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

06 Jun

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


5 responses to “My Love-Hate Relationship with 3e: Revenge of the Realism

  1. Mike F

    17/06/2013 at 3:40 pm

    Only real issue I have with your post is that 3.x isn’t realistic and I’ve personally never seen a designer make that claim. It’s cinematic. Ablative hit points make sense when you’re playing a fantasy version of R.E.D. or 300 or something equally ridiculous. Good guys get hurt and slapped around, but keep getting up until the power of plot (or random chance at the table) MAKES them stay down.

    I fully agree on healing though. Problems in natural healing tie into not tying CON and HD (or at least HD size) into the progression, and the problem with magical healing is not tying it into natural healing. IMO.

    • 4thmaster

      20/06/2013 at 3:10 am

      True, I’ve never heard a dev claim that 3.x is realistic, but quite a few gamers think of it as ‘the realistic sim edition’ due to its level of rule detail and its non-transparency (aka, the magician’s curtain).

  2. Thurgon

    26/09/2013 at 7:00 am

    Good column.

  3. Copyleft

    29/10/2013 at 1:55 pm

    I’m puzzled why so many gamers say ‘realistic’ like it’s a good thing….

  4. Jake

    17/07/2015 at 3:45 am

    I’ve never thought this myself and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who thought this. I have however when playing 3.5 had DMs who’ve used ‘realism’ to justify some pretty questionable ad hoc against-RAW rulings, and so personally when I hear ‘realism’ I’m running for the hills. I mean I don’t expect to change your minds, because different people want different things out of an rpg and it’s great that both 3.5 and 4e can exist, but if you’re interested in some perspective on why at least one person loves 3.5 take a look at the second to last paragraph of my comment on the previous article.


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