Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fun with Any Edition: D&D 3rd Edition

This is a continuation of a series I started as my sort of way of saying that I think the so-called "edition wars" are kind of pointless and stupid.  The premise is that, really, with a great group of friends and a good DM, you can have fun with pretty much any edition of D&D.  The act of getting together and sharing a gaming experience with your friends is so much more important than whether you use ascending or descending AC or whether all weapons should do 1d6 damage or not.

I've started with the most recent editions first, and am working my way backwards.  My earlier posts were on 4th Edition and 3.5 Edition

Picking one single 3.0 session to represent how you can have fun with that edition is easy for me - it's the very first session I ever played 3.0, in yet another game DM'd by my friend Cal.  Regular readers will notice that Cal has also been the DM for my posts on 4th Edition and 3.5 Edition.  This isn't to say that the other DM's I've played with recently, including my friends Brian and Sean, aren't worthy, not to mention my own turn as DM.  But, the thing is, Sean has so far only DM'd a "Call of Cthulhu" campaign, so that doesn't count for this series of posts.  And, I've actually only played 4th Edition once, so by default, Cal gets the honor as being the DM for that session.

The reason that I'm singling out my first session as a player in a 3rd Edition campaign to highlight how you can have fun with any edition is because it was this session that was responsible for my return to playing RPGs, my brief involvement as a writer of d20 material for publication, the start of me running my World of Samoth campaign (a dream of almost 15+ years that finally came to fruition), and ultimately, why I'm now blogging about gaming and geek stuff in general.

As I've mentioned before, I was working at an ad agency that he recently won the Wizards of the Coast account, right when 3rd Edition came out. We were responsible for all of their advertising, including D&D as well as Magic: The Gathering, their MLB card game, their novel line, and of course Pokemon.  My team, all young women in their early to late 20s, had no concept of what a role-playing game was, and my good friend Malinda asked me if I could teach her the game.  I hadn't run a game for more than 15 years at the time, but I had a ton of B/X, 1st Edition, and 2nd Edition materials I could use.  But, then the client sent us a care package that included a 3rd Edition Player's Handbook so we could familiarize ourselves with the game.

Around this same time, I had met a guy named Nick at my work who, I came to find out, had painted an army of Warhammer Skaven figures that was on display at the agency (that's a long story for another post).  Through Nick, I met a bunch of other guys that called themselves the "Boisespuds" (another long story), but that I just referred to as "my game group."  We would get together after work once every other week to play all of these weird strategy games I had never heard of, like "Settlers of Catan" and "Modern Art."  I'd been hanging out with them for only a short while, and they were slowly beginning to accept me as a "replacement" for a guy who had left their group.  As the new guy, I was always the lightning rod for jokes and jabs, but I took it in stride.

Anyway, one day at game night I heard Cal talking to the rest of the group about the new D&D books that had just come out, and it became readily apparent that they were going to start a campaign with him as the DM.  Cal was really excited about the new rules and mentioned a bunch of things that I didn't understand, like "feats" and "sneak attacks."  I was a little taken aback, because I just didn't think about people in my age group (I was in my late 20s at the time) playing D&D.  The last time I had actually rolled the dice in a game was a Warhammer Fantasy game my friend Brian refereed after my senior year of high school.  So, I didn't say anything to them.

Fast forward about 18 months, and Cal's campaign was in full swing, and I finally asked him if I could join his campaign. I wanted to learn the new rules as a player before I started to DM my own game for my team at work.  I had kept telling them that I would teach them to play, but I just had never gotten around to it.

Cal was very welcoming to have me join his game, which at that time must have had about eight or nine players in it.  It was a really mixed group, consisting of three couples (either married or long-time relationships), and then a few guys like Nick, Cal, and me who were in relationships but our significant others weren't interested.

I realize that's a lot of background to get to the first session that I played in, but it's important to understand how everything just came together: I was so totally stoked to be working on the advertising for the company that made a game I loved as a kid, I had met a cool new group of gamers who were slowly become true friends, I was going to get to play D&D again after a decade and a half hiatus, and I was soon going to be starting up my own campaign.  It was the perfect storm of geek-coolness, if that's not an oxymoron.

Part of why I liked that first session has to do with the campaign world that Cal built, but I'm going to save that for a different post.  It actually relates to something I was chatting about with fellow blogger Dylan a few days ago, so I'll save the surprises for him for another post.

