Critique of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition

With 4th edition just around the corner, I thought I’d give my impression of 3rd Edition and the d20 system.

Good Ideas

The d20 system has several good ideas that make it easier to understand and more easy to play.

  • Positive AC. A larger AC being better than a smaller AC makes more sense.
  • Magic. I like the idea of the effectiveness of saving throws being based on spell level. This makes more powerful magic inherently harder to avoid than less powerful magic, and it makes a lot of sense. I never liked the way a sixth level spell like Death could be simply shrugged off by a Save vs Death Ray, the easiest saving throw to make.
  • Saving Throws. Having saving throws based on “reflex” or other descriptions of how a character may actually avoid a situation is clearer.

Bad Ideas

Unfortunately, the d20 system sometimes made things “too logical” and went a little overboard on the complexity of certain areas.

  • Every class can be mixed with every race. I don’t like this idea, however it is easy enough for a DM to decide in his game world to restrict certain race/class combinations.
  • Sorcerers. It’s not a bad idea as far as game mechanics go (which is why I think they used it) but a “sorcerer” isn’t conceptually different enough from a “wizard” which I think makes it confusing. I think they should have come up with a more unique name/panache for this class. Kind of reminds me of how they used to make a big deal out of “Illusionists” in AD&D 1st edition.
  • Combat. Where should I start? Combat in the d20 system is basically a mess. It’s overly complicated with game mechanics that detract from enjoyment. Complicated combat rules are good for video games sometimes because you don’t see them and a computer can make calculations way faster than you can, but they aren’t good for tabletop games. Combat in the game should be fun but quick.  A drawn-out combat sequence might be good once in an adventure against a particularly important enemy, but who really wants to spend 30 minutes dispatching a group of goblins?
  • Spell Feats. I think this just makes the game more complex. I asked a friend if you could just rule out spell feats as a DM, but he said that it would unbalance the classes.

By on December 31, 2007
Last modified on June 9, 2016

Categories: Rules Hints & Tips

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  • Thanks for your review.

    Unfortunately for you games of this day and age and beyond will be about mechanics at it’s core. That is how combat is balanced and maintained. But I fail to see how that stops you from role playing how you like.

    Basing your abilities without rules to govern their use is just playing Calvin ball. It’s fun for a bit, but eventually it will get old because you just can’t lose. Strong mechanics make a game, or break a game. Just look at BESM.

    Fourth edition is heralded as one of the best systems in production. It balances everything around a universal code of conduct. Saves, ACs and everything defensive being used as a score to beat, while an attacker will most likely always roll, whether it be an attack or a spell.

    The only path to improvement is with complexity, but if done right you will not be burdened with complex rules, just complex ideas.

  • SynTruth

    Huh? Complexity != balance. That’s fallacy in and of itself. Complexity creates loop-holes which -encourage- unbalanced character. Ask any half-way decent munchkin min-maxing player. 4th Ed is going to suck because they are basing around an MMO style of play; which is mostly stupid because table-top and MMO rpgs are different beasts.

    Want a simple system?

    http://basicfantasy.org

  • Capt_Poco

    “playing Calvin ball” gets “old because you just can’t lose”

    I thought D&D was a game without winners or losers? This is semantics, I know. However, baroque rules systems are just one way of achieving the kind of consistent, persistent game world you talk about.

    To put it another way, the complex rules can help you to grasp the complex ideas, but they are not totally necessary to do so. As long as the players and GM understand the complex ideas (the theme of the campaign world, its internal logic etc) you don’t need complex rules.

  • Orlando

    I cannot agree with you. Combat rules in 3rd ed. might be complex, but they are made that way that you as player or DM can use them all or just a part of them. If you find grapple or attacking weapon too complex, you will not use it. That is not a problem. My opinion is that it is much better than 2nd ed. where the rules were not so strict, and where many concepts that are normal in fight were not available. The truth is that 3rd ed. combat rules are much more realistic than 2nd ed.

    If I have to address weaker concepts in the 3rd ed. I would say that there are other too complex rules, such as undead turning. There are some other concepts that are kind of ambigous: multi-class characters, unbalanced strenght growth of wizards, which are totaly unusefull on the lower levels, but overgrow other clases as they gain levels. Monk class is out of the context in the game, and so on.

