From the Archives: D&D 3E Review

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After mostly ignoring an edition and a half, curiosity got the better of me and I picked up a copy of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook. The fact that a store I visited had it on sale for 20% probably helped. I wasn’t $50 curious, but apparently I was $40 curious. My plan is to read and review it starting next week (the review helps me justify spending time reading a game I’ll probably never play). I’m not sure how many posts I’ll take, but I learned last time around that it probably needed to be multi-part. To give you an idea of what you’re in for, here’s my 4500+ word review of 3rd Edition.

My feelings about Dungeons & Dragons are complicated. It’s the first RPG I ever played; it’s the one I’ve played the longest, and there are a lot of good memories associated with it. At the same time, D&D is the lowest common denominator among games. Partially because of its structure and system, the game has always attracted the worst kinds of gamers. The majority of D&D players might as well play computer “role-playing games,” where you just kill things and take their stuff. It would save a lot of dice rolling. Add to this the fact that for the past 10 or 15 years, TSR has done a lousy job of supporting the game. Either they’ve simply repackaged old material with a new name, or they’ve added increasingly incompatible rules, with the Player’s Option series being perhaps the worst offender. There have been a few gems, but they’ve rarely been worth digging through the tons of shit to find.

For the most part, I felt I had outgrown the D&D game. In fact, I have been relatively D&D-free since sometime in the mid-90s. When 2nd Edition was released, I counted down the days to each new core rulebook. For 3rd Edition, I didn’t really care. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on picking it up. But once the book actually came out and I heard people talking about it, I had to check it out. I guess it’s kind of like hearing that someone’s remodeling the house you grew up in. It doesn’t really affect your life, but you’re curious to see what they’ve done with the place.

Since I’m writing this review, you’ve probably already guessed that eventually I caved and picked up the D&D3 Player’s Handbook. If this were just any old game review, I’d probably be content to give a quick overview and maybe note a few of the best and worst parts of the system. But for something like D&D, it seems more appropriate to go ahead and break everything down section by section. We’ll start with the basics.


On the surface, there aren’t a lot of changes. You’ve got Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and the often-neglected Charisma (which is now actually an important trait for some characters). This time, they didn’t even switch the order. Looking a bit more closely, though, there are some significant changes. For starters, Exceptional Strength is gone. That’s a good thing–after all, the rule never really made sense anyway, especially since 18 has never been the maximum Strength possible. Instead, ability scores have no maximum. In fact, it is now possible to increase ability scores without resorting to magic. At every fourth level, a character can add a point to one of his scores. The idea that, for instance, swinging a seven-pound battle axe day in and day out can actually build muscle mass seems fairly logical, but this is the first time D&D has acknowledged the fact. Rolling ability scores is one of the old familiar systems, with the nice touch of actually defining a “hopeless” character. In earlier editions, there was a line to the effect of “If the scores are so low that the character is hopeless, re-roll,” but without an actual definition, you had to deal with people who thought a character was “hopeless” if any score was less than 15. As for actually using the scores, the D&D3 team went back to basics. Instead of each score having five or six modifiers and percentages associated with it, each score has a single modifier, which is used for pretty much anything that relates to that skill (just like the old Basic Set). A lot of the old modifiers, percentages, maximum spell numbers, and such show up in another part of the rules, but generally in a much simpler form. The ability score tables themselves all seem to top out at different numbers for some reason, but that’s pretty easy to get over.


Like the abilities, the races are the same as always. The half-orc from 1st Edition makes a triumphant return, but that’s the only thing “new” compared to the basic 2nd Edition rules. The real shocker in this section is that all the races are pretty well balanced. Even humans have special abilities that make them attractive as characters! In fact, the “weakest” race in terms of special perks is probably the half-orc. But let’s face it, if you’re playing a half-orc, you’re probably not going for cool special powers beyond brute strength anyway. Here’s the breakdown:


The long-neglected humans now have their own special abilities. Previous editions have always given lip service to human versatility and such, but this is the first time the rules have backed up such talk. Humans get a bonus Feat (which we’ll get to later) at first level and extra points with which to buy skill points at first and every other level. This doesn’t look all that impressive at first, but it actually puts humans up there as one of the more desirable races.


