flat 19 we spun it out so that each different gradation got its own number and the old 19 became 25. Thus, if you roll 18.41 your strength is 19 (+1/+3), on up to if you roll 18.00 your strength is 24 (+3/+6). Hill Giants are 25, and on up it goes from there.

Why did we do this? Because we wanted to expand the Cavalier's percentile stat increment system to all classes, and wanted it to interact properly with exceptional strength. Mission accomplished.

Strength differences between male and female characters? I supported them and still do.
I'd only support them if there was a corresponding difference that benefitted females e.g. they get a higher Con score. As there isn't any such corresponding difference, out they go.

Different damage by the same weapon for size L or bigger opponents? I supported this and still do as a dagger should inflict less damage to larger creatures with thicker layers of fur, scales, hide, or blubber. If you can't get as much metal to the blood vessels and vital organs, you can't do as much damage.

AD&D made weapon selection matter. I'd like to see those rules revived in an on-line, optional supplement. It would force players to actually think a bit when equipping their characters.
Now you're talking!

Also, bring back individual weapon proficiencies rather than group proficiencies - sure most warriors ended up using longsword but the advantage was that if you decided to specialize in flail instead then bam - you'd made your character stand out from the crowd.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Adventurer
Every D&D-like game has broken magic. And 6e won't fix that.
In fact, it's hard for me to play D&D and take it too seriously because per-day spells are more or less impossible to balance. The number one thing that limits PC power is limits on resting and re-upping their spells, but that limit isn't built into the system and balanced. Instead, it's an ad hoc limit set by the game-world circumstances and by how well the players beg the GM to let them rest. If the game designer can't control how many rests a party takes while undertaking an adventure, then they can't anticipate the party's power level and can't really balance the adventure.

In 13th Age, we made spell resets part of the system and under mechanical control so that we game designers can balance scenarios better.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
In fact, it's hard for me to play D&D and take it too seriously because per-day spells are more or less impossible to balance. The number one thing that limits PC power is limits on resting and re-upping their spells, but that limit isn't built into the system and balanced. Instead, it's an ad hoc limit set by the game-world circumstances and by how well the players beg the GM to let them rest. If the game designer can't control how many rests a party takes while undertaking an adventure, then they can't anticipate the party's power level and can't really balance the adventure.

In 13th Age, we made spell resets part of the system and under mechanical control so that we game designers can balance scenarios better.
I don't know, I always found it pretty easy to figure out when and where the PCs would, or would not have time or opportunity to rest and recover.
 

kenmarable

Explorer
I don't know, I always found it pretty easy to figure out when and where the PCs would, or would not have time or opportunity to rest and recover.
Depends on what you mean. As a DM, I don't have much trouble balancing it for my particular group, either.

However, as a game designer, that variable is far out of their control. So when deciding how powerful effects should be that recharge on short or long rests or whatever, there has to be a lot of assumptions made but also taking into account the fact that at any table (or even different times with a single table), those assumptions can be very, very wrong. Needing to balance all of that is extremely challenging. So I can certainly sympathize with the point that daily effects can be very difficult to balance well, and what works for one group or even one situation in a group might not work for others at all.

Balancing as a DM and balancing as a game designer are entirely different things.

Personally, my games tend to be run pretty fast and loose, and are pretty forgiving mechanically, so I haven't noticed it myself. But that doesn't mean I don't think it's a potentially big issue for others. Just because it's not a problem for me really has zero bearing on whether others find it a problem for them.
 

Parmandur

Legend
In fact, it's hard for me to play D&D and take it too seriously because per-day spells are more or less impossible to balance. The number one thing that limits PC power is limits on resting and re-upping their spells, but that limit isn't built into the system and balanced. Instead, it's an ad hoc limit set by the game-world circumstances and by how well the players beg the GM to let them rest. If the game designer can't control how many rests a party takes while undertaking an adventure, then they can't anticipate the party's power level and can't really balance the adventure.

In 13th Age, we made spell resets part of the system and under mechanical control so that we game designers can balance scenarios better.
Scenarios in RPGs are more like recipes in a cookbook to experiment with by the DM than a computer program to execute rigidly. 3E and 4E are all-around good demonstrations of the ultimate futility of "balance" as the end rather than "fun."
 

Parmandur

Legend
Depends on what you mean. As a DM, I don't have much trouble balancing it for my particular group, either.

However, as a game designer, that variable is far out of their control. So when deciding how powerful effects should be that recharge on short or long rests or whatever, there has to be a lot of assumptions made but also taking into account the fact that at any table (or even different times with a single table), those assumptions can be very, very wrong. Needing to balance all of that is extremely challenging. So I can certainly sympathize with the point that daily effects can be very difficult to balance well, and what works for one group or even one situation in a group might not work for others at all.

Balancing as a DM and balancing as a game designer are entirely different things.

Personally, my games tend to be run pretty fast and loose, and are pretty forgiving mechanically, so I haven't noticed it myself. But that doesn't mean I don't think it's a potentially big issue for others. Just because it's not a problem for me really has zero bearing on whether others find it a problem for them.
Thing is, fast and loose with lots of forgiveness is how people, overwhelmingly, play D&D. That's the standard.
 

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