Monthly Archives: June 2013

My Love-Hate Relationship With 3e: A Mixed Success

3e  has quite a few mixed-success stories — great ideas that didn’t quite work out as intended, and tend to feed into the system’s big problems. The best example of which is probably 3e’s buffet-style multiclassing.

Buffet-Style Multiclassing: As I mentioned in The Love, 3e’s multiclassing rules are markedly better than the strange subsystems that preceded it. But they’re also weighed down by inconsistent class design and ill-conceived XP penalties.

Level Adjustments: LAs are 3e’s attempt at making monstrous races playable. The problem is that the designers either didn’t quite now how to assign LAs, or they really didn’t want players playing races from the monster books. In either case, the result is that LAs are usually much too high, especially considering the racial hit dice that monstrous races are often saddled with. In other words, most monstrous PCs are glass-jawed buffoons.

Iterative Attacks: IAs are 3e’s evolution of the 2e fighter’s multiple attacks per turn. (Anyone else remember wondering whether the fighter got his two attacks on even rounds, or on odd rounds?) Overall, IAs are probably an  improvement — but they come with their own problems. The first problem is a matter of tracking — ever had to roll four different attacks, each with a different modifier, and often with various circumstantial modifiers on top of everything else? If you have, you know how much of a chore it is even with color-coded dice.

The second problem is that to use your iterative attacks, you can’t do anything more than shuffle sluggishly through the battlefield between sword swings. (Except if you happen to be a lion totem barbarian.) Not only does this create a boring combat dynamic for characters and monsters who rely on iterative attacks, it also creates a very bizarre and counterintuitive side effect. The side effect is this: If your BAB is +6 or higher, your best first move against any melee opponent is to…not move. Instead, wisdom dictates that you wait for your enemy to charge and swing with its one attack, and then retaliate with your full attack routine. (Except if you have some kind of ubercharger build.) Which makes no fucking sense.

Spontaneous Cure Spells: This is D&D’s first attempt to alleviate its traditional healbot phenomenon. And it does help; no more filling every spell slot with a cure spell “…just in case!” Except of course if you’re anything but a good-aligned cleric. While spontaneous curing does make the cleric class more appealing, it doesn’t eliminate the healbot phenomenon; it still reinforces the expectation that clerics exist to heal, heal, heal! And shame on Joe for wanting to command the enemy rather than heal Bob’s barbarian.

Skills: 3e skills are a definite improvement on 2e’s combination of thief percentage-based skills and ability-based nonweapon proficiencies. Unfortunately they’re new player-unfriendly, they’re mired in system mastery, they pigeonhole characters into cliche tropes, they create auto-failure/success at later levels, and they all too often create the sensation that one is filling out a tax form rather than playing an enjoyable game.

Essentially, the skills chapter is a microcosm of everything that’s fiddly, opaque, and frustrating about 3e.

Feats: Feats are one of 3e’s greatest innovations. Unfortunately, their wildly inconsistent quality holds them back. In fact, Monte Cook actually used Toughness to define the problem of system mastery that plagues 3e. Some feats grant minor bonuses, such as Weapon Focus and Spell Penetration. Others grant dramatic new benefits, such as Leadership and Natural Spell. Still others grant benefits that the game assumes the PCs have, such as Weapon Finesse and Power Attack.

Wealth-by-Level: WBL guidelines are good because they essentially light up a big neon sign in the DMG that reads YES, D&D EXPECTS PCS TO GET LOTS OF STUFF. Unfortunately, this advice doesn’t tell new DMs what particular things the game expects PCs to have, and the gold-piece values themselves are based on the very swingy random treasure tables.

What the DMG should advise DMs of is the Big Six which D&D expects the PCs to have, because without the bonuses they grant, the game goes sideways as the PCs gain levels. Even better would be a chart of bonuses-by-level guidelines, to give DMs an idea of when the PCs are expected to have masterwork armor, and when they’re assumed to have +5 armor and two other +5 AC boosters.

As an added bonus, a bonuses-by-level chart makes it easy to grant those bonuses as innate bonuses so that magical items can be more special. Innate bonuses also keep things from going pear-shaped every time someone fires off a dispel magic.

Magical Item Crafting: Most days, I believe that standardized crafting rules are an improvement on 2e’s vague DMG advice, which includes turning every craft attempt into a fetch quest. It’s just a shame that 3e crafting rules suck.

