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Friday, October 14, 2011

3e and I: Why We Broke Up

As promised yesterday, the semi-bitter story of my experience with 3rd edition D&D.

At the end of the day, I guess you just can't teach an old dog new tricks. I was the "go-to" DM for a bunch of different small groups here in Oswego county by the time 3e came out. I had been involved in the 2nd edition era with a bunch of my own campaigns and I played in a couple of fairly long running campaigns too*. Mostly my players were older players that I grew up with, or younger players that me or my friends taught how to play, so the weird proficiency checks for everything style of play that became common in the 2nd edition era** was largely absent from gaming in my neck of the woods. When players, usually newer players or rules lawyers, tried to use proficiency checks instead of playing things out I metaphorically slapped them down for it some; at best I'd give you a bonus of some sort. I wouldn't smack you for things that can easily be handled by a die roll, like say, identifying a plant or heraldry, but stuff that SHOULD be role played, like bluffing or pretty much anything that involves talking to NPCs and coming up with a story or an excuse or whatever; just making a proficiency check for that kind of annoyed me.

3e players, even my older players eventually, hated my DMing style in 3e. I couldn't just wing it and come up with a "roll a die and I'll let you know if it works" ruling on the fly, there was already a rule for whatever the PC was trying to do, and if there wasn't one you could assume that he couldn't do it. The skill checks though are what did me in. They drained the life out of the game and made every damned thing a rules mechanics issue. The players started to play the rules system instead of the game. Suddenly I had players planning their character builds out for levels in advance to maximize their potential.

Character creation was a bloody nightmare in and of itself, when the Player's Handbook comes with software for generating characters you know there's going to be a problem. Not that I noticed at first, at first I just noticed that it was pretty cool to have a unified XP chart and that feats were pretty cool for customizing your character and all the stuff that makes players happy with 3e. I kind of liked the simplification of saving throws. Then I started DMing and got the complex stuff. I hated having to remember all of the different effects for various feats that applied here, but not there, et cetera and monster stat blocks and combat rules that made everyone move around the battle board in odd ways to avoid attacks of opportunity and combats that lasted quite a bit longer than before. Oh, and the odd changes just for the sake of change, like Orcs going from Lawful to Chaotic Evil, and I hated the art; not that I was in love with the art of 2nd edition either, I just thought 3e's art really sucked. I also hated the super fast leveling, and I missed real multi-classing.

A quick observation here; when I finally made the switch to 3e D&D I was DMing for two different groups of players. Why two groups? Because each group contained some of my friends, but all of my friends don't play well with each other; there were also some scheduling issues since people my age were 30-ish when 3e came out. Mainly it was the A-Team and the B-Team though, that's how I thought of them at the time anyway. By the way, you should never let that slip either. The A-Team consisted of two guys that I had regularly played 2nd edition AD&D with for most of it's run, we also played wargames regularly for the same period (everything from Titan to ASL); one guy that was the cousin of one of those guys and also a pretty hardcore AD&D player and wargamer; and a married couple the husband had been an old AD&D player in the 1st edition era, a member of my old group actually, and a wargamer from way back then too, but the wife had never played any RPGs. The B-Team consisted of three guys that were in college, but had been playing 2nd edition for a few years; the younger brother of one of those guys that was still in high school, and had played mostly CRPGs; my wife, who has played a lot of D&D over the years, but isn't a "rules" person; and one old buddy of mine that I had been playing D&D and other RPGs and wargames (including the really complex ones like Star Fleet Battles, he was a Romulan lover) with since I was in 7th grade.

Actually, because of all the set up necessary, this observation really wasn't all that quick. My observation was that the wargamer heavy group took to the new rules a lot easier than the more casual group of gamers. All of them really liked the idea of customizing their characters, except maybe my wife, who really customizes her characters through roleplaying them; but it took longer for even the combat monster in the B-Team to start figuring out how to exploit the rules and rape them best to his advantage; that was a sad day for me. He once played a Fighter in 2nd edition game that had aspirations towards being a Bard. In that same campaign my wife played a Cleric that had always wanted to be a Fighter, but was forced by her family and her natural ability into the church. He used to write songs and poems about her character between game sessions or even during them he'd whip off little snippets of poetry. That would never happen in a 3e game. Those games were all business, working out tactical advantages and using every skill and feat to their synergistic best.

But what irked me the most was the damned skill checks. Suddenly the power behind the game was taken from a godlike DM and given to a set of books, and with those books came rules lawyers who would milk every drop of advantage they could out of every possible skill point and feat. Dragon magazine even ran a column for a while in the 3e era teaching you how to build super bad-ass characters by exploiting the rules; that's just not right. Pretty much overnight, after we converted to 3e, without any fanfare and really without anyone noticing, we all just stopped roleplaying all together. I blame the skill checks for that too.

What's worse is that I know it wasn't the players and it wasn't me, it was the game, 3e killed all the roleplaying and turned D&D into pretty much just a fantasy tactical miniatures skirmish game, and a fairly complex one at that; I know because I dumped D&D shortly after the 3.5 conversion, I only ever bought the 3.5 PH and DMed briefly in the 3.5 era before I realized I wasn't having any fun any more; I dumped D&D and bought into HackMaster and we played it and everyone had fun. People roleplayed their characters. We played through combat encounters without the use of miniatures. People once again laughed and had a good time at my table. HackMaster 4th edition was AD&D cranked up to 11.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't 3e, it was me. Pathfinder sales and Paizo's nearly fanatical fan base are clear evidence that 3e was, and still is, a fun game; and I had a lot of fun playing it from time to time. I didn't like the extra workload it placed on me as a DM. I didn't like the power it stole from me as a DM. We just weren't a good fit, irreconcilable differences.

*Although one of them was run by Luddite DM/Old School Prophet Steve S. who ran a 1st edition AD&D game during the 2nd edition era. We all thought it was quaintly eccentric at the time. He said "I already bought this game, these books still work."; whatever, I just liked the break from DMing all the time and he was an engaging and quirky DM. Sadly prone to sudden burn out though, three times his campaigns just ended abruptly.

**Yes, I am well aware, especially since I am running a 1st edition AD&D OA game right now, that non-weapon proficiencies were introduced in 1st edition AD&D, they were kind of a mess there and didn't see much use outside of OA from what I saw. 2nd edition made them pretty much standard issue and made the system work better, separating them out from the weapon proficiencies (if only someone had thought to call them skills, eh? Much less cumbersome than non-weapon proficiencies). Splatbooks proliferated them and made super non-weapon proficiencies and redundancies and I always thought that Player Characters got kind of hosed on the number of NWPs they got based on my own number of skills at the time, I grew up in farm country, next to the woods near a river and Lake Ontario, by the time I was a teen-ager I could swim, sail, fish, hunt, farm, cook and a bunch of other stuff in the PH, not counting the stuff I learned in school, like a foreign language and math and literacy. Now I figure it must have been a game balance issue, but I still give out background skill packages in systems that use skills.