Dwarves haven’t really changed that much. All the “knows a lot about rocks” abilities have been clumped into one ability called “Stonecunning,” which should save some room on the character sheet. Also, all that crap about dwarves exploding when they use magic items (which was apparently added to make sure nobody thought elves and dwarves were equally balanced) has been dropped. Finally, the concept of infravision has been changed to the much easier to play (and more logical) Darkvision. Dwarves don’t see heat signatures like the Predator anymore. Instead, they can just see really well in the dark.


Elves have been relieved of their godlike status. Their abilities are not all that different, but they’ve been subdued to make the race less unbalanced in relation to everyone else. They’re now completely immune to Sleep spells, but virtual immunity to Charm has been reduced to just a +2 Save modifier. As with dwarves, infravision has been shafted for simple low light vision (the dwarves are actually better at something other than playing with rocks for a change). The weapon bonuses of old have been replaced by simple weapon proficiency, regardless of the elf’s class. The elven ability to find secret doors is still there, but is no longer double everyone else’s chance. Elves still don’t have to sleep, but at least they need to rest now. Elven surprise, as well as the abilities to travel through time and create matter from void, have been eliminated.


Gnomes are now a little more defined than “something between a dwarf and a halfling.” The inventor/technician angle from Dragonlance has been played up, but overall gnomes still lack a strong racial personality. New abilities include the ability of gnomes with a 10 or higher intelligence to cast certain cantrips, and bonuses to Alchemy-related rolls. The gnomish affinity for illusion magic and most of the other standard abilities remain.


Half-elves haven’t changed all that much. They’ve still got some of the abilities of elves. The only real difference is that half-elves now have the same magical immunities and resistances as elves, instead of a watered-down version.


They’re big and mean. Other than Darkvision and sheer physical strength, they don’t have a lot going for them.


The Hobbit aspect of the halfling race has been downplayed in favor or something a little closer to (but not as annoying as) the kender. Most of their racial abilities relate to their small size and agility. Taking them out of the burrows did a lot to relieve the racial split personality halflings suffered from in earlier editions. Now, instead of being a bunch of lazy farmers who happen to be master thieves, they’re more like little, agile humans.


Classes have, in my opinion, always been D&D’s downfall. They worked fine in the old days when nobody really knew what they were doing and characters were just ways to kill monsters anyway, but as “adventure gaming” became “role playing,” they quickly lost their charm. They forced a cookie-cutter set of skills on the player, with few allowances for character concept. Nonweapon proficiencies and book upon book of kits helped a bit, but there still wasn’t a lot of variety from one fighter to the next. Thankfully, 3rd Edition uses classes more like most games use archetypes. You still have to pick a class, but there’s a lot more room to make a character instead of just a game piece.

Before we get into the individual classes, there are a few things I should mention. First off, a character can be of any class you like, regardless of race or ability scores. Want to play a dwarven wizard? That’s cool. How about a half-orc paladin? That’s fine, too. Can your halfling be a fighter even though his Strength is just a 3? Why not? Some races are better suited for certain classes, and characters with low scores in important abilities probably won’t have a lot of success, but anything is possible.

Alignment restrictions still exist, but some have been altered slightly. On the subject of alignment, many of the pitfalls of changing alignment to one not class approved have been eliminated. Only those abilities granted by a deity (such as a cleric spells) or which don’t make sense within the context of the new alignment (such as a barbarian’s rage ability if he becomes lawful) are lost. Other class abilities are unchanged. In other words, a bard won’t forget how to sing just because he changes alignment. If a character switches to an alignment that is not allowed for one of his prior classes, he can no longer gain levels in that class.

Weapon and armor restrictions have been for the most part eliminated. Instead of using weapon proficiencies to learn how to use specific weapons from a list of “approved class weapons,” all characters of a given class know how to a specific set of weapons. For example, wizards can use clubs, daggers, heavy or light crossbows, and quarterstaves, while fighters can us “all simple and martial weapons” (the weapons on these two lists represent most common weapons). Likewise, each class is proficient in using a certain types of armors or shields. Fighters can use pretty much anything, while wizards are unfamiliar with everything. Characters can learn to use other kinds of weapons and armor by learning various Feats (see below). Some class abilities, such as spellcasting, are hampered (though rarely outright forbidden) when the character is wearing certain types of armor. The lame “wizard spells don’t work through metal” (and apparently certain types of leather as well) of the old days are thereby eliminated.

