I was following the thread on SOB about the various editions of D&D over the years, and my white-hot hatred of 4e has caused me to reflect some on the good and bad things about 3e.
I played and enjoyed a lot of 2e. When 3e came out, I was really impressed at the improvements and uptook it. Improved and streamlined basic mechanics, better multiclassing, more interesting monster builds, more flexibility. With many years of retrospective, however, I do think that there are some directions it took the game that ended up with (to me) undesired and probably unintended results. So here’s some bad things that 3e introduced or exacerbated.
Rules vs Rulings
I think there were and are two kinds of players/GMs/groups. Those who felt limited by the rules and those that didn’t. This was true in every edition back to 1e – the “old school D&D is about rulings, not rules” statement is revisionist. I played in plenty of “the rules as written are sacred” 1e games. Anyway, let’s say a fighter decides he needs to throw his two-handed sword at someone. There were definitely people in earlier eds. that would say “no, there’s no rules for that” and also people that would say “Uhhh… -4 to hit and don’t try doing this all the time. Roll!” 3e codified a lot of that, which for some folks was helpful. Here’s a feat allowing you to throw a melee weapon and a standard rule for if you do it without any special ability to do so. Which is nice. But with all the huge amount of rules, though, they varied from this optimal formula, and you got a lot of “you can’t do this without the feat” stuff. Or with things like skills, at higher levels (and DCs) you suck *so* bad at doing things untrained that it’s about the same thing. So it helped the “I need rules” crowd while limiting the “I am comfortable making it up and my players don’t spend all night arguing about my calls” crowd.
In general I don’t believe that “having rules for something is bad,” which old schoolers sometimes use to say any skill system etc. is bad (with no answer for why combat rules should not be similarly abstract – they certainly are in some games and it works there). But the implementation has implications. The problem with 3e skills is the same as with 3e combat – the scaling. With the raw numbers and also the various feats and whatnot, levels mean a lot more. It used to be that a fifth level versus a tenth level fighter wasn’t that huge of a functional gap. You hit more, and maybe did a couple more points of damage. Now, damage scaling is to the point where our 13th level 3.5e fighters easily dump out 100 points of damage a round. In 1e or 2e, you’d expect more like 30. That degree of scaling ends up requiring min-maxing so that you are competitive at a given level.
The corollary to this is the difficulty/prep in creating high level PCs or opponents, but it’s more wide reaching than that. A small amount of randomness has huge effects. Some randomness is desirable – the people who wanted all save-or-dies removed are clearly pussies – but too much them makes people force standardization (and 4e’s the epitome of this) in order to compensate. Hence the new slavish adherence to “appropriate CR/ELs”. A necessary obsession with balance also spawned more focus on game-breaking and the rules as a good unto themselves in general.
The new approach to magic item crafting was also problematic. It was nice to have one; the “it’s pretty much impossible – but they’re everywhere!” approach of 1e/2e damaged immersion. The ability to fine tune your loadout instead of largely being constrained to a couple things you’ve found was a huge game changer. This leads to the “Christmas tree syndrome” and the virtual elimination of many non-boost items from the game.
Then, of course, the minis focus was harmful. With the maneuver/AoO rules they are pretty much necessary, and you can’t help but spend more and more time on that part of the game than the others. I can’t help but recall the GM advice in the cinematic game Feng Shui by Robin Laws – “Don’t use a map! At most do a rough sketch of an area if it’s unclear but for God’s sake don’t use a tactical setup.” And the game was mainly all about combat, not an Amber-esque RP-fest, its’ just that Laws saw correctly the effects that tactical combat have on an RPG.
I recently had a friend want me to run her on an adventure with her old 2e character she loved. I had done that before with a 3e-updated version, but I couldn’t find it and so just pulled the 2e stuff and ran with it. And it was refreshing. The lack of minis promoted face-to-face interaction. Less rule complexity made things run faster. She innovated more in combat.
It’s funny – when we played 3e initially, with our older ed assumptions firmly in place, and before the many splatbooks offered all the abusive choices, it *was* a better system. Our first 3e campaigns were some of the most fun we’d had. But over time, as these effects started to manipulate our default expectation, it got worse. I’ve noticed a tendency in our groups now to play other games “like we play 3.5e”. Mini-heavy combat in particular, which naturally tends to damage RP (the more time you spend on one part of the game, the less you spend on others). I’ve noticed that when our gaming group runs other games, we seem to add a lot more lame ass minis combat in than they necessarily prescribe.
Responses – 4e, Pathfinder, Old School
Ironically, 4e, which I hate, tries to address these issues while Pathfinder, which I strongly prefer, ignores them.
4e addresses the scaling with the huge hit point boost and class standardization. Unfortunately this is the lamer “balance solution” to the problem and turns combat into slogs. It addresses magic items semi-successfully by removing the usual boost items, but is left with really lame and underpowered items. On the tactical combat issue – no, it embraces tactical combat and gives it tongue kisses. And on rulings vs rules, it’s still clearly rules based. Confused people count removing a meaningful skill system as “more ruling based because then you can make it up.” But with the overall rules-are-God emphasis, it’ll just end up promoting the “you can’t do that” camp. There’s other things I dislike about 4e, but on this topic at least, it makes an effort to address some of these issues.
Pathfinder pretty much ignores these four problems, which is a shame. I’ve already played one Pathfinder campaign, and though it’s definitely a better, more fun version of 3.5, and IMO better than 4e, it does nothing about these, which are at the core of the problems with 3.5e play.
I’m not ready to go back to 2e either, 3e definitely on the balance had great innovations. But the real Holy Grail is to keep those while fixing these four issues. Maybe with a second version of Pathfinder they’ll feel more comfortable in deviating from the 3.5e core enough to address them. So for my D&D fix I’m going with Pathfinder – but it’s definitely an “in the meantime” kind of thing.
I’ve played some of the old school games – like Castles & Crusades, which makes the wise decision to update the core mechanics to be more civilized than 1e’s. But they just aren’t enough for me. I do want some character flexibility and cool powers – sure, I can write all the backstory I want with a 1e/Basic/OD&D character but the “they’re all so damn the same” factor is still there for me. If I want totally rules light, then I want something like Spirit of th Century where I can define my own abilities without as much constraint. But if I’m going to hassle with classes and levels, I want some “zazz” to them.
I haven’t done much houseruling in a while – something 3.5e,. with its huge rules setup, kinda works against – but maybe I’ll take a cut at what a new ed should look like. I like feats and skills and multiclassing and prestige classes, so this wouldn’t be a retro-clone, but there are things that if cut or significantly changed from 3e would make a big different while still retaining that “D&D feel” 4e lost for me.