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The Good and the Bad of D&D 3.x Edition

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/14/16 at 03:43 PM CT

Last week, I took a look at the best and worst aspects of classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the version that introduced new players to the concept of tabletop RPGs for over 20 years. This week, I’ll be looking at AD&D’s successor, Dungeons & Dragon’s 3rd Edition… and 3.5 Edition… and Pathfinder.

After TSR’s collapse as a business, Wizards of the Coast – at the time a heavy competitor to TSR focusing on Trading/Collectable Card Games instead of RPGs – bought the remnants of the House that Gygax built and went about transforming the world’s oldest RPG into a form more suitable to the 21st Century. In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the first ‘version’ of 3rd Edition, which kept most of the flavor of AD&D while simultaneously explaining how everything behind the scenes worked, clarifying rules concepts that had previously always been foggy, and generally clearing out all of the arbitrary weirdness that commonly got House Ruled out of AD&D, while also adopting many of the best optional ideas from the AD&D Player’s Option (and DM’s Option) quartet of rulebooks.

Unfortunately, as good as D&D 3.x was, it introduced its own set of problems. The worst, of course, being the fact that this single edition of the game received two revisions. 3.5 Edition came a scant three years after the original 3.0 release and offered a revised-and-only-partially-compatible set of new core rulebooks. Six years after that, Paizo Publishing, a third party that Wizards of the Coast had put in charge of their Dungeon and Dragon Magazines revised 3rd Edition yet again, as Wizards of the Coast had abandoned it for the almost-universally reviled 4th Edition (which will NOT be getting an article in this series). As a result of these overzealous revisions, 3.x has an absolutely mindboggling amount of REDUNDANT rulebooks. Let’s get down to the lists!

5. Higher Numbers = Always Better
The first, most noticeable thing an AD&D player will discover upon cracking a 3.x volume is the fact that nonsensical mechanics like THAC0 and negative Armor Classes being better are completely gone. Likewise, the bizarre and arbitrary saving throw system has been revamped. Instead of consulting arcane tables to determine if an attack or saving throw is successful, 3.x simply allowed players to roll dice and add bonus modifiers to see if they could get a high enough number. Such simplicity! Even better, saving throws, ability checks, and skill checks were all placed on the same page as attack rolls by adding bonuses to a die roll and comparing that roll to a Difficulty Class instead of telling the player to try to roll a lower number than their relevant ability score.

4. Prestige Classes and Multi-Classing
3.0 introduced the idea of sane multi-classing. Instead of being forced into a hybrid class from character creation, players were free to pick a level of any class at level-up time and add that class’ bonuses, proficiencies, and features to their character’s existing bonuses, proficiencies, and features. Even better, multi-classed characters weren’t limited to splitting their expertise among the game’s base classes, but could freely add levels of unique, custom ‘Prestige’ Classes to really focus on some aspect or skill. No two characters ever needed to be alike thanks to the easy multi/Prestige-classing available in 3.x. Unfortunately, this ease of customization also lead to ease of min/maxing. Even more unfortunately, Paizo started to stray away from Prestige Classes with Pathfinder, replacing them with more base classes and character ‘Archetypes’ that replace base class features with optional base class features… and looking at 5th Edition, it looks like Wizards of the Coast liked Archetypes enough to run with them.

3. Challenge Ratings
One of the biggest problems I had as a young Dungeon Master trying to run AD&D games was the fact that I had no inkling of what kinds of enemy encounters were appropriate for characters of any given level. I had no idea how to deal with parties of mixed-level characters, nor did I have a grasp on the appropriate amount of character wealth and magic loot to make available to characters of any given level. 3.x Edition gave fantastic charts and rules for ALL of this stuff and answered basic DM questions I had struggled with since I first started playing.

2. Magic Item Creation Rules
AD&D was notoriously flaky, vague, and evasive when it came to the creation of magic items by player characters. On one hand, it almost seemed ‘too easy’ (and I don’t use that term lightly!), while on the other hand it didn’t offer any cut-and-dry requirements for doing so outside of the appropriately-named Enchant an Item spell. 3.x spelled out exact costs and requirements for item creation, and even gave the Dungeon Master a set of step-by-step tools (in Pathfinder, at least) to follow in the creation of new magic items. Not only did this clarify how to make items for characters, it clarified how to devise new balanced items that wouldn’t break a given campaign.

