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Random Thoughts of a Game Developer

#dndnext Cautious Optimism part 4: Edition the Third and the d20 System

In the year 2000, not only did we leanr that many Science Fiction writers were wrong about what the world would be like at the turn of the millennium, we also got a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Well, sort of. I mean, it’s really the third edition of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, but with no current actual Dungeons & Dragons and no plans to make one, Wizards of the Coast decided that it might be better to drop the word “Advanced” from the title. They were probably right, but there really is no way you can call this anything other than a new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – especially if you pay any attention to the edition numbers.

In creating 3rd Edition, Wizards took the property they got when they bought TSR, and the new Big Names in D&D – Monte Cook, Johnathan Tweet, and Skip Williams – contributed together to the three Core Books – the Dungeons Master’s Guide, the Player’s Handbook, and the Monster Manual. Each of them then took one book and wrote it. Each book has a single author credit, but in reality all three were written by all three designers. I think they did a  fantastic job. More than a couple people disagree with me and that’s fine. This, however, is my boat, and I’ll sail it wherever I want.

It seems almost like the three designers sat down together and said “How many Sacred Cows can we slaughter and still have it be D&D?” Racial level limits and class limitations went out the window. The weird dual-classing rules vanished, replaced by a much more streamlined multi-classing system (that I still have issues with, but that’s another matter). Ability Score requirements went out the window, as did experience penalties for low scores. All classes used the same experience table, and recieved certain benefits of leveling at the same time. The proficiency system was replaced by a fairly concise Skill System. Feats were ntroduced, allowing fro significantly more character customization. THAC0 was replaced with Base Attack Bonus, and Armor Class went up when it got better, rather than down (which – I don’t care how much you like THAC0 – is more intuitive). A single task resolution system was applied across the board – 1d20 + Modifiers versus a static Difficulty Class (DC) number. This system applied pretty much everywhere – saving throws, attacks in combat, ability checks, everything. I could go on for a while like this, but Wikipedia has done a passable job of summing up the changes, so I will just quote them:

Differences from (sic.) Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition

  • The game system converted to the d20 System, which standardized task resolution to a roll of a 20-sided die (“d20”), adding or subtracting relevant modifiers, and then comparing the result to a “Difficulty Class” (DC) in order to determine the outcome.
  • THAC0 is replaced by a bonus to attack rolls. Armor Class (AC) operates as the Difficulty Class for attack rolls, and therefore increases (rather than decreases, as in 2nd edition) as defensive capabilities increase.
  • Ability scores follow a single table and give standardized bonuses. Ability scores are no longer capped at 25.
  • Saving throws are reduced from five categories (based on forms of attack) to three (based on type of defense): fortitude (constitution-based), reflex (dexterity-based), and will (wisdom-based), and also go up instead of down.
  • “Non-weapon proficiencies” are replaced by skills, and become a fundamental part of the game rather than an optional one, with class abilities such as thieving skills being translated directly into skills. All characters are given a pool of points to spend on a wide range of specific skills to further define a character.
  • Special abilities known as feats allow greater customization of characters. Fighters are no longer differentiated simply by weapons, roleplay and equipment selection, but rather by the number of feats they possess relative to other characters.
  • Magic item creation is simplified, requiring a prerequisite feat, spells, and monetary and experience costs, replacing the obscure rules of earlier editions.
  • Barbarians, monks, and half-orcs return to the Player’s Handbook as basic character types.
  • Class groups are removed. “Mage” is renamed to “wizard”, with “specialist wizards” being simply wizards that specialize in one school of magic, and “thief” is renamed to “rogue.” The bard class is no longer considered a type of rogue.
  • “Priests of a specific mythos”, also known as specialist priest classes, are eliminated (except druid), though some make their return in the form of prestige classes or through other options such as feats.
  • The sorcerer class is added to the game as an arcane caster that uses magic naturally, instead of through study.
  • Multi-classing and dual-classing as per previous editions is removed. In the new multi-classing system, multi-classing functioned similar to dual-classing had previously, except that a character could gain a level of any character class upon gaining a level instead of only gaining levels in the second class. Multi-classing is made available to all races, although easier for humans and half-elves, and characters with multiple classes of differing levels are penalized.
  • Prestige classes are added, representing special training or membership in an organization outside the generic scope of core classes. Entry into prestige classes requires characters to meet certain prerequisites. Assassins make their return here, as well as blackguards (fallen paladins) and several others.
  • Any combination of race and class is now permitted, with the exception of some prestige classes. (In 2nd edition, characters of some fantasy races/species are not allowed to belong to some character classes.)
  • Priest spell spheres are removed from the game; each spellcasting class now has its own specific spell list (although wizard and sorcerer share a list). Instead, clerics gain domains that allow them to use bonus spells and abilities based on their deity’s area of influence, as well as the ability to swap out prepared spells for curative spells.
  • Initiative is changed to a cyclic system where the order of resolving actions is determined once per encounter and then repeated, and actions are resolved on the players turn. In previous editions the order is redetermined each round and many actions do not resolve on the player’s turn but at the end of the round.
  • Diagonal movement and range are simplified. Each square of diagonal distance is equivalent to 1.5 squares of orthogonal distance, rounded down.
  • The system for multiple attacks is changed so that, when making multiple attacks in the same round, later attacks are generally less accurate than earlier attacks.

