Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy

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.

Magic Items

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.

Tactical Combat

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.

2e Today

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.

23 responses to “Some Thoughts On 2e and 3e’s Legacy

  1. I have pretty much the same feelings about 2e/3e/4e/Pathfinder. I’m just wondering if you have tried True20 ?

    When I discovered it, I was just searching for something simplifying the d20 system. It was much more than I expected though, and I think it does address the issues you mentionned (tactical combat and scaling in particular), while keeping all the versatility of 3e.

  2. I find myself in broad agreement with much of what you say here. I’ve recently noticed my players over-obsessing about placement of figures to milk maximum tactical advantage and it just drains the life and soul out of the game.

    Especially annoying is when a player has made up his mind to move to position A and he’s just about to roll his dice and some other player chips in ‘wait…I’ve just seen a better thing you can do’.

    I’m not certain whether this is endemic to the 3.5e ruleset or whether this is the influence of them playing too much Warcraft AFT rearing its ugly head. Or a mixture of both – Warcraft trains them to treat everything as an exercise in tactical optimisation, whilst 3.5e combat rules over-emphasise minute details like which 5′ square you’re standing in. And when you throw in rough terrain you get players fussing too much over which route they’re going to take to reach their opponents.

    I don’t believe it’s minis as such. We’ve always played with minis since ’78.

    I’ve been toying with some kind of house revision of the 3.5e combat system myself. Specifically the way initiative, movement, facing and AoOs are handled.

  3. @Joe – I haven’t tried True20, maybe I should. I’ve put it off as “eek, another d20 clone” even though I like Green Ronin a lot and trust them otherwise. They seem to market it as “generic-genre” and I see it used for modern a lot; how much does it address spells/magic items?

  4. @Lurkinggherkin – I think the changes started before the WoW craze. It has to do with the fiddliness of the 3.5e minis rules. We used minis every once in a while in 1e/2e, as a guide to positioning, but we didn’t obsess over “which square exactly” and exact movement lengths. In fact, I remember in our 2e game when we started to use minis more, we were in the Underdark and interesting terrain and positioning was more important than usual – I deliberately introduced some mechanics to add friction and eliminate the “precision” stuff – like a mage aiming a spell like a fireball had to roll “to hit” the right spot and use the grenade bounce table… None of this everyone coordinating movements down to the last millimeter.

    And also, these four flaws have a synergistic effect. If you step into the wrong square, maybe you are exposed to two monsters that can do 150 hp/round damage in a full attack! With the low margin for error that comes with the scaling problem, it encourages you to weasel on the map.

  5. To the likely shock of mxyzplk, I also agree with him (despite my non-hatred of 4e, yet hatred of WotC policies).

    Some things that I’d like to mention about 4E that sort of address the problems mentioned are that the magic item crafting in 4E is specifically for items that are the same or lower level than you are. This is handy since all the treasure you find is higher level than you. For example, my players just leveled up to 5th level, but the highest magic item “level” that they got last level was 9th. This means that the nifty eye-glasses that give a bonus to the Arcana skill can be made by someone because they’re handy, but they’re only a real find when you’re 1st level. First, it gives your characters a meta-game reason for adventuring (better loot), while not giving them a reason to set up a “magic” shop. Also artifacts are better designed in 4E since they scale for level and become more powerful the more you align your character with the goals of the artifact. They’re not insane, but they’re useful and the characters feel nifty having such a cool item.

    The extra hit points can easily be a slog in combat. I admit that I’ve screwed up combat and turned it into a grind for my players (who hasn’t?). But something I’ve found is handy about the extra hit points is that opportunity attacks aren’t the be-all-and-end-all of the game. They can do a lot of damage, but not enough that I should never allow monsters to take an opportunity hit or two. First, it speeds up combat. Second, the players see the monster take a hit to set up a nasty surprise for the players and they step things up a notch to cope with the monster tactics. Examples the developers mention are allowing the dragon to take a hit or two as it repositions itself to have the maximum effect with its breath weapon.

    Also, I’ve found that 4E is actually fairly easy to house rule. Last night, our wizard learned a new power that stated that if someone moved into a space adjacent to the conjured pillar of lightning, it took damage. Reading the description, people who stand around adjacent to the pillar don’t take damage and people who move out of the space don’t take damage. I just changed it so it was okay to stay still, but any sort of movement does damage. This means that our wizard was putting this behind opponents and letting our fighter shove foes through the spaces. It encouraged teamwork and made the power more nifty, but not overpowered. And the combat rules in 4E aren’t nearly as large as 3E, meaning that there are more opportunities for making things up on the fly (e.g. throwing a sword).