    Another thing: complex concepts and simple rules are little stange idea for me. Remember, it’s a game, and sooner or latter, concepts are thing that are more or less forgotten, and rules stay for game.

    It is not true that 3rd ed. favorize combat over role-playing. Looking at the available adventures (which probably mirroring the way people play the game), I find much more good defined role playing in 3rd ed. adventures than in 2nd ed. ones. Also, I find that 3rd ed. adventures are much more realistic than older ones, which were much more combat oriented. But, it is on players and DM how you play the game. The only truth is that DM now have to know the concepts of the system, and cannot took it as he likes in the particular situation. So, DM’s still have to have imagination, but they also have to have much more knowledge on game concepts and rules.

  • Thanks for the notes. I didn’t really get into it long enough to pick up details about Wizard progression or even the complications of Turning Undead.

    None of what I wrote really takes into account DM’s modifying rules, but this is another problem: the people who play 3rd edition seem less tolerant of home rules, or modifying the rules. I don’t know if there’s something inherent in the rules or not, but this does seem to be a trend as D&D progresses: people expect the official rules to be followed.

  • Ron

    OK. So I’ve got my 3.5e DMG and MM and I sit down to write. Room 1,:one entire page descrobing all the rules mechanics of an arrow trap. Pgs, 2 and 3 All of the various stats of the four goblin that will enter from the next room describing every possible variation on their AC,combat ability, equipment carried items, wheather or not they’ve had a bowel movement in the last 4 hours. OK, the last one was a little over the top but writing for 3e is like .. work. Which is what I’m trying to escape from in the first place. SynTruth has the right idea. That or Labyrinth Lord. http://www.goblinoidgames.com/labyrinthlord.htm

  • 3rd Edition (and even more so with 3.5) was (and I quote Gary Gygax here) “The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good” – I personally think there was no real bitterness in that statement (he had left TSR behind years ago), and I have to agree with him totally.

    Those of you who like 3rd (or 3.5 or 4th for that matter) Edition, have to realize they might be playing a Fantasy RPG with some elements of D&D/AD&D – but they AREN’T Playing D&D/AD&D – its a derivite.

    D&D/AD&D was written/created by Dave Arneson & Gary Gygax. Anything else (even products that might hold the license) created/produced not under the direct control of those two very missed individuals is NOT D&D/AD&D.

    Its like reading a Discworld story not written by Terry Pratchett, it might be ABOUT Discworld – possibly even legally and professionally produced. But its NOT from the mind of Terry Pratchett, so it can never be truly Discworld.

    Modern D&D is a Miniatures Game with Roleplaying elements built in. You can put as many rules and systems in place as you want, I’ve bought a LOT of 4e stuff, and was on the verge of starting up DM’ing the new Edition when something struck me – the constant churning over balance meant that (pretty much) all the character types were becoming the same. Sure the descriptive text is pretty, but ALL the mechanics of Feats/Spells and the like meant everything pretty much worked the same way – wheres the fun in that.

    Back in the ‘Old Days’ balance came from the Dungeon Master. If something was too powerful, he countered it with something in the Scenario or something ‘unexpected’ in the Game World. If a Character was rapidly becoming dominant within a group, generally it was because of his natural strength of personality – not because of the rules of a game, dice rolls, or character he chose to play (think Colin Lol, he was always the bully of the group).

    As Don Turnbul (he used to be head of TSR UK) once said to me at a Con (all those years ago again Lol), “don’t rely on the rules too much – always try to make some of it up as you go along; both you and your players will have more fun that way”.

    The current RPG market is made up of sterile recycled overly complicated rulesets.

    D&D/AD&D had it right, unfortunately MOST people either can’t see it or are too stubborn to admit it.

    Keep Rollin – Drew

  • Thanks Drew, you added some good commentary. I really should have written something up about 4th edition too, but honestly I’m so far out of it now that there’s no way I can even have an opinion on it. I’m sure I’ll be sticking with the classics myself.

  • I just felt the need to support your thoughts.

    4th is nice looking, but ulitimately unsatisfying. I wonder how long Wizards can carry on changing D&D and drifting futher and further away from its roots.

    Keep Rollin – Drew