Once upon a time, I adored 3rd edition D&D. I thought it was the best edition of D&D ever. Then Paizo came and tore up my good feelings, stomped on them, poured gasoline over them, set fire to them, and then buried the ashes in a garbage pit and stomped on them some more.
No, not really.
It is true, however, that a lot of my disquiet with how 3e handles things come from my experiences whilst running the Age of Worms adventure path.
Other problems with 3e surfaced in my Ulek game, and I’ll come to those in due course.
AC and Attack Bonus don’t track. In the Age of Worms AP, the third adventure of the series is Encounter at Blackwall Keep. It involves a siege by Lizardmen. According to the CR and EL of the monsters and encounter this should be a significant challenge for the PCs, yet my PCs were barely challenged by it. “Barely”? It was a walk-over for the PCs.
The problem here derives from the 3e disconnect between the rate of AC increase and the rate of Attack Bonus increase, and the fact that the lizardmen have a pathetic attack bonus: sure, they get to attack three times, but at +1, there’s not much chance of hitting the fighters in a level 5 party – by that time, the frontline fighters are probably moving up to AC of 20 or better.
In my Ulek campaign, Adam went out to break the player AC system, and did. I think, by the end of the campaign (which reached 15th level), his AC was something like 20 points higher than Sarah’s Bard. Anything that could hit Adam would destroy Sarah, and that was a problem. (The bard has its own problems, but never mind those).
I also had the problem of ogres being too deadly for 1st level parties, a good challenge for 3rd level parties, and a walkover for 5th or 6th level parties…
The underlying reason for all of these problems is that the mathematical basis of 3e is poor. If you compare it to AD&D 1e, it’s supercharged. All the numbers increase a lot quicker than in the previous edition. It works pretty well as long as you make sure that everything is about the same level, but, certainly with PCs, you can throw some of those numbers off a lot.
In AD&D, you do have the advantage of PCs not really advancing past 12th level. Any system that has such a wide difference in power levels as 3e does is going to run into problems if it isn’t very, very careful. 3e wasn’t that careful, throwing in plenty of bonus types and ways to achieve them. (To increase AC, you could get armour, shield, natural armour, enhancements to those three, dexterity enhancements and deflection… and those purely through magic items. Spells added more ways to increase AC which stacked with the foregoing!) In AD&D, you could have a limited Dex bonus, magic armour and a magic shield. Have a ring of protection? Bad luck, didn’t stack.
4E pays a lot of attention to the maths. A lot of attention. Too much? Possibly. One of the things I really didn’t like about M&M is how everything was so finely balanced that it really was a case of you maxed out all the combat (attack or defense) powers you took, because not doing so was folly of the first order. Oh, and I hated the damage system. Give me HP any day! However, will I get that feeling from 4e? Will my players? (I was a player in M&M, and I haven’t played 4e yet, only DMed it).
The problem that 4e may yet experience is that 1st level feels like 30th level. I believe this won’t actually happen – although the relation between attack bonuses and defenses, damage and HP will stay moderately constant, the special effects that hang off those bonuses will change and be the determining factor of how interesting combat is. However, that’s still just speculation. After all, I loved 3e for many years until Paizo Made Me Hate 3E.
Grappling Rules The World. This is somewhat related to the last point of the lousy maths of 3e, but there are a few extra things to be said here. I sort of knew Grappling had trouble in 3e (to be honest, it was almost completely unworkable in 1e & 2e… certainly I or any other group I played in never used the rules. In 3e, it worked well enough for us to use the rules. Unfortunately). However, it was in The Spire of Long Shadows that the big, big problems with grappling came to full light, because it was here that Martin lost his barbarian and didn’t have him raised.
There are these big worm creatures in SoLS. They’re big – probably Gargantuan. Cousins of the Purple Worm, except nastier. They’re a really cool idea, but the implementation gave a few problems, and this comes down to the really, really lousy rules for grappling in 3e. It isn’t that the idea of opposed checks is a bad one (it isn’t), but rather that a disparity in check bonuses is multiplied badly when you’re dealing with opposed checks. And, unfortunately, the disparity wasn’t just that the Worm was stronger than Martin – it was, but not by a lot. It was that it was also bigger than him.
Now, I’m sure that it made a lot of sense to the designers to have size factor into the grapple check. There’s just two problems here: first, size was already taken into account in the Strength score. (Make a creature bigger and it became stronger). And secondly, +4 per size difference was a hideously huge bonus when it came to opposed checks.
So, Martin’s character got grabbed. Then swallowed. Then killed. All without him having a chance of escape. (Attack with light weapons inside the beast? Cool. Oh, grapple check to draw one? Forget it!)
Meanwhile, in the Ulek campaign, Dave’s Druid was giving me the view of grappling from the PC’s side. He had a bear. A grappling bear. A grappling, enlarged dire bear. Don’t ask. It was cool, but overwhelming. And amusing given he was playing a particularly weak halfling. There was one point when he was in snow, and could only move 5 feet a round!
Grappling was just broken. In 4e, they got rid of it, almost taking us back to the days of 1e. Actually, 4e still has grappling in some form or another – Grab, a basic version that everyone can use, and more specific versions that some monsters or PCs can use. This does demonstrate one of the problems inherent in the 4e system: it doesn’t support all the manuevers that you believe anyone (even without training) should be able to do. Some have been removed because they’re so powerful, others you just wonder about. I really wonder why Trip isn’t in the basic combat manuevers – especially as standing from prone doesn’t provoke any more… although having Combat Advantage against a foe is possibly more effective in 4e.
