Jonathan Tweet: Streamlining Third Edition

The D&D 3rd Ed project was part big-picture vision and part a collection of individual decisions about rules, terms, and characters. In terms of rules, a lot of what we did amounted to streamlining. We removed absolute limits in favor of consequences, removed unnecessary distinctions in favor of important ones, and eliminated extraneous rules. Many of these changes seemed drastic at the time because they eliminated rules that dated back to original D&D and its first rules supplement, Greyhawk. The D&D-playing audience, however, accepted them in stride.

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Some of the work to streamline the game had already been done in the Dungeons & Dragons line (“basic” D&D or “BECMI”), and some had been done with 2E. Basic D&D offered a unified table for ability modifiers and ditched separate damage values for human-size versus large ones. 2E ditched level limits by race, level names for classes, and the awkward term “magic-user.” Both versions of the game left out attack bonuses by weapon and Armor Class, as well as the possibility that a beginning character might randomly have a suite of game-breaking psionic powers. We maintained all these changes and took these efforts further.

One overriding goal was to remove limits wherever we could. I was fond of telling players that in the new edition you could eat rocks as your rations. The players would look at me in disbelief, and I would say, “You’ll break your teeth and starve to death, but there’s no rule against eating rocks.” Likewise, there was no rule against wizards wearing armor. It hurt spellcasting, but you could do it if you wanted to. Ryan Dancey would say the same thing more succinctly: “consequences, not restrictions.”

We got rid of class and multiclass restrictions by race. At Gen Con the year before 3E released, we showed a roomful of fans an illustration of a halforc paladin, and they cheered. We also removed ability minimums and maximums for races and minimums for classes. If you wanted to play a ranger with a low Constitution, OK, you just won’t be as tough as the typical ranger. If a wizard wants to swing a sword, OK, you’re just not as skilled with it as with a quarterstaff. Was it important to say that dwarves can’t have Dexterity scores of 18? No.

We removed differences between characters that mattered least so we could focus on distinctions that mattered most. Small characters got their foot speed increased so they could keep up better with humans-size characters. Darkvision was defined as not infrared so that it didn’t implicitly give some characters the hard-to-manage ability to see heat. Druids didn’t have to fight other druids to attain high level. Paladins could have any number of magic items. Multiclassing and dual classing became the same thing instead of two quite different systems. Earlier, D&D balanced wizards by making them weak at low level and powerful at high level, but we tried to balance the classes at both low level and high level. (We failed. Spellcasters were still too good at high level.) We put all classes on the same XP table for rising in level. The original system doubly punished wizards’ hit points by giving them a lower Hit Die per level and making them lower level at any given XP total. The system also sometimes gave clerics more hit points than fighters because a cleric would be higher level than a fighter with the same XP total.

For me it was particularly satisfying to eliminate extraneous rules. We ditched percentile Strength. A big surprise was how little complaining we heard about percentile Strength going away. The fighter with 18/100 Strength was something of a icon, but players accepted the change. Percentile Strength is a rule that you don’t see other RPGs copy, and that was a pretty good sign that it wasn’t doing much for the game.

You can say the same thing for weapons dealing more or less damage again large creatures than against human-sized targets, a rule that we dropped. Personally, I loved getting rid of weapon damage values that came with bonuses, using plain dice ranges instead. A damage range of 1d6+1 became 1d8, which is pretty much the same thing. That way, every bonus added to a damage roll was a bonus that came from something other than the base weapon type—a Strength bonus, a magical bonus, or something else special. Ranged weapons lost their rate of fire. I hated the way high-Strength characters in 2E liked throwing darts (rate of fire 3/1) so that they could get their Strength bonus on damage several times. Characters became proficient in all their classes’ weapons rather than a few, and weapon specialization went away. In 2E, specialization gave the character benefits to attack rate, attack rolls, and damage rolls—effects that multiplied together to more than double the character’s average damage.

We dropped the XP bonus that characters used to get for having high ability scores. In original D&D, the only thing that a high Strength did for your character was grant them an XP bonus if they were a fighter. Strength did not affect attacks or damage. In 3E, a high Strength score did plenty for a fighter, and the XP bonus was cut as extraneous.

We let players roll Hit Dice up to 20th level rather than making them stop at 9th or 10th. In original D&D, 9th or 10th level was a sort of maximum, with spellcasters not gaining an higher-level spells thereafter. Spells of 6th to 9th level were a later addition. The system we inherited, however, went up to 20th level, and we let Hit Dice scale up to match.

In 2E, sometimes players wanted high scores and low rolls, as with thief and ranger skills or nonweapon proficiencies. Sometimes players wanted low scores and high rolls, as with THAC0, saving throws, and Armor Class. We established a system where you wanted high scores and high rolls: attacks, saving throws, and skill checks. While we were at it, we streamlined and rationalized saving throws and offered a single initiative system rather than the several systems found in 2E.

