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

kenmarable

Explorer
Thing is, fast and loose with lots of forgiveness is how people, overwhelmingly, play D&D. That's the standard.
Like most generalizations, it may fit my anecdotal evidence as well, but I'd be wary of making claims about standards and overwhelming majorities without actual data citations. ;)

And if someone doesn't play that way, then why is it surprising that they might want it to work differently?

I'm just confused by the basic exchange being:

"Such and such doesn't really work for me, so in my system we do it differently."
"But such and such works for me!"

Seems to be missing the point. Or in other words:

"Chocolate ice cream doesn't really work for me for these reasons. I prefer orange sherbet."
"But I like chocolate ice cream."
"The overwhelming majority of people like chocolate ice cream."

Yes, and your point is....?
:)
 

Parmandur

Legend
Like most generalizations, it may fit my anecdotal evidence as well, but I'd be wary of making claims about standards and overwhelming majorities without actual data citations. ;)

And if someone doesn't play that way, then why is it surprising that they might want it to work differently?

I'm just confused by the basic exchange being:

"Such and such doesn't really work for me, so in my system we do it differently."
"But such and such works for me!"

Seems to be missing the point. Or in other words:

"Chocolate ice cream doesn't really work for me for these reasons. I prefer orange sherbet."
"But I like chocolate ice cream."
"The overwhelming majority of people like chocolate ice cream."

Yes, and your point is....?
:)
Just going off of what WotC found in their studies of the playing population, and what is happening in the streaming game world. The rules are there, but rulings from a DM matter way more and no design can replace that, and can never be "balanced." Eliminating that fuzziness is Quixotic, and video games will win that competition every time.
 

kenmarable

Explorer
Just going off of what WotC found in their studies of the playing population, and what is happening in the streaming game world. The rules are there, but rulings from a DM matter way more and no design can replace that, and can never be "balanced." Eliminating that fuzziness is Quixotic, and video games will win that competition every time.
Having the recharge for spells built into the system for easier balancing rather than left to the whims of DMs and Players is hardly eliminating fuzziness and Rule Zero!! ;)

He just mentioned having the recharge mechanic worked into the system. That's it. If the existing D&D system doesn't work for him, I'm glad he has something better that does work for him. Going from that to somehow talk of eliminating all DM rulings and any fuzziness, etc. is a wee bit of an exaggeration, and again, totally beside the actual point being made.
 

Staffan

Adventurer
But you can’t write rules under the assumption that people will ignore them.
This reminds me of one of the things I like best about 13th Age: the Designer Notes. The game is full of sidebars where Jonathan and/or Rob say things like "This bit works like this because of X. If you change it, consider Y."
 

Zardnaar

Hero
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 probably wouldn't disagree to much but it's a big part of D&D, sacred cow. You can design a different game dumping dailies and probably the u part of AEDU. Might even have a better game but its not D&D at that point.

Some of the clones I think have made a better D&D than what they were based on and even compare well to modern D&D's. 4E, 5E, 13th age are kind of default easy mode with generous recovery rates. It's not bad but monsters aren't scary anymore unlike say a Wight in AD&D.

It's quite funny reading old D&D spells they're a lot less powerful than modern efforts. Level 3 or 4 spell +1 to hit. Not exciting but doesn't break the game.
 

R_Chance

Explorer
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.
Entirely different things… that he talks about as if they were the same thing (?). Or I took it that way at least. He talks about not being able to balance per day powers (spells) on an adventure, not in a system. Once you've accepted the assumptions of the system on recovering resources and understand the requirements it's not hard to figure out if your PCs will have the time / place available to recover in an adventure. That's my point. If you give them that time / option, fine. If not, fine. The "balance" is whatever is established for that system. That's part of the adventure design, not the system. The power level baked into the system by mechanics like this are part of the game design. Running the game, or designing an adventure happens within the constraints of the system which you have already accepted. Or, if you're homebrewing, you have already established. I use longer short / long rests for example. But my players (and I) already work with those assumptions. If you do your own system, of course, the balance will be whatever your rules establish. Now, as for people playing the rules differently, that has always been there :)