Basically, 3e magical item crafting fails because it costs XP. Some players hold onto XP like a miser hangs onto gold, but the fact is that the XP rules turn this cost into an insignificant inconvenience. The lower level the crafter is, the more XP he earns, the faster he levels up again. Hell, he might even get lucky and sling-shot past his miserly allies due to this quirk!

And with the gp-cost of item crafting being 50% of market value, savvy crafters can outfit themselves and their allies far beyond what the game or their DM expects.

Leave a comment

Posted by on 07/06/2013 in Uncategorized


My Love-Hate Relationship with 3e: Revenge of the Realism

Preface: I DMed, played, and loved 3.0 and 3.5 D&D from 2000 to 2008. I say this because I’m about to get ranty, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I hate this particular edition of D&D. But it is deeply flawed.

“But 3e is realistic!”

More than any other edition, 3e creates the illusion that its rules simulate a ‘realistic’ fantasy world, for lack of a better term. (And fans have been arguing about the proper term for this phenomenon for quite a while!) With its myriad of rules to cover every situation the game developers could imagine, 3e implies that the rules are the physics of a world that — aside from the obvious exception of magic — operates by the same natural laws that the real world does.

In short, no, 3e is not any more realistic than other editions — if you take a minute to part the magician’s curtain. Let’s start with an old D&D game conceit…

Class & Level

A 20th level wizard who’s spent his life studying books in his tower and never been in so much as a fistfight is a better fighter than 99% of the world’s fighters, because his class table says he has the BAB to punch through full plate armor and the hit points to survive a 1000 foot fall.

Hit Points

Very few injuries result in a person going from fully functional to KOed — brain trauma’s the only way, really.

3e hit points are as ambiguously gamey as they’ve always been — they exist to pace the adventure and create long-term tension. Do they represent ‘meat points,’ or are they best described narratively on a case-by-case basis? Either way, hit points strain credulity from any real world point of view.

Additionally, the very fact that characters with more hit points take longer to heal demonstrates how gamey they are. Natural healing restores 1 HP/level, which means that KOed wizards recover faster than KOed barbarians! (Higher totals take longer to restore.) Magical healing restores hit points regardless of the recipient’s maximum HP or level, which means that a couple of cure light wounds can bring a KOed 1st-level character to perfect health, but can hardly heal a scratch ten levels later! Even for magic, that doesn’t make any kind of sense.

Armor Class

The fact that AC doesn’t scale with level is more immersion-breaking for me than any other single aspect of D&D. Characters get better at avoiding damage, but only if that damage is the result of area attacks like a fireball. Yeah, yeah, dodging and parrying are supposedly abstracted into hit points, but whether I use a battle mat or a ‘theatre of the mind,’ it looks a lot like combatants just stand in one place hacking at each other until one of them drops.

Strength is Default

Imagine a rpg called Painting: the Tortured Talent, where you play a starving artist trying to make it big. Except that your character by default adds his Strength modifier to his Profession (painter) checks, until and if he takes a special feat to be able to paint like a normal person. Sounds crazy, right? Well D&D has the same problem, but with Strength being the default attack modifier.

Sure, there’s a genre-plausible argument for Strength being default for larger weapons, but it’s downright moronic to charge a feat to attack normally with unarmed, light, and rapier weapons.


In reality, attacking from range just isn’t effective as a skirmish tactic like it is in D&D. Attacking from range is effective under two circumstances: when a whole unit of soldiers fires at an enemy unit — not at any specific target! — all at once, to create a hail of projectiles that kill mostly due to statistical likelihood. Or when a single attacker fires at a slow moving and unaware target — sniping and hunting, in other words.

Anyone who’s ever fired any kind of gun or bow at a moving target knows how hard it is, and how laughably generous D&D’s ranged rules are.

Monster Stats

“But monsters stats follow the same rules that PCs do. And they’re not based on level, they’re realistic!”

Monsters follow many of the same rules that PCs do, which implies that the stats adhere to an organic kind of logic and reality. But of course this is just a pretense; most monster stats are based on hit dice, even those that have no business being based on HD. For example, giant animals aren’t any smarter or quicker than their normal counterparts, but they always have better Reflex and Will saves simply by virtue of having more HD. Similarly, larger creatures don’t have advanced combat training by default, yet they have higher BABs than smaller creatures due to having more HD.