Finally, everybody uses the same XP table for level advancement. In 2nd Edition, wizards needed twice as many XPs as thieves to go from first to second level. Now, everybody needs the same number (1,000 XP). For you slow kids out there, this means the classes have to be balanced for the game to work, since level advancement isn’t weighted according to a character’s class abilities.

Now we can move on to the class list. Again, most entries are familiar: bard, cleric, druid, fighter, paladin, ranger, rogue, and wizard from 2nd Edition are still around, though specialist wizards and specialty priests have been rolled into their parent classes. Barbarians and monks from 1st Edition have also made it back onto the list. Finally, there’s a new class, the sorcerer. Since giving a detailed description of the changes for each class would take hours, I’ll just give you the good and bad highlights of each:


  • Good: Combat Monster!
  • Bad: Not good for much else.


  • Good: Instead of being a half-assed mage, a bard’s spells work more like magical songs; “thief skills” now optional.
  • Bad: Focus is still on music-based entertainers. The rules as written don’t make as much sense for traveling storytellers and poets.


  • Good: Domain abilities and spells (all priests are now effectively specialty priests); stupid “blunt weapon” rule dropped; ability to trade other prepared spells for cure spells.
  • Bad: Game still focuses on the cleric as a walking first aid kit.


  • Good: Starts play with an animal companion; alignment restrictions loosened.
  • Bad: Pretty much the only class that still has armor/weapon restrictions.


  • Good: Fighters get lots of extra feats, which means they are actually pretty well-balanced with rangers/paladins.
  • Bad: Nothing. It’s hard to fuck up such a simple class.


  • Good: Flying fists of DEATH!
  • Bad: Still doesn’t make much sense in a primarily Western European-based game.


  • Good: Religious aspect downplayed; paladins are more concerned with good and law than the agenda of a particular god.
  • Bad: Absolutely no fun at parties.


  • Good: Alignment restrictions eliminated. You can now play a ranger who’s an evil trophy hunter.
  • Bad: I’m still not sure exactly why rangers can cast spells or what hanging out in the woods has to do with fighting with two weapons.


  • Good: “Thief skills” completely customizable–your con man doesn’t know how to pick locks just because he’s a rogue; cool new class abilities.
  • Bad: Actually, I can’t think of anything. The one major problem with the class (all rogues having the same thief skills) has been removed.


  • Good: Doesn’t have to memorize spells; more spells than wizards.
  • Bad: Limited spell selection.


  • Good: Casting spells in armor; Spell Mastery; bonus spells for high Intelligence.
  • Bad: The whole memorizing spells thing is better rationalized now, but is still pretty weak.

Multi-Classed Characters:

Okay, this will require some explanation. First off, the old concept of “dual-classed characters” is gone. Humans are treated just like everybody else. Any character of any race can take on any combination of classes. For example, you can now have a dwarf/fighter/wizard/ranger/cleric/ sorcerer. While this sounds like a power gamer’s wet dream, the way multi-classes are handled keeps such combinations from being too powerful. Furthermore, a good GM will require that characters only multi-class into new classes that make sense.

Nobody starts out as a multi-classed character. Instead, any time a character gains a level, he may choose to add a class. Thereafter, each time he earns enough experience points for a new level, he can choose to raise his level in any class (and since everyone uses the same XP chart, this works) or add a new class. The only exceptions are for monks and paladins–once you add a new class, you can no longer advance in either of these–and classes whose alignment restrictions you no longer meet. In addition to the level for each class, the character has an overall character level. For example, if you have a 3rd level monk/3rd level wizard, he’s a 6th level character.

In general, multi-classing involves a lot less math. Since chance to hit, saving throws, and such are now represented as bonuses to a die roll (rather than numbers you need to beat), you simply add the bonus for the class whose level you’ve just increased. Some things (such as when you gain a new feat) are determined by the overall character level. All that averaging of numbers and numerical analysis required to decide which class has the best Save vs. Poison are gone


