Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Wizards' Sins: 3e's Five Biggest Mistakes

This is my retrospective on third edition's problems. Since fourth edition isn't actually d&d, there seems little point in posting about how to fix it, and even less point in making lengthy lists of the things I don't like about it. Third edition can be rehabilitated, though, and to that end I present for your consideration a list of the worst things about it. Later posts will include ways of fixing these problems.

5. Buff Spells

Buff spells give characters bonuses or abilities that they didn't normally have. Haste, enlarge, resist elements, bull's strength, all of these are buff spells. Because there are no diminishing returns when one piles the spells on, it is often advantageous to pile all these spells onto the same person so that the most damaging attacks are also the most likely to hit, and the most dangerous character is also the least likely to be hurt.

Although the spell durations became more or less standardized in third edition, they remained a pain in the ass to keep track of in addition to everything else that happens during a fight. And with the varying bonus types stacking or not stacking, forget it.

Never mind that the spellcasters would be expected to waste half their spells on buffs. Playing a "support" spellcaster whose only purpose is to pump up another character so ~he~ can be the hero isn't much fun at all, and is contrary to the dramatic teamwork that d&d should be about. In summary, the buff spells were too many, too complicated, and too boring for the caster.

4. Chained Feats

The introduction of feats in third edition let characters of the same class distinguish themselves from each other without relying on kits that are essentially sub-classes. Kits suffer balance and flexibility problems, and often rely on a very specific flavor that can prove difficult to incorporate into every game. They are superior to the prestige class system, but that's another diatribe.

Feats are customizations to an existing class, and to an extent their inclusion ameliorates many peoples' peeves with a class-based rpg system. Most of my concerns, anyway.

Alas, not all feats are born equal. Feats are strung into great chains with increasingly powerful effects as you take more of them. These feats were such prominent features that one's feat choices became more important than one's class choices --and that's not what d&d should be like. Things should be customizable but not freeform. Which brings me to my next post...

3. Skill Points

Juggling skill points around adds nothing to the game. No extra drama is created by hawing and hemming over whether to put that extra point in survival or climb. The skills themselves are largely boring, and can result in spot and search checks being the most commonly made die rolls in the game.

Incorporating skill points was a shifting of gears from an ability based system to a point based system, and the game suffers for it. The non-weapon proficiencies of earlier editions are more fun and dramatic, though perhaps more poorly named. Instead of having to manage a hundred skill points that only kind of matter, you just pick a few things that seem interesting, and roll with it. When one looks at a second edition character sheet, one sees a list of things that the character can do and that will have a very real effect on the game. Likewise much of a fourth edition character sheet. But when one looks at a third edition character sheet, in addition to the useful things (feats and class abilities) one sees a list of messy skills that one can kind of use successfully.

I have been trying to move back to a proficiency mechanic in my latest game, and my players seem to be enjoying it. It isn't as difficult as I expected to make the switch back, and the game is better for it.

2. Ability Damage and Bonuses

As I mentioned before, keeping track of shifting bonuses is a hassle. How much more so when every time you get hit by some undead critter your ability score is reduced, changing every single thing that is based on that score. One hit from a dexterity-draining critter simultaneously modifies a character's armor class, reflex saves, initiative, and his ability to use ranged weapons. And the player needs to fix these stats every time the undead varmint hits him. Players shouldn't have to futz around with that crap in the middle of a dramatic combat, and a mechanic that forces this is a poor mechanic.

Ability bonuses are a pile of crap for similar reasons, but with the caveat that not only are temporary ability boosts annoying, but permanent bonuses are so unbalanced that they hedge out the interesting magic items. Well, as interesting as they get in third edition. Ability bonuses are so good that they make all the other magic items crap by comparison. The tendency to overspecialize in third edition is strong, so of course every wizard has the best intelligence-boosting item that he can get his hands on, and the other classes have a similar problem.