AC is an oddball case, but it’s no more realistic than any other monster stat. The MM advises DMs to base natural armor bonuses of homebrew creations on size and type, but the game designers themselves followed this advice inconsistently at best. And with good reason! Dragons are assigned armor bonuses based on their age, and thereby on the challenge they’re meant to pose to PCs. The bonuses don’t mean anything definable in the game world — they exist solely to create suitably high ACs for PCs to roll against. Monsters with natural bonuses based on the MM’s vague in-game suggestions tend to result in wildly inaccurate CRs — of which there are quite a few, unsurprisingly.

Also, the fact that those with poor to unexceptional reflexes (0 to 11 Dexterity) are completely unaffected by being flat-footed is patently absurd.

Size Categories (A Personal Rant)

A particular pet peeve of mine are size categories, and their related rules. It’s as if several designers contributed to size categories without collaborating. One guy decided that each category should double the height and octuple the weight of the previous category. Another guy decided that space and reach should increase in a slower [sort of] linear fashion. Yet a third guy decided that size should apply modifiers to combat stuff and certain skill checks, but got a sudden pink slip before he could write “…and these modifiers apply to Listen, Move Silently, and Spot too.”* The guy who replaced the fired guy failed high school algebra, so he wrote attack and AC mods that stop making sense once you think about them.** And then the lead designer took these napkin-scribbles and threw them all into the chart we have today. (MM 314)

In short, my peeve is this: the fluffy stats (height, weight) follow the square-cube law, while the crunchy stats (space, reach) follow a roughly linear law, so that a colossal giant looks proportionally like an emaciated human with comically stunted arms. Also, size modifiers make no fucking sense.

*There are arguments about flies and physics, but suffice it to say that yes, smaller creatures are better at listening, moving silently, and spotting as well as hiding. (And vice versa larger creatures.) Consider the implications of Hide-only modifiers; smaller creatures are great at hiding even from each other. (Again, vice versa larger creatures.) It’s like if size applied modifiers to AC, but not to attacks.

**If you don’t immediately see the weirdness of the +8 +4 +2 +1 +0 -1 -2 -4 -8 modifiers, look at the difference between them. (4, 2, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 4) Differences start out big, so that a Diminutive creature fighting a Fine creature is at a significant disadvantage. (One category of size difference.) Then the differences peter out, so that a Medium creature hardly notices the difference between attacking a Small or a Large foe. (Still one category of difference.) Then the differences increase again, so that a Colossal creature is at a significant disadvantage against a Gargantuan creature. (Yet again one category of difference.) This has the odd side effect that many dragons actually lose AC in the transition to Great Wyrm, despite their steep natural AC escalation!

Miscellaneous Absurdities

Beyond the issues I’ve already described, 3e has countless odd details that throw any sense of reality to the wind. For example, every monster that can Swallow Whole can also use ‘muscular action’ to close the gaping throat wound if a PC manages to cut his or her way out after being swallowed. Gee, if only throat-wound victims knew about muscular action! So many could be saved!

Highly dextrous 3e characters become putzes when caught flat-footed, but average Joes and klutzes remain as difficult to hit as ever. This of course results from trying to wrangle D&D’s inherently unrealistic range of ability modifiers into a rule intended to reflect reality. So of course the result fails miserably.

Skilled 3e fighter-types and multi-attack monsters gain great offensive advantage (iterative attacks) by standing still rather than by charging an enemy. Gee, you think standing still would be a good idea the next time I find myself in a fistfight?

Monsters often have traits derived from faulty human perception rather than reality. Treants the sentient tree-people, for example, are vulnerable to fire because people think of wood as fuel. But trees are actually very resistant to fire — and they have to be, because unlike us, trees can’t run from forest fires! So those that weren’t very fire-retardant died out a long time ago.

Despite being a nominally non-magical class, rogues with the Defensive Roll ability can use it to avoid a single attack per day. Gee, I wonder why they can only do it once a day…could it be rogue magic? No, no, of course not. 3e is realistic!

Polymorph allows its target to assume many forms, including those of natural animals. What makes polymorph absurd — other than being a magical spell, of course — is that the abilities it grants often make no sense. For example, a druid turning into a wolf gains the wolf’s trip attack, which is a skill that natural wolves learn from many hours of hunting. But the druid doesn’t gain the scent ability, a natural trait that wolves have from birth. Need I go on?

The Bottom Line…

…Is that no edition of D&D is realistic, and even the ‘most realistic’ one is a matter of perspective. Fans tend to view one edition as more realistic than the others because they’re most familiar with it; they’ve had years to internally justify its absurdities and inconsistencies, and so they get mentally glazed over. But when confronted with a new set of oddities, fans are unable to mentally glaze over them, resulting in sentiments like “Ugh, that’s so gamey; not realistic like 3.x is!”