The 15-minute Day. This problem also occurred in Spire of Long Shadows. Indeed, it’s possibly the poster-boy adventure for the problem. However, the reason it exists isn’t because the party is rorting the system and taking unneeded breaks to recharge all their powers. No, it’s purely one of survival in SoLS.
Despite the problems with the CR/EL system in 3e, it is actually a remarkably good guide to determining how difficult an encounter will be for your party. (You do have to take into account how many Adams and Craigs you have distorting the numbers, though). When you get an entire adventure of APL+2 or +3 EL encounters (APL=average party level), you know your party is in for a rough ride. If they’ve got any sense – and, thankfully, my party did have – they’re going to rest up after every encounter or two. Adventure flow? Not a chance.
This relates back to the lousy maths of 3e, and its very steep power curve. There isn’t really that much of a gap between “very easy and doesn’t deplete resources” and “we threw everything at the monster!” 3e combat can also be really swingy. Criticals and multiple attacks at high levels – plus incredibly damaging attacks – meant that a character could go from full health to dead in a single round, especially if ganged up upon.
So, if you’d used some of your major resources, you had to rest. High-level PCs could go somewhat longer, but the obsolescence of spells was also a problem. When you had 8th level spells, it was rare that your 5th (or even 6th) level spells had enough of a punch. Sometimes I really think that AD&D had the right idea with its non-capped magic missiles and fireballs: they were always relevant. In 3e, having 30+ spells could be misleading. 5-6 actually effective spells? Sometimes.
4e made a brave effort to tackle this. I’m not entirely sure it succeeded. Certainly, you can go longer now, especially as you’re only expending a few major powers (and encounter powers are generally pretty good anyway). Healing surges do seem to be the determining factor of how long you can proceed, and they’re a mixed blessing. They’re a lot like Reserve Hit Points, and I really, really appreciate how they mean you don’t actually need a cleric. However, because everyone has powers now – encounter, daily and at-will – the classes certainly appear very similar in how they work. It would be very nice to have classes that use a different resource management system. Is such possible with 4e? I hope we find out some day.
Rogues are Useless. This really was the fault of the Age of Worms as a whole, with its insistence on using undead foes. However, it’s a problem with 3e as well. Rogues were balanced on the idea that you’d have a certain proportion of attacks against normal foes (where they outdamaged everyone) and a certain proportion against sneak-attack immune foes (where they showed new levels of suckiness).
You could see that Wizards had realised they had a problem in the latter stages of 3.5e. Two of the best weapon crystals were the ones that allowed the Rogues to sneak attack undead and golems. Of course, I gave Tom such crystals in AoW. Then came the last encounter.
Kyuss. With epic spell resistance, and immunity to sneak attacks. Tom did all of three damage in the final combat.
One thing I really like about 4e is how it allows the strikers to do extra damage to everything. Mind you, it isn’t at the same level as the 3e extra damage… which is a relief.
Clerics are Essential (and sucky to play). This problem was really apparent in Spire of Long Shadows (again!), but was noticable throughout most of my 3e games once they reached 5th level or later. You see, druids were cool (and fun to play), as Craig and Dave demonstrated again and again in my games. However, they couldn’t protect the party against energy drain. Nor, which was worse, could they reverse its effects, or that of ability drain, which was remarkably common. Oh, that’s right: Age of Worms = Lots of Undead.
Meanwhile, clerics were really useful, but playing them was often sucky. When it came to your turn it was “Please heal me”. Sure, you could buff yourselves up in the first two turns to be a better fighter than the fighter, but you didn’t get to actually use your buffed state because you were running around the battlefield bringing dying characters back to full HP. (Which is another problem with 3e’s sucky maths). I’m sure some cleric players got past this, but we never did.
If there’s one thing I love without reservation in 4e, it’s how the 4e cleric functions. It’s all types of cool. You don’t need one, but boy do you notice if one is with your group!
Inferior school program. When you roll 20d6, you want the answer quickly, not in 10+ minutes. Me, I blame the teachers. And the inability of the government to provide everyone with PDAs like the one Craig used. Paizo? I don’t have a problem with Paizo. Why would you think I did?
So, is 4e the solution?
Beats me. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but it does a bunch of things that are new to D&D. I don’t mind that the bard isn’t in the core book (although I’m really, really looking forward to PHB2 and its inclusion), but the game isn’t complete* yet and occasionally it really, really shows. More rituals, please! (*It’s definitely complete enough to play, but there’ll be a lot of development down the track, and options galore to expand our choices.)
The reason that I “blame” Paizo for making me “hate” 3e is because they allowed me to run a campaign that lasted from 1st to 21st level. (I ran two homebrews that ran until about 15th or 16th level). As they had different design parameters than me, they demonstrated aspects of the 3e system that worked poorly for my group – we’d have sidestepped many of them otherwise. Though not all – see Adam’s vs. Sarah’s ACs.
Would I run 3.5e again? Yes – along with any other edition of D&D. Mind you, I think my players are all very much enjoying 4e at present, so that’ll be my edition for the foreseeable future.
And now I finally have the means to, it might be time to subscribe to Paizo’s Pathfinder AP series again, and discover what cool stories they’re inventing now.