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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.


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



@ 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.

Got it, thanks Jonathan. Do the materials for your Greek campaign still survive? Would be fun to see! (I have Rivals still, and still like it after all these years ;) ).


Jonathan Tweet

Do the materials for your Greek campaign still survive? Would be fun to see!
The campaign never got off the ground, so there's nothing there. But maybe I should dust of Rivals of Esthedil and run a blast-from-the-past Kickstarter with it. I'm glad to hear that you're still interested in the project, Allan.