Skills (formerly known as non-weapon proficiencies) have changed quite a bit. First off, instead of gaining a new skill every x number of levels, you now learn and increase skills using skill points, which are based on your class, race, intelligence bonus, and level. Each class has a list of class skills he can learn at the rate of 1 skill point per rank. Skills not on the list cost double (and a few are restricted to certain classes).   When a character wants to use a skill, he rolls a d20 and adds his ability bonus for the appropriate ability, his rank in the skill, and any modifiers for the situation at hand. If the total is higher than the Difficulty Class set by the DM, he succeeds. If a character isn’t in a hurry, he can Take 10, which means you skip the roll, assuming you got a 10. Furthermore, if the character has plenty of time and is trying to perform a skill that can be attempted over and over until it succeeds, he can Take 20, which means that you assume that with enough tries you will eventually roll a 20. Basically you keep trying until you get it right. The skill list is fairly similar to the nonweapon proficiency lists of old, except that the old “thief skills,” such as hide and open locks, are now on the list, along with a few other new skills. Some specific skills from the old list are now rolled up into generic skills like Craft and Knowledge. Even though all skills use a common mechanic, nearly every skill listed has it’s own “sub-system” of modifiers, difficulty numbers, etc. Luckily, it seems like a GM with a solid grasp of the system should be able to ignore these, simply setting his own modifiers and difficulty numbers based on the situation. Rules lawyers may disagree.


In the old non-weapon proficiency list, there were always a few skills that didn’t seem to fit. Blind Fighting, for example, just didn’t seem like it was quite the same kind of thing as Gemcutting. Then things like the Fighter’s Handbook came along, adding all sorts of special fighting styles that were not non-weapon proficiencies, but seemed like they should fit in the same area of rules as Blind Fighting. Feats help to get rid of this problem. Essentially, a feat is trait that gives a character a special ability that isn’t exactly a skill. Most characters get a feat at first level and every 3 levels thereafter. Feats include things like the aforementioned Blind Fighting ability, alertness, proficiency with armor and weapons not on your class list, and the ability to craft magical items and alter the effects, casting conditions, and other characteristics of spells.  In addition to finding a place for those not-quite-skills, feats can give spellcasters a lot more flexibility and (since they get many bonus feats) are the great equalizers that give fighters the extra ‘oomph’ they’ve needed for quite some time.


Where previous editions of D&D have had a paragraph to the effect of “you may want to name this pile of numbers and maybe even give him a personality,” 3rd Edition actually has an entire chapter on the subject. It covers alignment, religion (a series of really dull and formulaic descriptions of the Greyhawk gods–“Buba is the god of dogs. His title is “Dogboy.” He really likes dogs. His Domains are Dog, Bone, and Digging. His favored weapon is a rolled-up newspaper. He is worshipped by dogs.” ), as well as things like physical description and personality. It even has a section on changing around your character and racial abilities to better match your character concept. Pretty cutting-edge stuff for a D&D rulebook. Perhaps the best line of the whole book is found in this chapter: “Race and alignment are good places to start when thinking about your character’s personality, but they are bad places to stop.”   The alignment system, like it or not, is pretty much a permanent fixture in the D&D game. The 3rd Edition rules do a good job of rationalizing this relic by pointing out that fantasy worlds include lots of things that do revolve around good, evil, law, and chaos. The rules also finally admit that neutrality does pretty much mean you just don’t give a damn, which was probably a big step for some of the long-time TSR guys. Finally, alignments are presented more as a roleplaying tool than part of the rules. All the level loss and math associated with changing alignment in the old system is gone. The worst that will happen now is the loss of class abilities.


The Equipment section of the 3rd Edition PHB is filled with illustrations and descriptions, which is good for those of us who haven’t extensively studied ancient weaponry and armor. Several new and unusual bits of equipment (such as the Orcish Double-Axe) have been added, and there’s quite a bit of information on nearly everything.   This section is probably a good place to mention how Armor Class works in 3rd Edition. Instead of each type of armor having a rating, it now has a bonus. This bonus is added to your base AC (10 for an unarmored human) along with Dexterity and other bonuses to determine a character’s AC. In a change from earlier editions, a higher AC number means more protection. The biggest problem I have with this section (and several later parts of the book as well) is that fact that it constantly mentions the buying and selling of magical items and spells. One of the biggest downfalls of most D&D campaigns is that magic becomes so commonplace that it’s seen as just another tool, with little or no sense of wonder attached to it. Buying and selling magic only increases the problem.