1. Open Game License
The OGL is the single best thing to ever happen to tabletop RPGs. Until Wizards of the Coast created the OGL, every new D&D product had to come straight from the company that owned D&D. This put a huge amount of financial pressure on said company, hence what happened to TSR. However, by spreading the burden and allowing third-parties to both adopt existing D&D campaign settings, create their own campaign settings, write rules expansions/revisions, and publish adventure modules on their own, Wizards of the Coast ushered in the most vibrant period in the history of tabletop RPGs. Even better, the OGL allowed for the free distribution of the core game rules, thus online repositories popped-up, allowing players to search the complete rules for the first time in tabletop RPG history, instead of thumbing through dozens of books and magazines one page at a time in search of some bit of esoterica.

5. So. Many. Books!
3.0+3.5+Pathfinder (3.75)=3.x. And they were all released in less than a decade. Tabletop RPGs can take a looooong time to play, with campaigns commonly lasting years on their own. Buying a new set of books after three years was annoying, and buying another after six more years would have been a deal-breaker had it not been the last revision.

But the redundant copies of the core books were not the only problem. All those OGL third-parties released a LOT of their own books, while Wizards of the Coast tried to suck money out of D&D 3.x by releasing many, many ‘splatbooks,’ small softcover books with a narrow rules focus. The worst part is that these splatbooks drastically outpaced adventure modules in the release schedule.

4. Loss of Campaign Setting Boxed Sets
Wizards of the Coast saw that Boxed Set campaigns were the straw that broke TSR’s back, so they simply didn’t release any. Instead, Wizards of the Coast and the OGL third-parties in charge of campaigns like DragonLance and Ravenloft released hardcover rulebooks that contained similar information to what one would have traditionally found in a Boxed Set. Yet these hardcover Boxed Set substitutes came in VAST numbers and lacked the ability to contain interesting, useful add-ons like maps and handouts. As a DragonLance fanatic, I’ll use my favorite setting as an example. In AD&D, players really only needed the “Tales of the Lance” Boxed Set (the “Dwarven Kingdoms of Krynn” and “Time of the Dragon” Boxed Sets were largely irrelevant outside of very specialized campaigns). For 3.x, though, I have 10 hardbound volumes of DragonLance material… and every last one of them is essential!

3. Number Growth = Arms Race
The downside of 3.x going with ‘bigger numbers = better’ is the fact that the game became sort of an arms race between players and Dungeon Masters attempting to create challenging encounters. Because the bonus modifiers for attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, etc. grew rapidly as players rose through the levels, villains and monsters needed to become more powerful at a comparable pace. Thus the ridiculousness of campaigns where player characters encountered nothing but weak foes and weak NPCs at early levels and nothing but demi-gods and cataclysmic monsters at higher levels came to pass… and this got even sillier thanks to the “Epic Level Handbook” which broke the traditional level cap of 20 and simply let the numbers grow out of control with no cap. When 99.999999999% of the universe is as ants to a party of characters, it is obvious that there’s a mathematical issue… which was fortunately corrected in 5th Edition. And speaking of ants, the fact that swarms of insects, rats, and whatnot were the only type of creature in 3.x that didn’t need an attack roll to hit meant that super-powerful characters who regularly ate dragons for breakfast would run screaming at the sight of a pile of centipedes. The mind boggles!

2. Feat Bloat
Feats were a new mechanic added to 3.x Edition to represent characters’ specific focus within their class. Feats could do a limitless number of things for a character, ranging from turning them into a brutal whirlwind of death in close-quarters combat to allowing them to craft potent magical gear for themselves and their friends. However, Feats were also a very easy thing to come up with and include in splatbooks. Thus far too many pages in the overwhelmingly numerous 3.x rulebooks were dedicated to new Feats… but when the nuts and bolts come together, Feats weren’t really as flexible as anyone wanted them to be. There were obvious sets of Feats that were necessary to have an effective character, and far too many Feats had odious prerequisites of other, less useful Feats. So characters were forced down a narrow few pre-determined ‘good’ Feat paths, while the other thousands of Feats were left to rot as useless, vestigial cruft on the rules system.

1. Too Many Modifiers
Because 3.x was not vague, handwavey, or opaque like its predecessor, where was a rule for everything. No, really: EVERYTHING! And because there were rules for everything, there were also die-roll modifiers for everything. As such, it was a Dungeon Master’s nightmare to try and keep track of all of the various small, temporary modifiers that would pop-up during any given session. At least the rules were kind enough to give every different type of modifier an adjective to determine which modifiers would stack-up on any give roll (only the best modifier of each adjective), but it was still a massive drag that slowed gameplay to a crawl.

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