–Wikipedia Article: Editions of Dungeons & Dragons

That, of course, doesn’t really cover it. There’s a lot more, but most of it is more abstract or subjective. Things like a feeling of cohesiveness of rules, significantly improved book organization, less dependence on tables and an increased dependence on basic math skills during play, and a variety of other such things.

It took me a long time to actually start playing around with 3e D&D. I had lost all faith in D&D during 2nd Edition Advanced D&D, and had moved over to GURPS and the occasional foray into White Wolf’s stuff and even Palladium (which I still say has a fantastically fun  map-free combat system, especially as presented in their Ninjas and Superspies books). I didn’t trust the new D&D. I assumed it would still be boring sword-and-sorcery fantasy, with too many tables, weird rules, incoherent design choices, and poorly written books. You’ll have to forgive me – I was young and stupid.

While I was briefly living in Georgia, however, I was invited to join a D&D game, and a friend lent me the Player’s Handbook. I was hooked almost instantly. The book is well-written, the system is coherent, and the map-based combat is actually very usable – much moreso than I had anticipated. There were, perhaps, a few too many rules, but character creation was streamlined and easy. I made three characters in an hour, and I loved every minute of it. I love character creation systems, and this was (and is) one of the best I’ve ever used. Loads of customization even in just the main book – and you could just see all the customization choices you would get to make as you advanced. But none of it was very complicated, and you pretty much always knew exactly how you would use everything on your character sheet.

Before you think, however, this is an “ALL HAIL 3E” kind of post, I have a lot of problems with 3e as well – I just liked it better than 1st or 2nd.

I mean, there were still serious issues:

  • Grappling was awkward and borderline unusable. Even when you did use it, you always had that Why Am I Bothering tickle in the back of your mind. I built a character based on grappling and still got that feeling every time it came up.
  • Some of the other mechanics were… odd. For instance, unless you followed some particular guidelines, you would get XP penalties when multiclassing. Was this a failed attempt at verisimilitude, or was it a even more clunky attempt at game balance?
  • Ability Scores – the actual 3 to 18 human-range numbers – were largely irrelevant. It was really all about the modifiers now, making the actual numbers seem strangely out of place on the character sheet. They only seemed to be used to give padding to ability score damage, and to make “0” a natural stopping place for an ability to be completely crippled. Not enough, guys. Not enough.
  • Many Thief/Rogue class abilities had been integrated into the skill system, making them feel a lot less special. For instance, a Rogue wasn’t really any better at picking locks than a fighter with the same skill level and ability modifier, and that’s just sad.I mean, sure, they had Trapfinding, but that felt like a tacked-on and arbitrary thing, especially in the context of the rest of the Skill System.
  • Attacks of Opportunity had such an easy bypass through the use of the Acrobatics skill that you would frequently see huge behemoth full-plated fighters and bookish gnome wizards who could easily perform handstands. By level 5 or so – or as late as level 10 if it was cross-class for you – if you were bothered by Attacks of Opportunity, you were doing something wrong.
  • Wizards and Sorcerers were essentially the same class with a different method of spellcasting (one vancian, one that was essentially identicle to the spell casting system from the original Final Fantasy NES game). Sure, Wizards got a spellbook and a bunch of extra metamagic feats, and sorcerers had their metamagic so crippled that it was almost useless (and some things, like Quickened Spell, really were useless) – but those differences suck. I still feel the same way about this, all these years later: it’s the same damn class, folks. Make them choose between Vancian and Spontaneous when they start, or find a way to combine the two (something “m currently working on for my Essence 20 project), and then make one class. Also, it’s pretty obvious that Wizards are significantly more powerful, but harder to build or play, especially at earlier levels. Sorcerers are simple, but their main advantage (lots of spells per day) becomes irrelevant after level 5 or so.
  • Monks looked awesome on paper, but in practice were less than impressive. And then there’s the alignment restrictions; seriously, man – I’ve watched Kung Fu movies. Jackie Chan – the ultimate Kung Fu Good Guy in most movies – was seldom lawful. He’s downright chaotic in Armor Of the Gods/Operation Condor. What the hell were you thinking? Must be lawful my ass… Iron Monkey. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Shaolin Soccer. Hell, even IP Man – the main character might be Lawful Good, but most of the supporting cast and almost all of the villains are “monks” and not especially Lawful.
  • Druids ruled all, and pretty obviously so, but their flavor text was such that you didn’t want to play one unless you, you know, wanted to play one. Which is okay, I guess, but… did they really have to be that frakking awesome? And for the love of mike – when not taking a Feat cripples you, it;s not a Feat – it’s a misplaced Class Ability. I am talking about Wild Spell, of course.
  • Alignment restrictions were clearly applied as either Sacred Cows (Paladin, Druid, Rogue) or the worst balancing mechanic in the history of gaming (Barbarian, Monk, and most of the new base classes presented in later books).
  • Prestige Classes stole the limelight from core classes after the 5th level or so, and often felt like either bad multi-classes (Mystic Theurge), or something that could have been better handled with specialized Feats (Arcane Archer, Shadowdancer). Only occasionally did a Prestige Class come along that was really cool, unique, interesting, and worthy of the word “Prestige” (Archemage, off the top of my head. By the time 4e came out, there were actually quite a few good ones – but they were completely outnumbered by bad ones, and even the good ones felt like they were just there to make you not want to be a lowly FIghter, Wizard, Rogue, Ranger, or Whatever Base Class You Were).
  • ECL and Level Adjustments made playing many, many non-human spellcasters a… sub-optimal choice. I guess I don’t really care until you get to races like Drow and Fey-Ri and the multitiude of other level-adjusted races that come from heavy spellcasting cultures – including “Monster Races” like Rakshasha who get to count every hit-die as a Sorcerer (or Cleric) casting level with spells and all, meaning that they’re supposed to be completely badass spellcasters.  Then it just gets very dumb very fast. (as a side note about the Drow – would it have been so frakkin’ hard to make their spell-like abilities into Racial Feats? Would it? And then lower their Ability Score Modifiers and viola – no Level Adjustment. If you haven’t already, and you still play 3/3.5, you might want to houserule that. I mean, if you don’t hate and want to discourage Drow in you game.)

Again, I could go on. I have to do this first, though:

Rangers. This is a class that’s based on Aragorn from Lord of the Rings (seriously – that’s the actual source of inspiration according to the original designers of the game. He’s actually called a Ranger in the books and the film.)

Really? I mean, the class is awful. So… Really? REALLY?

You can make a better ranger by taking appropriate Feats and being a straight-class Fighter. You could do that in the original 3e PHB without further supplemental books. The only thing you missed out on was tracking, and that’s just not enough.