    I agreed wholeheartedly with the flaw of minis. We’ve unfortunately become more dependent on it and the main reason is our bloody warlord (the most tactical mini-based class ever). He even admits that it’s his fault 🙂

    Anyway, just some food for thought from someone running a 4E campaign.

  6. Keep in mind that I love 3e, but certain things never made complete sense. This is one….

    An Everburning Torch — which never runs out of fuel, doesn’t need oxygen, doesn’t set your clothes on fire — costs 110 gold pieces. Expensive, but useful and desirable for the above reasons.

    A 3rd level Wizard can cast “Continual Flame” — the 2nd level spell necessary to create an Everburning Torch — using only 50 gp of ruby dust.

    That’s 60 gp profit for 1 standard action of casting. No item creation feat is required, either, because the spell by its very nature is permanent.

    This leads us to some very interesting arithmetic:

    * 1 week of “work” equals 420 gp.
    * 2 weeks is a suit of half-plate + shield.
    * 4 weeks is a suit of full plate + shield OR a +1 enchantment to your armor.
    * 6 weeks is a +1 weapon…

    You get the idea. In a suitably large city, flush with travelers and adventurers, one could make quite a living doing nothing but being a magical Thomas Edison. Even if you’ve flooded the market and are making less than 60 gold profit per torch, you can still live comfortably by undercutting others.

    Of course, now I must posit the existence of a shadowy cabal of gnome wizards who wish to retain their stranglehold on the Everburning Torch market, and send assassins after anyone who tries to cut in on their action in this manner…


    • I know it’s a year late, but I still have to wonder: Why do the PCs have access to an infinite supply of 50gp rubies?

      It seems to me that the spell component isn’t limiting its casting through cost so much as through rarity. Solve the world’s infinite-ruby problem, and you’ve solved the Evernurning Torch problem without altering the cost.

      (Nevermind that, in a world of infinite rubies, they’d be nearly valueless and so 50gp of ruby dust would probably require several wagons to move around.)

  7. I thought it’s worth mentioning some house rules I use on magic item artifice in 3.5e – I thought it was great that they had actually implemented a system for their creation, thus explaining their proliferation as loot, but the rules as written made the whole process too mechanical and certain.

    In a nutshell, I’ve injected a little 1e flavour by specifying that every item requires special material components, and that these need to be researched and sourced before item creation can occur. Eg – want to make a medallion of detect thoughts? Go find a fresh brain of a creature that can do just that. I also require a spellcraft check with a chance of failure and even a chance of some xp loss if a ‘critical failure’ occurs.

    The probabilities and material components involved aren’t so harsh as to completely discourage item creation, but harsh enough that it won’t be done frivolously or just for sake of making a quick buck in the marketplace by flogging magical gear.

    I think we’ve got the balance right on this one – it seems to have worked OK so far.

  8. @Erin: My solution to the annoyance of the Everburning Torch is the same as it was with Continual Light in 1e. The spellcaster doesn’t get their spell slot back until it’s extinguished. (They can elect to extinguish it remotely if it falls into the wrong hands).

    Few things set my teeth on edge more than magical street lighting in a medieval setting.

  9. @Lurkinggherkin: Then how is there a market for those things? Who would shell out 110 gp for a torch that could go out at any moment?

  10. @Erin: That’s kind of my point. There *isn’t* a market for those things. Not in my world anyhow….. 😉

  11. @Pickle: OK, fair enough, I can respect the “Not in my campaign” houserule.

    But do you keep track of how long torches have burnt, if they go out when being dropped in combat, etc? For me, both as a player and as DM, their main advantage is that I don’t have to worry about bookkeeping and can get on with the adventure.

    They can’t start fires, so they suck as weapons. They don’t emit heat, so they’re about as useful as a flashlight in a survival situation. They’re basically Sunrods that don’t have a time limit.

    Me, I’d just drop the price to about 55-60 gp. That way the maker gets a max profit of 10 gp but there’s no market flogging.

    (Not trying to start an argument here, FYI.)

  12. @Erin: I never said you can’t cast Continual Flame. Only that you can’t turn yourself into some kind of lightbulb factory and make a living out of it. One Continual Flame cast will give the party their convenient light source and that will keep going for as long as the caster is willing to give up that spell slot for.

    If the party is on a dungeon crawl I do keep track of who’s got the light source and what they are doing with it. Quite often it’s given to a low-level hireling to take care of. Ever heard of a link-boy?

    (Don’t worry, I don’t do arguments about stuff this trivial)

  13. Ah, okay, we’re looking at this from two different perspectives. Yours has a party with a dedicated spellcaster who handles the light.

    Sadly, all too often I’ve been in games where we have been without arcane or divine spellcasters (but never both — yikes, that would be ugly) and so my perspective is “Never rely on another party member when you could do it yourself.”