Posted by on 06/06/2013 in Uncategorized


My Love-Hate Relationship with 3e: Bad Legacies Live On

Preface: I DMed, played, and loved 3.0 and 3.5 D&D from 2000 to 2008. I say this because I’m about to get ranty, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I hate this particular edition of D&D. But it is deeply flawed. Why? Because 3e held on to a few legacy quirks like a miser holds onto his pennies…

Random Stats: Namely, random abilities and random hit points. Dice are for actual play; they have no place in character creation. Non-random variants are buried in the DMG as optional rules.

Random Loot: D&D has always required that PCs have certain bread-and-butter items, and 3e is no different. In fact, in a 2007 article, Andy Collins coined a term to describe these bread-and-butter items: the Big Six. Some of the Big Six are needed just to survive and participate in combat (magical AC boosters, weapons, and cloaks of resistance), while the others are simply so good that other items just don’t compare (stat boosters). And yet 3e continued the tradition of Give the Players Random Crap.

You Are Your Gear: Related to the random loot issue is this one. A large chunk of any character’s power comes from their magical bling, and it only becomes more important as the character gains levels. A high-level PC needs not only better bling (better bonuses), but also more bling. Aside from the Big Six, high level PCs all but require certain things to stay alive and contribute to dealing with high-level threats; a way to fly and immunity to common save-or-lose effects (death effects, mind-affecting effects, etc.), for example.

Oh, and it’s a common misconception that playing a low-gear game gives muggles an edge that casters don’t have. It doesn’t. Casters don’t need magical gear because they can just use similar spells — and at higher levels, they’ve got more spell slots than they know what to do with!

Non-Scaling AC: Characters get better at landing damage, but not at avoiding it? This doesn’t make any kind of sense. AC-by-level is stashed in the book of house rules, Unearthed Arcana.

Turn Undead: Somehow TU survived the purge of 2e’s bizarre little subsystems, and nobody knows how. To this day, I can’t remember how TU works according to the PHB. TU as a d20 attack power is stashed in the Complete Divine, as a variant rule.

Aside from being a legacy subsystem, TU actually gets weaker the higher level you get. Because most undead gain several HD per CR, it becomes impossible to turn the Lich King’s shambling thugs. Ironically, you probably have a chance of turning the Lich King himself because his HD are about the same as your level!

Alignment & Multiclassing Restrictions: Flavor-based restrictions are bad because they tell players how to role player and limit creativity for no good reason. (And no, “Because tradition!” is not a good reason.) Enough said.

Rolling Saves: This one isn’t problematic so much as odd. Muggles roll attacks against static ACs, but casters sling around static DCs for targets to roll against. It’s inconsistent for no reason.


3.x also deserves a few honorable mentions; while not part of the game’s fundamental rules, they were an overall positive impacts. The Open Gaming License allows anyone with a creative idea to get it onto the D&D market, and have a shot at a piece of the D&D pie. Lots of these third party products are crap of course, but there are some gems out there. Eberron was born out of taking the 3.x rules to their logical conclusion within a fantasy world, and spawned two races that became instant favorites for many players. (Changelings and warforged.)

And then it created some of its own byzantine or nuisance rules: grappling, favored classes, multiclassing restrictions, trapfinding, death by massive damage, monsters built like PCs (sort of).

DMing is a Hassle: Ever build a caster in 3.x, who then dies in the first round of combat? If you have, you’ll agree it’s the very definition of tedium followed by a letdown for everyone. And it happens all too often in 3.x. Ever build an encounter you meant to be hard, only to see the PCs steamroll it? Ever build an encounter you meant to be easy, only to accidentally TPK your group? If you’ve DMed 3.x, you probably have. Ever run a mid- to high-level game involving a savvy PC caster? If you did, I hope you like rock-paper-scissors!

Ambiguous Design: Many of 3.x’s problems can be attributed to its lack of clear expectations. For example, CRs are better than using HD as a gauge of the threat a monster will pose to the PCs. But because the dev team never wrote down a simple set of stats-by-CR guidelines for monsters or stats-by-level guidelines for PCs, CR starts out sketchy at low levels and becomes nigh-useless by high levels

System Mastery: Because of design decisions both intentional and not, 3.x D&D rewards players who pore over rulebooks, get their math on, and ignore the assumptions that were used to play test the rules. There are all kinds of options that look cool and suck, or that look lame and rock. (Two-weapon fighting looks cool, but actually sucks unless you’re a rogue; while Leadership looks lame, but actually rocks if you have a good Charisma.) This phenomenon is also called Linear Fighter Quadratic Wizard (LFQW) and Wizards Rule Fighters Drool (WRFD).

