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Archives of Candlekeep: Edition 3.5: The Golden Child

This article was first broadcast in Episode Fifty on 28th November 2018.

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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.

As established in our last article, while everyone liked 3.0 as an edition and were in love with the d20 system, there were glaring issues almost everyone identified with the 3.0 gameplay rules. Problems with Rangers, Bards, Sorcerers, and Druids were well-known, and the 3.0 psionics rules had already established “psionics are broken” as a virtual law in D&D circles.

Wizards of the Coast determined that the problems were too numerous to fix via small errata updates, but also felt they couldn’t release a new version of D&D so quickly after the 3.0 release. Instead, they overhauled the rules and stamped them with a “.5”, creating a new half-edition. The release of 3.5 happened in 2003, a mere 3 years after 3.0. (by comparison, there were 11 years between the release of 2nd and third edition). Like with 2nd edition, there are too many specific changes to cover and a lot of them are deep in the weeds of the 3.5 edition rules, so we’ll just touch on a few of the larger changes here.

Major changes were made to the skills and progression with the aforementioned classes, greatly improving the utility for most. In general, classes had some abilities that would be useful initially and then fall off in utility. Many of those oversights were corrected. Also, the voluminous list of skills people had been dealing with were condensed, such as “Pickpocket” being folded into Sleight of Hand, and some skills being removed and turned into class abilities. Some of the new feats were also rewritten to be clearer as many had been taken directly from 2nd edition, and some of the wording or mechanics didn’t translate, or were causing confusion because it was unclear what effects would stack with others.  

3.5 did a small but significant change to damage reduction. In 3.0, creatures with damage reduction tended to have it universally. 3.5 introduced specific ways to bypass certain damage reductions, opening up ways for creatures to be vulnerable to certain attacks and also introducing the now well-known properties of silvered weapons.

The psionics rules were also overhauled. Four character classes were given access to psionics rather than two, and psionics abilities were made scalable (similar to 5th edition “upcasting” of a spell) rather than requiring a chain of psionic abilities be cast to increase effects. In general, those using psionics were able to more effectively increase the power of their abilities on pace with their characters.

Throughout 3.5’s tenure, the edition attracted a lot of praise. A lot of praise. Most of the corrections made to improve 3.0 were well-received and reduced outright problems with many mechanics and classes. The number of ways to customize characters began to approach the options available in 2nd edition and whatever couldn’t be achieved with class abilities or prestige classes was usually covered by a feat.

However, even fans will admit 3.5 isn’t perfect. Psionics was reduced from “pointless” to “subject of much controversy”, and the debate about the viability of psionics rages to this day. Also, despite the upgrades to the classes, spellcasters in early levels were often liabilities in combat because of the way the magic system worked. Many campaigns started at third level or higher so spellcasters would be able to use more than one or two spells before having to go for a nap and a sandwich. Other complaints mostly came from DMs. As more and more prestige classes were developed, some questionable abilities and synergies started to emerge, and keeping track of what was official and what was homebrewed became problematic. In fact, we tasked our Research Beholders with digging out the number of official Prestige classes from all the splat books released during 3.5s run. They got to 349 before they asked “do we need to include Epic Prestige Classes”, which for those unaware are for the level 20+ crowd. Prestige classes aside, the most frustrating thing for many as 3.5 matured was feats; toward the end of 3.5’s run the number of official feats available for characters numbered in the thousands, and keeping track of them approached impossible.

Despite those issues (which many agreed were nitpicky and had workarounds that were widely accepted as house rules) many still consider 3.5  the gold standard for fantasy RPGs that all other D&D editions and RPG systems are compared to, particularly ones that adhere to the d20 system. Active 3.5 games can still be found in many places, and many people credit the success of 5th edition to how well it mimics the best aspects of 3.5.

Well, we didn’t get to 5e from 3.5 without going through 4th, which is fair to say is probably one of the most controversial versions of D&D ever published, which we’ll dive in to next week.

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