Maybe I'm just misconstruing what he is talking about, but once I accept the constraints of a game system (any system) I don't have any issues working within that system and planning accordingly. If I don't like the system, or parts of it, I either homebrew the parts I don't like or use a different system. Not taking something in the system "seriously" (which is a fundamental part of the system) tells me its time to use a different system. Or Frankenstein away and change things as needed / desired :D

Ymmv, of course.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
That's true. The game has fewer feel-bad results now, but that means that you're not afraid that the monsters will make you feel bad.
I kind of want some of that old school stuff back, energy drain not so much but maybe inflicting exhaustion levels 5E terms. Its not permanent but you suck getting hit more than once or twice.

You guys worked on the old D&DM game? Was thinking of stealing some ideas from that such as your magic/spell resistance system in it. Also have reread the 2E players option books again and there is some cool stuff in them conceptually some of which seemed to make its way to 3E. The problem was the label I think players option, as DM tools it could be very useful such as point buy classes and races.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Adventurer
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.
Yes, I am not surprised that your experience would be different from mine. An individual DM can control and pace things in a way that a game designer or a scenario designer can't. If a party's power level over time correlates to the number of rests they take, a DM can balance things on the fly, but a scenario publisher can't rely on each DM getting it right.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
IDK if the HP as attrition mode a'la 3E-5E works that well.

OSR may have sucked but it kind of worked better for a smaller number of encounters and even something basic could be a threat like a giant bee with its poison.

Hexcrawls don't tend to work to well with the 1 encounter every few days thing.

All modern D&D has struggled with it, OSR kinda works but only looks good by comparison.

Gary's games seemed to have an element of gotcha in it due to how his players played the game.
 
IDK if the HP as attrition mode a'la 3E-5E works that well.
Hp, alone, as attrition mode never worked well - it's spell slots that were the critical resource from the beginning through 3e, and are, again, in 5e.

3e just made it obvious by letting you buy wands filled with 550 hps. ::shrug::
 

R_Chance

Explorer
Yes, I am not surprised that your experience would be different from mine. An individual DM can control and pace things in a way that a game designer or a scenario designer can't. If a party's power level over time correlates to the number of rests they take, a DM can balance things on the fly, but a scenario publisher can't rely on each DM getting it right.
Thanks for the explanation (which I also received from another poster as well). I do my own scenarios which probably contributes to the relative ease of balancing them. Still, the one thing you can count on; some DMs will get it wrong :D
 

R_Chance

Explorer
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. them. *snip*
He replied and it seems he was talking as a game designer and (commercial) adventure designer. I'm still not sure I agree on his points (I design and run my own adventures -- I don't use commercially produced ones). But you were right on what he was talking about. Thanks.
 

F5

Explorer
For what it's worth, and in full knowledge of the fact that it's largely what brought down the TSR business model, I actually really miss the settings from 2E. The setting books we've got for 5E are nothing compared to the 2E setting boxed sets. Not sustainable, as history showed, but they were so much fun to read through and the maps, inserts, etc were a big part of what made D&D feel like D&D in my early days in the hobby. I feel like that depth is a lot of what's missing from 5E. Wish there was a way to bring that back in a way that doesn't split the market.
 

grodog

Adventurer
Thank you for the article, Jonathan---a fun read. I'm looking forward to hearing more about the history of the development of Ars Magica, too!

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.
Was this a precursor to the Rivals of Esthedil campaign for TPO?

Allan.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Adventurer
@ grodog. Posts on Ars Magica are on their way! Rivals of Esthedil was 1993–1994, and the half-gods concept was 1997. Rivals of Esthedil was going to be about top-level mortals claiming a mini-plane for themselves, so the PCs were the bosses, not the insurgents.
 

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