This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Eighty Five on 13th October 2021.
Wizards of the Coast released their 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons in the year 2000. Many people believe the release was an effort by Wizards to put their stamp on the brand after they acquired TSR in 1997. As such, 3rd edition was a rather extreme overhaul of D&D at a mechanics level. Many people are familiar with the fact that 3rd edition introduced the so-called d20 system, which Wizards then distributed through the Open Gaming License.
In short, the d20 system meant nearly every decision or action made as part of the game was decided based on the roll of a 20-sided die. Previously in 2nd edition, while d20s were still used in some rolls, you had percentile dice and others involved in decisions just as often.
Switching over from a multi-die system to d20 obviously meant a lot of things had to change with the mechanics of the game. Wizards of the Coast was also aware of various player complaints and pain points from 2nd edition and worked to mitigate those as part of the release; much of Wizards’ staff, up to and including the CEO at the time, were fans of the game.
The end result is that 3.0 was a major departure from 2nd edition; resources were not compatible at all and the play and pacing of the game were different. Many people welcomed these changes, but flaws began to manifest almost immediately.
Lists of issues and complaints about 3.0 can be found online if one wants to look hard enough and they tend to be multi-page affairs. We’ll touch on a few of them here to give you a sense of what the major complaints were.
A lot of the complaints around 3rd edition focus on the magic. Arguably, this is because WotC took a number of the spells that existed in 2nd edition and, unless the spell mechanics just didn’t work with the d20 system, left them untouched. This created some problems when the nuances of the spells came into play. We’ll take the spell haste as an example.
Haste in 3rd edition was a spell most spellcasters could use by 3rd level and the biggest effect it had was to allow characters to effectively take two actions. That meant spellcasters could cast two full spells per turn. That seems like an obvious issue to most of us who play 5e, but it was missed because of the way 3rd edition worked vs 2nd. In 2nd edition, spells could conceivably take a full turn to resolve or even longer, so casting two of them wouldn’t necessarily be as devastating. New to 3rd edition was the gameplay we’re all familiar with now; spellcasters’ spells resolve as soon as they’re cast.
There are other spells that are brought up in discussion like harm, but again the issues boil down to a lack of accounting for differences in gameplay between 2nd and 3rd when considering spell mechanics.
Another issue with 3rd edition was class utility. In 2nd edition there were a lot of restrictions on what classes could use certain skills abilities and equipment, to the point where a lot of the higher damage melee weapons were only allowed to be used by fighters and barbarians. In 3rd edition there were comparatively very few weapon restrictions, and what ones there were could often be overcome with feats pretty easily. That meant the fighters and barbarians no longer had a monopoly on the high damage weapons.
Also, the differences between HP and Armor class totals among classes in 2nd edition was much more extreme; spellcasters in particular would gain HP at a steady rate for the first few levels and then the HP increases would drop off a cliff, whereas the frontline martial classes kept getting the bonuses. In 3rd edition, spellcasters got smaller hit dice, but 3rd edition was also the first one where your constitution score factored into hit point increases. This meant not only could the spellcasters gain more hit points throughout the levels, the half-caster classes like druid and cleric could put a 14 or 16 in their constitution score and easily keep up with the hit point totals of the fighters and barbarians.
As for Armor Class, in 2nd edition very few things factored into your armor other than whatever armor you could wear, so the classes that could use heavy armor and plate mail had a clear advantage in avoiding taking hits. But with 3rd edition, the inability to wear plate could suddenly be overcome by sticking a high modifier in your Dexterity score. Now suddenly Rogues running around in +2 leather armor with an 18 Dexterity score had the same AC as the fighter lumbering around in full plate mail.
Given all of that, it very quickly became common to forego martial classes all together.
Then you have the oft bemoaned situation with the 3.0 ranger. Third edition rangers were a half-caster class as they are today, and they got access to armor and weapon proficiencies early and the favored enemy skill, along with access to the two-weapon fighting feat without worrying about most of the prerequisites other classes had to.
However, they weren’t able to cast any spells until 6th level, there was no option to have an animal companion with any special features, and the only skills they received were additional favored enemies every 5 levels. Their level progression was so unimpressive and the class was so front-loaded with abilities it became common practice to take one level of ranger to get the first favored enemy and the two-weapon fighting feats, then multiclass into whatever class you *actually* wanted to play at 2nd level.
