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Archives of Candlekeep: 3rd Edition: The Friendly, Embarrassing Child

This article was first broadcast in Episode Forty-Nine on 14th November 2018.


The fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons is arguably one of the most popular iterations of the rules, but it’s taken some time to get to where we are today. In honor of Art and Arcana, the book released October 23rd that showcases all the artwork and tells the evolving story of D&D over the years, we decided to take a look back at this hobby of ours ourselves and see where it started, and how it’s evolved over time.

When D&D came under the control of Wizards of the Coast, they pulled support for the “Basic” line of D&D products. This left a lot of players frustrated. Advanced D&D 2nd edition’s rules gave a lot more options but also greatly increased the complexity of play. While many of 2nd edition’s fans were comfortable with the system, the wide array of character customization options were leaving players annoyed at the built-in restrictions with some races and classes. Also the non-combat proficiencies were welcome, but people who wanted to roll dice for more than fighting clamored for more.

In 2000, 11 years after the release of 2e, Wizards of the Coast published their newest iteration of the D&D rules. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition was designed to deal with the complaints of 2e, though through some interesting licensing choices, inadvertently ended up spawning an entire industry. Wizards of the Coast, now firmly in control of the D&D brand, decided it was time to make D&D accessible to new players. The first step? Drop the word “Advanced” from the title. After all, Basic was no longer on sale, and so this line would be the de-facto D&D.

They also decided to jump on the “open source” band wagon, which was spreading like wildfire thanks to home computers becoming more affordable and the wide-spread adoption of the Internet. Alongside 3rd edition, WotC also released the d20 SRD under terms known as the “Open Gaming License” — something they’d later repeat with the 3.5e and 5e SRD. The Systems Reference Document is an open platform of the core mechanics of the game — the rules and structure without any of the D&D specific lore or creatures. The SRD for 3rd edition is generally considered to be the genesis of the “d20 system” that has formed the basis of hundreds of RPG systems since. Wizards itself used the term “d20 system” for many other RPG settings it released in years following (d20 Modern and d20 Star Wars being two of the more popular ones), and many other 3rd party games used the same system, if not the actual label.

At its heart, the core mechanic for the d20 system is self-explanatory: a d20 is rolled as the basis for of almost any action a character would take, modifiers are then added and you compare the result to a set Difficulty Class (or, in some cases, an opposed roll). With this change came the scrapping of THAC0 tables and Armor Class essentially just became another type of DC. To get a successful hit, one just had to roll a d20, add modifiers, and then checked to see if it would meet-or-beat the target’s AC. No more cross-referencing, no more subtracting AC values from attack rolls, just pure and simple A vs B. Wizards of the Coast didn’t abandon the other polyhedral dice, though. Most continued to stick around, being used for damage and health purposes. Establishing the d20 standard allowed the introduction of the “skills” system, where a d20 is rolled for everything like stealth, negotiations, animal handling, etc., largely replacing 2e’s “non-weapon proficiencies”. Saving throws were also incredibly streamlined, from 2e’s five different source-based saving throws to three simple defense-based saves: Fortitude, Reflex and Will.

As a result, combat was almost completely overhauled, though Wizards of the Coast did also take the opportunity to incorporate a number of previously optional rules from 2nd edition, such as critical hits. One of the most significant changes to combat was referencing use of a grid system in the core rules, where each square on the grid could represent 5 or 10 feet depending on scale, shifting many games away from the free-form measuring with rulers or tape measures required since the original system. Further, many abilities previously contained in second edition’s kits and class customizations were collated and pulled out to make up the new system of Feats, or abilities that could be added to characters regardless of class, but with certain prerequisites. Sorcerer and Rogue were also created as new core classes, though Rogue was mostly a renaming of 2nd edition’s “Thief” class. Most of the restrictions that had existed regarding classes and races as well as the level cap on some player races were also completely removed.

The kits and customizations from 2nd edition were mostly collected and turned into “prestige classes.” These classes usually altered character progression at later levels. While all of the classes had a full progression of abilities and statistics up through 20th levels, these prestige classes allowed for specialization of abilities if the character met certain prerequisites. Later released materials included more rules such as class progression for epic-level characters, or characters that went beyond level 20, as well as updated rules for psionics (more on those in a moment). 3rd edition followed 2nd edition’s pattern with release of materials, though it abandoned the monster compendium idea and just released multiple Monster Manual books. Setting guides for most locations were also updated and revised for 3rd edition.

Third edition was widely praised for the d20 mechanics that made it much easier to pick up and play than second edition had been. The expanded character options and modes of play attracted new players and at least gave character constructors hopes as more and more customization options came out in support of the new mechanics. Fans of D&D lore were also excited as the new mechanics meant monsters gained personality and motivations they lacked when they were merely big bags of hit points to be killed for their treasure. Many entries in monster manuals described entire civilizations and cultures along with details of individual creatures that had previously been left with little extra flavor. It even allowed for Monsters to be playable races, utilizing an “Effective Class Levels” system in the Monster Manual, with almost every entry having a level adjustment score available, meaning if your DM allowed it, the number of races you could choose from was utterly mind-boggling.

Despite the positive initial reception, issues started to appear with the actual gameplay very quickly. Several classes were objectively weaker and less useful than others. Ranger, in particular, was viewed as unplayable in 3.0 and Druid animal companions did not scale, creating many of the same problems that plague modern ranger beast masters in 5th edition. Sorcerers always gained access to spells later than Wizards did, and the spell list itself had some incongruous and confusing aspects.

The new list of skills was also a bit much. There were so many available skills that the number of points characters were getting to improve them meant most characters were having to choose between being average at everything or true idiot savants, favoring a very narrow range of skills. Effectively, although class and race restrictions were now a thing of the past, to many it felt like Wizards had swapped race/class restrictions for an utterly unending list of choices (leading to choice paralysis) whilst curiously also penalizing combinations that don’t play to your races strengths. Each race had a “favored class” that was considered that race’s archetype, and if you played outside that you would suffer XP penalties. Humans were the exception to this rule, allowing them to treat their highest class level as their favored class.

Psionics were universally panned in 3.0, as they required significant investment to upgrade and lacked the power of comparable magic except for a few very specific combinations that resulted in game-breaking displays of power. Speaking of magic (yes, psionics is technically a type of magic), once spellcasters hit level 10, they were largely seen as overpowered and unstoppable. Fancy going on a high-level dungeon crawl? No need. Bring a wizard, have them redirect the local river into the front-door, killing absolutely everything inside except the skeletons. Compare this with the fighter, who’ve just gotten their 3rd Attack Per Round ability, but with their hit-rate so low they’ll probably miss anyway. There were also numerous complaints about class balancing in general, with the most common view being “it just doesn’t exist”.

While everyone agreed that 3.0 was a very good edition of D&D (and a huge improvement to accessibility over 2e), they did so with the implicit understanding that certain parts of the game were broken and needed to be avoided. Since 3.0 came out in the year 2000, mass updates of content via the internet was not a common corporate practice, so everyone was hoping for changes and updates that continually failed to materialize. That is until 2003, when Wizards of the Coast did a small update that became for many the golden child of D&D: 3.5!

Which we’ll be discussing next week. For now, let’s head over to the scrying pool to see what our listeners have to say.


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