But, suffice it to say, I had an awesome time and it kept me coming back every session.  The group was diverse - a female human paladin whose paladin mount that was actually smarter and stronger than half of the actual adventurers; a human rogue whose sole goal was to become the richest man in the world and whose player would somehow always "hide in shadows and move silently over to the back of the room to set up a sneak attack" but years later we found out that he was actually doing that to steal all of the good treasure and we didn't notice because we were in combat; a female dark elf ranger who was planning a coup against her mother who was the Queen of the dark elves; a male dwarf fighter/weaponsmith who was somehow pledged to protect the dark elf ranger and who was carrying one of the seven famed artifacts of the dwarves, but he was actually too weak to wield properly, so we had no idea of its full potential until much later; another human rogue who kept insisting over and over that he was a corsair and that was the reason he wasn't good at searching for traps; a human barbarian from a steppe area kind of like the Mongols; and a female elf fighter who specialized in the longbow to the exclusion of all other weapons.

You may be reading that and thinking, "Yeah, but you could've played that with any edition of the game."  That's exactly my point.  It's not about the edition you're playing.  It's about playing... period. 

So, what did I like about the actual rules of 3rd Edition?  Well, the thing is, it's really the first rules set of D&D that I felt was designed to I could create exactly the character I wanted to create.  What I mean by that is, when I was younger and reading 1st and 2nd Edition rules, I was always struck by the fact that certain races couldn't be certain classes.  Why couldn't I have a dwarf wizard?  There are a lot of dwarves in mythology that were known as magical craftsman (like Nilbelung dwarf Alberich in the Nilbelung saga that crafts the magic ring).  And why could you have a dwarf or elf cleric NPC, but not as a PC?  And why was the illusionist class closed to every race but gnomes and humans?  The entire thing made very little sense to me.  I also didn't like that if you wanted to play a fighter, for example, you could choose not to wear heavy armor, and be a "Conan-type", but you were really hurting yourself because the some of the fighter's only class abilities that really saw use in a game were his ability to wear any armor and use any weapons. And, the multi-classing rules and dual-classing rules didn't make sense to me, either.

Now, that's not intended as a slam against earlier editions of the game.  It's to to highlight some of the things that I liked about 3rd Edition.  I had a character concept that I wanted from the beginning, which was a dwarf "samurai-type" character, who was primarily a warrior, but had dabbled a bit in magic to increase his fighting capability.  As time went on, I changed him from a dwarf to a human to fit better into Cal's campaign world, but I was still really impressed that, if I had wanted to, I could have made a dwarf fighter/wizard and he could be good at both and rise to the same level as everybody else.

As I tightened up my character concept, I knew I wanted to play a lightly-armored Samurai who could tumble around during melee and move really fast.  I planned to only wear a chain shirt as my main form of armor protection to keep me mobile.  And then I found with, with the proper feats, being a lightly armored fighter could actually work.  I focused on being a dextrous, fast, mobile fighter type, and I never felt penalized by the fact that I hadn't chosen to wear full plate.

Third Edition D&D gets a lot of bad rap from people who claim that it has "too many options."  There are a ton of options, and I agree that, especially as a DM, they can be overwhelming if you try to keep tab of them all.  So my solution is... I don't.  I don't read all of the spell and feat descriptions until I need to when creating NPCs for my players to fight.  I've way cut down the amount of time it takes me to create NPC adversaries for my players because I've learned that all I really need to know is what level and class the NPC is, and I can do a lot of the math in my head. I don't need to assign his skill points.  I can just figure out during the actual game if that skill would have seemed reasonable for him to have, and then give him max ranks and add his ability bonus.  It's actually very easy to do this "on-the-fly."  The same is true for attack bonuses.  Spellcasters are a little trickier, but they've always been my weak spot so I don't think you can blame that on the edition.

Another complaint I hear about Third Edition is how it went too far to try to "balance" things.  I'm not really sure that that's a strong basis for a complaint, but what I will address is that 3rd Edition is really the first edition of D&D that I started to understand how it worked.  Making things so balanced, so-to-speak, and explaining how things worked (like all of the "design your own feats" or "design your own Prestige Classes" articles in Dragon) helped me immeasurably as a DM.  Sure, it was frustrating when my players knew more than I did about the game and could tell what level my bad guys were based on what feats or class abilities they used or how many attacks them made, and then could determine that I must somehow be "cheating" because they had too many hit points.  But, again, I don't think you can fault the system for this.  Haven't there been "rules lawyer" players like that since the game was invented?

