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.


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


Jonathan Tweet

The bigger issue was always that damage became unnecessary, once you had spells that inflicted the Death condition directly.
Yes, exactly. When the fighter is trying to deal damage, but the damage is made irrelevant by a spell, that's a problem. In 3E, we put hit point caps on spells like these. That way the fighter reducing a monster's hit points helps the wizard with their death spell, and the characters are working together.

Jonathan Tweet

I will always view it as also one of the most "broken" version of D&D by throwing wide the doors of restrictions and enshrining the "build" mentality of combinations of multiclassing (with prestige classes of course), feats, items & spells to become quite an monstrosity...
You're right. We put a lot of power in the players' hands, and there were plenty of combos that were monstrosities.


You're right. We put a lot of power in the players' hands, and there were plenty of combos that were monstrosities.
Not everything would have been obvious at the time.

Alot if the big problems were also added in splats. Quickening a Divine favor for example vs persistent spell.

Natural spell also turned up in splats.

3.0 rogue also looked good in the context of the 2E one.

We played early 3.0 like 2E, the later splat and once we worked out haste and harm things changed. Harm plus quicken light wounds.

I loved 2E Tome of Magic, Spells and Magic and the fighters handbook. Saw a bit if that in early 3.0.
Thanks. I think that players were so excited about the fighter's feats and secondary attacks that we didn't notice how outclassed they got by spellcasters.
Feats were an awesome idea, and the fighter design using them was positively elegant. 5e trumpets a return to simplicity, but it's all legacy spaghetti code compared to the 3e fighter design.

Itterrative attacks looked good, but didn't measure up to the old attack progressions, in practice (though they worked /great/ for giants - I have a dead barabarian who can attest to that).

When the fighter is trying to deal damage, but the damage is made irrelevant by a spell, that's a problem. In 3E, we put hit point caps on spells like these.
The real problem we ran into (later than most, I suspect, because we had a sorcerer rather than wizard, was was SoD. Sure, a party might put a lot of damage on the monster, only to have someone one-shot it with huge damage - but there was no 'bloodied' so you might not even realize it. With an SoD, if it failed (and yeah, save DCs could be optimized, but if) it was no contribution at all and if it succeeded everyone else's contribution was nullified. Anti-teamwork mechanic, really.


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