    *shrug* Whatever works for you. 🙂 Though I would imagine the torch-bearing hireling would have a life expectancy measured in minutes…

  14. @Erin: Yeah, give the minion with the lowest hit points the brightest object in the dungeon. I hope his job came with life insurance.

  15. @Steve – yeah, 4e did make some magic item crafting improvements. Though I hated the “magic dust” thing, the “you can only sell for 20% of cost” thing, and that e.g. a potion of healing is so expensive and so sucky.

    @Hiddenpickle – Certainly going a little 1e on it and requiring special components helps. I also like tying it to events – like “the sword you used to kill that blue dragon can be enchanted into a shocking weapon if you do it within about a month…” Double threat of limited access and legendary feel.

    @Erin – yeah, early on in 3e I realized that actually crafting a masterwork item took way, way longer than the enchanting itself, which to me is ass backwards. It takes weeks and weeks to make the item, and then a day or two to enchant it. LAME!

  16. @Steve: Actually, the torchbearer would typically be way back from the front of the party with low-light vision folks scouting ahead – the faint torch glimmer from afar is just enough to give the elves some light to see by.

    Last dungeon expedition the party went on the guy who ended up holding the torch was an NPC 4th level fighter. With a loaded crossbow ready in the other hand. He wasn’t a ‘minion’ and he didn’t have the lowest hit points in the party either. My ‘link-boy’ reference wasn’t to be taken too literally……

    I wasn’t being critical of Erin in my responses, by the way. I was just saying how we deal with stuff like ‘Continual Flame’ in our campaign. We see it as an irritation because you’d end up with street lighting which isn’t the sort of atmosphere we like for our campaign world.

  17. There’s a SRD of something very like True20 here:

    I think it might be the system as used in Blue Rose, so not an exact match, but close enough to see how it works, probably.

  18. Pingback: The Gherkin Patch » Archive du blog » In Which I Criticise Everything!

  19. @Lurkinggherkin: Awww, but I liked the imagery of the “heroes” leading a young man into a terribly dangerous dungeon to his likely demise. I figured you likely weren’t that cruel though… or I hoped your players weren’t 🙂

  20. To me, the big attraction of 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder over both earlier and later editions is the ability to simulate earlier editions. I ran a Mystara game (the world that got its start in the map that came with module X1, perhaps the easiest to find classic D&D product in existence) that started in 2nd ed, and there were aspects of the old Basic/Expert/Companion/Master rules (and especially the Gazetteers, most of which tweaked the BECM rules in their own special way) that just didn’t translate. I managed to translate 90% of those rules with barely a thought when I switched the game to 3rd ed.

  21. @mxyzplk – The core rules do not address directly the magic item issues, however the “Liber Artefactorum” supplement of Expeditious Retreat Press does. Consider True20 as a generic but realistic D20-lite. I had a look at Pathfinder, which I found classy and well-done, but … it came too late for me. Honestly, the impression I got when I read the first version of True20 was : “Why didn’t I think of it myself in the first place” ?

    In a nutshell, even though it was released before the 4e, it combines both features of
    – the 4e: roles, powers, minions.
    – the 3e: all the feats and skills, the generic mechanics, class abilities, special abilities and qualities, most monsters.
    – M&M: no hit points, the 3 roles are so abstract that it is almost a point-buy system and the companion make it super easy to create your races and classes, and convert any prestige class provided you transpose some class abilities into feats.

    Most importantly, the maths are almost 100% compatible with 3e. Conversion of feats, weapons and monsters is straightforward (and there is a bestiary), conversion of the power system to a spell system is also feasible with a bit of work (I’ll e-mail my adaptation to you if you wish). The look and feel in play is similar, although lethality of True20 is higher in my view. It is more realistic, and also more narration oriented, forget the minis =)) The creation of a high level NPC is also much quicker than in 3e: that’s because there is no need for prestige class of any kind. You can construct any character you want just with the base mechanics.

    And last but not least, you also have to consider another cool feature: the price, my friend the price. To make all this, you only need 1 book, the revised edition rules, and … that’s it ! The players need only the pocket player’s handbook if they want to have their own book. There are some interesting splatbooks but they are balanced, and you will hardly need them. Indeed, as the conversion from 3e is easy, I was able to re-use all my huge list of 3e and d20 modern supplements without much fatigue. No need to get rid of them, on the contrary !!

  22. Hmm, I’ve been reading True20 and I like it. It’s definitely not super-light, it’s still a 255-page book (well, 116 of PHB equivalent), but it definitely does some streamlining. I like the conviction, extra effort, dodge/parry, and magic system. I’m not so sure about the d20 Modern-style Wealth system and the toughness/wound track. I’ve played M&M that has the similar setup and it seems mixed in results; one bad roll can take you out at any time. I know the Conviction etc. helps compensate.

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