Now we get to the part of the book that the typical D&D player sees as most important. Since I’m sure the combat system has been thoroughly explored elsewhere, I’ll be brief:

  • Attack rolls work pretty much like skill rolls, but with different modifiers. Your DC number is your opponent’s AC. If your roll is higher than their AC, you hit them.   
  • Initiative is rolled for the entire battle, not each individual round.
  • Actions have been tightened up considerably, which should eliminate confusion about timing of things like movement and spellcasting
  • Tricky situations like flanking, firing into combat, attacks of opportunity, and concealment are much clearer than in previous editions.
  • There are now only three types of saving throws: Fortitude, Reflex, and Will. Saving throws work like skill and attack rolls–you roll a d20 and add all appropriate modifiers against a difficulty number. Instead of having a saving throw number based on class and level, you have a modifier to the d20 roll.   


Despite the alluring title, this has always been the most boring section of any D&D rulebook. It covers things like movement, encumbrance, visibility, and all that other stuff you’d just as soon ignore. There isn’t much new here. Encumbrance has been simplified, which is good. The exciting thing about this chapter is the final section, entitled “other rewards” which essentially reminds the player that there’s more to life than treasure and experience points. It notes how characters may be rewarded with land, titles, reputation, and followers. That last one brought to my attention the fact that the extensive followers tables for each class have disappeared. Now, instead of a bunch of people just showing up the day you reach 10th level, you have to earn your allies in-story through roleplaying.


This chapter covers magic, both divine (priestly) and arcane (wizardly). Third Edition magic is considerably more flexible than ever before. Priests and mages can now leave spell slots open when preparing their spells. Later in the day, they can take a few minutes to fill an empty slot. It doesn’t help much when the party is suddenly attacked, but there are cases where this ability should prove useful. A new addition to the magic rule is the concept of counterspelling, which makes the Spellcraft skill actually useful. If you identify someone casting a spell with Spellcraft, and you have the same spell memorized, you can cast your spell to counter your opponent’s. Spell Resistance (the artist formerly known as magic resistance), spell preparation, the schools of magic, spellbooks and magical writing (which actually makes some kind of sense for a change), learning new spells, and the general parameters of a spell description (which are considerably clearer thanks the uses of standard descriptors) are also covered.


The final section of the book is the obligatory Big List of Spells. The organization is a bit different from previous editions, though. All spells, regardless of level and class, are listed in alphabetical order. This makes sense, as many spells are usable by different classes (and often are of different spell levels for different classes). Before the list, there’s a summary of which spells are available to each class, along with a one-sentence summary of the spell, usually including basic mechanics. If you need to know how much damage magic missile causes, it’s easier to look here than skim the description. The spell themselves have changed to fit the new mechanics, but all the old standbys are there. Many have new (and generally much better-sounding) names.



I almost hate to admit it, but I’m very impressed with Third Edition so far. This is the first time in history that D&D has actually been up-to-date. Second Edition was a great improvement over the original rules, but it was still a generation or so behind everything else on the market. Third Edition isn’t really innovative, as all the cool design ideas found here have been used elsewhere, but it combines these ideas with the old system (and countless house rules that people have been using with the old D&D system for years) into a nice, cohesive whole. 5/6 Yum Yums


My biggest concern about 3rd Edition at first was that it was so different from previous editions that many long-time players would be put off. Second Edition could be played without reading the rulebook if you knew 1st Ed. This was not the case with the new edition. Luckily, the designers have managed to keep the “feel” of D&D alive in the new rules system. It’s a different set of rules, but it’s the same game you loved in high school. 6/6 Yum Yums


Previous editions of D&D have been very guilty of catering to the “kill monsters and take their stuff” paradigm. Because of this presentation, many potential roleplayers who never got past D&D have no doubt left the hobby. Third Edition goes a long way to overcome the shortcomings of previous editions in this area, and will hopefully make a few people realize that D&D doesn’t have to be the tabletop version of Quake. There’s still some of the old dungeon crawl mentality there, but you have to give the designers (mainly Tweet, I’m guessing) credit for trying. 4/6 Yum Yums


This is where I have to criticize the design team. All previous editions of D&D have featured cover art that evoked a sense of magic and adventure. Paintings by Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, and Erol Otus helped draw people in. The new cover design looks like the damn Necronomicon–it even has what looks like a lock on it! It evokes a sense of secrecy and complexity that’s unlikely to attract new players. I can’t imagine that a potential player would look at this book and say “that looks like fun.” The interior art is decent, but the colors are monotone and drab–again, the sense of wonder that pulls people in is lacking. The layout is good, but the “college rule parchment” look really needs to go. 2/6 Yum Yums