Another issue for a lot of people were skills, 3.0 introduced the skills system that we’re all familiar with and players initially welcomed it as a way to bring mechanical gameplay into areas other than combat. The issue is there were 45 different skills to choose from and a comparatively low number of points to spend on improving them (skill proficiency was not a thing in the 3rd editions).
So clearly 3rd edition had a number of problems apart from what we just mentioned, there were a lot of nit-picky things people complained about, and psionics was a complete mess but the reasons are too complicated to cover here.
Wizards of the Coast was not blind to the issues. They had issued some corrective guidance on a few things and common house rules were cropping up to cover some of the problems. The thing is, a lot of the house rules just boiled down to “don’t use this thing,” so large parts of the system, like psionics and rangers, were falling by the wayside.
Deciding there were too many things wrong to fix with errata or small updates, Wizards instead produced edition 3.5. They ceased publication of any 3.0 resources or anything using the basic 3.0 ruleset and began republishing all of the materials under the 3.5 label. Remember, while the internet was certainly a thing in 2003 it was back when corporations were still figuring out how to really use the internet to its full potential. It was also long before widespread broadband access, so publishing full .pdf books over the internet was wildly impractical.
3.5 fixed all the major issues we described above and dealt with many of the smaller ones as well and has since gone on to be considered one of the best editions of D&D.
But that’s now, with the value of hindsight and the fact that 4th edition has come and gone. What was it like for people at the time?
In general it was pretty good, actually. As mentioned, there were large parts of the 3.0 system that were just not fun to play or deal with and everyone welcomed the updates to the ranger and the elimination of spells that would wildly break the system because they still had “2nd edition thinking” baked into them.
The other thing that people quickly discovered is that while a lot of changes had been made to details of the system, broad strokes were very similar. For example, they overhauled a lot of the magic spells, but spell slots and spell levels were still a thing and worked just as they had before. The number of skills had been reduced and the available skill points to use had been increased in some cases, but using and rolling for skills still worked the same way.
In short, it truly was an update; very few things about the 3.5 rules were incompatible with the 3.0 rules despite the fact it was billed as a new edition. There are even descriptions from the time period (remember, the internet is forever) of people running hybrid games where characters built with 3.0 rules were in a party alongside 3.5 classes, with the DM using monsters from books of both editions as well. Those hybrid games sometimes required the DM to adjudicate more to make sure someone wasn’t mixing edition rules and secretly building a demigod to use, but frankly that remained a problem even in full 3.5 games, so that’s hardly the fault of the edition switch.
So why review all of that? Well, taken at a high level, the situations of 3.0 and fifth edition are very similar. Both systems were created when the edition previous had very different mechanics, and there were some growing pains as some things were ported over, though 5th edition had a much smoother start than 3rd. There are also some larger conceptual issues with combat players and DMs were calling out in both scenarios; for 3.0 it was the lack of utility for martial classes, while in 5th edition the difficulties of balancing fights with monster CRs is more of a pain point. Also for some reason Rangers are a problem in both editions; it seems to be a fluke that the 4th edition ranger managed to be a one-being laser-guided artillery platform.
Given the similarities between the two situations and the fact that Wizards of the Coast has history to draw on, it seems logical to conclude that the transition Wizards is now talking about will be similar. Wizards has already mentioned backward compatibility is intended, and that was true even back with 3.5 when they *weren’t* as focused on making sure the 3.0 materials could be used.
The ways this change is different is also something to consider. People have issues with the PHB Ranger, but even die hard critics won’t argue it’s unplayable. On paper, other classes can outperform the ranger at certain tasks in combat, even if you need to do ROSTRO-level math to figure out exactly why.
But other than the ranger, most of the issues that have been concerning players about 5th edition are lore based, and that’s the easiest thing to update without breaking the game. If you need more proof, look at all of the homebrewed and DMs Guild projects that have been done to make D&D 5th edition into modern, cyberpunk, and sci-fi games without really changing the rules of how things work at all, just renaming and changing descriptions on everything.
Given all of that, the evidence suggests the next evolution of D&D won’t force you to throw out all your 5th edition materials, nor will you need to completely re-buy all of the materials.