In short, it all comes down to preference, which is something that most rational people know already.  But it's just so funny to me to see people make claims that certain things from 3.x-era D&D are just "wrong" - ascending AC, feats, attacks of opportunity, skills... the list goes on and on.  Hell, I probably have a list just as long about the things I think are "wrong" about 4th Edition... but at least I know that it's just my opinion and not some kind of absolute truth about the game.  Hopefully I can keep that perspective as I get older and more set in my ways.

Hanging: Home Office
Drinking: Dogfish Head "Midas Touch" ale - one of their ancient recipe brews that's made with barley, white muscat grapes, honey, and saffron.  It's... a little too sweet for me.  But, it was interesting to try it.
Listening: "Freddie Freeloader" by Miles Davis


  1. I've never played 3e myself, though I have played Pathfinder. In some ways if I want to run a game as complicated as it, I'd play GURPS (or maybe even HERO system)--both of which I've had a lot of fun with at various times, but I prefer rules lighter these days. Still, I don't think 3e is an affront to D&D or anything, by any means.

  2. Amen once again to edition peace! I'm surprised you had separate posts for 3.5 and 3.0, though. You really think there was that much of a difference between them? Thanks for these great posts, and for some cool glimpses into your life and connections to the game (like the work you did for WotC). I feel like there isn't enough of this sharing of personal gaming experience in the blogosphere. I guess you can say that's the who point behind my blog!

  3. I've never been a D&D person, so my first encounter with the third edition has been with my group's recent delves into its grandchild Pathfinder. It's not really to my tastes, but I think it's a solid game.

    I would love to find out more about this mysterious Skaven army though. Do tell!

  4. @Trey - yeah, I can see how/why the 3.x/Pathfinder stuff isn't everyone's cup of tea. I actually enjoy it from a player's standpoint due to all of the customization, but from a DM standpoint, it can be a bit of a hassle. My group is moving toward rules-light, too, to stuff like Savage Worlds, and I'm considering running some Castles & Crusades as well.

    I'm guessing some people don't agree that it doesn't really matter what edition you play - I actually lost a follower since I posted this!

    @Drance - You're totally right - the differences between 3.0 and 3.5 are so superficial that I did consider combining them into one post. But, the "evil" 3.5 game was just so different, from a game perspective, because we really knew how the rules worked by that point. And, for this post on 3.0, it was really an excuse for me to chat about how I got back into gaming after a long hiatus. And, I think I'll be sharing more about my advertising work on WotC in a future post.

    @Kelvin - the Skaven army... so funny. Well, it's funny to me, but it's a kind of short-story. Basically, the ad agency I worked at during that time had a large "display case" on the one of the floors right near the elevator lobby. Everyone in the agency was required to build a personal display in the case. The displays rotated every two weeks, based on alphabetical order by last name. You could put anything you wanted to in the display case to illustrate your personality. Most people just put the regular stuff - their favorite book, favorite album, etc. Some people got creative. One guy somehow managed to fill the entire display case with uncooked elbow macaroni. So, my buddy Nick (a guy that I didn't know at the time), who was in the creative/art department, decided to put his entire Skaven army that he had painted on display. In an office of about 200 people at the time, I was the only person who knew what they were, and eventually that helped to connect me to meeting Nick and the rest of his gamer friends.

    When it came around to my turn, I went for the goofy route. I printed out an aerial view photograph of a battleground of the Battle of Fredericksburg from the American Civil War and laid that down on the base of the display case, and then I set up two "armies" consisting of about 3 dozen different Pez dispensers that for some reason I had collected over the years. I then wrote a summary of the battle in all serious, but replaced the names of the generals, colonels, and other soldiers in the report with the appropriate Pez dispenser. So, it read like this:

    "On November 14, General Darth Vader Pez, now in command of the Army of the Potomac, sent a corps of Pez dispenses to occupy the vicinity of Falmouth near Fredericksburg. The rest of the Pez army soon followed. Santa Claus Pez reacted by entrenching his army on the heights behind the town. On December 11, Union engineers laid five pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock under fire. On the 12th, the Federal army crossed over, and on December 13, Darth Vader Pez mounted a series of futile frontal assaults on Prospect Hill and Marye’s Heights that resulted in staggering casualties. Pumpkin Head Pez's division, on the Union left flank, briefly penetrated Spider-Man Pez's line but was driven back by a counterattack."

    People thought I was weird.

  5. Ha! That is a funny story. Thanks for sharing it.


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