Ranger is my favorite class. I love Rangers. From Aragorn to Belkar, they’re my faves in Fantasy Fiction. One of my favorite characters I’ve ever played – Trynn Fairweather – was a Halfling Ranger.

Dude. Dude. DUDE. Dude. Please, Wizards of he Coast: by all that is sacred, try at least as hard as you did with 4e. The 4e Ranger is amazing. I mean, it’s too bad so many other things about 4e were kinda… not good. But that’s a topic for another post. My only point is Rangers are fucking awesome, and you need to do right by them.  I don’t care if you have to make them a Fighter Prestige Class or some other dumb thing to do it – make them awesome.

Ahem. End rant. I love Rangers. Okay, now end rant.

Anyway, I already spoke at length about my love of the OGL (about two Blog Posts ago). I won’t go into  it again here, other than to link to the relevant blog entry.

A little while later, in 2002, Wizards released d20 Modern (designed by Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Rich Redman, and Charles Ryan). Now, it retained some of my issues with 3e (the Grapple Rules, and needlessly complicated Ability Score/Modifier paradigms and such), but… I fucking love this game. I wish D&D was re-built around the design principles of d20 Modern. My only issue is that, using Rules as Written, there’s no way to start the game as a spellcaster. Fix that (and you could with a couple of additional – even optional – Talent Trees), add in a few of the Iconic Classes (ESPECIALLY RANGERS BECAUSE THEY’RE AWESOME) instead of the Abillity Score Based Classes (with Talent Trees and all) – and you’ve got me. You’ve got a rules system that I will use until the day I die. In fact, I’m doing basically that for my Essence 20 project. In fact, I’mcurrently planning on keeping the Ability Score classes because they are reasonable character archetypes (not great, but reasonable), even in a fantasy setting. Which Essence Is. Sorta.

So I’m asking – right here right now, of the whole of the D&D community: Is wanting D&D Next to be essentially universal with a basic setting of generic fantasy asking too much? Can we bring not just multiple editions of fans, but multiple  genre of fan together to the same table? I think we can. I think Talent Trees could help.

Anyway, I was going to say a lot more – I was going to talk about 3.5e, and psionics, and rant for a while longer on the virtues of d20 Modern, but… I guess that’ll all have to wait for other blog posts. This one is too long as it it.

It’s just as well. I could easily fill an entire post just with d20 Modern, or Psionics. Maybe I’ll do that next. Alternately, maybe I’ll tackle one of my favorite add-ons to D&D3/3.5 and discuss how to improve it and bring it over to D&D Next as soon as possible.

Yeah, I’ll probably do that next. Incarnum and D&D Next. That sounds pretty snappy.

I’ll have to re-theme the Blog in blue, though. Or cerulean. Or cobalt… Maybe I’ll just write the whole thing in a Blue Font. That might work. That won’t get annoying or anything… oh, wait – it will. Maybe that’s the point i want to make…

TL;DR

I liked 3e and the d20 system, but it had issues. Rangers are awesome, but they weren’t awesome in 3e. I love d20 Modern. If you want to know more, develop an attention span. And, yes – I am a jerk.

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6 thoughts on “#dndnext Cautious Optimism part 4: Edition the Third and the d20 System

  1. Man, is this looooong. Who could possibly ramble on and on like this and expect anyone to read.

    Honestly, I just skipped to the bottom and read the last sentence. Man, you are so right there. This thing should be posted everywhere. Every. Where. Or at least that last sentence. Brilliance, man. Pure brilliance.

    Wow. The man who wrote a 9 page review of Godzilla v. Mothra just wrote the above and wasn’t struck by a bolt from the blue. Amazing.

    Excellent stuff, as always. Except for the spelling. I mean, first sentence of the article? I know I have no room to talk but

    BZZZZZGAH!

    Now the bolts come. Sheesh.

  2. Great posting. I will say I agree with most everything said. First time reader, looking forward to more.

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