System Mastery, Monte Cook

System mastery is such a problem in 3.x D&D that one fan (JaronK) created a Tier System to alleviate the frustration that so many 3.x gamers have by describing which classes are better than others, and why. If you’ve never read JaronK’s stuff, it goes something like this: Full casters are king because they have access to the game’s many WIN buttons (spells). Prep casters in particular are the king of kings because every one of these casters can potentially have access to every single WIN button on their spell list on any given day. Given a bit of information gathering (probably using divinations), a mid- to high-level prep caster can have exactly the spells she needs to win or even bypass an entire adventure.

Whereas muggles get the short end of the fun stick because anything they can do, a caster do (and often better). For example, a mid- to high-level CoDzilla (Cleric or Druid Godzilla) can outfight a fighter, thanks to her many combat buffs. Not to mention a druid’s animal companion, which is a fighter-equivalent all by itself. But the real muggle tragedy is that they have to fight at all — smart casters simply bypass hit points with a save-or-lose spell, and let the muggles finish off their helpless enemies. The situation is similar outside of combat; for example a muggle might be able to jump really high, while a caster can simply fly.

The short of the long is that everything can be solved by magic, and muggles don’t have it. Veteran DMs can come up with clever ways of making magic less reliable and spotlighting mundane solutions, but at the end of the day that just creates an overly-complicated game of rock-paper-scissors. And I don’t care to play that odious game, as a player or a DM.

Oh, and the “Core is balanced” idea is a misconception. While there are some supplemental stinkers, three of the game’s five most overpowered classes (cleric, druid, and wizard) and two of the game’s most underpowered classes (fighter and monk) are right in the Player’s Handbook. Most supplemental classes fall somewhere between the core extremes.

The Magician’s Curtain: Related to system mastery, this phenomenon is the game not expressing some of its basic assumptions to its DMs. For example, 3.x D&D has Wealth by Level guidelines so that DMs know how much stuff their players are assumed to have. But there’s no hint of what form that stuff is assumed to take; instead there are random treasure tables, which can lead to Diablo-style madness. For example, instead of the five specific items that PCs need to maintain reasonable ACs (Ring of Protection, Amulet of Natural Armor, Magical Armor, Bracers of Armor, Magical Shield), a PC might end up with a bunch of miscellaneous crap while his player wonders why his PC is dying every other combat.

As a young DM, I myself fell into this trap because nobody pointed out to me that 99% of a PC’s AC advancement comes from very specific treasure, so I didn’t make sure that my players got those items. As a result, my players and I all got frustrated for a whole campaign before I figured it out.


“This campaign is core-only.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a 3.x DM say this, I’d be able to retire for life, buy a radio station, and broadcast 24/7 rants about how sick I am of core-only games. There would be no reruns.

Look, I get it. All that supplemental material can be overwhelming to a new DM. So I understand why some DMs use training wheels for their first campaign behind the screen. But for various doubtful reasons, a disturbing number of DMs never take the training wheels off. Those reasons tend to reflect said DMs’ poor grasp of game rules and social compromise, but whatever the reasons, this phenomenon is endemic to pre-4e editions and 3.x in particular.

The Apprentice Levels: Ever want to play an apprentice character? Well if you’ve ever played a 1st – 2nd level 3.x character, you already have! Think about it; fighter-types are squires who can’t yet afford their shining armor (full plate), rogue-types are comical putzes who try to strongarm their way through melee (no Weapon Finesse), and casters are just apprentices who have to drag crossbows around so they can maintain the pretense of contributing to combat after they blow their two or three 1st level spells.

This wouldn’t be so frustrating, except that so many gamers treat starting at 1st level as a sacred fucking right. It’s not, and I’m sick of playing through two levels of grim slapstick before getting to the real adventure.

Classes: Truenamer, OP classes, UP classes

Casters aren’t the problem — it’s the spells! (And combat casting.) Too many are OP or UP. Spell schools don’t make sense, and many spells are obviously mis-categorized. (conjuration = healing)


Feat taxes.


Link to pun-pun!

Diplomancers. Intimidation is useless.

Too many modifier types, too many inconsequential modifiers. (Because they don’t scale!)


High Level Rocket Tag


Posted by on 01/06/2013 in Uncategorized