Ability-boosting items also served to sublimate ability scores. Once upon a time, ability scores actually defined your character. I may not miss the days of not being able to play a paladin because by scores weren't high enough, but I dislike that my wizard's inherent intelligence matters so little because I can eventually procure a boring stat bonus item with benefits sans flavor. If I have an unfortunately low stat, I can boost it with an item in one of the all too numerous magic item slots on my character. In prior editions, most low ability scores stuck around for the entire campaign --that wizard with a six in his constitution at first level would still cough and wheeze at twentieth level.

Worst of all, if your ability scores don't really matter, then what is unique about your character? Nothing.

1. Attacks of Opportunity

Although introduced prior to third edition in the second edition Player's Option series, I believe attacks of opportunity (or AoO) were made integral to the third edition rules specifically in the hopes that they would allow Wizards of the Coast to sell miniatures. I don't like the idea of owning miniatures, but sometimes use printed tokens when I want a fight to have especially high production values. So I'm not biased against the usage of minis, per se. I use them when I think that the game calls for them. But I wouldn't ~need~ them in 3.0 were it not for opportunity attacks and threatened areas.

Opportunity attacks are the most complicated part of third edition. I've had to explain and re-explain the rules to even longtime players, because they are so complicated and convoluted that many people find them difficult to learn.

Before 3.0, I would often eschew graph paper in favor of less precise white paper. It looked nicer even if it didn't tell me exactly where Mark the Fighter was standing. Without threatened areas and reach, position wasn't quite so essential. I could safely assume that the characters would be standing in the places where it would make sense for them to be, and not worry about it beyond that.

Opportunity attacks, threatened areas, and reach were introduced to make exact positioning essential, and so make miniatures essential. This decision was done to the detriment of the game, except perhaps for those players that long for d&d to be more like a war game. I would argue that despite its roots in wargaming, d&d became something better, and that to attend overmuch to that heritage will hurt the game.

I concede that many players do not struggle with attacks of opportunity, but they still slow down combat even if you are using miniatures. And I would ask you, reader, what do they really add to your combat that you're keen so keep to use them? The game isn't complicated enough without them? You're really so worried about players running past the monsters that you need to incorporate this extra mechanic? Gimme a break.

In my most recent game, I have removed these elements and am amazed at how quick the fights seem. We can play very fast and loose with positioning, and it's one less dumb thing to worry about in an already complicated rules system. So yeah, attacks of opportunity and all the rest are crap.

Next: Doing Buffs Right


  1. These are all valid points, and I'll try not to second-guess your potential fixes for them.

    For now though, it looks like your gripes fall under two main categories: poor mechanics choices, and mechanics that interfere with the flow of the game. While the first can definitely be addressed, the latter will always be a thorny issue. For every snooty dramatist there are two or three die-chuckers who just don't give a shit about anything but big numbers. Finding the proper balance between the two will depend on the group playing, but published materials and rules will always prefer the latter.

    Also there is the unfortunately forgone conclusion that newer editions of game rules will be more convoluted and explicit than their predecessors (despite WotC claiming their rulebooks got shorter and easier to understand, the rule density went way up on those pages). There is no incentive for a developer to truly dial things back to a more streamlined setting with lower price points and no planned obsolescence. Personally, I'd love to see a community-made 3.75 (or maybe it should be called 2.5) treatment, despite the dubious legality of such a project.

  2. I don't mind having gamist game mechanics, but I do mind when those mechanics are so clumsy that they decrease my enjoyment of the game.

    As for dialing back the games, Monte Cook's Dungeon a Day project is done in 3.5, and he's the darling of the 3.0 era. Pathfinder is a 3.5 clone put out by Paizo, the people who used to make Dragon and Dungeon magazine before Wizards put the kibosh on them. Mutants and Mastermind is the most financially successful superhero rpg, and they have no plans to abandon the d20 system. So there's a market for it, even if it's kind of marginal.

    I dunno, I just wish Wizards stuck to improving their editions instead of adding yet more stuff, or at least if they removed more bad stuff when they added more good stuff.