D&D is popular in part because of its legacy, so we worried that fans would object to all these changes. Overall, however, the fans ate it up. Part of the reason that we got away with big changes is that we took pains to make the new edition really feel like D&D, but that’s a topic for another essay.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

SMHWorlds

Explorer
I think 3E was a very good version of the game. The evolution made sense and it gave players all or most of the home rules they were using anyway. More than that, I think it made D&D more accessible to a new generation of players. And most important, 3E/3.5E kept their core D&D-ness. That may be what won it over in the end. I still think there could have been space for a B/X or BECMI version of the game as well. But that is just nostalgia showing.

My complaints, such as they were, focus mainly on the art style, which I did not care for, the number of supplements that seemed unnecessary, and I think overall adventure design acquired a generic quality. Though there are some iconic adventures that were made for 3E.
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
Jonathan Tweet said:
2E ditched level limits by race
No, it didn't.

Both versions of the game left out attack bonuses by weapon and Armor Class, as well as the possibility that a beginning character might randomly have a suite of game-breaking psionic powers.
Well, for AD&D 2E it added that back (along with psionics altogether) in PHBR5 The Complete Psionics Handbook.

Multiclassing and dual classing became the same thing instead of two quite different systems. [...] We put all classes on the same XP table for rising in level.
The unified XP table remains pretty popular these days, and I won't say wrongly so, but it didn't do multiclassing any favors. I remember how D&D 3.5 added several new prestige classes dedicated to patching the holes that 3.0's multiclassing created, such as the eldritch knight, arcane trickster, and mystic theurge. Plus, you know, "favored classes."
 
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SMHWorlds

Explorer
How many of these changes did you find in home brew 2e and earlier edition games?
Dunno if that was directed at my comment, but in case it was :)

Level Limits and race / class restrictions
Roll high for everything
No XP for Prime Requisites - for my groups we just mostly forgot to do that lol.
more streamlined initiative

Among others.
 

darjr

I crit!
No, it was directed to the OP. But thanks for thst reply. I know we had plenty too. But I dropped out of the hobby early in 2es life and missed 3.0 and the beginning of 3.5.
 

Quartz

Explorer
I loved the orthogonality of 3E, but my bugbear was the ever-increasing plethora of stacking bonuses. Fortunately you could rationalise them. Sacred, anarchic, holy, etc - you could combine them as Divine or Extraplanar. Cast by a wizard? That's an Arcane bonus. Etc.
 

univoxs

Villager
Gah I think the "Consequences not Restrictions" is the exact language I have been looking for when I talk about the problem I have with many newer RPGs. Seemingly arbitrary rules meant to speed up play also restricts choice.
 
I always thought of 3e more as removing restrictions - mostly from non-/demi- humans and casters, since that's where they'd been - and consolidating mechanics.
"Streamlining" had me skeptical until I read the article, but sure, in spite of things like the grappling rules and the reams of new spells, feats, PrCs, etc, I suppose it applies.

Nice to see your perspective after all these years.
 

Jaeger

Explorer
Streamlining D&D with 3.0?

I think that the correct word in would actually be unifying.

Because 3.x got just as complex and fiddly as the past editions, just in different ways.

It got away with it, largely because it's D&D, and the unification of mechanics did a lot to help people grasp the complexity.

We let players roll Hit Dice up to 20th level rather than making them stop at 9th or 10th. In original D&D, 9th or 10th level was a sort of maximum, with spellcasters not gaining an higher-level spells thereafter. Spells of 6th to 9th level were a later addition. The system we inherited, however, went up to 20th level, and we let Hit Dice scale up to match.
My Opinion:

This was a mistake. Constant HP inflation has been bad for the game.

Gaining hit points every level has serious knock on effects to the game math that 2e to 5e has never successfully handled. High level combat has always been cumbersome and slow for both players and DM. To the point that a lot of groups don't even bother with high level play.

If anything, variants like E6 have shown that the Hit point per level should have been pared back 2-3 levels from 9 or 10 if anything.

From a game design perspective it would have made things a lot easier to scale in the game. 5e tried to patch the effect of HP inflation with the 'bounded accuracy' work around. But high level play has shown to still be a slog for 5e.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
No, it didn't.
It largely did. The rules for non-human level limits were relegated to the DMG and, while characterized by being default rules, were accompanied by a substantial amount of explanation about the pros and cons of the levels limits.
Plus, most of them were raised to be at the upper edge most campaigns were likely to hit (with the notable exception of the thief).
 
One consequence of the streamlining of D&D Tweet doesn't mention is that, for the first time in D&D, monsters, NPCs, and PCs all had the same stats. You now knew the strength of a gryphon frex. This is something that other rpgs such as RuneQuest had had since the late 70s. It made it possible to give class levels to monsters. @hong described this as the HERO-isation of D&D, which I think was apt, as everything in HERO (which was first published, as Champions, in 1981) also has the same stats. If 3e had gone further down the HERO path, spells would have been buildable from a variety of modifiers such as Area Effect rather than remaining as discrete packages.

Another feature of 3e I liked is that non-casters now had interesting combat options. This has also always been the case in HERO, with its system of combat maneuvers.
 
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