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)
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